Teaching from mental models

Experimental html version of Parallel Programming in MPI, OpenMP, and PETSc by Victor Eijkhout. download the textbook at https:/theartofhpc.com/pcse
\[ \newcommand\inv{^{-1}}\newcommand\invt{^{-t}} \newcommand\bbP{\mathbb{P}} \newcommand\bbR{\mathbb{R}} \newcommand\defined{ \mathrel{\lower 5pt \hbox{${\equiv\atop\mathrm{\scriptstyle D}}$}}} \] 55.1 : Introduction
55.1.1 : Short background on MPI
55.1.2 : Distributed memory parallelism
55.2 : Implied mental models
55.2.1 : The traditional view of parallelism
55.2.2 : The misconceptions of centralized control
55.2.3 : The reality of distributed control
55.2.4 : The misconception of synchronization
55.3 : Teaching MPI, the usual way
55.3.1 : Criticism
55.3.2 : Teaching MPI and OpenMP
55.4 : Teaching MPI, our proposal
55.4.1 : Motivation from applications
55.4.2 : Process symmetry
55.4.3 : Functional parallelism
55.4.4 : Introducing collectives
55.4.5 : Distributed data
55.4.6 : Point-to-point motivated from operations on distributed data
55.4.7 : Detour: deadlock and serialization
55.4.8 : Detour: ping-pong
55.4.9 : Back to data exchange
55.4.10 : Nonblocking sends
55.4.11 : Taking it from here
55.5 : `Parallel computer games'
55.5.1 : Sequentialization
55.5.2 : Ping-pong
55.5.3 : Collectives and other games
55.5.4 : Remaining questions
55.6 : Further course summary
55.6.1 : Exercises
55.6.2 : Projects
55.7 : Prospect for an online course
55.8 : Evaluation and discussion
55.9 : Summary
Back to Table of Contents

48 Teaching from mental models

Distributed memory programming, typically through the MPI library, is the \textit{de facto} standard for programming large scale parallelism, with up to millions of individual processes. Its dominant paradigm of SPMD programming is different from threaded and multicore parallelism, to an extent that students have a hard time switching models. In contrast to threaded programming, which allows for a view of the execution with central control and a central repository of data, SPMD programming has a symmetric model where all processes are active all the time, with none privileged, and where data is distributed.

This model is counterintuitive to the novice parallel programmer, so care needs to be taken how to instill the proper `mental model'. Adoption of an incorrect mental model leads to broken or inefficient code.

We identify problems with the currently common way of teaching MPI, and propose a structuring of MPI courses that is geared to explicit reinforcing the symmetric model. Additionally, we advocate starting from realistic scenarios, rather than writing artificial code just to exercise newly-learned routines.

48.1 Introduction

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Introduction

The MPI library~ [mpi-reference,mpi-documents] is the \textit{de facto} tool for large scale parallelism as it is used in engineering sciences. In this paper we want to discuss the manner it is usually taught, and propose a rethinking.

We argue that the topics are typically taught in a sequence that is essentially dictated by level of complexity in the implementation, rather than by conceptual considerations. Our argument will be for a sequencing of topics, and use of examples, that is motivated by typical applications of the MPI library, and that explicitly targets the required mental model of the parallelism model underlying MPI.

We have written an open-source textbook~ [Eijkhout:MPI] with exercise sets that follows the proposed sequencing of topics and the motivating applications.

48.1.1 Short background on MPI

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Introduction > Short background on MPI

The MPI library dates back to the early days of cluster computing, the first half of the 1990s. It was an academic/industrial collaboration to unify earlier, often vendor-specific, message passing libraries. MPI is typically used to code large-scale FEM and other physical simulation applications, which share characteristics of a relatively static distribution of large amounts of data --~hence the use of clusters to increase size of the target problem~-- and the need for very efficient exchange of small amounts of data.

The main motivation for MPI is the fact that it can be scaled to more or less arbitrary scales, currently up to millions of cores~ [Balaji:PPL-mpi-on-1M] . Contrast this with threaded programming, which is limited more or less by the core count on a single node, currently about~70.

Considering this background, the target audience for MPI teaching consists of upper level undergraduate students, graduate students, and even post-doctoral researchers who are engaging for the first time in large scale simulations. The typical participant in an MPI course is likely to understand more than the basics of linear algebra and some amount of numerics of PDE .

