COM Apartments

If you work with COM, apartments is one of the concepts you must comprehend, because it’s an important topic. Before explaining what apartments are let’s think about classes and objects regardless of COM. When you build a class, you know (or you should) whether objects of that class will be used from a single thread, or from multiple threads. In the later case, if those threads might access shared data at the same time, you must synchronize the access to that data (using critical sections, mutexes, or others). So when you create your class you either make it thread-safe or not. If it’s not thread safe, objects of that class can only be accessed from one thread at a time, if it’s thread-safe, then objects of that class can be accessed from different threads at the same time.

Now, the same rule applies in the COM world. Your coclasses can either be thread-safe or not. If the are thread-safe, you can access one object from different threads at a time, otherwise not. Here enter the apartments. So what is an apartment? An apartment is an environment in which COM objects can live. It’s not a thread, nor a process, but it handles access from COM clients to COM objects. There are several types of apartments: single-threaded apartments (STA), multi-threaded apartments (MTA) and neutral-threaded apartments (NTA).

Single-Threaded Apartments
An STA allows only one thread at a time to access a COM object. This is achieved using a hidden window with a message pump. Calls from clients living in different threads are queued with the message pump. Only when the current call from a thread ends, the next call can proceed.

Assume you had a COM object called CoUserGroups that implements an interface IUserGroups that provides two methods: one called Add that adds a new user group, and one called Delete that deletes a user group. Since both methods work on the same list of user groups, adding and deleting is not possible at the same time without synchronizing access. But since such synchronization was not implemented, the COM object specifies that it can leave only in an STA, and let the apartment do the synchronization of calls from clients living in different threads.

Multi-Threaded Apartments
An MTA allows any number of threads to access a COM objects. However, the COM objects must be thread-safe, otherwise your application will behave unexpectedly and even crash.

Going back to the previous example, if CoUserGroups was implemented in a thread-safe manner, then it would be possible for clients living in different threads to access it. In this case there would be no need for an apartment level synchronization. The COM coclass specifies that it can live in an MTA and when simultaneous calls from different threads are received they are directed immediately to the COM object. This situation is shown in the next image.

Neutral-Threaded Apartments
NTAs, like MTAs, allow multiple threads to enter one apartment, but once a thread entered the apartment it acquires an apartment wide lock that will block the other threads, until the current thread exists the apartment. Calls into NTA (from STA or MTA in the same process) do not generate context switches; the thread leaves the apartment in which it executes and enters the NTA without any context switch, which increases performance. This model was introduced with COM+ (in Windows 2000) and is meant for components with no user interface.

A process can contain several apartments:

  • zero or one MTA
  • zero or one NTA
  • zero, one or several STAs; the first STA created for a process is called the main STA

As a COM client, you specify the apartment you want to join with a call to CoInitializeEx(). This methods must be called from each thread.

The second parameters is a set of flags specifying the initialization options for the thread. To join the unique MTA, use COINIT_MULTITHREADED. To join a new or existing STA, use COINIT_APARTMENTTHREADED. Function CoInitialize() calls CoInitializeEx() specifying COINIT_APARTMENTTHREADED for the flags.

How to specify the threading model allowed for a coclass?
A coclass can specify the type of apartment it can join. If you’re using ATL you can specify that when you create the coclass. The next image shows the available options:


What they mean:

  • Single: object wants to join the main STA (the first STA created into the process)
  • Apartment: object wants to join one of the STAs in the process
  • Both: object wants to join either an STA or the MTA
  • Free: object wants to join the MTA
  • Neutral: object wants to join the NTA

ATL adds the appropriate value to the registry script it creates for your coclass. COM depends entirely on the registry, and the threading model is also specified in the registry. Here is an example:

When that is merged into the Windows Registry, it looks like this:

The possible values in registry are:

  • no value specified: equivalent of ATL ‘Single’
  • Apartment: equivalent of ATL ‘Apartment’
  • Free: equivalent of ATL ‘Free’
  • Both: equivalent of ATL ‘Both’
  • Neutral: equivalent of ATL ‘Neutral’

If you want to read more about COM apartments I suggests articles like this one.

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