PEP: 311
Title: Simplified Global Interpreter Lock Acquisition for Extensions
Version: $Revision: 1939 $
Last-Modified: $Date: 2004-10-09 15:58:24 -0700 (Sat, 09 Oct 2004) $
Author: Mark Hammond <mhammond at>
Status: Final
Type: Standards Track
Content-Type: text/plain
Created: 05-Feb-2003
Post-History: 05-Feb-2003 14-Feb-2003 19-Apr-2003


    This PEP proposes a simplified API for access to the Global
    Interpreter Lock (GIL) for Python extension modules.
    Specifically, it provides a solution for authors of complex
    multi-threaded extensions, where the current state of Python
    (i.e., the state of the GIL is unknown.

    This PEP proposes a new API, for platforms built with threading
    support, to manage the Python thread state.  An implementation
    strategy is proposed, along with an initial, platform independent


    The current Python interpreter state API is suitable for simple,
    single-threaded extensions, but quickly becomes incredibly complex
    for non-trivial, multi-threaded extensions.

    Currently Python provides two mechanisms for dealing with the GIL:

      These macros are provided primarily to allow a simple Python
      extension that already owns the GIL to temporarily release it
      while making an "external" (ie, non-Python), generally
      expensive, call.  Any existing Python threads that are blocked
      waiting for the GIL are then free to run.  While this is fine
      for extensions making calls from Python into the outside world,
      it is no help for extensions that need to make calls into Python
      when the thread state is unknown.

    - PyThreadState and PyInterpreterState APIs.
      These API functions allow an extension/embedded application to
      acquire the GIL, but suffer from a serious boot-strapping
      problem - they require you to know the state of the Python
      interpreter and of the GIL before they can be used.  One
      particular problem is for extension authors that need to deal
      with threads never before seen by Python, but need to call
      Python from this thread.  It is very difficult, delicate and
      error prone to author an extension where these "new" threads
      always know the exact state of the GIL, and therefore can
      reliably interact with this API.

    For these reasons, the question of how such extensions should
    interact with Python is quickly becoming a FAQ.  The main impetus
    for this PEP, a thread on python-dev [1], immediately identified
    the following projects with this exact issue:

    - The win32all extensions
    - Boost
    - ctypes
    - Python-GTK bindings
    - Uno
    - PyObjC
    - Mac toolbox
    - PyXPCOM

    Currently, there is no reasonable, portable solution to this
    problem, forcing each extension author to implement their own
    hand-rolled version.  Further, the problem is complex, meaning
    many implementations are likely to be incorrect, leading to a
    variety of problems that will often manifest simply as "Python has

    While the biggest problem in the existing thread-state API is the
    lack of the ability to query the current state of the lock, it is
    felt that a more complete, simplified solution should be offered
    to extension authors.  Such a solution should encourage authors to
    provide error-free, complex extension modules that take full
    advantage of Python's threading mechanisms.

Limitations and Exclusions

    This proposal identifies a solution for extension authors with
    complex multi-threaded requirements, but that only require a
    single "PyInterpreterState".  There is no attempt to cater for
    extensions that require multiple interpreter states.  At the time
    of writing, no extension has been identified that requires
    multiple PyInterpreterStates, and indeed it is not clear if that
    facility works correctly in Python itself.

    This API will not perform automatic initialization of Python, or
    initialize Python for multi-threaded operation.  Extension authors
    must continue to call Py_Initialize(), and for multi-threaded
    applications, PyEval_InitThreads().  The reason for this is that
    the first thread to call PyEval_InitThreads() is nominated as the
    "main thread" by Python, and so forcing the extension author to
    specify the main thread (by forcing her to make this first call)
    removes ambiguity.  As Py_Initialize() must be called before
    PyEval_InitThreads(), and as both of these functions currently
    support being called multiple times, the burden this places on
    extension authors is considered reasonable.

    It is intended that this API be all that is necessary to acquire
    the Python GIL.  Apart from the existing, standard
    assumed that no additional thread state API functions will be used
    by the extension.  Extensions with such complicated requirements
    are free to continue to use the existing thread state API.


    This proposal recommends a new API be added to Python to simplify
    the management of the GIL.  This API will be available on all
    platforms built with WITH_THREAD defined.

    The intent is that assuming Python has correctly been initialized,
    an extension author be able to use a small, well-defined "prologue 
    dance", at any time and on any thread, which will ensure Python 
    is ready to be used on that thread.  After the extension has 
    finished with Python, it must also perform an "epilogue dance" to 
    release any resources previously acquired.  Ideally, these dances 
    can be expressed in a single line.

    Specifically, the following new APIs are proposed:

    /* Ensure that the current thread is ready to call the Python
       C API, regardless of the current state of Python, or of its
       thread lock.  This may be called as many times as desired
       by a thread so long as each call is matched with a call to 
       PyGILState_Release().  In general, other thread-state APIs may 
       be used between _Ensure() and _Release() calls, so long as the 
       thread-state is restored to its previous state before the Release().
       For example, normal use of the Py_BEGIN_ALLOW_THREADS/
       Py_END_ALLOW_THREADS macros are acceptable.
       The return value is an opaque "handle" to the thread state when
       PyGILState_Acquire() was called, and must be passed to
       PyGILState_Release() to ensure Python is left in the same state. Even
       though recursive calls are allowed, these handles can *not* be 
       shared - each unique call to PyGILState_Ensure must save the handle 
       for its call to PyGILState_Release.
       When the function returns, the current thread will hold the GIL.
       Failure is a fatal error.
    PyAPI_FUNC(PyGILState_STATE) PyGILState_Ensure(void);

    /* Release any resources previously acquired.  After this call, Python's
       state will be the same as it was prior to the corresponding
       PyGILState_Acquire call (but generally this state will be unknown to 
       the caller, hence the use of the GILState API.)
       Every call to PyGILState_Ensure must be matched by a call to 
       PyGILState_Release on the same thread.
    PyAPI_FUNC(void) PyGILState_Release(PyGILState_STATE);

    Common usage will be:

    void SomeCFunction(void)
        /* ensure we hold the lock */
        PyGILState_STATE state = PyGILState_Ensure();
        /* Use the Python API */
        /* Restore the state of Python */

Design and Implementation

    The general operation of PyGILState_Ensure() will be:
    - assert Python is initialized.
    - Get a PyThreadState for the current thread, creating and saving
      if necessary.
    - remember the current state of the lock (owned/not owned)
    - If the current state does not own the GIL, acquire it.
    - Increment a counter for how many calls to
      PyGILState_Ensure have been made on the current thread.
    - return

    The general operation of PyGILState_Release() will be:

    - assert our thread currently holds the lock.
    - If old state indicates lock was previously unlocked, release GIL.
    - Decrement the PyGILState_Ensure counter for the thread.
    - If counter == 0:
      - release and delete the PyThreadState.
      - forget the ThreadState as being owned by the thread.
    - return

    It is assumed that it is an error if two discrete PyThreadStates
    are used for a single thread.  Comments in pystate.h ("State
    unique per thread") support this view, although it is never
    directly stated.  Thus, this will require some implementation of
    Thread Local Storage.  Fortunately, a platform independent
    implementation of Thread Local Storage already exists in the
    Python source tree, in the SGI threading port.  This code will be
    integrated into the platform independent Python core, but in such
    a way that platforms can provide a more optimal implementation if


    An implementation of this proposal can be found at




    This document has been placed in the public domain.