48.1.2 Distributed memory parallelism

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Introduction > Distributed memory parallelism

Corresponding to its origins in cluster computing, MPI targets distributed memory parallelism\footnote{Recent additions to the MPI standard target shared memory too.}. Here, network-connected cluster nodes run codes that share no data, but synchronize through explicit messages over the network. Its main model for parallelism is described as SPMD : multiple instances of a single program run on the processing elements, each operating on their own data. The MPI library then implements the communication calls that allow processes to combine and exchange data.

While MPI programs can solve many or all of the same problems that can be solved with a multicore approach, the programming approach is different, and requires an adjustment in the programmer's `mental model'~ [Dehnadi:meta-analysis,WasonJL:thinking] of the parallel execution. This paper addresses the question of how to teach MPI to best effect this shift in mindset.

\textbf{Outline of this paper.} We use section~ 55.2 to address explicitly the mental models that govern parallel thinking and parallel programming, pointing out why MPI is different, and difficult initially. In section~ 55.3 we consider the way MPI is usually taught, while in section~ 55.4 we offer an alternative that is less likely to lead to an incorrect mental model.

Some details of our proposed manner of teaching are explored in sections 55.5 , 55.6 , 55.7 . We conclude with discussion in sections 55.8 and~ 55.9 .

48.2 Implied mental models

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Implied mental models

Denning~ [Denning:compthinking2017] argued how computational thinking consists in finding an abstract machine (a~`computational model') that solves the problem in a simple algorithmic way. In our case of teaching parallel programming, the complication to this story is that the problem to be solved is already a computational system. That doesn't lessen the need to formulate an abstract model, since the full explanation of MPI's workings are unmanageable for a beginning programmer, and often not needed for practical purposes.

In this section we consider in more detail the mental models that students may implicitly be working under, and the problems with them; targeting the right mental model will then be the subject of later sections. The two (interrelated) aspects of a correct mental model for distributed memory programming are control and synchronization. We here discuss how these can be misunderstood by students.

48.2.1 The traditional view of parallelism

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Implied mental models > The traditional view of parallelism

The problem with mastering the MPI library is that beginning programmers take a while to overcome a certain mental model for parallelism. In this model, which we can call `sequential semantics' (or more whimsically the `big index finger' model), there is only a single strand of execution\footnote{We carefully avoid the word `thread' which carries many connotations in the context of parallel programming.}, which we may think of as a big index finger going down the source code.

This mental model corresponds closely to the way algorithms are described in the mathematical literature of parallelism, and it is actually correct to an extent in the context of threaded libraries such as OpenMP, where there is indeed initially a single thread of execution, which in some places spawns a team of threads to execute certain sections of code in parallel. However, in MPI this model is factually incorrect, since there are always multiple processes active, with none essentially priviliged over others, and no shared or central data store.

48.2.2 The misconceptions of centralized control

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Implied mental models > The misconceptions of centralized control

The sequential semantics mental model that, as described above, underlies much of the theoretical discussion of parallelism, invites the student to adopt certain programming techniques, such as the master-worker approach to parallel programming. While this is often the right approach with thread-based coding, where we indeed have a master thread and spawned threads, it is usually incorrect for MPI . The strands of execution in an MPI run are all long-living processes (as opposed to dynamically spawned threads), and are symmetric in their capabilities and execution.

Lack of recognition of this process symmetry also induces students to solve problems by having a form of `central data store' on one process, rather than adopting a symmetric, distributed, storage model. For instance, we have seen a student solve a data transposition problem by collecting all data on process~0, and subsequently distributing it again in transposed form. While this may be reasonable\footnote {To first order; second order effects such as affinity complicate this story.} in shared memory with OpenMP, with MPI it is unrealistic in that no process is likely to have enough storage for the full problem. Also, this introduces a sequential bottleneck in the execution.

In conclusion, we posit that beginning MPI programmers may suffer from a mental model that makes them insufficiently realize the symmetry of MPI processes, and thereby arrive at inefficient and nonscalable solutions.

48.2.3 The reality of distributed control

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Implied mental models > The reality of distributed control

An MPI program run consists of multiple independent threads of control. One problem in recognizing this is that there is only a single source code, so there is an inclination to envision the program execution as a single thread of control: the above-mentioned `index finger' going down the statements of the source. A second factor contributing to this view is that a parallel code incorporates statements with values () that are replicated over all processes. It is easy to view these as centrally executed.

