How do I update an ObservableCollection via a worker thread?

I've got an ObservableCollection<A> a_collection; The collection contains 'n' items. Each item A looks like this :

public class A : INotifyPropertyChanged

    public ObservableCollection<B> b_subcollection;
    Thread m_worker;

Basically, it's all wired up to a WPF listview + a details view control which shows the b_subcollection of the selected item in a separate listview (2-way bindings, updates on propertychanged etc.). The problem showed up for me when I started to implement threading. The entire idea was to have the whole a_collection use it's worker thread to "do work" and then update their respective b_subcollections and have the gui show the results in real time.

When I tried it , I got an exception saying that only the Dispatcher thread can modify an ObservableCollection, and work came to a halt.

Can anyone explain the problem, and how to get around it?



Technically the problem is not that you are updating the ObservableCollection from a background thread. The problem is that when you do so, the collection raises its CollectionChanged event on the same thread that caused the change - which means controls are being updated from a background thread.

In order to populate a collection from a background thread while controls are bound to it, you'd probably have to create your own collection type from scratch in order to address this. There is a simpler option that may work out for you though.

Post the Add calls onto the UI thread.

public static void AddOnUI<T>(this ICollection<T> collection, T item) {
    Action<T> addMethod = collection.Add;
    Application.Current.Dispatcher.BeginInvoke( addMethod, item );


b_subcollection.AddOnUI(new B());

This method will return immediately (before the item is actually added to the collection) then on the UI thread, the item will be added to the collection and everyone should be happy.

The reality, however, is that this solution will likely bog down under heavy load because of all the cross-thread activity. A more efficient solution would batch up a bunch of items and post them to the UI thread periodically so that you're not calling across threads for each item.

The BackgroundWorker class implements a pattern that allows you to report progress via its ReportProgress method during a background operation. The progress is reported on the UI thread via the ProgressChanged event. This may be another option for you.

New option for .NET 4.5

Starting from .NET 4.5 there is a built-in mechanism to automatically synchronize access to the collection and dispatch CollectionChanged events to the UI thread. To enable this feature you need to call BindingOperations.EnableCollectionSynchronization from within your UI thread.

EnableCollectionSynchronization does two things:

  1. Remembers the thread from which it is called and causes the data binding pipeline to marshal CollectionChanged events on that thread.
  2. Acquires a lock on the collection until the marshalled event has been handled, so that the event handlers running UI thread will not attempt to read the collection while it's being modified from a background thread.

Very importantly, this does not take care of everything: to ensure thread-safe access to an inherently not thread-safe collection you have to cooperate with the framework by acquiring the same lock from your background threads when the collection is about to be modified.

Therefore the steps required for correct operation are:

1. Decide what kind of locking you will be using

This will determine which overload of EnableCollectionSynchronization must be used. Most of the time a simple lock statement will suffice so this overload is the standard choice, but if you are using some fancy synchronization mechanism there is also support for custom locks.

2. Create the collection and enable synchronization

Depending on the chosen lock mechanism, call the appropriate overload on the UI thread. If using a standard lock statement you need to provide the lock object as an argument. If using custom synchronization you need to provide a CollectionSynchronizationCallback delegate and a context object (which can be null). When invoked, this delegate must acquire your custom lock, invoke the Action passed to it and release the lock before returning.

3. Cooperate by locking the collection before modifying it

You must also lock the collection using the same mechanism when you are about to modify it yourself; do this with lock() on the same lock object passed to EnableCollectionSynchronization in the simple scenario, or with the same custom sync mechanism in the custom scenario.

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