Parallel Computing

Most modern computers possess more than one CPU, and several computers can be combined together in a cluster. Harnessing the power of these multiple CPUs allows many computations to be completed more quickly. There are two major factors that influence performance: the speed of the CPUs themselves, and the speed of their access to memory. In a cluster, it’s fairly obvious that a given CPU will have fastest access to the RAM within the same computer (node). Perhaps more surprisingly, similar issues are very relevant on a typical multicore laptop, due to differences in the speed of main memory and the cache. Consequently, a good multiprocessing environment should allow control over the “ownership” of a chunk of memory by a particular CPU. Julia provides a multiprocessing environment based on message passing to allow programs to run on multiple processors in separate memory domains at once.

Julia’s implementation of message passing is different from other environments such as MPI. Communication in Julia is generally “one-sided”, meaning that the programmer needs to explicitly manage only one processor in a two-processor operation. Furthermore, these operations typically do not look like “message send” and “message receive” but rather resemble higher-level operations like calls to user functions.

Parallel programming in Julia is built on two primitives: remote references and remote calls. A remote reference is an object that can be used from any processor to refer to an object stored on a particular processor. A remote call is a request by one processor to call a certain function on certain arguments on another (possibly the same) processor. A remote call returns a remote reference to its result. Remote calls return immediately; the processor that made the call proceeds to its next operation while the remote call happens somewhere else. You can wait for a remote call to finish by calling wait on its remote reference, and you can obtain the full value of the result using fetch.

Let’s try this out. Starting with julia -p n provides n processors on the local machine. Generally it makes sense for n to equal the number of CPU cores on the machine.

$ ./julia -p 2

julia> r = remote_call(2, rand, 2, 2)

julia> fetch(r)
2x2 Float64 Array:
 0.60401   0.501111
 0.174572  0.157411

julia> s = @spawnat 2 1+fetch(r)

julia> fetch(s)
2x2 Float64 Array:
 1.60401  1.50111
 1.17457  1.15741

The first argument to remote_call is the index of the processor that will do the work. Most parallel programming in Julia does not reference specific processors or the number of processors available, but remote_call is considered a low-level interface providing finer control. The second argument to remote_call is the function to call, and the remaining arguments will be passed to this function. As you can see, in the first line we asked processor 2 to construct a 2-by-2 random matrix, and in the second line we asked it to add 1 to it. The result of both calculations is available in the two remote references, r and s. The @spawnat macro evaluates the expression in the second argument on the processor specified by the first argument.

Occasionally you might want a remotely-computed value immediately. This typically happens when you read from a remote object to obtain data needed by the next local operation. The function remote_call_fetch exists for this purpose. It is equivalent to fetch(remote_call(...)) but is more efficient.

julia> remote_call_fetch(2, getindex, r, 1, 1)

Remember that getindex(r,1,1) is equivalent to r[1,1], so this call fetches the first element of the remote reference r.

The syntax of remote_call is not especially convenient. The macro @spawn makes things easier. It operates on an expression rather than a function, and picks where to do the operation for you:

julia> r = @spawn rand(2,2)

julia> s = @spawn 1+fetch(r)

julia> fetch(s)
1.10824216411304866 1.13798233877923116
1.12376292706355074 1.18750497916607167

Note that we used 1+fetch(r) instead of 1+r. This is because we do not know where the code will run, so in general a fetch might be required to move r to the processor doing the addition. In this case, @spawn is smart enough to perform the computation on the processor that owns r, so the fetch will be a no-op.

(It is worth noting that @spawn is not built-in but defined in Julia as a macro. It is possible to define your own such constructs.)

One important point is that your code must be available on any processor that runs it. For example, type the following into the julia prompt:

julia> function rand2(dims...)
         return 2*rand(dims...)

julia> rand2(2,2)
2x2 Float64 Array:
 0.153756  0.368514
 1.15119   0.918912

julia> @spawn rand2(2,2)

julia> @spawn rand2(2,2)

julia> exception on 2: in anonymous: rand2 not defined

Processor 1 knew about the function rand2, but processor 2 did not. To make your code available to all processors, the require function will automatically load a source file on all currently available processors:

julia> require("myfile")

In a cluster, the contents of the file (and any files loaded recursively) will be sent over the network.

Data Movement

Sending messages and moving data constitute most of the overhead in a parallel program. Reducing the number of messages and the amount of data sent is critical to achieving performance and scalability. To this end, it is important to understand the data movement performed by Julia’s various parallel programming constructs.

fetch can be considered an explicit data movement operation, since it directly asks that an object be moved to the local machine. @spawn (and a few related constructs) also moves data, but this is not as obvious, hence it can be called an implicit data movement operation. Consider these two approaches to constructing and squaring a random matrix:

# method 1
A = rand(1000,1000)
Bref = @spawn A^2

# method 2
Bref = @spawn rand(1000,1000)^2

The difference seems trivial, but in fact is quite significant due to the behavior of @spawn. In the first method, a random matrix is constructed locally, then sent to another processor where it is squared. In the second method, a random matrix is both constructed and squared on another processor. Therefore the second method sends much less data than the first.

