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Programming Models

A wide variety of programming models are used on NERSC systems. The most common is MPI + OpenMP, but many others are supported.

Parallel programming models at NERSC

Since the transition from vector to distributed memory (MPP) supercomputer architectures, the majority of HPC applications deployed on NERSC resources have evolved to use MPI as their sole means of expressing parallelism. As single processor core compute nodes on MPP architectures gave way to multicore processors, applying the same abstraction (processes passing messages) to each available core remained an attractive alternative - no code changes were required, and vendors made an effort to design optimized fast-paths for on-node communication.

However, as on-node parallelism rapidly increases and competition for shared resources per processing element (memory per core, bandwidth per core, etc.) does as well, now is a good time to assess whether applications can benefit from a different abstraction for expressing on-node parallelism. Examples of desirable functionality potentially available through the latter include more efficient utilization of resources (e.g. through threading) or the ability to exploit unique architectural features (e.g. vectorization).

Perlmutter, and beyond: Performance and portability

Perlmutter has a mixture of CPU-only nodes and CPU + GPU nodes. Each CPU + GPU nodes has 4 GPUs per CPU node.

NERSC has made an effort to provide guidance on parallel programming approaches. Chief among these is the combination of MPI for inter-node parallelism and OpenMP for intra-node parallelism (or potentially MPI per NUMA domain with OpenMP within each).

Why MPI + OpenMP?

The reasons we've chosen to suggest this approach to our users are many. Most importantly, it provides:

A model that allows application developers to think differently about inter- vs. intra-node parallelism (which will be key to obtaining good performance); A "gradual" onramp (in terms of application refactoring / modification) for existing pure-MPI applications to isolate and express intra-node parallelism; A convenient (compiler-directive agnostic) way of expressing SIMD parallelism at the loop or function level; and A model that could potentially offer portability across a range of new supercomputing architectures characterized by increased intra-node parallelism (especially with the OpenMP device directives introduced in 4.0, and subsequent improvements in 4.5). We must stress, however, that MPI + OpenMP might not be the right choice for all applications. For example, applications that already make use of a different threading abstraction (e.g. Pthreads, C++11, TBB, etc.), or use a PGAS programming model for one-sided communication, or use a thread-aware task-based runtime system, may already have chosen for model that maps well to intra-node parallelism as well as inter-node.

Indeed, the key point we would like to make is that inter and intra-node parallelism must be understood and treated differently in order to obtain good performance on many-core architectures like Perlmutter.

Combining Programming Models

Although not meant to be an exhaustive list, here we briefly examine a number of options that we see as potentially attractive to our users. In general, a recommended mixture of parallelism models would be to limit the number of processes (created via distributed memory parallelism, e.g. MPI) to a few instances per node where each process implements a shared-memory parallelism model (e.g. threads) which creates a minimum of nthreads = (ncores / nprocs). Then, optionally when targeting GPUs, within the shared-parallelism model, there are additional threads of execution that are reserved for asychronous communication with the GPU. While this certainly will not be a globally applicable model to all codes using NERSC resources, the reasons for this recommendation are as follows:

  • Limiting the number of processes within a node
    • Processes have separate memory address spaces
      • More separate memory spaces increases the total amount of memory used by the parallelism scheme
      • Communication between processes potentially requires using the network and an underlying copy and transfer of memory, whereas threads within the same memory address space can immediately "see" the updates
    • Separate memory address spaces can be emulated within threads using thread-local memory but other threads can still access that memory if given the address of that memory allocation.
      • E.g., in object-oriented codes, one can allocate entire objects in thread-local memory and have the master thread hold a list of the objects held by the worker threads.
  • Shared-memory model creating nthreads = (ncores / nprocs)
    • If a node contains 48 cores and 4 processes are spawned on that node, each process creating 12 threads for execution will enable the workload to saturate all 48 cores.
  • Additional threads of execution for asychronous communication with the GPU
    • Oversubscribing the number of threads (i.e. nthreads = (4 * ncores) / nprocs), the communication latency with the GPU can be hidden and the throughput can then be effectively increased.
      • When work is offloaded to the GPU, there are CPU cycles that are not being utilized while a thread waits on the communication with the GPU.
      • This can be achieved via one large thread-pool implementing nthreads = (4 * ncores) / nprocs or nthreads = (ncores / nprocs) each implementing an addition 4 threads.
    • Enabling asynchronous communication with GPU depends on programming model but for CUDA, it is achieved through CUDA streams.
      • In general, a single thread with multiple streams is less efficient that multiple CPU threads with one stream. In the former, the launching of kernels into different streams is a serial bottleneck where as in the latter, the coordination of launching of kernels is effectively parallelized.

Distributed memory (inter-node) parallelism

These programming models create separate parallel processes with independent memory address spaces.

Shared memory (intra-node) parallelism


These programming models create separate parallel "threads" of execution on the CPU within a process and share the memory address space.


These programming models support parallelism on general-purpose GPUs.