Interestingly, work by Ben-David Kolikant~ [Kolikant:tickets] shows that students with no prior knowledge of concurrency, when invited to consider parallel activities, will still think in terms of centralized solutions. This shows that distributed control, such as it appears in MPI , is counterintuitive and needs explicit enforcement in its mental model. In particular, we explicitly target process symmetry and process differentiation.

The centralized model can still be maintained in MPI to an extent, since the scalar operations that would be executed by a single thread become replicated operations in the MPI processes. The distinction between sequential execution and replicated execution escapes many students at first, and in fact, since nothing it gained by explaining this, we do not do so.

48.2.4 The misconception of synchronization

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Implied mental models > The misconception of synchronization

Even with multiple threads of control and distributed data, there is still a temptation to see execution as `bulk synchronous processing' (BSP  [Valiant:1990:BSP] ). Here, the execution proceeds by supersteps, implying that processes are largely synchronized. (The BSP model has several components more, which are usually ignored, notably one-sided communication and processor oversubscription.)

Supersteps as a computational model allow for small differences in control flow, for instance conditional inside a big parallelizable loop, but otherwise imply a form of centralized control (as above) on the level of major algorithm steps. However, codes using the pipeline model of parallelism, such idioms as

MPI_Recv( /* from: */ my_process-1)
// do some major work
MPI_Send( /* to  : */ my_process+1)

fall completely outside either the sequential semantics or BSP model and require an understanding of one process' control being dependent on another's. Gaining an mental model for this sort of unsynchronized execution is nontrivial to achieve. We target this explicitly in section  55.5.1 .

48.3 Teaching MPI, the usual way

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, the usual way

The MPI library is typically taught as follows. After an introduction about parallelism, covering concepts such as speedup and shared versus distributed memory parallelism, students learn about the initialization and finalization routines, and the MPI_Comm_size and MPI_Comm_rank calls for querying the number of processes and the rank of the current process.

After that, the typical sequence is

  1. two-sided communication, with first blocking and later nonblocking variants;
  2. collectives; and
  3. any number of advanced topics such as derived data types, one-sided communication, subcommunicators, MPI I/O et cetera, in no particular order.

This sequence is defensible from a point of the underlying implementation: the two-sided communication calls are a close map to hardware behavior, and collectives are both conceptually equivalent to, and can be implemented as, a sequence of point-to-point communication calls. However, this is not a sufficient justification for teaching this sequence of topics.

48.3.1 Criticism

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, the usual way > Criticism

We offer three points of criticism against this traditional approach to teaching MPI.

First of all, there is no real reason for teaching collectives after two-sided routines. They are not harder, nor require the latter as prerequisite. In fact, their interface is simpler for a beginner, requiring one line for a collective, as opposed to at least two for a send/receive pair, probably surrounded by conditionals testing the process rank. More importantly, they reinforce the symmetric process view, certainly in the case of the MPI_All... routines.

Our second point of criticism is regarding the blocking and nonblocking two-sided communication routines. The blocking routines are typically taught first, with a discussion of how blocking behavior can lead to load unbalance and therefore inefficiency. The nonblocking routines are then motivated from a point of latency hiding and solving the problems inherent in blocking. In our view such performance considerations should be secondary. Nonblocking routines should instead be taught as the natural solution to a conceptual problem, as explained below.

Thirdly, starting with point-to-point routines stems from a CSP [Hoare:CSP] view of a program: each process stands on its own, and any global behavior is an emergent property of the run. This may make sense for the teacher who know how concepts are realized `under the hood', but it does not lead to additional insight with the students. We believe that a more fruitful approach to MPI programming starts from the global behavior, and then derives the MPI process in a top-down manner.

48.3.2 Teaching MPI and OpenMP

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, the usual way > Teaching MPI and OpenMP

In scientific computing, another commonly used parallel programming system is OpenMP  [OpenMP:spec] . OpenMP and MPI are often taught together, with OpenMP taught earlier because it is supposedly easier, or because its parallelism would be easier to grasp. Regardless our opinion on the first estimate, we argue that OpenMP should be taught after MPI because of its `central control' parallelism model. If students come to associate parallelism with a model that has a `master thread' and `parallel regions' they will find it much harder to make idiomatic use of the symmetric model of MPI.

48.4 Teaching MPI, our proposal

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal

As alternative to the above sequence of introducing MPI concepts, we propose a sequence that focuses on practical scenarios, and that actively reinforces the mental model of SPMD execution.

