Core Java

Exploring Java’s Compare-and-Swap (CAS) for Atomic Operations

Welcome to the world of non-blocking programming, where the Compare-and-Swap (CAS) operation takes center stage. In this article, we’ll dive into the mechanics of Java’s CAS, unraveling its mysteries and understanding how it plays a crucial role in enabling non-blocking approaches. Join us as we explore the inner workings of this powerful mechanism and its significance in Java programming.

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1. Grasping the ABCs of Compare-and-Swap (CAS)

Imagine you and a friend each have a basket of apples, and you both want to exchange some apples. Now, CAS steps in like a fair trading system. You both show each other your apples, and only if you both still have the same amount, the swap happens. If someone picked or added apples during the trade, it’s canceled. In Java, CAS operates similarly, ensuring that changes to shared data only occur when everything is in sync. It’s like making sure your digital apple exchange goes smoothly without any unexpected surprises. So, let’s delve deeper into how Java’s CAS keeps the balance in our digital transactions and prevents chaos in the coding world.

In the digital world of programming, you and your friend represent different parts of a computer program that are trying to make changes to shared data, like the number of apples in your baskets.

Now, imagine your friend wants to add an apple to their basket at the same time you want to take one out. Without any rules, this could lead to confusion and errors. Here’s where Compare-and-Swap (CAS) comes in as the mediator. CAS ensures a fair exchange by first checking if both of you still have the same amount of apples as when you started. It’s like a quick synchronized count. If everything matches up, the swap is approved; otherwise, it’s canceled.

In the digital playground of programming, this translates to multiple parts of a program trying to update shared data. CAS steps in to prevent conflicts and maintains the integrity of the data. It’s like having a reliable referee in your digital game, making sure everyone plays by the rules and changes happen without causing chaos. So, when we talk about Java’s CAS, we’re essentially exploring how this digital referee keeps our programs in order and prevents unexpected surprises during data exchanges.

2. Introduction to Java’s CAS Implementation

In Java, the Compare-and-Swap (CAS) operation is a powerful tool for managing concurrent access to shared variables. It ensures that modifications to shared data occur atomically, preventing conflicts in multithreaded environments. Let’s explore how Java implements CAS through the java.util.concurrent.atomic package.

The Atomic Classes

Java provides a set of Atomic classes that encapsulate variables and provide atomic operations. These classes use CAS internally to achieve thread-safe updates. The most common ones are AtomicInteger, AtomicLong, and AtomicReference. Here’s a brief example using AtomicInteger:

import java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicInteger;

public class CASExample {
    private static AtomicInteger counter = new AtomicInteger(0);

    public static void main(String[] args) {
        // Increment operation using CAS
        int oldValue = counter.get();
        int newValue = oldValue + 1;
        while (!counter.compareAndSet(oldValue, newValue)) {
            // Retry if the compare-and-swap fails
            oldValue = counter.get();
            newValue = oldValue + 1;

        System.out.println("Updated Counter: " + counter.get());

Anatomy of the CAS Operation

  1. Read the Current Value: The get() method reads the current value of the AtomicInteger.
  2. Compute the New Value: Calculate the new value based on the current value. In this example, we’re incrementing by 1.
  3. CAS Loop: The compareAndSet(oldValue, newValue) method performs the CAS operation. It checks if the current value is still the same as when we initially read it. If yes, it updates the value to the new one; if not, it retries the operation.
  4. Retry Mechanism: If the CAS fails (indicating that another thread modified the value), we enter a retry loop to re-read the current value and attempt the CAS again.

Use Cases for CAS

  • Counter Increment: As shown in the example, CAS is handy for scenarios where multiple threads may concurrently increment a counter without causing race conditions.
  • Reference Updates: In cases where you need to update a reference to an object atomically, AtomicReference can be used similarly.
  • Conditional Updates: CAS is powerful for implementing conditional updates, allowing you to modify a variable only if it meets certain criteria.

Benefits of CAS

  • Non-Blocking: CAS provides a non-blocking approach, allowing threads to make progress even in the presence of contention.
  • Avoiding Locks: Unlike traditional locks, CAS avoids the need for explicit locking mechanisms, reducing contention and improving performance.
  • Predictable Behavior: CAS ensures atomicity, making it a reliable choice for managing shared state in concurrent programming.

Understanding Java’s CAS implementation is crucial for writing efficient and thread-safe concurrent code. Its versatility makes it a valuable tool for various scenarios, promoting scalable and efficient multithreaded applications.

3. The Essence of Java’s CAS Implementation

In concurrent programming, Java’s Compare-and-Swap (CAS) leans on the foundation of low-level hardware support, specifically relying on the compare-and-swap (CAS) instruction embedded in modern processors. The linchpin enabling this intricate operation is the Unsafe class, despite its limited accessibility, acting as the conduit for direct memory manipulation—a vital ingredient for achieving atomic operations without the shackles of traditional locks.

