3 Threading Rules


In Visual Studio 2013, we consolidated all our lessons learned from writing a complex, multi-threaded component of Visual Studio into a small and simple set of rules to avoid deadlocks, unwanted reentrancy, and keep an easier to maintain codebase. We do this by comprehensively applying just three rules, as outlined below. In each case, the instance of JoinableTaskFactory used in the samples comes from ThreadHelper.JoinableTaskFactory (except for code in CPS and its extensions).

The Rules

The rules are listed below with minimal examples. For a more thorough explanation with more examples, check out this slideshow.

Rule #1. If a method has certain thread apartment requirements (STA or MTA) it must either:

  1. Have an asynchronous signature, and asynchronously marshal to the appropriate thread if it isn’t originally invoked on a compatible thread. The recommended means of switching to the main thread is:

    await joinableTaskFactoryInstance.SwitchToMainThreadAsync();


  2. Have a synchronous signature, and throw an exception when called on the wrong thread. This can be done in Visual Studio with ThreadHelper.ThrowIfNotOnUIThread() or ThreadHelper.ThrowIfOnUIThread().

    In particular, no method is allowed to synchronously marshal work to another thread (blocking while that work is done) except by using the second rule (below). Synchronous blocks in general are to be avoided whenever possible.

Rule #2. When an implementation of an already-shipped public API must call asynchronous code and block for its completion, it must do so by following this simple pattern:

joinableTaskFactoryInstance.Run(async delegate
    await SomeOperationAsync(...);

Rule #3. If ever awaiting work that was started earlier, that work must be joined.

For example, one service kicks off some asynchronous work that may later become synchronously blocking:

JoinableTask longRunningAsyncWork = joinableTaskFactoryInstance.RunAsync(
    async delegate
        await SomeOperationAsync(...);

then later that async work becomes blocking:


or perhaps

await longRunningAsyncWork;

Note however that this extra step is not necessary when awaiting is done immediately after kicking off an asynchronous operation.

In particular, no method should call Task.Wait() or Task.Result on an incomplete Task.

Rule #4. Never define async void methods. Make the methods return Task instead.

  • Exceptions thrown from async void methods always crash the process.
  • Callers don’t even have the option to await the result.
  • Exceptions can’t be reported to telemetry by the caller.
  • It’s impossible for your VS package to responsibly block in Package.Close till your async work is done when it was kicked off this way.
  • Be cautious: async delegate or async () => become async void methods when passed to a method that accepts Action delegates. Only pass async delegates to methods that accept Func<Task> or Func<Task<T>> parameters.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to follow these rules?

All code that runs in Visual Studio itself should follow these rules. These rules have been reviewed by several senior and principal developers and VS architects, who have reviewed these rules and feel that VS would do well to follow them in managed code where possible.

Any other GUI app that invokes asynchronous code that it must occasionally block the UI thread on is also recommended to follow these rules.

Why should a method that has a dependency on a specific (kind of) thread be async?

Efficiency and responsiveness: Switching threads means that the original thread either can do something else productive (e.g., execute more work from the threadpool queue, or respond to more messages on the main thread) or that it uselessly blocks doing nothing. Threads are not free. Threadpool threads allocate 1MB of stack space and are limited in quantity. The main thread is even more precious since it’s tied directly to responsiveness and lack thereof. So any opportunity you have to allow your calling thread to return to a productive state is worth considering.

Information hiding: the caller no longer has to know what thread the method requires, whether it’s thread-safe, etc. The implementation can change over time to add or remove thread affinity, or to switch from locking to scheduling for thread safety, etc.

Why do I need to use JoinableTaskFactory.Run to synchronously block on asynchronous work rather than just calling Task.Wait() or Task.Result?

If you’re on the main thread, because Task.Wait or Task.Result will often deadlock because you’re now synchronously blocking the main thread for the completion of a task that may need the main thread to complete.