In this toy example, the two methods are easy to distinguish and choose from. However, in a real program designing data movement might require more thought and very likely some measurement. For example, if the first processor needs matrix A then the first method might be better. Or, if computing A is expensive and only the current processor has it, then moving it to another processor might be unavoidable. Or, if the current processor has very little to do between the @spawn and fetch(Bref) then it might be better to eliminate the parallelism altogether. Or imagine rand(1000,1000) is replaced with a more expensive operation. Then it might make sense to add another @spawn statement just for this step.

Parallel Map and Loops

Fortunately, many useful parallel computations do not require data movement. A common example is a monte carlo simulation, where multiple processors can handle independent simulation trials simultaneously. We can use @spawn to flip coins on two processors. First, write the following function in count_heads.jl:

function count_heads(n)
    c::Int = 0
    for i=1:n
        c += randbool()

The function count_heads simply adds together n random bits. Here is how we can perform some trials on two machines, and add together the results:


a = @spawn count_heads(100000000)
b = @spawn count_heads(100000000)

This example, as simple as it is, demonstrates a powerful and often-used parallel programming pattern. Many iterations run independently over several processors, and then their results are combined using some function. The combination process is called a reduction, since it is generally tensor-rank-reducing: a vector of numbers is reduced to a single number, or a matrix is reduced to a single row or column, etc. In code, this typically looks like the pattern x = f(x,v[i]), where x is the accumulator, f is the reduction function, and the v[i] are the elements being reduced. It is desirable for f to be associative, so that it does not matter what order the operations are performed in.

Notice that our use of this pattern with count_heads can be generalized. We used two explicit @spawn statements, which limits the parallelism to two processors. To run on any number of processors, we can use a parallel for loop, which can be written in Julia like this:

nheads = @parallel (+) for i=1:200000000

This construct implements the pattern of assigning iterations to multiple processors, and combining them with a specified reduction (in this case (+)). The result of each iteration is taken as the value of the last expression inside the loop. The whole parallel loop expression itself evaluates to the final answer.

Note that although parallel for loops look like serial for loops, their behavior is dramatically different. In particular, the iterations do not happen in a specified order, and writes to variables or arrays will not be globally visible since iterations run on different processors. Any variables used inside the parallel loop will be copied and broadcast to each processor.

For example, the following code will not work as intended:

a = zeros(100000)
@parallel for i=1:100000
  a[i] = i

Notice that the reduction operator can be omitted if it is not needed. However, this code will not initialize all of a, since each processor will have a separate copy if it. Parallel for loops like these must be avoided. Fortunately, distributed arrays can be used to get around this limitation, as we will see in the next section.

Using “outside” variables in parallel loops is perfectly reasonable if the variables are read-only:

a = randn(1000)
@parallel (+) for i=1:100000

Here each iteration applies f to a randomly-chosen sample from a vector a shared by all processors.

In some cases no reduction operator is needed, and we merely wish to apply a function to all integers in some range (or, more generally, to all elements in some collection). This is another useful operation called parallel map, implemented in Julia as the pmap function. For example, we could compute the singular values of several large random matrices in parallel as follows:

M = {rand(1000,1000) for i=1:10}
pmap(svd, M)

Julia’s pmap is designed for the case where each function call does a large amount of work. In contrast, @parallel for can handle situations where each iteration is tiny, perhaps merely summing two numbers.

Synchronization With Remote References


Julia’s parallel programming platform uses Tasks (aka Coroutines) to switch among multiple computations. Whenever code performs a communication operation like fetch or wait, the current task is suspended and a scheduler picks another task to run. A task is restarted when the event it is waiting for completes.

For many problems, it is not necessary to think about tasks directly. However, they can be used to wait for multiple events at the same time, which provides for dynamic scheduling. In dynamic scheduling, a program decides what to compute or where to compute it based on when other jobs finish. This is needed for unpredictable or unbalanced workloads, where we want to assign more work to processors only when they finish their current tasks.

As an example, consider computing the singular values of matrices of different sizes:

M = {rand(800,800), rand(600,600), rand(800,800), rand(600,600)}
pmap(svd, M)

If one processor handles both 800x800 matrices and another handles both 600x600 matrices, we will not get as much scalability as we could. The solution is to make a local task to “feed” work to each processor when it completes its current task. This can be seen in the implementation of pmap:

function pmap(f, lst)
    np = nprocs()  # determine the number of processors available
    n = length(lst)
    results = cell(n)
    i = 1
    # function to produce the next work item from the queue.
    # in this case it's just an index.
    next_idx() = (idx=i; i+=1; idx)
    @sync begin
        for p=1:np
            @spawnlocal begin
                while true
                    idx = next_idx()
                    if idx > n
                    results[idx] = remote_call_fetch(p, f, lst[idx])

@spawnlocal is similar to @spawn, but only runs tasks on the local processor. We use it to create a “feeder” task for each processor. Each task picks the next index that needs to be computed, then waits for its processor to finish, then repeats until we run out of indexes. A @sync block is used to wait for all the local tasks to complete, at which point the whole operation is done. Notice that all the feeder tasks are able to share state via next_idx() since they all run on the same processor. However, no locking is required, since the threads are scheduled cooperatively and not preemptively. This means context switches only occur at well-defined points (during the fetch operation).

Sending Instructions To All Processors

It is often useful to execute a statement on all processors, particularly for setup tasks such as loading source files and defining common variables. This can be done with the @everywhere macro:

@everywhere include(“defs.jl”)