Such reinforcement is often an immediate consequence of our strategy of illustrating MPI constructs in the context of an application: most MPI applications (as we shall briefly discuss next) operate on large `distributed objects'. This immediately leads to a mental model of the workings of each process being the `projection' onto that process of the global calculation. The opposing view, where the overall computation is emergent from the individual processes, is the CSP model mentioned above.

48.4.1 Motivation from applications

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Motivation from applications

The typical application for MPI comes from Computational Science and Engineering, such as N-body problems, aerodynamics, shallow water equations, Lattice Boltzman methods, weather modeling with Fast Fourier Transform. Of these, the PDE based applications can readily be explained to need a number of MPI mechanisms.

Nonnumeric applications exist:

  • Graph algorithms such as shortest-path or PageRank are straightforward to explain sequentially. However, the distributed memory algorithms need to be approached fundamentally different from the more naive shared memory variants. Thus they require a good amount of background knowledge. Additionally, they do not feature the regular communications that one-dimensional PDE applications have. Scalability arguments make this story even more complicated. Thus, these algorithms are in fact a logical next topic after discussion of parallel PDE algorithm.
  • N-body problems, in their naive implementation, are easy to explain to any student who knows inverse-square laws such as gravity. It is a good illustration of some collectives, but nothing beyond that.
  • Sorting. Sorting algorithms based on a sorting network (this includes bubblesort, but not quicksort) can be used as illustration. In fact, we use odd-even transposition sort as a `midterm' exam assignment, which can be solved with MPI_Sendrecv . Algorithms such as bitonic sort can be used to illustrate some advanced concepts, but quicksort, which is relatively easy to explain as a serial algorithm, or even in shared memory, is quite hard in MPI .
  • Point-to-point operations can also be illustrated by graphics operations such as a `blur', since these correspond to a `stencil' applied to a cluster of pixels. Unfortunately, this example suffers from the fact that neither collectives, nor irregular communications have a use in this application. Also, using graphics to illustrate simple MPI point-to-point communication is unrealistic in two ways: first, to start out simple we have to posit a one-dimensional pixel array; secondly, graphics is hardly ever of the scale that necessitates distributed memory, so this example is far from `real world'. (Ray tracing is naturally done distributed, but that has a completely different computational structure.)

Based on this discussion of possible applications, and in view of the likely background of course attendants, we consider Finite Difference solution of PDEs as a prototypical application that exercises both the simplest and more sophisticated mechanisms. During a typical MPI training, even a one-day short course, we insert a lecture on sparse matrices and their computational structure to motivate the need for various MPI constructs.

48.4.2 Process symmetry

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Process symmetry

Paradoxically, the first way to get students to appreciate the notion of process symmetry in MPI is to run a non-MPI program. Thus, students are asked to write a `hello world' program, and execute this with mpiexec , as if it were an MPI program. Every process executes the print statement identically, bearing out the total symmetry between the processes.

Next, students are asked to insert the initialize and finalize statements, with three different `hello world' statements before, between, and after them. This will prevent any notion of the code between initialization and finalization being considered as an OpenMP style `parallel region'.

A simple test to show that while processes are symmetric they are not identical is offered by the exercise of using the MPI_Get_processor_name function, which will have different output for some or all of the processes, depending on how the hostfile was arranged.

48.4.3 Functional parallelism

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Functional parallelism

The MPI_Comm_rank function is introduced as a way of distinguishing between the MPI processes. Students are asked to write a program where only one process prints the output of MPI_Comm_size .


WRAPFIGURE 48.1: Calculation of $\pi/4$ by Riemann sums

{r}{1.2in} Having different execution without necessarily different data is a case of `functional parallelism'. At this point there are few examples that we can assign. For instance, in order to code the evaluation of an integral by Riemann sums ($\pi/4=\int_0^1\sqrt{1-x^2}dx$ is a popular one) would need a final sum collective, which has not been taught at this point.

A possible example would be primality testing, where each process tries to find a factor of some large integer $N$ by traversing a subrange of $[2,\sqrt N]$, and printing a message if a factor is found. Boolean satisfiability problems form another example, where again a search space is partitioned without involving any data space; a process finding a satisfying input can simply print this fact. However, this example requires background that students typically don't have.

48.4.4 Introducing collectives

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Introducing collectives

At this point we can introduce collectives, for instance to find the maximum of a random value that is computed locally on each process. This requires teaching the code for random number generation and, importantly, setting a process-dependent random number seed. Generating random 2D or 3D coordinates and finding the center of mass is an examples that requires a send and receive buffer of length greater than 1, and illustrates that reductions are then done pointwise.

