Python and multi-threading. Is it a good idea?

Python doesn’t allow multi-threading in the truest sense of the word. It has a multi-threading package but if you want to multi-thread to speed your code up, then it’s usually not a good idea to use it. Python has a construct called the Global Interpreter Lock (GIL). The GIL makes sure that only one of your ‘threads’ can execute at any one time. A thread acquires the GIL, does a little work, then passes the GIL onto the next thread. This happens very quickly so to the human eye it may seem like your threads are executing in parallel, but they are really just taking turns using the same CPU core. All this GIL passing adds overhead to execution. This means that if you want to make your code run faster then using the threading package often isn’t a good idea.

There are reasons to use Python’s threading package. If you want to run some things simultaneously, and efficiency is not a concern, then it’s totally fine and convenient. Or if you are running code that needs to wait for something (like some IO) then it could make a lot of sense. But the threading library won’t let you use extra CPU cores.

Multi-threading can be outsourced to the operating system (by doing multi-processing), some external application that calls your Python code (eg, Spark or Hadoop), or some code that your Python code calls (eg: you could have your Python code call a C function that does the expensive multi-threaded stuff).

Why This Matters

Because the GIL is an A-hole. Lots of people spend a lot of time trying to find bottlenecks in their fancy Python multi-threaded code before they learn what the GIL is.

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