A Glimpse into compareAndSet

Let’s dissect a simplified rendition of the compareAndSet method from the AtomicInteger class to grasp the inner workings of Java’s CAS:

public final class AtomicInteger extends Number implements {
    private volatile int value;
    private static final long valueOffset;

    static {
        try {
            valueOffset = Unsafe.objectFieldOffset(AtomicInteger.class.getDeclaredField("value"));
        } catch (Exception ex) { throw new Error(ex); }

    public final boolean compareAndSet(int expect, int update) {
        return unsafe.compareAndSwapInt(this, valueOffset, expect, update);
    // Other methods omitted for brevity

Unpacking compareAndSwapInt

The pivotal mechanism behind CAS is the compareAndSwapInt method within the Unsafe class, operating on four crucial parameters:

  • Object obj: The object containing the field to be updated.
  • long offset: The offset of the field within the object.
  • int expected: The anticipated value of the field.
  • int x: The new value to be set.

Here’s the play-by-play breakdown:

  1. Offset Calculation:
    • During class initialization, valueOffset is calculated using Unsafe.objectFieldOffset. This offset signifies the memory location of the value field within the AtomicInteger object.
  2. Memory Access:
    • compareAndSwapInt employs the calculated offset to access the memory location corresponding to the value field within the AtomicInteger object.
  3. Atomic Compare-and-Swap:
    • The actual CAS operation unfolds atomically. It scrutinizes if the current value at the designated memory location aligns with the anticipated value (expect). If the comparison proves successful, the new value (x) is atomically inscribed into the memory location.
  4. Outcome Indication:
    • The method delivers a boolean verdict, signifying the success or failure of the CAS operation. A triumphant match yields true, while a mismatch yields false.

This intimate interaction with memory and hardware instructions empowers CAS as a robust instrument for achieving thread safety sans the encumbrance of locks.

Applying CAS in Diverse Scenarios

To illustrate the pragmatic facets of CAS, let’s consider two novel scenarios: orchestrating a non-blocking ticketing system and crafting a lock-free queue.

1. Non-Blocking Ticketing System

import java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicInteger;

public class CASTicketingSystem {
    private static AtomicInteger availableTickets = new AtomicInteger(100);

    public boolean bookTicket(int requestedTickets) {
        while (true) {
            int currentAvailable = availableTickets.get();
            if (currentAvailable < requestedTickets || 
                !availableTickets.compareAndSet(currentAvailable, currentAvailable - requestedTickets)) {
                return false; // Unable to book tickets
            return true; // Tickets booked successfully

In this scenario, CAS is employed to create a non-blocking ticketing system. The bookTicket method ensures that multiple requests for tickets can be handled concurrently without conflicts.

2. Lock-Free Queue Implementation

import java.util.concurrent.atomic.AtomicReference;

class QueueNode<T> {
    T data;
    QueueNode<T> next;

    QueueNode(T data) { = data; = null;

public class CASLockFreeQueue<T> {
    private AtomicReference<QueueNode<T>> head = new AtomicReference<>();
    private AtomicReference<QueueNode<T>> tail = new AtomicReference<>();

    public void enqueue(T data) {
        QueueNode<T> newNode = new QueueNode<>(data);
        while (true) {
            QueueNode<T> currentTail = tail.get();
            if (currentTail == null) {
                head.set(newNode); // Queue is empty, set both head and tail to the new node
   = newNode;
            if (tail.compareAndSet(currentTail, newNode)) {
                return; // Enqueue successful

    public T dequeue() {
        while (true) {
            QueueNode<T> currentHead = head.get();
            if (currentHead == null) {
                return null; // Queue is empty
            QueueNode<T> newHead =;
            if (head.compareAndSet(currentHead, newHead)) {
                return; // Dequeue successful

In this instance, CAS is utilized to construct a lock-free queue, ensuring that enqueue and dequeue operations can be executed concurrently without the need for traditional locks.

4. Conclusion

In wrapping up our journey through Java’s Compare-and-Swap (CAS), we’ve uncovered the secret sauce behind its magic: the ability to perform atomic operations without the fuss of locks. Imagine it as a superhero for your code, ensuring thread safety and smooth sailing in the world of concurrency.

From delving into the nuts and bolts of CAS in Java to exploring its practical applications in scenarios like non-blocking ticketing and crafting lock-free queues, we’ve witnessed its versatility. CAS isn’t just a tool; it’s a reliable ally in the realm of concurrent programming.

Next time you’re dealing with multiple things happening at once in your code or sharing information, remember CAS (Compare-And-Swap). It’s like the unsung hero that helps your code smoothly handle the challenges of doing many tasks at the same time, making sure everything works well. Happy coding!

Eleftheria Drosopoulou

Eleftheria is an Experienced Business Analyst with a robust background in the computer software industry. Proficient in Computer Software Training, Digital Marketing, HTML Scripting, and Microsoft Office, they bring a wealth of technical skills to the table. Additionally, she has a love for writing articles on various tech subjects, showcasing a talent for translating complex concepts into accessible content.
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