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It's probably fair to say that on the whole, the volatile keyword in Java is poorly documented, poorly understood, and rarely used. To make matters worse, its formal definition actually changed as of Java 5. On this and the following pages, we will cut through this mess and look at what the Java volatile keyword does and when it is used. We will also compare it to other mechanisms available in Java which perform similar functions but under subtly different other circumstances.

What is the Java volatile keyword?

Essentially, volatile is used to indicate that a variable's value will be modified by different threads.

Declaring a volatile Java variable means:

We say "acts as though" in the second point, because to the programmer at least (and probably in most JVM implementations) there is no actual lock object involved. Here is how synchronized and Pat Earthies Braga Black Pat Braga Braga Pat Earthies Black Earthies Black Earthies volatile compare:

Characteristic Synchronized Volatile
Type of variable Object Object or primitive
Null allowed? No Yes
Can block? Yes Black Braga Pat Earthies Braga Earthies Black Earthies Earthies Pat Braga Pat Black No
All cached variables synchronized on access? Yes From Java 5 onwards
When synchronization happens When you explicitly enter/exit a synchronized block Whenever a volatile variable is accessed.
Can be used to combined several operations into an atomic operation? Yes Pre-Java 5, no. Atomic get-set of volatiles possible in Java 5.
Difference between synchronized and volatile
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In other words, the main differences between synchronized and volatile are:

Attempting to synchronize on a null object will throw a NullPointerException.

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Volatile variables in Java 5

We mentioned that in Java 5, the meaning of volatile has been tightened up. We'll come back to this issue in a moment. First, we'll look at a typical example of using volatile. Later, we'll look at topics such as: