Add Multithreading to Your VB.NET Applications

evelopers have been requesting that Microsoft add more threading functionality to VB for some time?it will finally happen with VB.NET. VB6 does have support for building multithreaded EXEs, DLLs, and OCXs. But, the wording for this is somewhat misleading, in that VB6 supports running multiple single-threaded apartments. An apartment is really just a room in which code is executed and the boundaries of the apartment restrict the code from accessing anything outside of it.

VB.NET natively supports building free-threaded applications. This means that multiple threads can access the same set of shared data. The following article will walk you through the basics of multithreading.



While VB6 supports multiple single-threaded apartments, it does not support a free-threading model, which allows multiple threads to run against the same set of data. There are many situations in which spawning a new thread to run a background process would increase the usability of your application. This situation is evident when you want to place a cancel button on a form where a long process can make a form seem unresponsive.



Since VB.NET runs with the Common Language Runtime (CLR), it gains many new capabilities, one of which is the ability to create free-threaded applications.

Working with Threads
VB.NET makes it easy to start working with threads. There are some subtleties that we will explore later, but let’s jump in and create a simple form that spawns a new thread to run a background process. The first thing we will need to do is create the background task that will be run on the new thread. The following code executes a rather long running process?an infinite loop:

Private Sub BackgroundProcess()    Dim i As Integer = 1    Do While True        ListBox1.Items.Add("Iterations: " + i)        i += 1    LoopEnd Sub

This code loops infinitely and adds an item to a listbox on a form for each iteration. As a side note, if you are not familiar with VB.NET then you may have noticed a few other things in this code that you could not do in VB6:

  • Assign values to a variable when declaring the variableDim i As Integer = 1
  • Use the += operatori += 1 Instead of i = i + 1
  • The Call keyword has been removed

Once we have a worker process, we need to assign this block of code to a new thread and start its execution. To do this we use the Thread object that is part of the System.Threading namespace in the .NET framework classes. When we instantiate a new Thread class we pass it a reference to the code block we want to execute in the constructor of the Thread class. The following code creates a new Thread object and passes it a reference to BackgroundProcess:

Dim t As Threadt = New Thread(AddressOf Me.BackgroundProcess)t.Start()

The AddressOf operator creates a delegate object to the BackgroundProcess method. A delegate within VB.NET is a type-safe, object-oriented function pointer. After the thread has been instantiated, you begin the execution of the code by calling the Start() method of the thread.

Keep It Under Control
After the thread is started, you have some control over the state of it by using methods of the Thread object. You can pause a thread’s execution by calling the Thread.Sleep method. This method takes an integer value that determines how long the thread should sleep. If you wanted to slow down the addition of items to the listbox in the example above, place a call to the sleep method in this code:

Private Sub BackgroundProcess()    Dim i As Integer = 1    Do While True        ListBox1.Items.Add("Iterations: " + i)        i += 1        Thread.CurrentThread.Sleep(2000)    LoopEnd Sub

CurrentThread is a public static property that allows you to retrieve a reference to the currently running thread.

You can also place a thread into the sleep state for an indeterminate amount of time by calling Thread.Sleep (System.Threading.Timeout.Infinite). To interrupt this sleep you can call the Thread.Interrupt method.

Similar to Sleep and Interrupt are Suspend and Resume. Suspend allows you to block a thread until another thread calls Thread.Resume. The difference between Sleep and Suspend is that the latter does not immediately place a thread in the wait state. The thread does not suspend until the .NET runtime determines that it is in a safe place to suspend it. Sleep will immediately place a thread in a wait state.

Lastly, Thread.Abort stops a thread from executing. In our simple example, we would want to add another button on the form that allows us to stop the process. To do this all we would have to do is call the Thread.Abort method as follows:

Private Sub Button2_Click(ByVal sender As System.Object, _        ByVal e As System.EventArgs) Handles Button2.Click    t.Abort()End Sub

This is where the power of multithreading can be seen. The UI seems responsive to the user because it is running in one thread and the background process is running in another thread. The cancel button immediately responds to the user’s click event and processing stops.



