Spinlocks are the lowest-level mutual exclusion mechanism in the Linux kernel. As such, they have a great deal of influence over the safety and performance of the kernel, so it is not surprising that a great deal of optimization effort has gone into the various (architecture-specific) spinlock implementations. That does not mean that all of the work has been done, though; a patch merged for 2.6.25 shows that there is always more which can be done.
On the x86 architecture, in the 2.6.24 kernel, a spinlock is represented by an integer value. A value of one indicates that the lock is available. The spin_lock() code works by decrementing the value (in a system-wide atomic manner), then looking to see whether the result is zero; if so, the lock has been successfully obtained. Should, instead, the result of the decrement option be negative, the spin_lock() code knows that the lock is owned by somebody else. So it busy-waits ("spins") in a tight loop until the value of the lock becomes positive; then it goes back to the beginning and tries again.
Once the critical section has been executed, the owner of the lock releases it by setting it to 1.
This implementation is very fast, especially in the uncontended case (which is how things should be most of the time). It also makes it easy to see how bad the contention for a lock is - the more negative the value of the lock gets, the more processors are trying to acquire it. But there is one shortcoming with this approach: it is unfair. Once the lock is released, the first processor which is able to decrement it will be the new owner. There is no way to ensure that the processor which has been waiting the longest gets the lock first; in fact, the processor which just released the lock may, by virtue of owning that cache line, have an advantage should it decide to reacquire the lock quickly.
One would hope that spinlock unfairness would not be a problem; usually, if there is serious contention for locks, that contention is a performance issue even before fairness is taken into account. Nick Piggin recently revisited this issue, though, after noticing:
On an 8 core (2 socket) Opteron, spinlock unfairness is extremely noticable, with a userspace test having a difference of up to 2x runtime per thread, and some threads are starved or "unfairly" granted the lock up to 1 000 000 (!) times.
This sort of runtime difference is certainly undesirable. But lock unfairness can also create latency issues; it is hard to give latency guarantees when the wait time for a spinlock can be arbitrarily long.