15.2. 15.2 Performance in practice

As explained in the introduction, parallel computing splits a problem into tasks that are solved independently. The tasks are implemented as either processes or threads. A detailed discussion of these concepts can be found in operating system textbooks such as Tanenbaum. Briefly stated, processes are programs in execution. For each process, information about resources such as memory segments, files, and signals is stored, whereas threads exist within processes such that multiple threads share resources. In particular, threads of a process have access to shared memory, while processes (usually) communicate through explicit message exchange. Each thread owns a separate PC and other register values, as well as a stack for local variables. Processes can be considered as units for resource usage, whereas threads are units for execution on the CPU. As less information needs to be stored, it is faster to create, destroy and switch between threads than it is for processes.

Whether threads or processes are used, depends on the architecture. On shared-memory machines, threads are usually faster, although processes may be used for program portability. On distributed memory machines, only processes are a priori available. Threads can be used if there is a software layer (distributed shared memory) that implements a shared memory abstraction, but these threads have higher communication costs.

Whereas the notion of tasks is problem-related, the notions of processes and threads refer to implementation. When designing an algorithm, one typically identifies a large number of tasks that can potentially be run in parallel, and then maps several of them onto the same process or thread.

Parallel programs can be written in two styles that can also be mixed: With data parallelism, the same operation is applied to different data at a time. The operation may be a machine instruction, as in SIMD architectures, or a complex operation such as a function application. In the latter case, different processors carry out different instructions at a time. With task parallelism, in contrast, the processes/threads carry out different tasks. Since a function may have an if or case statement as the outermost construct, the borderline between data parallelism and task parallelism is fuzzy.

Parallel programs that are implemented with processes can be further classified as using Single Program Multiple Data (SPMD) or Multiple Program Multiple Data (MPMD) coding styles. With SPMD, all processes run the same program, whereas with MPMD they run different programs. MPMD programs are task-parallel, whereas SPMD programs may be either task-parallel or data-parallel. In SPMD mode, task parallelism is expressed through conditional statements.

As the central goal of parallel computing is to run programs faster, performance measures play an important role in the field. An obvious measure is execution time, yet more frequently the derived measure of speedup is used. For a given problem, speedup is defined by

where denotes the running time of the fastest sequential algorithm, and denotes the running time of the parallel algorithm on processors. Depending on context, speedup may alternatively refer to using processes or threads instead of processors. A related, but less frequently used measure is efficiency, defined by

Unrelated to this definition, the term efficiency is also used informally as a synonym for good performance.

Figure 15.4 shows ideal, typical, and super-linear speedup curves. The ideal curve reflects the assumption that an execution that uses twice as many processors requires half of the time. Hence, ideal speedup corresponds to an efficiency of one. Super-linear speedup may arise due to cache effects, that is, the use of multiple processors increases the total cache size, and thus more data accesses can be served from cache instead of from slower main memory.

Figure 15.4.  Ideal, typical, and super-linear speedup curves.

Ideal, typical, and super-linear speedup curves.

Typical speedup stays below ideal speedup, and grows up to some number of processors. Beyond that, use of more processors slows down the program. The difference between typical and ideal speedups has several reasons:

Performance can be improved by minimising the impact of the factors listed above. Amdahl's law is hard to circumvent, except that a different algorithm with smaller may be devised, possibly at the price of larger . Algorithmic techniques will be covered in later sections; for the moment, we concentrate on the other performance factors.

As explained in the previous section, tasks are implemented as processes or threads such that a process/thread typically carries out multiple tasks. For high performance, the granularity of processes/threads should be chosen in relation to the architecture. Too many processes/threads unnecessarily increase the costs of task management, whereas too few processes/threads lead to poor machine usage. It is useful to map several processes/threads onto the same processor, since the processor can switch when it has to wait for I/O or other delays. Large-granularity processes/threads have the additional advantage of a better communication-to-computation ratio, whereas fine-granularity processes/threads are more amenable to load balancing.