Passing Data Through Multithreaded Procedures
The last example shows a rather simple situation. Multithreading has many complications that you have to work out when you program. One issue that you will run into is passing data to and from the procedure passed to the constructor of the Thread class. That is to say, the procedure you want to kick off on another thread cannot be passed any parameters and you cannot return data from that procedure. This is because the procedure you pass to the thread constructor cannot have any parameters or return value. To get around this, wrap your procedure in a class where the parameters to the method are written as fields of the class.

A simple example of this would be if we had a procedure that calculated the square of a number:

Function Square(ByVal Value As Double) As Double    Return Value * ValueEnd Function

To make this procedure available to be used in a new thread we would wrap it in a class:

Public Class SquareClass    Public Value As Double    Public Square As Double    Public Sub CalcSquare()        Square = Value * Value    End SubEnd Class

Use this code to start the CalcSquare procedure on a new thread. following code:

Private Sub Button1_Click(ByVal sender As System.Object, _        ByVal e As System.EventArgs) Handles Button1.Click    Dim oSquare As New SquareClass()    t = New Thread(AddressOf oSquare.CalcSquare)    oSquare.Value = 30    t.Start()End Sub

Notice that after the thread is started, we do not inspect the square value of the class, because it is not guaranteed to have executed once you call the start method of the thread. There are a few ways to retrieve values back from another thread. The easiest way is to raise an event when the thread is complete. We will examine another method in the next section on thread synchronization. The following code adds the event declarations to the SquareClass.

Public Class SquareClass    Public Value As Double    Public Square As Double    Public Event ThreadComplete(ByVal Square As Double)    Public Sub CalcSquare()        Square = Value * Value        RaiseEvent ThreadComplete(Square)    End SubEnd Class

Catching the events in the calling code has not changed much from VB6, you still declare the variables WithEvents and handle the event in a procedure. The part that has changed is that you declare that a procedure handles the event using the Handles keyword and not through the naming convention of Object_Event as in VB6.

Dim WithEvents oSquare As SquareClassPrivate Sub Button1_Click(ByVal sender As System.Object, _        ByVal e As System.EventArgs) Handles Button1.Click    oSquare = New SquareClass()    t = New Thread(AddressOf oSquare.CalcSquare)    oSquare.Value = 30    t.Start()End SubSub SquareEventHandler(ByVal Square As Double) _        Handles oSquare.ThreadComplete    MsgBox("The square is " & Square)End Sub

The one thing to note with this method is that the procedure handling the event, in this case SquareEventHandler, will run within the thread that raised the event. It does not run within the thread from which the form is executing.



Synchronizing the Threads
VB.NET contains a few statements to provide synchronization of threads. In the Square example, you would want to synchronize the thread performing the calculation in order to wait for the calculation to complete so you can retrieve the result. Another example would be if you sort an array on a different thread and you would wait for that process to complete before using the array. To perform these synchronizations, VB.NET provides the SyncLockEnd SyncLock statement and the Thread.Join method.

SyncLock gains an exclusive lock to an object reference that is passed to it. By gaining this exclusive lock you can ensure that multiple threads are not accessing shared data or that the code is executing on multiple threads. A convenient object to use in order to gain a lock is the System.Type object associated with each class. The System.Type object can be retrieved using the GetType method:

Public Sub CalcSquare()    SyncLock GetType(SquareClass)        Square = Value * Value    End SyncLockEnd Sub

Lastly, the Thread.Join method allows you to wait for a specific amount of time until a thread has completed. If the thread completes before the timeout that you specify, Thread.Join returns True, otherwise it returns False. In the square sample, if we did not want to raise events, we could call the Thread.Join method to determine if the calculation has finished. The code would look like the following:

Private Sub Button1_Click(ByVal sender As System.Object, _        ByVal e As System.EventArgs) Handles Button1.Click    Dim oSquare As New SquareClass()    t = New Thread(AddressOf oSquare.CalcSquare)    oSquare.Value = 30    t.Start()    If t.Join(500) Then        MsgBox(oSquare.Square)    End IfEnd Sub

The one thing to note with this method is that the procedure handling the event, in this case SquareEventHandler, will run within the thread that raised the event. It does not run within the thread from which the form is executing.

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