How to Use SemaphoreSlim in C#

Historically I've held an opinion that reaching for more uncommon parts of a programming language to solve a problem meant that there was likely a better, less complicated solution. I'd put the use of semaphores in this category, but I recently had to reach for SemaphoreSlim to solve a problem. In this post, I'll discuss the concept of semaphores in general, their implementation in C#, and an example use case.

Aaron Bos | Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Semaphores in General

Semaphores have been around since their inception in the early 1960s when Edsger Dijkstra developed the concept as a part of a multitasking operating system. At a high level semaphores are used to control access to a common object. They're useful for access synchronization and avoiding race conditions in concurrent systems. Generally, there are two types of semaphores.

  1. Counting semaphores: potentially allow for n number of resources to access the "semaphore" object
  2. Binary semaphores: restrict access for the "semaphore" object to a single resource. Commonly used to implement locks.

Semaphores control access by knowing how many threads/processes can access an object concurrently and also keeping track of how many additional threads/processes can access the object at a given point in time.

When working with semaphores it is typical to have a couple of methods or properties available for use.

  1. Wait: Used to decrement the number of available resources that can access the object
  2. Signal/Release: Used to increment the number of available resources that can access the object

The common usage pattern is to first call Wait() to acquire access to the resource. Once the process is finished with the resource it's important to call Release() so that other processes can acquire access if needed.

Semaphores in C#

The .NET framework provides two options for using semaphores in C#. Both are similar but contain features that make them more or less useful in certain scenarios.

  1. SemaphoreSlim
  2. Semaphore

I'll briefly touch on both classes starting with SemaphoreSlim since it is the recommended approach for achieving thread synchronization within an application.


The SemaphoreSlim class is the lightweight alternative to the Semaphore (note "Slim" in the name). When creating a semaphore by instantiating a new SemaphoreSlim object, we create a local semaphore. The semaphore's locality indicates that it only controls access for other threads or processes within the application. In the next section, we'll discuss named semaphores and how they behave differently.

SemaphoreSlim follows the expected API of a semaphore with methods to increment the counter using WaitAsync() or Wait() and a method to decrement the counter with Release(). At any point, we can check the value of the semaphore's current count with the CurrentCount property.


I mentioned that SemaphoreSlim is the preferred method for controlling access to resources within an application. So where does the Semaphore class come into play? The Semaphore class provides "named semaphores", which can control access to resources at the operating system level. This differs from the local semaphore functionality which only has access to resources within the scope of an application. The Semaphore class can also create local semaphores, but in that case SemaphoreSlim is preferred.

Since Semaphore provides quite different functionality from SemaphoreSlim, it's not surprising that the API for using it is a little different. Semaphore inherits from the WaitHandle class that provides the expected methods to Wait() (decrement) for access to the semaphore. WaitHandle is used to encapsulate OS-level objects that wait for access to shared resources. Semaphore also provides a Release() method that functions similarly to the SemaphoreSlim method.

From my point of view, SemaphoreSlim should be chosen over Semaphore when possible. If the use case requires controlling access to resources outside of the scope of the application, then Semaphore is the way to go.

C# Semaphore in Practice

This code example shows how we can use a semaphore as a "throttle" for performing asynchronous tasks concurrently. I'd like to note that the ideal way to do this would be to use the IAsyncEnumerable.ParallelForEachAsync method, which was introduced in .NET 6. Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to always use a modern version of .NET, so this code example is a little workaround.

// This is the value used to throttle the number of concurrent tasks
var maxParallelism = 5;

// The semaphore implements IDisposable, so we use a using block
// To limit the number of concurrent tasks we use maxParallelism for both initial and maximum count parameters
using var resource = new SemaphoreSlim(maxParallelism, maxParallelism);
var tasks = Enumerable.Range(0, 10).Select(async i =>
    await resource.WaitAsync();
        await DoSomeWork(i);
// Wait for all tasks to complete
await Task.WhenAll(tasks);

static async Task DoSomeWork(int i)
    await Task.Delay(1000);
    Console.WriteLine($"Done with work {i}");

I'll be the first to admit that concurrency and parallelism are hard to do right in any language, but when implemented thoughtfully they can improve performance significantly.


As always thank you for taking the time to read this blog post!