These examples evince both process symmetry and a first form of local data. However, a thorough treatment of distributed parallel data will come in the discussion of point-to-point routines.

It is an interesting question whether we should dispense with `rooted' collectives such as MPI_Reduce at first, and start with MPI_Allreduce \footnote{The {\tt MPI\_Reduce} call performs a reduction on data found on all processes, leaving the result on a `root' process. With {\tt MPI\_Allreduce} the result is left on all processes.} The latter is more symmetric in nature, and has a buffer treatment that is easier to explain; it certainly reinforces the symmetric mindset. There is also essentially no difference in efficiency.

Certainly, in most applications the `allreduce' is the more common mechanism, for instance where the algorithm requires computations such as \[ \bar y \leftarrow \bar x/\| \bar x\| \] where $x,y$ are distributed vectors. The quantity $\|\bar x\|$ is then needed on all processes, making the Allreduce the natural choice. The rooted reduction is typically only used for final results. Therefore we advocate introducing both rooted and nonrooted collectives, but letting the students initially do exercises with the nonrooted variants.

This has the added advantage of not bothering the students initially with the asymmetric treatment of the receive buffer between the root and all other processes.

48.4.5 Distributed data

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Distributed data

As motivation for the following discussion of point-to-point routines, we now introduce the notion of distributed data. In its simplest form, a parallel program operates on a linear array the dimensions of which exceed the memory of any single process.

\begin{figure*} [ht]

MAIN: A distributed array versus multiple local arrays


The lecturer stresses that the global structure of the distributed array is only `in the programmer's mind': each MPI process sees an array with indexing starting at zero. The following snippet of code is given for the students to use in subsequent exercises: {\small

int myfirst = .....;
for (int ilocal=0; ilocal<nlocal; ilocal++) {
   int iglobal = myfirst+ilocal;
   array[ilocal] = f(iglobal);


At this point, the students can code a second variant of the primality testing exercise above, but with an array allocated to store the integer range. Since collectives are now known, it becomes possible to have a single summary statement from one process, rather than a partial result statement from each.

The inner product of two distributed vectors is a second illustration of working with distributed data. In this case, the reduction for collecting the global result is slightly more useful than the collective in the previous examples. For this example no translation from local to global numbering is needed.

48.4.6 Point-to-point motivated from operations on distributed data

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Point-to-point motivated from operations on distributed data

We now state the importance of local combining operations such as \[ y_i=\bigl( x_{i-1}+x_i+x_{i+1} \bigr)/3\colon i=1,…,N-1 \] applied to an array. Students who know about PDEs will recognize that with different coefficients this is the heat equation; for others a graphics `blur' operation can be used as illustration, if they accept that a one-dimensional pixel array is a stand-in for a true graphic.

Under the 'owner computes' regime, where the process that stores location $y_i$ performs the full calculation of that quantity, we see the need for communication in order to compute the first and last element of the local part of $y$:

We then state that this data transfer is realized in MPI by two-sided send/receive pairs.

48.4.7 Detour: deadlock and serialization

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Detour: deadlock and serialization

The concept of `blocking' is now introduced, and we discuss how this can lead to deadlock. A more subtle behavior is `unexpected serialization': processes interacting to give serial behavior on a code that conceptually should be parallel. (The classroom protocol is discussed in detail in section  55.5.1 .) For completeness, the `eager limit' can be discussed.

This introduces students to an interesting phenomenon in the concept of parallel correctness: a program may give the right result, but not with the proper parallel efficiency. Asking a class to come up with a solution that does not have a running time proportional the number of processes, will usually lead to at least one student suggesting splitting processes in odd and even subsets. The limits to this approach, code complexity and the reliance on regular process connectivity, are explained to the students as a preliminary to the motivation for nonblocking sends; section  55.4.10 .

48.4.8 Detour: ping-pong

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Detour: ping-pong

At this point we briefly abandon the process symmetry, and consider the ping-pong operation between two processes A and B\footnote {In this operations, process A sends to B, and B subsequenty sends to A. Thus the time for a message is half the time of a ping-pong. It is not possible to measure a single message directly, since processes can not be synchronized that finely.}. We ask students to consider what the ping-pong code looks like for A and, for B. Since we are working with SPMD code, we arrive at a program where the A code and B code are two branches of a conditional.

