I know about the "cooperative" threading of ruby using green threads. How can I create real "OS-level" threads in my application in order to make use of multiple cpu cores for processing?
Updated with Jörg's Sept 2011 comment
You seem to be confusing two very different things here: the Ruby Programming Language and the specific threading model of one specific implementation of the Ruby Programming Language. There are currently around 11 different implementations of the Ruby Programming Language, with very different and unique threading models.
(Unfortunately, only two of those 11 implementations are actually ready for production use, but by the end of the year that number will probably go up to four or five.) (Update: it's now 5: MRI, JRuby, YARV (the interpreter for Ruby 1.9), Rubinius and IronRuby).
The first implementation doesn't actually have a name, which makes it quite awkward to refer to it and is really annoying and confusing. It is most often referred to as "Ruby", which is even more annoying and confusing than having no name, because it leads to endless confusion between the features of the Ruby Programming Language and a particular Ruby Implementation.
It is also sometimes called "MRI" (for "Matz's Ruby Implementation"), CRuby or MatzRuby.
MRI implements Ruby Threads as Green Threads within its interpreter. Unfortunately, it doesn't allow those threads to be scheduled in parallel, they can only run one thread at a time.
However, any number of C Threads (POSIX Threads etc.) can run in parallel to the Ruby Thread, so external C Libraries, or MRI C Extensions that create threads of their own can still run in parallel.
The second implementation is YARV (short for "Yet Another Ruby VM"). YARV implements Ruby Threads as POSIX or Windows NT Threads, however, it uses a Global Interpreter Lock (GIL) to ensure that only one Ruby Thread can actually be scheduled at any one time.
Like MRI, C Threads can actually run parallel to Ruby Threads.
In the future, it is possible, that the GIL might get broken down into more fine-grained locks, thus allowing more and more code to actually run in parallel, but that's so far away, it is not even planned yet.
JRuby implements Ruby Threads as Native Threads, where "Native Threads" in case of the JVM obviously means "JVM Threads". JRuby imposes no additional locking on them. So, whether those threads can actually run in parallel depends on the JVM: some JVMs implement JVM Threads as OS Threads and some as Green Threads. (The mainstream JVMs from Sun/Oracle use exclusively OS threads since JDK 1.3)
IronRuby implements Ruby Threads as Native Threads, where "Native Threads" in case of the CLR obviously means "CLR Threads". IronRuby imposes no additional locking on them, so, they should run in parallel, as long as your CLR supports that.
Rubinius implements Ruby Threads as Green Threads within its Virtual Machine. More precisely: the Rubinius VM exports a very lightweight, very flexible concurrency/parallelism/non-local control-flow construct, called a "Task", and all other concurrency constructs (Threads in this discussion, but also Continuations, Actors and other stuff) are implemented in pure Ruby, using Tasks.
Rubinius can not (currently) schedule Threads in parallel, however, adding that isn't too much of a problem: Rubinius can already run several VM instances in several POSIX Threads in parallel, within one Rubinius process. Since Threads are actually implemented in Ruby, they can, like any other Ruby object, be serialized and sent to a different VM in a different POSIX Thread. (That's the same model the BEAM Erlang VM uses for SMP concurrency. It is already implemented for Rubinius Actors.)
Update: The information about Rubinius in this answer is about the Shotgun VM, which doesn't exist anymore. The "new" C++ VM does not use green threads scheduled across multiple VMs (i.e. Erlang/BEAM style), it uses a more traditional single VM with multiple native OS threads model, just like the one employed by, say, the CLR, Mono, and pretty much every JVM.
MacRuby started out as a port of YARV on top of the Objective-C Runtime and CoreFoundation and Cocoa Frameworks. It has now significantly diverged from YARV, but AFAIK it currently still shares the same Threading Model with YARV. Update: MacRuby depends on apples garbage collector which is declared deprecated and will be removed in later versions of MacOSX, MacRuby is undead.
Cardinal is a Ruby Implementation for the Parrot Virtual Machine. It doesn't implement threads yet, however, when it does, it will probably implement them as Parrot Threads. Update: Cardinal seems very inactive/dead.
MagLev is a Ruby Implementation for the GemStone/S Smalltalk VM. I have no information what threading model GemStone/S uses, what threading model MagLev uses or even if threads are even implemented yet (probably not).
Unfortunately, only two of these 11 Ruby Implementations are actually production-ready: MRI and JRuby.
So, if you want true parallel threads, JRuby is currently your only choice – not that that's a bad one: JRuby is actually faster than MRI, and arguably more stable.
Otherwise, the "classical" Ruby solution is to use processes
instead of threads for parallelism. The Ruby Core Library
Process module with the
method which makes it dead easy to fork off another Ruby
process. Also, the Ruby Standard Library contains the
Distributed Ruby (dRuby / dRb) library, which allows Ruby
code to be trivially distributed across multiple processes, not
only on the same machine but also across the network.