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6.1 Principles of Message-Passing Programming

There are two key attributes that characterize the message-passing programming paradigm. The first is that it assumes a partitioned address space and the second is that it supports only explicit parallelization.

The logical view of a machine supporting the message-passing paradigm consists of p processes, each with its own exclusive address space. Instances of such a view come naturally from clustered workstations and non-shared address space multicomputers. There are two immediate implications of a partitioned address space. First, each data element must belong to one of the partitions of the space; hence, data must be explicitly partitioned and placed. This adds complexity to programming, but encourages locality of access that is critical for achieving high performance on non-UMA architecture, since a processor can access its local data much faster than non-local data on such architectures. The second implication is that all interactions (read-only or read/write) require cooperation of two processes - the process that has the data and the process that wants to access the data. This requirement for cooperation adds a great deal of complexity for a number of reasons. The process that has the data must participate in the interaction even if it has no logical connection to the events at the requesting process. In certain circumstances, this requirement leads to unnatural programs. In particular, for dynamic and/or unstructured interactions the complexity of the code written for this type of paradigm can be very high for this reason. However, a primary advantage of explicit two-way interactions is that the programmer is fully aware of all the costs of non-local interactions, and is more likely to think about algorithms (and mappings) that minimize interactions. Another major advantage of this type of programming paradigm is that it can be efficiently implemented on a wide variety of architectures.

The message-passing programming paradigm requires that the parallelism is coded explicitly by the programmer. That is, the programmer is responsible for analyzing the underlying serial algorithm/application and identifying ways by which he or she can decompose the computations and extract concurrency. As a result, programming using the message-passing paradigm tends to be hard and intellectually demanding. However, on the other hand, properly written message-passing programs can often achieve very high performance and scale to a very large number of processes.

Structure of Message-Passing Programs Message-passing programs are often written using the asynchronous or loosely synchronous paradigms. In the asynchronous paradigm, all concurrent tasks execute asynchronously. This makes it possible to implement any parallel algorithm. However, such programs can be harder to reason about, and can have non-deterministic behavior due to race conditions. Loosely synchronous programs are a good compromise between these two extremes. In such programs, tasks or subsets of tasks synchronize to perform interactions. However, between these interactions, tasks execute completely asynchronously. Since the interaction happens synchronously, it is still quite easy to reason about the program. Many of the known parallel algorithms can be naturally implemented using loosely synchronous programs.

In its most general form, the message-passing paradigm supports execution of a different program on each of the p processes. This provides the ultimate flexibility in parallel programming, but makes the job of writing parallel programs effectively unscalable. For this reason, most message-passing programs are written using the single program multiple data (SPMD) approach. In SPMD programs the code executed by different processes is identical except for a small number of processes (e.g., the "root" process). This does not mean that the processes work in lock-step. In an extreme case, even in an SPMD program, each process could execute a different code (the program contains a large case statement with code for each process). But except for this degenerate case, most processes execute the same code. SPMD programs can be loosely synchronous or completely asynchronous.

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