This lesson is in the early stages of development (Alpha version)

HPC Parallelisation For Novices

Parallel Estimation of Pi for Pedestrians


Teaching: 30 min
Exercises: 15 min
  • What are data parallel algorithms?

  • How can I estimate the yield of parallelization without writing one line of code?

  • How do I use multiple cores on a computer in my program?

  • Use the profiling data to calculate the theoretical speed-up.

  • Use the theoretical speed-up to decide for an implementation.

  • Use the multiprocessing module to create a pool of workers.

  • Let each worker have a task and improve the runtime of the code as the workers can work independent of each other.

  • Measure the run time of both the parallel version of the implementation and compare it to the serial one.

Having the profiling data, our estimate of pi is a valuable resource.

$ kernprof -l ./ 50000000
[serial version] required memory 572.205 MB
[serial version] pi is 3.141728 from 50000000 samples
Wrote profile results to
$ python3 -m line_profiler
Timer unit: 1e-06 s

Total time: 2.04205 s
File: ./
Function: inside_circle at line 7

Line #  Hits    Time  Per Hit % Time  Line Contents
     7                                @profile
     8                                def inside_circle(total_count):
    10     1  749408 749408.0   36.7      x = np.float32(np.random.uniform(
    11     1  743129 743129.0   36.4      y = np.float32(np.random.uniform(
    13     1  261149 261149.0   12.8      radii = np.sqrt(x*x + y*y)
    15     1  195070 195070.0    9.6      filtered = np.where(radii<=1.0)
    16     1   93290  93290.0    4.6      count = len(radii[filtered])
    18     1       2      2.0    0.0      return count

The key points were, that inside_circle consumed the majority of the runtime (99%). Even more so, the generation of random numbers consumed the most parts of the runtime (73%).

More over, the generation of random numbers in x and in y is independent (two separate lines of code). So there is another way to exploit data independence:

Illustration of drawing random number pairs `x` and `y` and their dependency
with respect to the dimension

Numpy madness

Numpy is a great library for doing numerical computations in python (this is where its name originates). In terms of readability however, the numpy syntax does somewhat obscure what is happening under the hood. Let’s go through an example:

a = np.random.uniform(size=10)
b = np.random.uniform(size=10)

c = a + b

First of, np.random.uniform(size=10) creates a collection of 10 random numbers. Cross check this by printing it to the terminal.

Second, c = a + b refers to the plus operation performed item by item of the participating arrays or lists. It can be rewritten as:

for i in range(len(a)):
  c[i] = a[i] + b[i]

In technical terms, numpy is a vectorizing library. It tries to compress for-loop-lie operations into singular statements if each iteration of for-loop-operation is independent of the previous and/or next.

Another approach is trying to compute as many independent parts as possible in parallel. In Lola’s case, we can make the observation that each pair of numbers in x and y is independent of each other.

Illustration of drawing random number pairs `x` and `y` and their dependency
with respect to the pair generated

This behavior is often referred to as data parallelism.

Data parallel in Reality

What of the following is a task, that can be parallelized in real life:

  1. Manually copying a book and producing a clone
  2. Clearing the table after dinner
  3. Rinsing the dishes with one sink
  4. A family getting dressed to leave the apartment for a birthday party

Think about what the inputs are to the task at hand. Can individual items of the inputs be processed independent of each other?


  1. not parallel typically - as we have to start with one book and only have one reader/writer
  2. parallel, the more people help, the better
  3. not parallel, every piece of cutlery and dishes needs to go through one sink
  4. parallel, each family member can get dressed independent of each other

Data Parallel Code 1

Does this code expose data independence?

my_data = [ 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ... ]

for i in range(len(my_data)):
  my_data[i] = pi*my_data[i]


Yes, each iteration at a given value for i is independent of any other value. We multiply the value that is currently stored at my_data[i] by pi and store the result back into my_data[i].

The same code in numpy would be:

my_data = np.array([ 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ... ])

my_data = pi*my_data

Data Parallel Code 2

Does this code expose data independence?

my_data = [ 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ... ]

for i in range(len(my_data)):
  if my_data[i] % 2 == 0:
      my_data[i] = 42
      my_data[i] = 3*my_data[i]


Yes, each iteration at a given value for i is independent of any other value even though we have an if-statement here. We set every even indexed value in my_data to 42. For any other value in my_data, we multiply the value that is currently stored by 3 and store the result back into my_data[i].

The same code in numpy would be:

my_data = np.array([ 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ... ])

my_data[np.where(my_data % 2 == 0)] = 42
my_data[np.where(my_data % 2 != 0)] = 3*my_data[np.where(my_data % 2 != 0)]

Data Parallel Code 3

Does this code expose data independence?

from random import randint
my_data = [ 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, ... ]

for i in range(1,len(my_data)):
  my_data[i] = 42*my_data[i-1]


No, iteration i depends on the iteration before it, i.e. on iteration i-1. This is hard if not impossible to parallelize.

