Java Multithreading Steeplechase: Executors

Historical Perspective on Tasks & Threads

Tasks are activities that perform some action or do calculations. For example a task could calculate prime numbers up to some upper limit. Good tasks do not depend on other tasks: they are independent. In this post, when I refer to tasks, I would mean tasks that are independent.

Tasks in Java can be represented by a very simple interface called Runnable that has only one method: run(). The singular function neither returns a value nor can throw checked exceptions.

public interface Runnable {
    void run();

Many new comers to Java presume Threads to be the primary abstraction for running tasks. This means that a task can be submitted to a thread which then runs the task. In fact, the Thread class has constructors which take a Runnable for execution:

Thread(Runnable target)
Thread(Runnable target, String name)
Thread(ThreadGroup group, Runnable target)

There are obvious benefits in segregating tasks and threads.

A Task, defined by implementing Runnables, is submitted to Thread for execution. The Thread doesn’t know anything about the task and the same thread could run several different tasks.

Enter Executor:

Executor was introduced in Java 1.5 as a clean abstraction for executing tasks. Mantle was passed to Executor from Thread. According to the Java API, an Executor:

“… executes submitted Runnable tasks.  This interface provides a way of decoupling task submission from the mechanics of how each task will be run, including details of thread use, scheduling, etc.” In essence, Executor is an interface, whose simplicity rivals that of Runnable:

public interface Executor {
    void execute(Runnable command);

The ‘very simple’ Executor interface forms basis for a very powerful asynchronous task execution framework. It is based on a Producer-Consumer pattern: Producers produce tasks and Consumer threads execute these tasks.


There is little chance you will use ever use Executor directly. It is very powerful, yet feature starved interface with a lone method for executing tasks. Fortunately for us, it has a famous child called ExecutorService, which provides lifecycle support such as shutdown, task tracking and the ability to retrieve results.

Tracking Task Progress via Future

ExecutorService defines a method called `submit(Runnable task)` which returns a `Future` that can be used to track task’s progress and cancel it (if desired). Future is an interface. From its javadocs:

“A Future represents the result of an asynchronous computation. Methods are provided to check if the computation is complete, to wait for its completion, and to retrieve the result of the computation. The result can only be retrieved using method get when the computation has completed, blocking if necessary until it is ready. Cancellation is performed by the cancel method. Additional methods are provided to determine if the task completed normally or was cancelled. Once a computation has completed, the computation cannot be cancelled.”


Earlier on, I said that the interface Runnable doesn’t return a value. Runnable tasks can indicate completion by modifying a shared data structure. RunnableFuture implements both Future and Runnable interfaces. It can be submitted to any method which expects Runnable and the Future allows to access its result.

So far we have only discussed interfaces (Executor, ExecutorService and Future). Before we look into concrete classes, let us consider one very important concept.

Thread Pool

A  design pattern: It has a task queue which holds incoming tasks and has a pool of thread which takes tasks from the queue and execute them.

thread pool

A sample thread pool (green boxes) with waiting tasks (blue) and completed tasks (yellow)

Benefits of Thread Pools are thread re-use (creating new threads is a significant CPU overhead) and improved responsiveness (there may already be a waiting thread when a task arrives).

Now let us discuss concrete classes.


This is a skeletal implementation for ExecutorService, providing default implementations for some of it’s methods.

public abstract class AbstractExecutorService
implements ExecutorService


This is an ExecutorService that applies the Thread Pool pattern to execute tasks. From its javadocs:

“An ExecutorService that executes each submitted task using one of possibly several pooled threads, normally configured using Executors factory methods.” It provides several methods for setting pool and task queue sizes. For more information:

public class ThreadPoolExecutor extends AbstractExecutorService
implements Executor, ExecutorService


Provides an implementation of Future and RunnableFuture. From its javadoc:

“…provides a base implementation of Future, with methods to start and cancel a computation, query to see if the computation is complete, and retrieve the result of the computation.”

Since a FutureTask implements RunnableFuture, you can submit it directly to an ExecutorService.


Callable‘s were introduced in Java 5 as the next version of Runnable. Just like Thread passed mantle to Executor for task execution, Runnable passed mantle to Callable for representing tasks.

Callable for used to represent tasks. Unlike Runnable’s, they can return a value and even throw Exceptions. They even support generics.


Executor and ExecutorService form a very powerful framework for asynchronous task execution. Future is a wrapper that provides a way to track a task’s progress and could be used to cancel it. Callable represents a task and allows the task to return a value and throw exceptions.

So you might ask why do we still have Threads and Runnables if we have better choices available, in the form of Executor and Callable. As far as Callable Vs Runnable is concerned, the reason is purely backwards compatibility. Threads are not languishing in Java. ExecutorService simply provides a cleaner abstraction for executing tasks. They still rely on Threads to execute these tasks.

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