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1. Introduction

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 systems (often sold as "servers") 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 the multimedia instruction extensions (i.e., MMX) to operate in parallel on vectors of integer data. Finally, it is also possible to use a Linux system as a "host" for a specialized attached parallel processing compute engine. All these approaches are discussed in detail in this document.

1.1 Is Parallel Processing What I Want?

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. As an added bonus, it is also easy to use a parallel Linux system 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 are still things you can do. For example, you can improve performance of sequential programs by moving to a faster processor, adding memory, replacing an IDE disk with fast wide SCSI, etc. If that's all you are interested in, jump to section 6.2; otherwise, read on.

1.2 Terminology

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) 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) 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.


SPMD (Single Program, Multiple Data) is a restricted version of MIMD in which all processors are running the same program. Unlike SIMD, each processor executing SPMD code may take a different control flow path through the program.

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 (b/s), which generally correspond to 1/10 to 1/8 that many Bytes/second (B/s). For example, a 1,200 baud modem transfers about 120 B/s, whereas a 155 Mb/s ATM network connection is nearly 130,000 times faster, transferring about about 17 MB/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 than parallel execution; serial execution would avoid the communication overhead.

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 Functions:

In both the message passing and shared memory models, a communication is initiated by a single processor; in contrast, aggregate function 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.

Collective Communication:

This is another name for aggregate functions, most often used when referring to aggregate functions that are constructed using multiple message-passing operations.


SMP (Symmetric Multi-Processor) 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. In the IA32 world, SMP generally means compliant with MPS (the Intel MultiProcessor Specification); in the future, it may mean "Slot 2"....


SWAR (SIMD Within A Register) is a generic term for the concept of partitioning a register into multiple integer fields and using register-width operations to perform SIMD-parallel computations across those fields. Given a machine with k-bit registers, data paths, and function units, it has long been known that ordinary register operations can function as SIMD parallel operations on as many as n, k/n-bit, field values. Although this type of parallelism can be implemented using ordinary integer registers and instructions, many high-end microprocessors have recently added specialized instructions to enhance the performance of this technique for multimedia-oriented tasks. In addition to the Intel/AMD/Cyrix MMX (MultiMedia eXtensions), there are: Digital Alpha MAX (MultimediA eXtensions), Hewlett-Packard PA-RISC MAX (Multimedia Acceleration eXtensions), MIPS MDMX (Digital Media eXtension, pronounced "Mad Max"), and Sun SPARC V9 VIS (Visual Instruction Set). Aside from the three vendors who have agreed on MMX, all of these instruction set extensions are roughly comparable, but mutually incompatible.

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.


IA32 (Intel Architecture, 32-bit) really has nothing to do with parallel processing, but rather refers to the class of processors whose instruction sets are generally compatible with that of the Intel 386. Basically, any Intel x86 processor after the 286 is compatible with the 32-bit flat memory model that characterizes IA32. AMD and Cyrix also make a multitude of IA32-compatible processors. Because Linux evolved primarily on IA32 processors and that is where the commodity market is centered, it is convenient to use IA32 to distinguish any of these processors from the PowerPC, Alpha, PA-RISC, MIPS, SPARC, etc. The upcoming IA64 (64-bit with EPIC, Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) will certainly complicate matters, but Merced, the first IA64 processor, is not scheduled for production until 1999.


Since the demise of many parallel supercomputer companies, COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) is commonly discussed as a requirement for parallel computing systems. Being fanatically pure, the only COTS parallel processing techniques using PCs are things like SMP Windows NT servers and various MMX Windows applications; it really doesn't pay to be that fanatical. The underlying concept of COTS is really minimization of development time and cost. Thus, a more useful, more common, meaning of COTS is that at least most subsystems benefit from commodity marketing, but other technologies are used where they are effective. Most often, COTS parallel processing refers to a cluster in which the nodes are commodity PCs, but the network interface and software are somewhat customized... typically running Linux and applications codes that are freely available (e.g., copyleft or public domain), but not literally COTS.

1.3 Example Algorithm

In order to better understand the use of the various parallel programming approaches outlined in this HOWTO, it is useful to have an example problem. Although just about any simple parallel algorithm would do, by selecting an algorithm that has been used to demonstrate various other parallel programming systems, it becomes a bit easier to compare and contrast approaches. M. J. Quinn's book, Parallel Computing Theory And Practice, second edition, McGraw Hill, New York, 1994, uses a parallel algorithm that computes the value of Pi to demonstrate a variety of different parallel supercomputer programming environments (e.g., nCUBE message passing, Sequent shared memory). In this HOWTO, we use the same basic algorithm.

The algorithm computes the approximate value of Pi by summing the area under x squared. As a purely sequential C program, the algorithm looks like:

#include <stdlib.h>
#include <stdio.h>

main(int argc, char **argv)
  register double width, sum;
  register int intervals, i;

  /* get the number of intervals */
  intervals = atoi(argv[1]);
  width = 1.0 / intervals;

  /* do the computation */
  sum = 0;
  for (i=0; i<intervals; ++i) {
    register double x = (i + 0.5) * width;
    sum += 4.0 / (1.0 + x * x);
  sum *= width;

  printf("Estimation of pi is %f\n", sum);


However, this sequential algorithm easily yields an "embarrassingly parallel" implementation. The area is subdivided into intervals, and any number of processors can each independently sum the intervals assigned to it, with no need for interaction between processors. Once the local sums have been computed, they are added together to create a global sum; this step requires some level of coordination and communication between processors. Finally, this global sum is printed by one processor as the approximate value of Pi.

In this HOWTO, the various parallel implementations of this algorithm appear where each of the different programming methods is discussed.

1.4 Organization Of This Document

The remainder of this document is divided into five parts. Sections 2, 3, 4, and 5 correspond to the three different types of hardware configurations supporting parallel processing using Linux:

The final section of this document covers aspects that are of general interest for parallel processing using Linux, not specific to a particular one of the approaches listed above.

As you read this document, keep in mind that we haven't tested everything, and a lot of stuff reported here "still has a research character" (a nice way to say "doesn't quite work like it should" ;-). However, parallel processing using Linux is useful now, and an increasingly large group is working to make it better.

The author of this HOWTO is Hank Dietz, Ph.D., currently Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, IN, 47907-1285. Dietz retains rights to this document as per the Linux Documentation Project guidelines. Although an effort has been made to ensure the correctness and fairness of this presentation, neither Dietz nor Purdue University can be held responsible for any problems or errors, and Purdue University does not endorse any of the work/products discussed.

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