Maximum number of threads and multithreading

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I'm tripping up on the multithreading concept.

For example, my processor has 2 cores (and with hyper threading) 2 threads per core totaling to 4 thread. So does this mean my CPU can execute four separate instructions simultaneously? Is each thread capable of being a multi-thread?


So does this mean my CPU can execute four separate instructions simultaneously? Is each thread capable of being a multi-thread?

In short to both, yes.

A CPU can only execute 1 single instruction per clock cycle, whatever frequency/speed that might be, it's still only 1. As an example, NOP is an x86 assembly instruction which the CPU interprets as "no operation this cycle" that's 1 instruction out of the hundreds or thousands (and more) that are executed from something even as simple as

int main(void)
{
    while (1) { /* eat CPU */ }
    return 0;
}

A CPU thread of execution is one in which a series of instructions (a thread of instructions) are being executed, it does not matter from what "application" the instructions are coming from, a CPU does not know about high level concepts (like applications), that's a function of the OS.

So if you have a computer with 2 (or 4/8/128/etc.) CPU's that share the same memory (cache/RAM), then you can have 2 (or more) CPU's that can run 2 (or more) instructions at (literally) the exact same time. Keep in mind that these are machine instructions that are running at the same time (i.e. the physical side of the software).

An OS level thread is something a bit different, while the CPU handles the physical side of the execution, the OS handles the logical side. The above code breaks down into more than 1 instruction and when executed, actually gets run on more than 1 CPU (in a multi-CPU aware environment), even though it's a single "thread" (at the OS level), the OS schedules when to run the next instructions and on what CPU (based on the OS's thread scheduling policy, which is different amongst the various OS's). So the above code will eat up 100% CPU usage per a given "time slice" on that CPU it's running on.

This "slicing" of "time" (also known as preemptive computing) is why an OS can run multiple applications "at the same time", it's not literally1 at the same time since a CPU can only run 1 instruction per clock cycle, but to a human (who can barely comprehend the length of 1 second), it appears "at the same time".

1) except in the case with a multi-CPU setup, then it might be literally the same time.

When an application is run, the kernel (the OS) actually spawns a separate thread (a kernel thread) to run the application on, additionally the application can request to create another external thread (i.e. spawning another process or forking), or by creating an internal thread by calling the OS's (or programming languages) API which actually call lower level kernel routines that spawn and maintain the context switching of the spawned thread, additionally, any created thread is also capable of calling the same API's to spawn other separate threads (thus a thread is capable of being "multi-threaded").

Multi-threading (in the sense of applications and operating systems), is not necessarily portable, so while you might learn Java or C# and use their API's (i.e. Thread.Start or Runnable), utilizing the actual OS API's as provided (i.e. CreateThread or pthread_create and the slew of other concurrency functions) opens a different door for design decisions (i.e. "does platform X support thread library Y"); just something to keep in mind as you explore the different API's.

I hope that can help add some clarity.