Clear and Concise Concurrency with Coroutines in Kotlin

By Ruud Nimour

11 min read

Learn some Kotlin basics and how to easily use coroutines to write parallelized code cleanly according to structured concurrency.

Clear and Concise Concurrency with Coroutines in Kotlin

Computers nowadays are blazingly fast. When they to do a really large amount of work though, it can still take a long time. If the work can be split up into smaller independent tasks which can be done in parallel however, we are in luck. We can leverage the fact that practically every computer has multiple cores to speed up this work by writing code that makes use of these extra cores. Writing such multithreaded code can be quite difficult, however, as it is easy to lose track of threads or run into race conditions.

Kotlin has introduced so-called "coroutines" to make this easier. In this article, we will shortly go over some of Java's multithreading possibilities, then explain some of Kotlin's syntax, and finally see how it's used to make it very easy to write clean concurrent code according to structured concurrency.

Java multithreading

Java has multiple ways to do multithreading. The most direct way is by simply creating and starting new Threads like so:

public static void main(String[] args) {
    final int NUMBER_OF_THREADS = 10;

    for (int i = 0; i < NUMBER_OF_THREADS; i++) {
        Thread thread = new Thread(() -> {
            System.out.println("Hello from thread " + Thread.currentThread());
            try {
                Thread.sleep(5000); // simulate some work
            } catch (InterruptedException e) {
                throw new RuntimeException(e);

Now, this works fine for moderate amounts of threads. On my machine however, cranking the number of threads to a modest ten thousand already crashes the program at thread number ~9200 with error 'unable to create native thread: possibly out of memory or process/resource limits reached', even though the threads aren't even doing anything! This is because Threads in Java are actually quite heavy (requiring several kilobytes of memory), and are bound to OS threads, which are limited in number.

Fortunately, Java's Project Loom introduces VirtualThreads, which are now production-ready since Java 21. Rather than each created VirtualThread also creating a new OS thread, instead, the JVM has several so-called "carrier threads" which actually run the virtual threads. This way, we can create many millions of virtual threads without problem. Because we use the same Thread API, the only code change necessary is the new Thread(... line above, which will become:

Thread thread = Thread.ofVirtual().unstarted(() -> {

With this simple code change, I can now create more than 1 million virtual threads this way. This is already big improvement, but as we will discuss later, in Kotlin we can do this much more nicely, and moreover forces you to code following the principle of structured concurrency, which I will explain later.

It should also be noted however, that Java provides other ways of doing multithreading. For example, rather than creating Threads directly, you can submit Runnable tasks to an ExecutorService with a limited number of threads, see for instance Executors.newFixedThreadPool(int nThreads). Another implementation of ExecutorService is ForkJoinPool, which uses a "work stealing algorithm". If a thread in such a ForkJoinPool is waiting for completion of its created subtasks, it will take work that other threads have in their work queue. This way, the work is distributed more evenly among the threads, and the threads are kept busy as much as possible.


Some Syntax

If you come from a pure Java background like me, it may be good to go over some Kotlin syntax. It will be heavily used in the following examples, and has some differences with Java. I won't be going over everything here though! Kotlin's own documentation is very good and I recommend you to check it out. If you're already familiar with Kotlin, you can skip over this part.

Variable definitions and String templates

In Kotlin, variables are declared using val (immutable) or var (mutable). Type declaration in Kotlin is optional if it can be inferred by the compiler. If we do specify the type, it comes with a colon after the variable name, like so: val name: String = "Ruud". Kotlin also has string interpolation, using a $. For example: "my name is $name, and has ${name.length} letters". This way, you can easily insert variables (and any expressions!) into strings. As you can see, simple variable insertions do not need the {} curly braces, but if we want to do method calls on them, we do.

Lambda functions

Another feature we will be using heavily, and the main reason I want to go over this syntax, is that the last (or as they call it, trailing) lambda function of a method can be placed outside the brackets. This was quite puzzling to me, but after using it, I found that it creates very readable code. For example, from the Kotlin standard library, we have the repeat function:

public inline fun repeat(times: Int, action: (Int) -> Unit) {
    for (index in 0 until times) {

This simply repeats the action times times. (The Unit return type is Kotlin's equivalent for returning void)
For example, if you want to ask "are you sure" three times, you can do this:

repeat(3, {
    println("are you sure?")
}) // why two sets of brackets here...