We ask the students to implement this, and do timing with MPI_Wtime . The implementation of the ping-pong is itself a good exercises in SPMD thinking; finding the right sender/receiver values usually takes the students a nontrivial amount of time. Many of them will initially write a code that deadlocks.

The concepts of latency and bandwidth can be introduced, as the students test the ping-pong code on messages of increasing size. The concept of halfbandwidth can be introduced by letting half of all processes execute a ping-pong with a partner process in the other half.

48.4.9 Back to data exchange

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Back to data exchange

The foregoing detours into the behavior of two-sided send and receive calls were necessary, but they introduced asymmetric behavior in the processes. We return to the averaging operation given above, and with it to a code that treats all processes symmetrically. In particular, we argue that, except for the first and last, each process exchanges information with its left and right neighbor.

This could be implemented with blocking sends and receive calls, but students recognize how this could be somewhere between tedious and error-prone. Instead, to prevent deadlock and serialization as described above, we now offer the MPI_Sendrecv routine\footnote{The {\tt MPI\_Sendrecv} call combines a send a receive operation, specifying for each process both a sending and receiving communication. The execution guarantees that no deadlock or serialization will occur.}. Students are asked to implement the classroom exercise above with the sendrecv routine. Ideally, they use timing or tracing to gather evidence that no serialization is happening.

As a nontrivial example (in fact, this takes enough programming that one might assign it as an exam question, rather than an exercise during a workshop) students can now implement an odd-even transposition sort algorithm using MPI_Sendrecv as the main tool. For simplicity they can use a single array element per process. (If each process has a subarray one has to make sure their solution has the right parallel complexity. It is easy to make errors here and implement a correct algorithm that, however, performs too slowly.)

Note that students have at this point not done any serious exercises with the blocking communication calls, other than the ping-pong. No such exercises will in fact be done.

48.4.10 Nonblocking sends

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Nonblocking sends

Nonblocking sends are now introduced as the solution to a specific problem: the above schemes required paired-up processes, or careful orchestration of send and receive sequences. In the case of irregular communications this is no longer possible or feasible. Life would be easy if we could declare `this data needs to be sent' or `these messages are expected', and then wait for these messages collectively. Given this motivation, it is immediately clear that multiple send or receive buffers are needed, and that requests need to be collected.

Implementing the three-point averaging with nonblocking calls is at this point an excellent exercise.

Note that we have here motivated the nonblocking routines to solve a symmetric problem. Doing this should teach the students the essential point that each nonblocking call needs its own buffer and generates its own request. Viewing nonblocking routines as a performance alternative to blocking routines is likely to lead to students re-using buffers or failing to save the request objects. Doing so is a correctness bug that is very hard to find, and at large scale it induces a memory leak since many requests objects are lost.

48.4.11 Taking it from here

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Teaching MPI, our proposal > Taking it from here

At this point various advanced topics can be discussed. For instance, Cartesian topologies can be introduced, extending the linear averaging operation to a higher dimensional one. Subcommunicators can be introduced to apply collectives to rows and columns of a matrix. The recursive matrix transposition algorithm is also an excellent application of subcommunicators.

However, didactically these topics do not require the careful attention that the introduction of the basic concepts needs, so we will not go into further detail here.

48.5 `Parallel computer games'

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > `Parallel computer games'

Part of the problem in developing an accurate mental model of parallel computation is that there is no easy way to visualize the execution. While sequential execution can be imagined with the `big index finger' model (see section  48.2.1 ), the possibily unsynchronized execution of an MPI program makes this a gross simplification. Running a program in a parallel graphical environment (such as the DDT debugger or the Eclipse PTP IDE) would solve this, but they introduce much learning overhead. Ironically, the low tech solution of

mpiexec -n 4 xterm -e gdb program

is fairly insightful, but having to learn gdb is again a big hurdle.

We have arrived at the somewhat unusual solution of having students act out the program in front of the class. With each student acting out the program, any interaction is clearly visible to an extent that is hard to achieve any other way.

48.5.1 Sequentialization

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > `Parallel computer games' > Sequentialization

Our prime example is to illustrate the blocking behavior of MPI_Send and MPI_Recv \footnote{Blocking is defined as the process executing a send or receive call halting until the corresponding operation is executing.}. Deadlock is easy enough to understand as a consequence of blocking -- in the simplest case of deadlock to processes are both blocked expecting a receive from the other -- but there are more subtle effects that will come as a surprise to students. (This was alluded to in section  48.4.7 .)

