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5.1 Sources of Overhead in Parallel Programs

Using twice as many hardware resources, one can reasonably expect a program to run twice as fast. However, in typical parallel programs, this is rarely the case, due to a variety of overheads associated with parallelism. An accurate quantification of these overheads is critical to the understanding of parallel program performance.

A typical execution profile of a parallel program is illustrated in Figure 5.1. In addition to performing essential computation (i.e., computation that would be performed by the serial program for solving the same problem instance), a parallel program may also spend time in interprocess communication, idling, and excess computation (computation not performed by the serial formulation).

Figure 5.1. The execution profile of a hypothetical parallel program executing on eight processing elements. Profile indicates times spent performing computation (both essential and excess), communication, and idling.


Interprocess Interaction Any nontrivial parallel system requires its processing elements to interact and communicate data (e.g., intermediate results). The time spent communicating data between processing elements is usually the most significant source of parallel processing overhead.

Idling Processing elements in a parallel system may become idle due to many reasons such as load imbalance, synchronization, and presence of serial components in a program. In many parallel applications (for example, when task generation is dynamic), it is impossible (or at least difficult) to predict the size of the subtasks assigned to various processing elements. Hence, the problem cannot be subdivided statically among the processing elements while maintaining uniform workload. If different processing elements have different workloads, some processing elements may be idle during part of the time that others are working on the problem. In some parallel programs, processing elements must synchronize at certain points during parallel program execution. If all processing elements are not ready for synchronization at the same time, then the ones that are ready sooner will be idle until all the rest are ready. Parts of an algorithm may be unparallelizable, allowing only a single processing element to work on it. While one processing element works on the serial part, all the other processing elements must wait.

Excess Computation The fastest known sequential algorithm for a problem may be difficult or impossible to parallelize, forcing us to use a parallel algorithm based on a poorer but easily parallelizable (that is, one with a higher degree of concurrency) sequential algorithm. The difference in computation performed by the parallel program and the best serial program is the excess computation overhead incurred by the parallel program.

A parallel algorithm based on the best serial algorithm may still perform more aggregate computation than the serial algorithm. An example of such a computation is the Fast Fourier Transform algorithm. In its serial version, the results of certain computations can be reused. However, in the parallel version, these results cannot be reused because they are generated by different processing elements. Therefore, some computations are performed multiple times on different processing elements. Chapter 13 discusses these algorithms in detail.

Since different parallel algorithms for solving the same problem incur varying overheads, it is important to quantify these overheads with a view to establishing a figure of merit for each algorithm.

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