Mutex vs Semaphore

Mutex vs Semaphore


Is a key to a toilet. One person can have the key – occupy the toilet – at the time. When finished, the person gives (frees) the key to the next person in the queue.

Officially: “Mutexes are typically used to serialise access to a section of  re-entrant code that cannot be executed concurrently by more than one thread. A mutex object only allows one thread into a controlled section, forcing other threads which attempt to gain access to that section to wait until the first thread has exited from that section.”
Ref: Symbian Developer Library

(A mutex is really a semaphore with value 1.)


Is the number of free identical toilet keys. Example, say we have four toilets with identical locks and keys. The semaphore count – the count of keys – is set to 4 at beginning (all four toilets are free), then the count value is decremented as people are coming in. If all toilets are full, ie. there are no free keys left, the semaphore count is 0. Now, when eq. one person leaves the toilet, semaphore is increased to 1 (one free key), and given to the next person in the queue.

Officially: “A semaphore restricts the number of simultaneous users of a shared resource up to a maximum number. Threads can request access to the resource (decrementing the semaphore), and can signal that they have finished using the resource (incrementing the semaphore).”

Difference Between Semaphores and Mutex

After reading though the material above, some pretty clear distinctions should have emerged. However, I’d like to reiterate those differences again here, along with some other noticeable differences between semaphore and Mutex.

  1. A semaphore can be a Mutex but a Mutex can never be semaphore. This simply means that a binary semaphore can be used as Mutex, but a Mutex can never exhibit the functionality of semaphore.
  2. Both semaphores and Mutex (at least the on latest kernel) are non-recursive in nature.
  3. No one owns semaphores, whereas Mutex are owned and the owner is held responsible for them. This is an important distinction from a debugging perspective.
  4. In case the of Mutex, the thread that owns the Mutex is responsible for freeing it. However, in the case of semaphores, this condition is not required. Any other thread can signal to free the semaphore by using the sem_post() function.
  5. A Mutex, by definition, is used to serialize access to a section of re-entrant code that cannot be executed concurrently by more than one thread. A semaphore, by definition, restricts the number of simultaneous users of a shared resource up to a maximum number
  6. Another difference that would matter to developers is that semaphores are system-wide and remain in the form of files on the filesystem, unless otherwise cleaned up. Mutex are process-wide and get cleaned up automatically when a process exits.
  7. The nature of semaphores makes it possible to use them in synchronizing related and unrelated process, as well as between threads. Mutex can be used only in synchronizing between threads and at most between related processes (the pthread implementation of the latest kernel comes with a feature that allows Mutex to be used between related process).
  8. According to the kernel documentation, Mutex are lighter when compared to semaphores. What this means is that a program with semaphore usage has a higher memory footprint when compared to a program having Mutex.
  9. From a usage perspective, Mutex has simpler semantics when compared to semaphores.
  10. A Mutex allows serial access to a resource, whereas semaphores, in addition to allowing serial access, could also be used to access resources in parallel. For example, consider resource R being accessed by n number of users. When using a Mutex, we would need a Mutex “m” to lock and unlock the resource, thus allowing only one user at a time to use the resource R. In contrast, semaphores can allow n number of users to synchronously access the resource R.
  11. The advantage of semaphores over other synchronization mechanisms is that they can be used to synchronize two related or unrelated processes trying to access the same resource.


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