Contended locks explained – a performance approach

(Last Updated On: 19th June 2018)


Improving the performance of contended Java object monitors was added in JDK 9 as part of the JEP 143. However, as JEP 143 states, it might not be an overall performance gain on every benchmark or every test, but rather it explores few areas related to contended Java monitors, as per below:

  • Fast Java monitor enter/exit operations
  • Fast Java monitor notify/notifyAll operations
  • Speed up PlatformEvent::unpark()
  • Field reordering and cache line alignment


Current article aims to provide further explanations about how contended locks work, under the hood, and to measure the performance using different contention degrees (i.e. different number of threads) with and without having this feature enabled.

How it works under the hood. A bit of theory

Uncontended locks refer to the situation where there is a just a single thread T1 accessing a synchronized code section (e.g. method, a block of code). They are also called deflated or lightweight locks and it is implementable by a Compare-And-Swap (CAS) operation which atomically stores a pointer within the Java object header to lock record (i.e. thread that owns that object)

As opposite, in case of contended locks, there is at least one more thread T2 that wants to enter the same synchronized code section which is already locked by previous thread T1.

Contended locks are associated with a heavy weight locking scheme, also known as inflated locks, in order to handle multiple threads trying to acquire the same monitor. Contended locks do not use anymore CAS operations, as in case of uncontended locks, however, they follow the slow path. This mechanism uses a ‘WaitSet‘ queue which contains the set of threads waiting for the same contended lock. When a new thread has to go into the waiting state (i.e. Object.wait()), it is enqueued in the ‘WaitSet‘ and dequeued later on, as a result of an Object.notify() or Object.notifyAll(), being able to get the object monitor.

All the above cover the fundamentals from Java 8 in regards to contended locks (usually done in the slow path). Now, let’s see where the improvements from Java 9 fit into the picture, in comparison previous version.

Prior Java 9, in case of contended locks, when a thread attempts to get into the object monitor (e.g. ObjectMonitor::enter) it follows the slow path (e.g. ObjectMonitor::slow_enter). Starting Java 9, there is not anymore the slow path, instead, the thread takes the quick path (e.g. ObjectMonitor::quick_enter). Basically, if the lock is already inflated and there are few threads going to access the monitor, there is no need to keep the threads in the ‘WaitSet’ queue, but rather transferring them directly to the monitor queue. Normally, in the slow path, the threads are enqueued in the ‘WaitSet’ which takes extra CPU cycles, hence impacting the performance. But since the threads are waiting for the monitor and the lock is already inflated, it does not make sense to go via ‘WaitSet’ anymore!


The benchmark creates a number of threads which shares the same instance of a LockedClass. Within the synchronized method I have added a “wired” heavy computation (i.e. using the volatile) just for the sake of this test (you can easily replace it with something else; e.g. Pi-calculus formula if you want a more realistic example).

@Warmup(iterations = 5, timeUnit = TimeUnit.MICROSECONDS)
@Measurement(iterations = 5, timeUnit = TimeUnit.MICROSECONDS)
@Fork(value = 3, warmups = 1, jvmArgsAppend = { "-XX:-UseBiasedLocking", "-XX:+UseHeavyMonitors"})
public class ContendedLockJmh {

    private static final int NUMBER_OF_THREADS = 1; // 2, 4, 6, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024
    public static class Contended
        final LockedClass lockedClass = new LockedClass();

    public static void main(String[] args) throws RunnerException
        Options opt = new OptionsBuilder()
        new Runner(opt).run();

    public long contended(Contended state) {
        return state.lockedClass.methodWithSynchronisation(state.lockedClass.loop_count);
public class LockedClass {

    public int loop_count = 50;

    private long t = System.nanoTime();
    private volatile long consumeCPU = 0;

    public synchronized long methodWithSynchronisation(int count) {
        for (long i = count; i > 0; i--) {
            t += ((t * 0x5DEECE66DL) + 0xBL + i) & (0xFFFFFFFFFFFFL);
            consumeCPU += t;

        return t;

I have tested above benchmark with JDK9 plus few variants (from test case to test case):

  • changing the number of threads (e.g. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024)
  • using default JVM settings (e.g. but enabling biased locking from the very beginning: -XX:BiasedLockingStartupDelay=0) – corresponds to test lines with an empty Type
  • explicitly enabling heavy monitors but disabling biased locking (e.g. -XX:-UseBiasedLocking -XX:+UseHeavyMonitors) – corresponds to test lines with w/ HM Type
Threads   Type       Benchmark     Mode     Cnt         Score   Error        Units
1                    contended     avgt      15         0.374 ± 0.005        us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15         0.405 ± 0.017        us/op
2                    contended     avgt      15         1.719 ± 0.815        us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15         2.159 ± 1.318        us/op
4                    contended     avgt      15         3.912 ± 1.362        us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15         4.203 ± 2.603        us/op
8                    contended     avgt      15        10.794 ± 5.513        us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15        18.277 ± 25.684       us/op
16                   contended     avgt      15     1,133.623 ± 4,389.130    us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15     4,284.792 ± 8,732.043    us/op
32                   contended     avgt      15     5,362.932 ± 6,045.964    us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15     9,996.652 ± 9,005.011    us/op
64                   contended     avgt      15    35,048.471 ± 50,793.008   us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15    31,627.919 ± 31,488.143   us/op
128                  contended     avgt      15    52,024.745 ± 39,303.902   us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15    50,096.647 ± 95,171.028   us/op
256                  contended     avgt      15    99,485.189 ± 51,333.013   us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15    74,472.854 ± 37,900.718   us/op
512                  contended     avgt      15   218,215.346 ± 149,315.838  us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15   184,838.906 ± 55,941.599   us/op
1024                 contended     avgt      15   505,467.472 ± 542,766.418  us/op
          w/ HM      contended     avgt      15   189,070.848 ± 161,995.343  us/op

Tests triggered on my machine (CPU: Intel i7-6700HQ Skylake; MEMORY: 16GB DDR4 2133 MHz; OS: Ubuntu 16.04.2)


  • contended locks offer better performance when the number of contended threads is significantly higher. For example, in my test case it started with 64 threads, however, a bigger difference is spotted for 1024 threads (e.g. around 3x times better with heavy monitors enabled)
  • for relatively small contention, JVM default parameters (i.e. without heavy monitors and with biased locking enabled) seems more appropriate, no need to explicitly enable heavy monitors
Further references


Software Architect, Technical Trainer

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