Thread Scheduler in Java

In our introduction to how threads work, we introduced the thread scheduler, part of the OS (usually) that is responsible for sharing the available CPUs out between the various threads. How exactly the scheduler works depends on the individual platform, but various modern operating systems (notably Windows and Linux) use largely similar techniques that we'll describe here. We'll also mention some key varitions between the platforms.

Note that we'll continue to talk about a single thread scheduler. On multiprocessor systems, there is generally some kind of scheduler per processor, which then need to be coordinated in some way. (On some systems, switching on different processors is staggered to avoid contention on shared scheduling tables.) Unless otherwise specified, we'll use the term thread scheduler to refer to this overall system of coordinated per-CPU schedulers.

Thread scheduler in java is the part of the JVM that decides which thread should run.

There is no guarantee that which runnable thread will be chosen to run by the thread scheduler.

Only one thread at a time can run in a single process.

The thread scheduler mainly uses preemptive or time slicing scheduling to schedule the threads.

Across platforms, thread scheduling1 tends to be based on at least the following criteria:

  • a priority, or in fact usually multiple "priority" settings that we'll discuss below;

  • a quantum, or number of allocated timeslices of CPU, which essentially determines the amount of CPU time a thread is allotted before it is forced to yield the CPU to another thread of the same or lower priority (the system will keep track of the remaining quantum at any given time, plus its default quantum, which could depend on thread type and/or system configuration);

  • a state, notably "runnable" vs "waiting";

  • metrics about the behaviour of threads, such as recent CPU usage or the time since it last ran (i.e. had a share of CPU), or the fact that it has "just received an event it was waiting for".

Most systems use what we might dub priority-based round-robin scheduling to some extent. The general principles are:

  • a thread of higher priority (which is a function of base and local priorities) will preempt a thread of lower priority;

  • otherwise, threads of equal priority will essentially take turns at getting an allocated slice or quantum of CPU;

  • there are a few extra "tweaks" to make things work.


Depending on the system, there are various states that a thread can be in. Probably the two most interesting are:

  • runnable, which essentially means "ready to consume CPU"; being runnable is generally the minimum requirement for a thread to actually be scheduled on to a CPU;

  • waiting, meaning that the thread currently cannot continue as it is waiting for a resource such as a lock or I/O, for memory to be paged in, for a signal from another thread, or simply for a period of time to elapse (sleep).

Other states include terminated, which means the thread's code has finished running but not all of the thread's resources have been cleared up, and a new state, in which the thread has been created, but not all resources necessary for it to be runnable have been created. Internally, the OS may distinguish between various different types of wait states2 (for example "waiting for a signal" vs "waiting for the stack to be paged in"), but this level of granularity is generally not available or so important to Java programs. (On the other hand, Java generally exposes to the programmer things the JVM can reasonly know about, for example, if a thread is waiting to acquire the lock on a Java object— roughly speaking, "entering a synchronized block".)

Difference between preemptive scheduling and time slicing

Under preemptive scheduling, the highest priority task executes until it enters the waiting or dead states or a higher priority task comes into existence. Under time slicing, a task executes for a predefined slice of time and then reenters the pool of ready tasks. The scheduler then determines which task should execute next, based on priority and other factors.