Consider the following basic program:

  • Pass a data item to the next higher numbered process.

Note that this is conceptually a fully parallel program, so it should execute in time $O(1)$ in terms of the number of processes.

In terms of send and receive calls, the program becomes

  • Send data to the next higher process;
  • Receive data from the next lower process.

The final detail concerns the boundary conditions: the first process has nothing to receive and the last one has nothing to send. This makes the final version of the program:

  • If you are not the last process, send data to the next higher process; then
  • If you are not the first process, receive data from the next lower process.

To have students act this out, we tell them to hold a pen in their right hand, and put the left hand in a pocket or behind their back. Thus, they have only one `communication channel'. The `send data' instruction becomes `turn to your right and give your pen', and `receive data' becomes `turn to your left and receive a pen'.

Executing this program, the students first all turn to the right, and they see that giving data to a neighbor is not possible because no one is executing the receive instruction. The last process is not sending, so moves on to the receive instruction, after which the penultimate process can receive, et cetera.

This exercise makes the students see, better than any explanation or diagram, how a parallel program can compute the right result, but with unexpectedly low performance because of the interaction of the processes. (In fact, we have had explicit feedback that this game was the biggest lightbulb moment of the class.)

48.5.2 Ping-pong

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > `Parallel computer games' > Ping-pong

While in general we emphasize the symmetry of MPI processes, during the discussion of send and receive calls we act out the ping-pong operation (one process sending data to another, followed by the other sending data back), precisely to demonstrate how asymmetric actions are handled. For this, two students throw a pen back and forth between them, calling out `send' and `receive' when they do so.

The teacher then asks each student what program they executed, which is `send-receive' for the one, and `receive-send' for the other student. Incorporating this in the SPMD model then leads to a code with conditionals to determine the right action for the right process.

48.5.3 Collectives and other games

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > `Parallel computer games' > Collectives and other games

Other operations can be acted out by the class. For instance, the teacher can ask one student to add the grades of all students, as a proxy for a reduction operation. The class quickly sees that this will take a long time, and strategies such as taking by-row sums in the classroom quickly suggest themselves.

We have at one point tried to have a pair of student act out a `race condition' in shared memory programming, but modeling this quickly became too complicated to be convincing.

48.5.4 Remaining questions

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > `Parallel computer games' > Remaining questions

Even with our current approach, however, we still see students writing idioms that are contrary to the symmetric model. For instance, they will write

for (p=0; p<nprocs; p++)
  if (p==myrank)
    // do some function of p

This code computes the correct result, and with the correct performance behavior, but it still shows a conceptual misunderstanding. As one of the `parallel computer games' (section  48.5 ) we have put a student stand in front of the class with a sign `I am process 5', and go through the above loop out loud (`Am I process zero? No. Am I process one? No.') which quickly drives home the point about the futility of this construct.

48.6 Further course summary

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Further course summary

We have taught MPI based on the above ideas in two ways. First, we teach an academic class, that covers MPI, OpenMP, and general theory of parallelism in one semester. The typical enrollment is around 30 students, who do lab exercises and a programming project of their own choosing. We also teach a two-day intensive workshop (attendance 10--40 students depending on circumstances) of 6--8 hours per day. Students of the academic class are typically graduate or upper level undergraduate students; the workshops get attendance from post-docs, academics, and industry too. The typical background is applied math, engineering, physical sciences.

We cover the following topics, with division over two days in the workshop format:

  • Day 1: familiarity with SPMD, collectives, blocking and nonblocking two-sided communication.
  • Day 2: exposure to: sub-communicators, derived datatypes. Two of the following: MPI-I/O, one-sided communication, process management, the profiling and tools interfaces, neighborhood collectives.

48.6.1 Exercises

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Further course summary > Exercises

On day 1 the students do approximately 10 programming exercises, mostly finishing a skeleton code given by the instructor. For the day 2 material students do two exercises per topic, again starting with a given skeleton. (Skeleton codes are available as part of the repository  [Eijkhout:MPI] .)

The design of these skeleton codes is an interesting problem in view of our concern with mental models. The skeletons are intended to take the grunt work away from the students, to both indicate a basic code structure and relieve them from making elementary coding errors that have no bearing on learning MPI. On the other hand, the skeletons should leave enough unspecified that multiple solutions are possible, including wrong ones: we want students to be confronted with conceptual errors in their thinking, and a too-far-finished skeleton would prevent them from doing that.

