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Thread Support in Qt

Qt provides thread support in the form of basic platform-independent threading classes, a thread-safe way of posting events, and a global Qt library lock that allows you to call Qt methods from different threads.

This document is intended for an audience that has knowledge and experience with multithreaded applications. Recommended reading:

Enabling Thread Support

When Qt is installed on Windows, thread support is an option on some compilers.

On Mac OS X and Unix, thread support is enabled by adding the -thread option when running the configure script. On Unix platforms where multithreaded programs must be linked in special ways, such as with a special libc, installation will create a separate library, libqt-mt and hence threaded programs must be linked against this library (with -lqt-mt) rather than the standard Qt library.

On both platforms, you should compile with the macro QT_THREAD_SUPPORT defined (e.g. compile with -DQT_THREAD_SUPPORT). On Windows, this is usually done by an entry in qconfig.h.

The Thread Classes

These classes are built into the Qt library when thread support is enabled:

Important Information

When using Qt in a multithreaded program, it is important to understand the definition of the terms reentrant and thread-safe:

Warning: QObject based classes are neither thread-safe nor reentrant. This includes all widgets (e.g. QWidget and subclasses), OS kernel classes (e.g. QProcess, QAccel), and all networking classes (e.g. QSocket, QDns).

Most C++ member functions are inherently reentrant, since they only reference class member data. Any thread can call such a member function on an instance, as long as no other thread is calling a member function on the same instance. For example, given the class Number below:

    class Number
        inline Number( int n ) : num( n ) { }

        inline int number() const { return num; }
        inline void setNumber( int n ) { num = n; }

        int num;

The methods Number::number() and Number::setNumber() are reentrant, since they only reference unique data. Only one thread at a time can call member functions on each instance of Number. However, multiple threads can call member functions on separate instances of Number.

Thread-safe functions usually use a mutex (e.g a QMutex) to serialize access to shared data. Because of this, thread-safe functions are usually slower than reentrant functions, because of the extra overhead of locking and unlocking the mutex. For example, given the class Counter below:

    class Counter
        inline Counter()  { ++instances; }
        inline ~Counter() { --instances; }

        static int instances;

Since the modifications of the static instances integer are not serialized, this class is not thread-safe. So make it threadsafe, a mutex must be used:

    class Counter
        inline Counter()

        static QMutex mutex;
        static int instances;

Thread-safe Event Posting

In Qt, one thread is always the GUI or event thread. This is the thread that creates a QApplication object and calls QApplication::exec(). This is also the initial thread that calls main() at program start. This thread is the only thread that is allowed to perform GUI operations, including generating and receiving events from the window system. Qt does not support creating QApplication and running the event loop (with QApplication::exec()) in a secondary thread. You must create the QApplication object and call QApplication::exec() from the main() function in your program.

Threads that wish to display data in a widget cannot modify the widget directly, so they must post an event to the widget using QApplication::postEvent(). The event will be delivered later on by the GUI thread.

Normally, the programmer would like to include some information in the event sent to the widget. See the documentation for QCustomEvent for more information on user-defined events.

The Qt Library Mutex

QApplication includes a mutex that is used to protect access to window system functions. This mutex is locked while the event loop is running (e.g. during event delivery) and unlocked when the eventloop goes to sleep. Note: The Qt event loop is recursive, and the library mutex is not unlocked when re-entering the event loop (e.g. when executing a modal dialog with QDialog::exec()).

If another thread locks the Qt library mutex, then the event loop will stop processing events, and the locking thread may do simple GUI operations. Operations such as creating a QPainter and drawing a line are examples of simple GUI operations:


    QPainter p;
    p.begin( mywidget );
    p.setPen( QColor( "red" ) );
    p.drawLine( 0,0,100,100 );


Any operations that generate events must not be called by any thread other than the GUI thread. Examples of such operations are:

Events generated by these operations will be lost on some platforms.

Threads and Signals and Slots

The Signals and Slots mechanism can be used in separate threads, as long as the rules for QObject based classes are followed. The Signals and Slots mechanism is synchronous: when a signal is emitted, all slots are called immediately. The slots are executed in the thread context that emitted the signal.

Warning: Slots that generate window system events or use window system functions must not be connected to a signal that is emitted from a thread that is not the GUI thread. See the Qt Library Mutex section above for more details.

Threads and Shared Data

Qt provides many implicitly shared and explicitly shared classes. In a multithreaded program, multiple instances of a shared class can reference shared data, which is dangerous if one or more threads attempt to modify the data. Qt provides the QDeepCopy class, which ensures that shared classes reference unique data. See the documentation for more details.

Threads and the SQL Module

The classes in the SQL Module can be used in separate threads, as long as the rules for QObject based classes are followed.

The 3rd party libraries used by the QSqlDrivers can impose other restrictions on using the SQL Module in a multithreaded program. For example, the PostgreSQL library requires a separate connection per thread. Consult the documentation for your 3rd party library for more information.


Some things to watch out for when programming with threads:

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Qt version 3.1.1