Linux Parallel Processing HOWTO

Prof. Hank Dietz
Purdue University School of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Still under construction... 15 March 1996

If you are only interested in using an SMP to execute multiple independent serial programs simultaneously, there is nothing you have to do other than get appropriate SMP hardware and install SMP Linux on it. That's not what this document is about.

This document provides an overview of how to use multiple processors to speed-up execution of an individual program. Use of SMP Linux systems, clusters of networked Linux systems, and attached (parallel) processors hosted by Linux, are all discussed. If you don't already know what Linux is, you may want to take a quick peek at the Linux Documentation Project home page.


Parallel Processing refers to the concept of speeding-up the execution of a program by dividing the program into multiple fragments that can execute simultaneously, each on its own processor. A program being executed across n processors might execute n times faster than it would using a single processor.

Traditionally, multiple processors were provided within a specially designed "parallel computer"; along these lines, Linux now supports SMP Pentium systems in which multiple processors share a single memory and bus interface within a single computer. It is also possible for a group of computers (for example, a group of PCs each running Linux) to be interconnected by a network to form a parallel-processing cluster. The third alternative for parallel computing using Linux is to use a Linux system as a "host" for a specialized attached parallel processing compute engine.

Do I Want To Use Parallel Processing?

Probably not -- for most applications. Although use of multiple processors can speed-up many operations, most applications cannot yet benefit from parallel processing. Basically, parallel processing is appropriate only if:

The good news is that if all the above are true, you'll find that parallel processing using Linux can yield supercomputer performance for some programs that perform complex computations or operate on large data sets. What's more, it can do that using cheap hardware... which you might already own. It is worthwhile noting that a parallel Linux system can still be used for other things when it is not busy executing a parallel job.

If parallel processing is not what you want, but you would like to achieve at least a modest improvement in performance, there is still hope. Take a look at the Linux in High-Performance Computing page.


Although parallel processing has been used for many years in many systems, it is still somewhat unfamiliar to most computer users. Thus, before discussing the various alternatives, it is important to become familiar with a few commonly used terms.

SIMD (Single Instruction stream, Multiple Data stream)
SIMD refers to a parallel execution model in which all processors execute the same operation at the same time, but each processor is allowed to operate upon its own data. This model naturally fits the concept of performing the same operation on every element of an array, and is thus often associated with vector or array manipulation. Because all operations are inherently synchronized, interactions among SIMD processors tend to be easily and efficiently implemented.
MIMD (Multiple Instruction stream, Multiple Data stream)
MIMD refers to a parallel execution model in which each processor is essentially acting independently. This model most naturally fits the concept of decomposing a program for parallel execution on a functional basis; for example, one processor might update a database file while another processor generates a graphic display of the new entry. This is a more flexible model than SIMD execution, but it is achieved at the risk of debugging nightmares called race conditions, in which a program may intermittently fail due to timing variations reordering the operations of one processor relative to those of another.
Communication Bandwidth
The bandwidth of a communication system is the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted in a unit of time... once data transmission has begun. Bandwidth for serial connections is often measured in baud or bits/second, which generally correspond to 1/10 to 1/8 that many Bytes each second. For example, a 1,200 baud modem transfers about 120 Bytes/s, whereas a 155 Mbit/s ATM network connection is nearly 130,000 times faster, transferring about about 17 million Bytes/s. High bandwidth allows large blocks of data to be transferred efficiently between processors.
Communication Latency
The latency of a communication system is the minimum time taken to transmit one object, including any send and receive software overhead. Latency is very important in parallel processing because it determines the minimum useful grain size, the minimum run time for a segment of code to yield speed-up through parallel execution. Basically, if a segment of code runs for less time than it takes to transmit its result value (i.e., latency), executing that code segment serially on the processor that needed the result value would be faster because it would avoid the communication.
Message Passing
Message passing is a model for interactions between processors within a parallel system. In general, a message is constructed by software on one processor and is sent through an interconnection network to another processor, which then must accept and act upon the message contents. Although the overhead in handling each message (latency) may be high, there are typically few restrictions on how much information each message may contain. Thus, message passing can yield high bandwidth making it a very effective way to transmit a large block of data from one processor to another. However, to minimize the need for expensive message passing operations, data structures within a parallel program must be spread across the processors so that most data referenced by each processor is in its local memory... this task is known as data layout.
Shared Memory
Shared memory is a model for interactions between processors within a parallel system. Systems like the multi-processor Pentium machines running Linux physically share a single memory among their processors, so that a value written to shared memory by one processor can be directly accessed by any processor. Alternatively, logically shared memory can be implemented for systems in which each processor has it own memory by converting each non-local memory reference into an appropriate inter-processor communication. Either implementation of shared memory is generally considered easier to use than message passing. Physically shared memory can have both high bandwidth and low latency, but only when multiple processors do not try to access the bus simultaneously; thus, data layout still can seriously impact performance, and cache effects, etc., can make it difficult to determine what the best layout is.
Aggregate Function or Collective Communication
In both the message passing and shared memory models, a communication is initiated by a single processor; in contrast, aggregate function or collective communication is an inherently parallel communication model in which an entire group of processors act together. The simplest such action is a barrier synchronization, in which each individual processor waits until every processor in the group has arrived at the barrier. By having each processor output a datum as a side-effect of reaching a barrier, it is possible to have the communication hardware return a value to each processor which is an arbitrary function of the values collected from all processors. For example, the return value might be the answer to the question "did any processor find a solution?" or it might be the sum of one value from each processor. Latency can be very low, but bandwidth per processor also tends to be low. Traditionally, this model is used primarily to control parallel execution rather than to distribute data values.
SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processor)
SMP refers to the operating system concept of a group of processors working together as peers, so that any piece of work could be done equally well by any processor. Typically, SMP implies the combination of MIMD and shared memory.
Attached Processors
Attached processors are essentially special-purpose computers that are connected to a host system to accelerate specific types of computation. For example, many video and audio cards for PCs contain attached processors designed, respectively, to accelerate common graphics operations and audio DSP (Digital Signal Processing). There is also a wide range of attached array processors, so called because they are designed to accelerate arithmetic operations on arrays. In fact, many commercial supercomputers are really attached processors with workstation hosts.
RAID, Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, is a simple technology for increasing both the bandwidth and reliability of disk I/O. Although there are many different variations, all have two key concepts in common. First, each data block is striped across a group of n+k disk drives such that each drive only has to read or write 1/n of the data... yielding n times the bandwidth of one drive. Second, redundant data is written so that data can be recovered if a disk drive fails; this is important because otherwise if any one of the n+k drives were to fail, the entire file system could be lost.

Organization of this Document

The remainder of this document is subdivided into four parts. The first three parts correspond to the three different types of hardware configurations supporting parallel processing using Linux:

The fourth part of this document covers the miscellaneous issues that are not directly linked to one of the above configurations, but that apply generically to parallel processing. This includes references to parallel disk I/O (e.g., RAID), non-Linux parallel processing, and other reference information.


This page was last modified May 01, 1996.
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