Lola now wonders how to proceed. There are multiple options at her disposal (see the 2 strategies above). But given her limited time budget, she thinks that trying them all out is tedious. She discusses this with her office mate over lunch. Her colleague mentions that a similar type of consideration was first discussed by Gene Amdahl in 1967 and goes by the name of Amdahl’s law. This law provides a simple way of calculating how fast a program can get when parallelized for a fixed problem size. By profiling her code, Lola has all the ingredients to make this calculation. So they both embark on this exercise.

The performance improvement of a program, given an original implementation and an improved one is referred to as speed-up S. Given a program, we can measure the runtime of the code that can benefit later on from use of more resources (i.e. parallel computations as in our case). We call this quantity portion p to parallelize (or short parallel portion).

For this parallel portion, we also need to know how much this can be sped-up effectively by the changes we have in mind. We will refer to this quantity as serial speed-up s (code in the parallel portion that was once serial will be sped-up).

Given all these ingredients, the theoretical speed-up of the whole program is given by:

S = ---------------
    (1 - p) + (p/s)

Independent Coordinates

Let’s take Lola’s idea of executing the generation of random numbers per coordinate x and y from above:

Illustration of drawing random number pairs `x` and `y` and their
dependency with respect to the dimension

The parallel portion of these two operations amounts to 37+36=73% of the overall runtime, i.e. p = 73% = 0.73. As we want to rewrite the generation of random numbers in x into one independent task and the generation of random numbers in y into another one, the speed-up s = 2.

           1                   1          1
S = -------------------  = --------- = ------- = 1.575
    1 - 0.73 + (0.73/2)    1 - 0.365    0.635

S for practical matters is at this point just a number. But this can bring us in a position, where we can rate different approaches for their viability to parallelize.

Chunking the data

Take Lola’s position and compute the theoretical speed up if she would partition the generation of random numbers in 4 parts. In other words, she would rewrite inside_circle as:

def inside_circle(total_count):

   count_per_chunk = int(total_count/4)
   x = np.float32(np.random.uniform(size=count_per_chunk))
   y = np.float32(np.random.uniform(size=count_per_chunk))

   for i in range(1,4):
      x = np.append(x,np.float32(np.random.uniform(size=count_per_chunk)))
      y = np.append(y,np.float32(np.random.uniform(size=count_per_chunk)))

   radii = np.sqrt(x*x + y*y)

   filtered = np.where(radii<=1.0)
   count = len(radii[filtered])

   return count 

For the sake of the example, we assume that the line profile looks identical to the original implementation above. Compute the theoretical speed-up S! Which implementation should Lola choose now?


           1                   1
S = -------------------  =  -------- = 2.21
    1 - 0.73 + (0.73/4)      0.4525

Always go parallel! Right?

Profile this python application which computes how much disk space your python standard library consumes.

The algorithm works in 2 steps:

  1. create a list of absolute paths of all .py files in your python’s system folder
  2. loop over all paths from 1. and sum up the space on disk each file consumes

Is this a task worth parallelizing? Make a guess! Verify your answer using profiling and computing the theoretical speed-up possible.

So the bottom line(s) of Amdahl’s law are:

Comparison of different speed-ups and parallel portions

Surprise! More limits.

Until here s was of dubious nature. It was a property of the parallel implementation of our code. In practise, this number is not only limited algorithmically, but also by the hardware your code is running on.

Modern computers consist of 3 major parts most of the time:

  • a core processing unit (CPU)
  • some non-persistent memory (RAM)
  • input/output devices

(we omit disks, network cards, monitors, keyboards, GPUs, etc for the sake of argument)

When a program wants to perform a computation, it typically does the following

  1. read in some data
  2. store it in memory (RAM)
  3. perform computations on it using the CPU
  4. store the results back to RAM
  5. write the data to some output (monitor, disk)

Modern CPUs can do more than one thing at a time. They consist of more than one “device” than can perform a computation at a single point in time. This “device” is called a CPU core. When we want to perform some tasks in parallel, the amount of work that can be done in parallel is limited by the amount of CPU cores that can perform computations autonomously. Thus, the number of CPU cores is typically the hard limit for parallelizing any computation heavy program.