Load balancing can be accomplished with static or dynamic schemes. If the running time of the tasks can be estimated in advance, static schemes are preferable. In these schemes, the programmer assigns to each process/thread some number of tasks with about the same total costs. An example of a dynamic scheme is master/slave. In this scheme, first a master process assigns one task to each slave process. Then, repeatedly, whenever a slave finishes a task, it reports to the master and is assigned a next task, until all tasks have been processed. This scheme achieves good load balancing at the price of overhead for task management.

The highest impact on performance usually comes from reducing communication/synchronisation costs. Obvious improvements result from changes in the architecture or system software, in particular from reducing latency, that is, the delay for accessing a remote data item, and bandwidth, that is, the amount of data that can be transferred per unit of time.

The algorithm designer or application programmer can reduce communication/synchronisation costs by minimising the number of interactions. An important approach to achieve this minimisation is locality optimisation. Locality, a property of (sequential or parallel) programs, reflects the degree of temporal and spatial concentration of accesses to the same data. In distributed-memory architectures, for instance, data should be stored at the processor that uses the data. Locality can be improved by code transformations, data transformations, or a combination thereof. As an example, consider the following program fragment to be executed on three processors:

       for (i=0; i≤N; i++) in parallel          for (j=0; j≤N; j++)             f(A[i][j]);

Here, the keyword “in parallel” means that the iterations are evenly distributed among the processors so that runs iterations , runs iterations , and runs iterations (rounded if necessary). The function is supposed to be free of side effects.

Figure 15.5.  Locality optimisation by data transformation.

Locality optimisation by data transformation.

With the data distribution of Figure 15.5a), locality is poor, since many accesses refer to remote memory. Locality can be improved by changing the data distribution to that of Figure 15.5b) or, alternatively, by changing the program into

       for (j=0; j≤N; j++) in parallel          for (i=0; i≤N; i++)             f(A[i][j]);

The second alternative, code transformations, has the advantage of being applicable selectively to a portion of code, whereas data transformations influence the whole program so that an improvement in one part may slow down another. Data distributions are always correct, whereas code transformations must respect data dependencies, which are ordering constraints between statements. For instance, in

       a = 3; (1)       b = a; (2)

a data dependence occurs between statements (1) and (2). Exchanging the statements would lead to an incorrect program.

On shared-memory architectures, a programmer does not the specify data distribution, but locality has a high impact on performance, as well. Programs run faster if data that are used together are stored in the same cache line. On shared-memory architectures, the data layout is chosen by the compiler, e.g. row-wise in C. The programmer has only indirect influence through the manner in which he or she declares data structures.

Another opportunity to reduce communication costs is replication. For instance, it pays off to store frequently used data at multiple processors, or to repeat short computations instead of communicating the result.

Synchronisations are necessary for correctness, but they slow down program execution, first because of their own execution costs, and second because they cause processes to wait for each other. Therefore, excessive use of synchronisation should be avoided. In particular, critical sections (in which processes/threads require exclusive access to some resource) should be kept at a minimum. We speak of sequentialisation if only one process is active at a time while the others are waiting.

Finally, performance can be improved by latency hiding, that is, parallelism between computation and communication. For instance, a process can start a remote read some time before it needs the result (prefetching), or write data to remote memory in parallel to the following computations.


15.2-1 For standard matrix multiplication, identify tasks that can be solved in parallel. Try to identify as many tasks as possible. Then, suggest different opportunities for mapping the tasks onto (a smaller number of) threads, and compare these mappings with respect to their efficiency on a shared-memory architecture.

15.2-2 Consider a parallel program that takes as input a number and computes as output the number of primes in range . Task of the program should determine whether is a prime, by systematically trying out all potential factors, that is, dividing by . The program is to be implemented with a fixed number of processes or threads. Suggest different opportunities for this implementation and discuss their pros and cons. Take into account both static and dynamic load balancing schemes.

15.2-3 Determine the data dependencies of the following stencil code:

       for (t=0; t≤tmax; t++)          for (i=0; i≤n; i++)             for (j=0; j≤n; j++)                a[i][j] += a[i-1][j] + a[i][j-1]

Restructure the code so that it can be parallelised.

15.2-4 Formulate and prove the bounds of the speedup known as Amdahl law and Gustafson-Barsis law. Explain the virtual contradiction between these laws. What can you say on the practical speedup?