Threads in an Operating System: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Threads and Processes
  • 0:53 Differences
  • 1:58 Multi-Threading
  • 3:10 Types of Threads
  • 4:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

In this lesson, you will learn about threads in an operating system and how they work with processes. We will discuss the differences between threads and processes and also understand the concept of multi-threading.

Threads and Processes

In an operating system, a process is a job or a program that can be executed by the computer. Think of MS Word application, which is a process that runs on computer. But an application can do more than one thing at a time, which means that a given process in an operating system can have one or more threads. Threads represent the actual processing of the code.

A process has its own system registers and memory stack which helps them in executing threads. Threads are sometimes called lightweight processes. The graphic below shows a process with a single thread within it:

Single Thread in a Process
Single Thread in a Process

Threads are very helpful in today's multi-tasking world. Considering MS Word application, it is convenient to highlight the misspelled words while you type; or complete auto-saving of your information as you work on it. The threads within the application process help you achieve this goal.


Processes and thread work together, but they have lots of differences between them. Typically, processes are fairly heavy (like MS Word), while the threads are lighter (like background save option). The table below highlights some of the differences between the two.

Processes Threads
When switching a process, operating system's resources are required No OS resources are required for thread-switching
If a process is blocked, other processes waiting in the queue are also blocked If a thread is blocked, another thread in the same process can still execute
Each process uses same code and has its own memory All threads can share files and share child processes
An application having multiple processes will use more system resources Processes using multiple threads use less system resources
Each process works on its own Threads can access data of other threads


It might be easy to confuse multitasking with multi-threading. Multitasking is a general term for doing many tasks at the same time. On the other hand, multi-threading is the ability of a process to execute multiple threads at the same time. Again, the MS Word example is appropriate in multi-threading scenarios. The process can check spelling, auto-save, and read files from the hard-drive, all while you are working on a document.

Consider the following diagram. The threads share the same code, files, and data. This means that two ore more threads can run at the same time (auto-save, grammar check, spell-check, word-count, etc.).

Multiple Threads in a Process
Multiple Threads in a Process

Multi-threading provides greater benefit than single-threading:

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