You can already see some subtle differences with Java's lambda functions. rather than (params) -> { body } we have { params -> body }. Note that in the case of having only a single parameter (like above), this parameter will be automatically available as it, so as you can see we don't even need to have the params -> part. The thing is that we can now apply the rule "last lambda can go outside the function call" to get:

repeat(3) {
    println("are you sure?")
} // cleaner :)

to make it even simpler. In the case that there is only one parameter (the lambda) then the function call's brackets are not even necessary. For example, Iterable's filter(predicate: (T) -> Boolean) can be used to call simply

arrayListOf(-2, -1, 0, 1, 2)
    .filter { it > 0 } // filter for only positive numbers: returns [1, 2]

No (round) brackets needed!

Extension functions and functions with receivers

The last feature I want to discuss here are functions with receivers. This ties in heavily with another feature of Kotlin, which are extension functions. These are functions on a class, but are defined outside of the class. For example:

// define a class with property "name"
class Person(var name: String)

fun Person.greet() {
    // this method now has access to the "name" property
    println("Hello, my name is $name")

val ruud = Person("Ruud")
ruud.greet() // prints "Hello, my name is Ruud"

As you can see, the greet function is defined outside of the Person class, but can be called on a Person object. In other words, Person is the receiver of the function. We can take this a step further by defining a function with a receiver. This is done by defining a lambda function with a receiver, like in this example:

fun greetRuud(init: Person.() -> Unit) {
    val ruud = Person("Ruud")

greetRuud { // instantiates Person("Ruud") which receives this lambda
    println("I love playing games!")
// prints:
// Hello, my name is Ruud
// I love playing games!

As you can see, the greetRuud function takes a lambda function. The notation was a bit puzzling to me at first, but it is essentially the same as the greet extension function we defined on Person, but now as a lambda parameter that I call init. This also means that this extension function (or how Kotlin refers to it as a "function with receiver") has access to the Person object's properties and functions, and as you can see, we were able to call the greet() function.

Applying this to create DSL

Now before we finally dive into the juicy coroutines in Kotlin, let's see how the above concepts are applied to create a Domain Specific Language (DSL). It's not strictly speaking necessary to understand exactly how all of this works, but it is very interesting, and if you do understand, it allows you to create very powerful DSLs yourself.

A DSL is, according to jetbrains, "a programming language with a higher level of abstraction optimized for a specific class of problems." More abstraction means we can use a more human-readable language to solve a specific problem. To give a more concrete example (other than greeting me like earlier), we borrow an example from Kotlin Koans. This is a small crash course on Kotlin, which I can highly recommend to learn the basics of Kotlin, as you can immediately try out the concepts you have just learned. Near the end of the course, there is a section on DSLs, giving an HTML builder as an example.

When building an HTML page, you might want to create a table with table rows <tr> and table data <td> like

    <td>column header 1</td>
    <td>column header 2</td>
    <td>data row 1: abc</td>
    <td>data row 1: def</td>

In the Kotlin Koans example, we can very expressively create this table like so:

table {
    tr {
        td { text("column header 1") }
        td { text("column header 2") }
    tr {
        td { text("data row 1: abc") }
        td { text("data row 1: def") }

Effectively the same as the produced HTML. But since this is in Kotlin, we are free to use all of Kotlin's features available to us, like loops, if statements, etc. For example,

for (i in 1..10) {
    tr {
        td { text("data row $i: abc") }
        td { text("data row $i: def") }

is a perfectly legal expression and produces ten <tr> row tags with two <td> data tags inside each.

So then the million-dollar question: how do we create this DSL, i.e. these table, tr, etc. functions? Again, please check out the Kotlin Koans task for all the details. I will only give a brief explanation here. The main data structure we need is a HTML Tag, which may have a list of child Tags. We can define this as follows:

// define the Tag class (open so that we can subclass it)
open class Tag(val name: String) {
    protected val children = mutableListOf<Tag>()

    override fun toString() = "<$name>${children.joinToString("")}</$name>"

Then we can define the <table> tag as a subclass of Tag, which has a function tr to add a <tr> tag to its child list.

class TABLE : Tag("table") {
    fun tr(init: TR.() -> Unit) {
        val tr = TR()   // create a new <tr> tag
        tr.init()       // add the "tr { ... }" block contents to the <tr> tag
        children += tr  // add the <tr> tag to (this) <table>'s "children" list

The TR and TD tags are defined similarly. For more information, check Kotlin's documentation on Type-safe builders.

