WPF Cross-Thread Collection Binding – Part 4 – The Grand Solution

The Grand Solution – Thread safe binding to a collection and properties that are modified from any thread.

History
-WPF supports cross thread property change notification.
-WPF does not support cross thread collection change notification.
-Part 1 introduced the ObservableBackgroundList<T> that allows cross thread collection change notification from a single worker thread.
-Part 2 described WPF’s lack of support for cross thread property change notification for items that are in the cross thread collection binding.
-Part 3 introduced a solution that allows cross thread property change notification from any thread for the items in the cross thread collection binding.

We are now ready to make the final leap and introduce a solution that supports binding to a collection that can be modified from any thread (including the UI thread). The class is called ObservableList<T>. Here is how to use it:

1. Pass in the UI’s Dispatcher to the constructor
2. Bind to the ObservableCollection property
3. Use the list from any thread by wrapping all list operations in a using block that utilizes the method AcquireLock.

The ObservableList is made thread-safe by acquiring a lock before accessing the list (including just reads). The AcquireLock method is the way to lock the list and prevent other threads from modifying the list while the list is being accessed by the thread owning the lock. Below is a screenshot of a sample application that demonstrates simulating a server that has many worker threads that update the collection and modify properties.

This is an example of how to wrap all list operations in a using block where _activeTasks is an ObservableList<Task>:

using (TimedLock timedLock = this._activeTasks.AcquireLock())
{
foreach (Task task in this._activeTasks)
{
task.PercentComplete = 100;
}
}

The TimedLock is an IDisposable class that locks on an object passed into its constructor and then unlocks when the TimedLock is disposed. ‘Using’ ensures that no matter what happens inside the using parenthesis, the IDisposable.Dispose() method will be called on the TimedLock, thus releasing the lock. If any single thread has acquired the TimedLock then all other threads will block (provided they follow the same pattern). Even the UI thread must acquire the lock before accessing the ObservableList (but WPF does not need to lock on the ObservableCollection). The TimedLock was taken from IanG’s blog and is nothing more than a lock with a timeout to help debugging scenarios.

Quiz for the experts: In the ObservableList<T> all change requests are always posted to the UI thread via the Dispatcher, even when the UI thread is the thread accessing the list. Why did I design it so the UI thread takes a performance hit and still posts change requests to itself? One might think that when the UI thread is executing, all change requests from other threads are automatically blocked until the UI is done, so it should be safe to update the list directly. This turns out to be false. I myself am not a threading guru, but if anyone gets the right answer you can wear that award :)

We now have solution with the following features:

Features
-Allows WPF to bind to a collection that is modified from any thread
-Allows WPF to bind to properties of items in the collection that are modified from any thread
-No lock required if used from a single worker thread
-Relatively simple (compared to some other attempts)
-Non-blocking

Downsides
-Requires two lists internally
-The ObservableCollection list should not be modified
-Disposable or DependencyObjects should not be used

Despite these negatives, the community now has a solution to suit developers’ WPF, binding, and multithreading needs.

Disclaimer: Although I spent a considerable amount of time studying and testing the design and concepts described in this series, as well as beating the heck out of the ObservableList<T> with a quad core CPU and 10+ threads each modifying the collection and properties at full speed, I am still human and this is just a blog post. Do your own research and testing, and as always, use at your own risk. I will keep this post updated if there are any issues. I personally believe we can put this topic to rest until WPF adds native support for all of these features.

UPDATE: Microsoft has recognized the property/collection change race condition bug and will fix it in a future version of the framework.

Download the Sample: MultithreadedObservableListSample

One Response to “WPF Cross-Thread Collection Binding – Part 4 – The Grand Solution”

  1. Michael Norton Says:

    How would you make this work loading images into a ListBox so that as they are “loaded” they appear instead of waiting until all of them load?

    Michael