Keeping this in mind, Lola decides to split up the work for multiple cores. This requires Lola to split up the number of total samples by the number of cores available and calling count_inside on each of these partitions (or chunks):

Partitioning `x` and `y`

The number of partitions has to be limited by the number of CPU cores available. With this in mind, the estimate_pi method can be converted to run in parallel:

from multiprocessing import Pool

def estimate_pi(n_samples,n_cores):

    partitions = [ ]
    for i in range(n_cores):

    pool = Pool(processes=n_cores), partitions)

    total_count = sum(partitions)
    return (4.0 * sum(counts) / total_count)

We are using the multiprocessing module that comes with the python standard library. The first step is to create a list of numbers that contain the partitions. For this, n_samples is divided by the number of cores available on the machine, where this code is executed. The ratio has to be converted to an integer to ensure, that each partition is compatible to a length of an array. The construct used next is a process Pool. Due to technical details on how the python interpreter is built, we do not use a Pool of threads here. In other languages than python, threads are the more common idiom to represent independent strings of execution that share the same memory than the process they are created in. The process Pool creates n_cores processes and keeps them active as long as the Pool is active. Then will call inside_circle using an item of partitions as the argument. In other words, for each item in partitions, the inside_circle function is called once using the respective item as input argument. The result of these invocations of inside_circle are stored within the counts variable (which will have the same length as partitions eventually).

Partitioning `x` and `y` and results of reach partition

The last step required before calculating pi is to collect the individual results from the partitions and reduce it to one total_count of those random number pairs that were inside of the circle. Here the sum function loops over partitions and does exactly that. So let’s run our parallel implementation and see what it gives:

$ python3 ./ 1000000000
[parallel version] required memory 11444.092 MB
[using  20 cores ] pi is 3.141631 from 1000000000 samples

The good news is, the parallel implementation is correct. It estimates Pi to equally bad precision than our serial implementation. The question remains, did we gain anything? For this, Lola tries to the time system utility that can be found on all *nix installations and most certainly on compute clusters.

$ time python3 ./ 200000000
[serial version] required memory 2288.818 MB
[serial version] pi is 3.141604 from 200000000 samples

real	0m12.766s
user	0m10.543s
sys		0m2.101s
$ time python3 ./ 2000000000
[parallel version] required memory 2288.818 MB
[using  12 cores ] pi is 3.141642 from 200000000 samples

real	0m1.942s
user	0m12.097s
sys		0m2.813s

If the snippet from above is compared to the snippets earlier, you can see that time has been put before any other command executed at the prompt and 3 lines have been added to the output of our program. time reports 3 times and they are all different:

So from the above, Lola wants to compare the real time spent by her serial implementation (0m12.766) and compare it to the real time spent by her parallel implementation (0m1.942s). Apparently, her parallel program was 6.6 times faster than the serial implementation.

We can compare this to the maximum speed-up that is achievable: S = 1/(1 - 0.99 + 0.99/12) = 10.8 That means, our parallel implementation does already a good job, but only achieves 100*6.6/10.8 = 61.1% runtime improvement of what is possible. As achieving maximum speed-up is hardly ever possible, Lola leaves that as a good end of the day and leaves for home.

Adding up times

The output of the time command is very much bound to how a operating system works. In an ideal world, user and sys of serial programs should add up to real. Typically they never do. The reason is, that the operating systems used in HPC and on laptops or workstations are set up in a way, that the operating system decides which process receives time on the CPU (aka to perform computations). Once a process runs, it may however happen, that the system decides to intervene and have some other binary have a tiny slice of a CPU second while your application is executed. This is where the mismatch for user+sys and real comes from. Note also how the user time of the parallel program is a lot larger than the time that was actually consumed. This is because, time reports accumulated timings i.e. it adds up CPU seconds that were consumed in parallel.

Data Parallel for real, part 2

What of the following is a task, that can be parallelized in real life:

  1. Compressing the files in a directory
  2. Converting the currency in all rows of a large spreadsheet (10 million rows)
  3. Writing an e-mail in an online editor
  4. Watching a video on YouTube/vimeo/etc. or in a video player application


  1. parallel, each file can be compressed separately
  2. parallel, each row can be converted separately
  3. not parallel, we only have one writer (you)
  4. not parallel, you only have one consumer (you)

Line count again

Download this python script to your current directory. Run it by executing:

$ python3 *py

It should print something like this:

278 total

Examine the application if you can find data parallelism. If so parallelize it! Compare the timings!

Parallel word count

Download this python script to your current directory. Run it by executing:

$ python3
4231827 characters and 418812 words found in standard python libs

Examine the application if you can find data parallelism. If so parallelize it! Compare the timings!

Key Points

  • Amdahl’s law is a description of what you can expect of your parallelisation efforts.

  • Use the profiling data to calculate the time consumption of hot spots in the code.

  • The generation and processing of random numbers can be parallelized as it is a data parallel task.

  • Time consumption of a single application can be measured using the time utility.

  • The ratio of the run time of a parallel program divided by the time of the equivalent serial implementation, is called speed-up.