Make any algorithm lock-free with this one crazy trick

Lock-free algorithms often operate by having several versions of a data structure in use at one time. The general pattern is that you can prepare an update to a data structure, and then use a machine primitive to atomically install the update by changing a pointer. This means that all subsequent readers will follow the pointer to its new location – for example, to a new node in a linked-list – but this pattern can’t do anything about readers that have already followed the old pointer value, and are traversing the previous version of the data structure.

Those readers will see a correct, linearizable version of the data structure, so this pattern doesn’t present a correctness concern. Instead, the problem is garbage collection: who retires the old version of the data structure, to free the memory it’s taking now that it’s unreachable? To put it another way: how do you tell when all possible readers have finished reading an old version?

Of course, there are many techniques for solving this reclamation problem. See this paper for a survey, and this paper for a recent improvement over epoch-based reclamation. RCU, which is an API for enabling single-writer, multi-reader concurrency in the Linux kernel, has an elegant way of solving the problem.