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What Makes Parallel Programming Difficult? 196

An anonymous reader writes "Intel's Aater Suleman writes about why parallel programming is difficult. ... I was unaware ... that a major challenge in multi-threaded programming lies in optimizing parallel programs not just getting them to run. His analysis is insightful and the case study is very enlightening if you are unfamiliar with parallel code debugging. "
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What Makes Parallel Programming Difficult?

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  • Lame (Score:3, Interesting)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @03:46PM (#36266494)
    I bet there are hundreds of simple tutorials on concurrent processing on the web, and these two pieces bring nothing new/interesting.
  • by ljw1004 ( 764174 ) on Friday May 27, 2011 @05:10PM (#36267536)

    The dirty secret of parallel programming is that it's *NOT* so widely needed. I think a lot of academics got funding to study automatic parallelization or other parallel techniques, and they latch on to multicore as a justification for it, but it's not.

    There is only one GOOD reasons to use multithreading -- because your work is compute-bound. This typically happens on large-data applications like audio/video processing (for which you just call out to libraries that someone else has written), or else on your own large-data problems that have embarrassingly trivial parallelization: e.g.

    var results = from c in Customers.AsParallel() where c.OrderStatus="unfilfilled" select new {Name=c.Name, Cost=c.Cost};

    Here, using ParallelLINQ, it's as simple as just sticking in "AsParallel()". The commonest sort of large-data problems don't have any complicated scheduling.

    There are also BAD reasons why people have used multithreading, particularly to deal with long-latency operations like network requests. But this is a BAD reason, and you shouldn't use multithreading for it. There are better alternatives, as shown by the Async feature in F#/VB/C# which I worked on, which was also copied into Javascript with Google's traceur compiler). e.g.

    Task task1 = (new WebClient()).DownloadStringTaskAsync("");
    Task task2 = (new WebClient()).DownloadStringTaskASync("");
    Task winner = await Task.WhenAny(task1,task2);
    string result = await winner;

    Here it kicks off two tasks in parallel. But they are cooperatively multitasked on the same main thread at the "await" points. Therefore there is *NO* issue about race conditions; *NO* need to use semaphores/mutexes/condition-variables. The potential for unwanted interleaving is dramatically reduced.

    So in the end, who are the people who still need to develop multithreaded algorithms? There are very few. I think they're just the people who write high-performance multithreaded libraries.

  • by maraist ( 68387 ) * <michael.maraistN ...> on Friday May 27, 2011 @07:29PM (#36268774) Homepage
    While you're correct from a temporarily practical measure, I disagree in theory. OS theory 20 or more years ago was about one very simple concept.. Keeping all resources utilized. Instead of buying 20 cheap, slow full systems (at a meager $6k each), you can buy 1 $50k machine and time-share it. All your disk-IO will be maximized, all your CPUs will be maximized, network etc. Any given person is running slower, but you're saving money overall.

    If I have a single 8 core machine but it's attached to a netapp disk-array of 100 platters over a network, then the latency means that the round trip of a single-threaded program is almost guaranteed to leave platters idle. If, instead I split a problem up into multiple threads / processes (or use async-IO concepts), then each thread can schedule IO and immediately react to IO-completion, thereby turning around and requesting the next random disk block. While async-IO removes the advantage of multiple CPUs, it's MASSIVELY error-prone programming compared to blocking parallel threads/processes.

    A given configuration will have it's own practical maximum and over-saturation point. And for most disk/network sub-systems, 8 cores TODAY is sufficient. But with appropriate NUMA supported motherboards and cache coherence isolation, it's possible that a thousand-thread application-suite could leverage more than 8 cores efficiently. But I've regularly over-committed 8 core machine farms with 3 to 5 thousand threads and never had responsiveness issues (each thread group (client application) were predominantly IO bound). Here, higher numbers of CPUs allows fewer CPU transfers during rare periods of competing hot CPU sections. If I have 6 hot threads on 4 cores, the CPU context switches leach a measureable amount of user-time. But by going hyper-threading (e.g. doubling the number of context registers), we can reduce the overhead slightly.

    Now for HPC, where you have a single problem you're trying to solve quickly/cheaply - I'll admit it's hard to scale up. Cache contention KILLS performance - bringing critical region execution to near DRAM speeds. And unless you have MOESI, even non-contentious shared memory regions run at BUS speeds. You really need copy-on-write and message passing. Of course, not every problem is efficient with copy-on-write algorithms (i.e. sorting), so YMMV. But this, too was an advocation for over-committing.. Meaning while YOUR problem doesn't divide. You can take the hardware farm and run two separate problems on it. It'll run somewhat slower, but you get nearly double your money's worth in the hardware - lowering costs, and thus reducing the barrier to entry to TRY and solve hard problems with compute farms.
    amazon EC anyone?

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