Demystifying the volatile keyword

Following on from my earlier post about the restrict keyword, I’d like to try and dispell the myth around the volatile keyword. The meaning of volatile is a popular interview question, particularly for embedded development jobs and I’ve heard some programmers describe the properties of this keyword as if it had super powers.

The volatile keyword does a very simple job. When a variable is marked as volatile, the programmer is instructing the compiler not to cache this variable in a register but instead to read the value of the variable from memory each and every time the variable is used. That’s it – simple isn’t it?

To illustrate the use of the keyword, consider the following example:volatile int* vp = SOME_REGISTER_ADDRESS;
for(int i=0; i<100; i++)     foo(*vp);[/sourcecode] In this simple example, the pointer vp points to a volatile int. The value of this int is read from memory for each loop iteration. If volatile was not specified then it is likely that the compiler would generate optimized code which would read the value of the int once, temporarily store this in a register and then use the register copy during each iteration. Examples of where volatile is often used:

  • When accessing hardware registers via pointers. It is necessary for the generated code to always access the hardware registers value and never a potentially out of date copy.
  • When accessing a variable that is shared between two or more threads or between a thread and an ISR.

Common myths about the volatile keyword:

  • A volatile variable will never reside in cache memory – e.g. within the L2 cache of a processor. This is not true. In the case where the volatile variable is shared between two software threads, it is highly likely that the variable will exist in cached memory and the cache coherency policy will ensure that the threads will see the correct and up-to-date value of the variable in the event that the threads are running on seperate cores that don’t share the same cache. When the volatile variable refers to a hardware register, it is likely that the memory map of the system will be setup such that this register is not cacheable in the processor cache, but this is setup and managed by the appropriate device driver and is not something that is provided by the volatile keyword.

Thats’ it. So the next time you hear somebody waxing lyrical about the super powers of the volatile keyword, please feel empowered to enlighten them!