Coroutines in Kotlin

Now we can finally dive into coroutines. As already stated, coroutines are a clean way to do multithreading in Kotlin. The main advantage of coroutines is that they are very lightweight, since they are not bound to OS threads, like Java's virtual threads. Another is that there is a coroutine DSL that effectively forces you to use "structured concurrency". What is this "structured concurrency"? According to Kotlin's own documentation, it means that coroutines (i.e. separate computations) can only be launched in a specific CoroutineScope which delimits the lifetime of the coroutine. This means that a coroutine cannot complete until all its child coroutines complete. This keeps us from "losing" coroutines, which can happen in Java when a Thread is created in a method, but the method returns before the Thread completes. We will see in an example how this is enforced through the way we write coroutines.

Example: Merge Sort

In order to get a better understanding of coroutines, let's take a look at an example where we can easily use them. The merge sort algorithm is a good example, as it is a divide-and-conquer algorithm, which can be parallelized very well. The basic algorithm is as follows:

fun mergeSort(list: MutableList<Int>) {
    if (list.size <= 1) {
        return // already sorted

    // split the list in two
    val middle = list.size / 2
    val left = list.subList(0, middle)
    val right = list.subList(middle, list.size)

    // sort both halves

    // and merge the sorted lists back together
    merge(list, left, right)

where the merge function simply takes the lists (left and right) and merges them into a single sorted list. Because left and right are already sorted, merging them into a sorted list is very simple and fast. As you can see, this is a recursive algorithm, which calls itself twice. This is exactly where we can use coroutines to parallelize sorting the left and right halves of the lists, as these are independent tasks.

Adding coroutines

All we need to do is add the dependency "org.jetbrains.kotlinx:kotlinx-coroutines-core" to enable using coroutines in our Kotlin project, and then introduce coroutines to the mergeSort function, like so:

suspend fun coMergeSort(list: MutableList<Int>) {
    // ... same as before

    coroutineScope {
        launch { coMergeSort(left) }
        launch { coMergeSort(right) }

    merge(list, left, right)

I introduced the suspend keyword to the function declaration so that we can use the coroutineScope function. It indicates that this function's execution can be suspended, for example when waiting for its spawned coroutines to complete. The coroutineScope function creates a new coroutine scope, in which we launch two new coroutines (asynchronously) to sort the left and right halves of the list*. This means that the recursive calls to coMergeSort to sort the left and right halves of the list are now done in parallel. Note that we only exit the coroutineScope function when both launched coroutines complete, showing very clearly where coroutine execution ends, thus adhering to the principle of structured concurrency. This ensures that only after these two coroutines complete, the merge function is called.

*= In terms of the nomenclature introduced in the previous section, the launch function is a coroutine builder, available as an extension function on CoroutineScope, which is the receiver of the coroutineScope function.

When I try out our simple mergeSort and compare it to our shiny new coMergeSort sorting algorithm on a list of 4 and 16 million random integers, I found the following results:

Algorithm4 million integers16 million integers
mergeSort0.6 seconds1.8 seconds
coMergeSort1.6 seconds6 seconds

As we can see, wait, what!? Wasn't this supposed to go much faster using coroutines, since we utilize every core of our CPU? Yes, but although coroutines are lightweight, they are not no-weight. Creating a coroutine does carry some overhead, and since we create coroutines even for lists consisting of only one element... You can imagine that creating 16 million coroutines which do nothing but return their one-element list is not very efficient. Note that we still can do this without crashing the application though, unlike with Java's Threads, which already crashed at a mere ten thousand threads.

Let's not add the overhead of creating extra coroutines for small lists, and only create coroutines for lists larger than, say, 1000 items. This way, we can still parallelize the sorting of large lists, but not introduce the overhead for small lists. This is easily done by adding a check at the start of the function:

suspend fun smartCoMergeSort(list: MutableList<Int>) {
    if (list.size <= 1000) {
        mergeSort(list) // no need to use coroutines for small lists

    // ... same as before

Testing the performance of this algorithm and comparing them with the previous results (and testing against even larger lists), we get:

Algorithm4 million integers16 million integers64 million integers
mergeSort0.6 seconds1.8 seconds7.5 seconds
coMergeSort1.6 seconds6 seconds28 seconds
smartCoMergeSort0.24 seconds0.55 seconds1.9 seconds

Great success! We have increased the performance of our merge sort algorithm by a factor of about 3 to 4. It should be noted, however, that by incorrectly using them, we managed to actually reduce the performance by about the same factor.

In conclusion, here we have seen a good example of how coroutines can be very powerful, but also how we must still think about how we use them. I had a blast learning about coroutines in Kotlin, and this is only the start. For example, we can also use coroutines to handle non-blocking HTTP requests, also I never dived into coroutine exception handling, or timeouts etc.
You can check my GitHub "sorters" repository to see the code in action, or to play around with it yourself.