Example: the prime finding exercise mentioned above (which teaches the notion of functional parallelim) has the following skeleton: {\small

int myfactor;
// Specify the loop header:
// for ( ... myfactor ... )
for (
    /**** your code here ****/
    ) {
  if (bignum%myfactor==0)
    printf("Process %d found factor %d\n",

} This leaves open the possibility of both a blockwise and a cyclic distribution of the search space, as well as incorrect solutions where each process runs through the whole search space.

48.6.2 Projects

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Further course summary > Projects

Students in our academic course do a programming project in place of a final exam. Students can choose between one of a set of standard projects, or doing a project of their own choosing. In the latter case, some students will do a project in context of their graduate research, which means that they have an existing codebase; others will write code from scratch. It is this last category, that will most clearly demonstrate their correct understanding of the mental model underlying SPMD programs. However, we note that this is only a fraction of the students in our course, a fraction made even smaller by the fact that we also give a choice of doing a project in OpenMP rather than MPI. Since OpenMP is, at least to the beginning programmer, simpler to use, there is an in fact a clear preference for it among the students who pick their own project.

48.7 Prospect for an online course

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Prospect for an online course

Currently the present author teaches MPI in the form of an academic course or short workshop, as outlined in section  48.6 . In both cases, lecture time is far less than lab time, making the setup very intensive in teacher time. It also means that this setup is not scalable to a larger number of students. Indeed, while the workshops are usually webcast, we have not sufficiently solved the problem of supporting remote students. (The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center offers courses that have remotely located teaching assistants, which seems a promising approach.) Such problems of support would be even more severe with an online course, where in-person support is completely absent.

One obvious solution to online teaching is automated grading: a student submits an exercise, which is then run through a checker program that tests the correct output. Especially if the programming assignment takes input, a checker script can uncover programming errors, notably in boundary cases.

However, the whole target of this paper is to uncover conceptual misunderstandings, for instance such as can lead to correct results with sub-optimal performance. In a classroom situation such misunderstandings are quickly caught and cleared up, but to achieve this in a context of automated grading we need to go further.

We have started experiments with actually parsing code submitted by the students. This effort started in a beginning programming class taught by the present author, but is now being extended to the MPI courses.

It is possible to uncover misconceptions in students' understanding by detecting the typical manifestations of such misconceptions. For instance, the code in section  48.5.4 can be uncovered by detecting a loop where the upper bound involves a variable that was set by MPI_Comm_size . Many MPI codes have no need for such a loop over all processes, so detecting one leads to an alert for the student.

Note that no tools exist for such automated evaluation. The source code analysis needed falls far short of full parsing. On the other hand, the sort of constructs is it supposed to detect, are normally not of interest to the writers of compilers and source translators. This means that by writing fairly modest parsers (say, less than 200 lines of python) we can perform a sophisticated analysis of the students' codes. We hope to report on this in more detail in a follow-up paper.

48.8 Evaluation and discussion

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Evaluation and discussion

At the moment, no rigorous evaluation of the efficacy of the above ideas has been done. We intend to perform a comparison between outcomes of the proposed way of teaching and the traditional way by comparing courses at two (or more) different institutions and from different syllabi. The evaluation will then be based on evaluating the independent programming project.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests that students are less likely to develop `centralized' solutions as described in section  48.2.2 . This was especially the case in our semester-long course, where the students have to design and implement a parallel programming project of their own choosing. After teaching the `symmetric' approach, no students wrote code based on a manager-worker model, or using centralized storage. In earlier semesters, we had seen students do this, even though this model was never taught as such.

48.9 Summary

crumb trail: > mpi-mental > Summary

In this paper we have introduced a nonstandard sequence for presenting the basic mechanisms in MPI. Rather than starting with sends and receives and building up from there, we start with mechanisms that emphasize the inherent symmetry between processes in the SPMD programming model. This symmetry requires a substantial shift in mindset of the programmer, and therefore we target it explicitly.

In general, it is the opinion of this author that it pays off to teach from the basis of instilling a mental model, rather than of presenting topics in some order of (perceived) complexity or sophistication.

Comparing our presentation as outlined above to the standard presentation, we recognize the downplaying of the blocking send and receive calls. While students learn these, and in fact learn them before other send and receive mechanisms, they will recognize the dangers and difficulties in using them, and will have the combined sendrecv call as well as nonblocking routines as standard tools in their arsenal.

Back to Table of Contents