If you’re on a threadpool thread, it means that you’re occupying one threadpool thread to do nothing but block, while other threadpool threads get enlisted to execute continuations of this work that your own blocking thread is perfectly capable of executing. When you see .Wait() and asynchronous code mixed together, you tend to see call stacks with mixed async and sync methods in it, which means that it may not be just one thread that is blocked waiting. In fact calling .Wait() could mean your code is blocking several threadpool threads at once, all to get just one sequence of code execution to complete.

In contrast, when you use JoinableTaskFactory.Run, main thread deadlocks and threadpool exhaustion are automatically mitigated by reusing the blocking thread to execute the continuations.

Why not rely on COM marshaling to switch to the main thread when necessary?

There are several reasons for this:

  1. The COM transition synchronously blocks the calling thread. If the main thread isn’t immediately pumping messages, the MTA thread will block until it handles the message. If you’re on a threadpool thread, this ties up a precious resource and if your code may execute on multiple threadpool threads at once, there is a very real possibility of threadpool starvation.
  2. Deadlock: if the main thread is blocked waiting for the background thread, and the main thread happens to be on top of some call stack (like WPF measure-layout) that suppresses the message pump, the code that normally works will randomly deadlock.
  3. When the main thread is pumping messages, it will execute your code, regardless as to whether it is relevant to what the main thread may already be doing. If the main thread is in the main message pump, that’s fine. But if the main thread is in a pumping wait (in managed code this could be almost anywhere as this includes locks, I/O, sync blocks, etc.) it could be a very bad time. We call these bad times “reentrancy” and the problem comes when you have component X running on the main thread in a pumping wait, the component Y uses COM marshalling to re-enter the main thread, and then Y calls (directly or indirectly) into component X. Component X is typically written with the assumption that by being on the main thread, it’s isolated and single-threaded, and it usually isn’t prepared to handle reentrancy. As a result, data corruption and/or deadlocks can result. Such has been the source of many deadlocks and crashes in VS for the last few releases.
  4. Any method from a VS service that returns a pointer is probably inherently broken when called from a background thread. For example, ItemIDs returned from IVsHierarchy are very often raw pointers cast to integers. These pointers are guaranteed to be valid for as long as you’re on the main thread (and no event was raised to invalidate it). But when you call a IVsHierarchy method to get an ItemID back from a background thread, you leave the STA thread immediately as the call returns, meaning the pointer is unsafe to use. If you then go and pass that pointer back into the project system, the pointer could have been invalidated in the interim, and you’ll end up causing an access violation crash in VS. The only safe way to deal with ItemIDs (or any other pointer type) is while manually marshaled to the UI thread so that you know they are still valid for as long as you hold and use them.
  5. If your method runs on a background thread and has a loop that accesses a VS service, that can incur a lot of thread transitions which can hurt performance. If you were explicit in your code about the transition, you’d very likely move it to just before you enter the loop, which would make your code more efficient from the start.
  6. Some VS services don’t have proxy stubs registered and thus will fail to the type cast or on method invocation when your code executes on a background thread.
  7. Some VS services get rewritten from native to managed code, which subtly changes them from single-threaded to free-threaded services. Unless the managed code is written to be thread-safe (most is not) this means that your managed code calling into a managed code VS service on a background thread will not transition to the UI thread first, and you are cruising for thread-safety bugs (data corruption, crashes, hangs, etc). By switching to the main thread yourself first, you won’t be the poor soul who has crashes in their feature and has to debug it for days until you finally figure out that you were causing data corruption and a crash later on. Yes, you can blame the free threaded managed code that should have protected itself, but that’s not very satisfying after days of investigation. And the owner of that code may refuse to fix their code and you’ll have to fix yours anyway.

How do these rules protect me from re-entering random code on the main thread?

By always using asynchronous mechanisms to marshal to the UI thread, you’re effectively send a PostMessage to the UI thread, which will not re-enter the main thread when it is in a filtered message pump (i.e. a synchronously blocking Wait). When you use this line in particular:

await joinableTaskFactoryInstance.SwitchToMainThreadAsync();

It not only posts a message to the UI thread but also communicates with the rest of the threading framework to avoid deadlocks in the event that the main thread is blocked waiting for you, and you’re waiting for the main thread. That is, using this method to get to the UI thread just works: it avoids both deadlocks and undesirable reentrancy. The only time it deadlocks is when the threading rules listed above are not being followed.

Am I protected from other code re-entering my own code while it executes on the main thread?

Yes, somewhat. When you call JoinableTaskFactory.Run with an async delegate, when your delegate yields (using await) the message pump is temporarily stopped until relevant work needs to come back to the UI thread to unblock you so your code can complete its execution. This is a significant amount of protection since 3rd party code has the greatest opportunity to re-enter the main thread while the main thread is waiting for background work to complete, and the JoinableTaskFactory prevents this from happening.

However, when your code is actively running on the main thread reentrancy can occur when you call synchronously blocking code (contested locks, I/O, etc.) simply by virtue of the DispatcherSynchronizationContext that is responsible for the synchronous block. While you can mitigate this by disabling the message pump yourself, it’s usually not a good idea because 3rd party code you may be calling could be relying on a functioning message pump.

I’m trying to analyze a hang around code that uses JoinableTaskFactory, but since transitions are asynchronous the active threads’ call stacks don’t tell the whole story. How can I find the cause and fix the hang?

Debugging async hangs in general is lacking debugger tooling support at the moment. The debugger and Windows teams are working to improve that situation. In the meantime, we have learned several techniques to figure out what is causing the hang, and we’re working to enhance the framework to automatically detect, self-analyze and report hangs to you so you have almost nothing to do but fix the code bug.

In the meantime, the most useful technique for analyzing async hangs is to attach WinDBG to the process and dump out incomplete async methods’ states. This can be tedious, but we have a script in this file that you can use to make it much easier: Async hang debugging

What is threadpool exhaustion, and why is it bad?

See our threadpool starvation doc.

I’m writing an async method that isn’t in a JoinableTask. Should I use JTF.SwitchToMainThreadAsync() to get to the UI thread?

Yes. JoinableTaskFactory.SwitchToMainThreadAsync() works great outside a JoinableTask. It simply posts the continuation to the main thread for execution, which is the generally accepted safe mechanism for asynchronously marshaling to the main thread. And if the caller is already on the main thread, then using this technique is extremely lightweight as you avoid allocating any closures and delegates.

Keep in mind that although you’re not calling this async method within a JoinableTask, a caller even lower in the call stack may actually have created one before it called your code. This makes it an especially good idea to use JTF.SwitchToMainThreadAsync(), as it means if your caller ever synchronously blocks on the completion of your code you won’t deadlock.

One more reason: if you don’t use this method, you’ll probably be hard-coding a priority of how to get to the main thread (background, normal, high). But often the code that needs the main thread isn’t the outer scenario, and therefore shouldn’t really be making the decision about the priority to the UI thread. For example, your same code may be called from a background operation and another time as a foreground operation, without your code able to discern between the two and make the appropriate choice for priority, and doing so would add unnecessary complexity to your code. Instead, just focus on the fact that at this point, your code needs the main thread and call JTF.SwitchToMainThreadAsync(). This allows your caller to set the priority via the JoinableTask it may call your code within.

What message priority is used to switch to (or resume on) the main thread, and can this be changed?

JoinableTaskFactory’s default behavior is to switch to the main thread using SynchronizationContext.Post, which typically posts a message to the main thread, which puts it below RPC and above user input in priority.

How to use a different priority for switching to the main thread in VS

The following describes how to replace the mechanism for getting to the UI thread in a host-independent way:

You can set your own priority by creating your own derived type of JoinableTaskFactory and overriding the PostToUnderlyingSynchronizationContext method. This method is responsible both for initial switches to the UI thread as well as resuming on the UI thread after a yielding await.

Note that the JoinableTaskFactory class has no default constructor, so when implementing your own JoinableTaskFactory-derived type you will need to add your own constructor that chains in the base constructor, passing in the required parameters. You are then free to directly instantiate your derived type by passing in either a JoinableTaskContext or a JoinableTaskCollection.

For more information on this topic, see Andrew Arnott’s blog post Asynchronous and multithreaded programming within VS using the JoinableTaskFactory.