Parallel Programming Primer

A common misconception is that simply running your code on a cluster will result in your code running faster. Clusters do not run code faster by magic; for improved performance the code must be modified to run in parallel, and that modification must be explicitly done by the programmer. In other words, the burden of modifying code to take advantage of multiple cores or nodes is on the programmer.

Here we provide a high-level overview of the ways in which code is typically parallelized. We provide a brief introduction to the hardware and terms relevant for parallel computing, along with an overview of four common methods of parallelism. Although learning how to parallelize code is outside the scope of this resource, we do link to some examples, and at the end of this page we provide relevant resources for further learning.

For a more comprehensive introduction to parallel programming concepts, check Research Computing's workshop schedule for the next Primer on Parallel Programming workshop, or view materials and recordings from past workshops.


Serial versus Parallel Programming

Serial Programming

Serial programming is the default method of code execution. Serial code is run sequentially; meaning, only one instruction is processed at a time.

One problem block that is worked on in smaller pieces, one at a time.


Parallel Programming

Parallel programming involves breaking up code into smaller tasks or chunks that can be run simultaneously.

One big problem block is split into four medium blocks, and each medium block is worked on in smaller pieces, but at the same time.


Images sourced from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Introduction to Parallel Computing Tutorial.

Brief Introduction to Relevant Vocabulary

Computer Hardware (CPUs, GPUs, and Memory)

CPU-chip – CPU stands for Central Processing Unit. This is the computer's main processing unit; you can think of it as the 'brain' of the computer. This is the piece of hardware that performs calculations, moves data around, has access to the memory, etc. In systems such as Princeton's High Performance Computing clusters, CPU-chips are made of multiple CPU-cores.

CPU-core – A microprocessing unit on a CPU-chip. Each CPU-core can execute an independent set of instructions from the computer.

GPU – GPU stands for the Graphics Processing Unit. Originally intended to process graphics, in the context of parallel programming this unit can do a large number of simple arithmetic computations.

Memory – In this guide memory refers to Random-Access Memory, or RAM. The RAM unit stores the data that the CPU is actively working on.

One Intel computer chip with four cores on the chip.

A computer's processing power comes from its CPU-chip, or the Central Processing Unit. These days, faster CPU's are made by placing multiple mini-processors (also known as CPU-cores) on one CPU-chip. The CPU-chip in this image contains 4 CPU-cores. Princeton's Research Computing clusters use multi-core computers, with 32-128 cores per compute node.

Image Source:

Additional Parallelism Terminology

An understanding of threads and processes is also useful when discussing parallel programming concepts.

If you consider the code you need to run as one big job, to run that code in parallel you'll want to divide that one big job into several, smaller tasks^[Note that in SLURM scripts, the word task can be used to refer to a process.] that can be run at the same time. This is the general idea behind parallel programming.

When tasks are run as threads, the tasks all share direct access to a common region of memory. The mulitple threads are considered to belong to one process.

When tasks run as distinct processes, each process gets its own individual region of memory–even if run on the same computer.

To put it even more simply, processes have their own memory, while threads belong to a process and share memory with all of the other threads belonging to that process.


One rectangle (a computer).

If a box represents a computer,

One rectangle (a computer), with one circle inside it (one spot in memory) and four arrows extending out from each circle (four tasks to be run, with each task on one CPU-core).

and a task can be represented as line stemming from a spot in memory, then tasks run as threads can be represented as the above, where all threads have access to the same memory space,

One rectangle (a computer), with two circles inside it (two spots in memory, each running a separate process) and one arrow extending out from each circle (one task to be run on one CPU-core per process).

and tasks run as processes can be represented as the above, where each process has its own siloed memory.

Four Basic Types of Parallel Programming

The diagrams used in the following sections can be read according to this key diagram. Gray text in the diagram indicates the corresponding SLURM script parameter for each term. (If you are following the Guide to the Princeton Clusters course, note that SLURM will be covered in more detail later. We recommend ignoring the SLURM parameters for now, and re-visiting them in these diagrams after reading the SLURM section.)

A rectangle represents a computer (or node). Each circle inside a rectangle represent one spot in memory, which correspond to a process running on that node. Arrows extending out from each circle represent tasks, with each task on one CPU-core).

This schematic diagram lays out how nodes, processes, and threads will be represented in subsequent sections.


1. Embarassingly Parallel

This is the simplest type of parallelism to implement.

A project is embarassingly parallel if each task in a job can be run completely independently of other tasks. In other words, the program runs a bunch of copies of the same task, but each copy has different input parameters.

In embarassingly parallel programs, there is no communication required between tasks, which is what makes it easy to implement.

Example Diagram

One rectangle (a computer), with one circle inside it (one spot in memory) and one arrow extending out from the circle (one task to be run on one CPU-core). This whole entity is multiplied by 50.

This schematic diagram represents an array job which runs 50 identical tasks of one process on one node.

Example SLURM Script

--nodes = 1 # node count
--ntasks = 1 # total number of tasks across all nodes
--cpus-per-task = 1 # cpu-cores per task
--array = 0-49 # number of times you'd like your task to run, each time with different input

Example Code

Let's say your project consists of the following data, with one million x-values:

x = 1, 2, 3, 4, ..., 1000000

You've written the following program to calculate and print a y-value for each x-value.

y = (x * 0.3) + 4.21

Here, a task is the calcuation of the y-value for one x-value.

Normally, you would run your program serially, meaning you'd use only 1 core to run your program for all the x-values in your data. That 1 core can only run one task at a time. If, for the sake of simplicity, we say each task takes 1 second to complete, then the program should take

(1,000,000 tasks x 1 second/task) = 1,000,000 seconds

to complete.

If you run the program in parallel, however, you can now use multiple cores on one computer simultaneously. If, for example, you have access to 50 cores, then each core can work on a different value of x at the same time. This will cut down the time it takes to complete all tasks to

(1,000,000 tasks x 1 second/task) / 50 cores = 20,000 seconds

On Princeton's Research Computing clusters, you can run embarassingly parallel programs as job arrays.


2. Shared-Memory Parallelism (Multithreading)

Shared-memory parallelism is when tasks are run as threads on separate CPU-cores of the same computer. In other words, a single program can access many cores on one machine.

As the name "shared-memory parallelism" implies, the CPU-cores share memory because they are on the same computer and all have access to the same memory card. Due to the shared memory, a light level of communication is required between the cores working on each task.

Since multiple threads are used to complete a job, shared-memory parallelism is often also refered to as multithreading.

A common programming model for shared-memory parallelism is called fork/join. The program starts out with a 'unified' parent thread, and forks into multiple child threads which then join together again at the end of the program in order to share results with each other.

Methods Associated with Shared-Memory Parallelism

The most common method to implement shared-memory parallelism is OpenMP, but there's also POSIX Threads (pthread), SIMD or vector intrinsics (Intel MKL), C++ Parallel STL (Intel TBB), and shmem. These are each specific libaries, and you can choose one that suits your work.

Example Diagram

One rectangle (a computer), with one circle inside it (one spot in memory) and four arrows extending out from each circle (four tasks to be run, with each task on one CPU-core).

This schematic diagram represents a shared memory job which runs on one node, with one process that consists of four threads.

Example SLURM Script

--nodes = 1 # node count
--ntasks = 1 # total number of tasks across all nodes
--cpus-per-task = 4 # cpu-cores per task (>1 if multi-threaded tasks)

Example Code

Try running this OpenMP example.

3. Distributed-Memory Parallelism (Multiprocessing)

Distributed-memory parallelism generally refers to running tasks as multiple processes that do not share the same space in memory. While this can technically happen on one computer, that is a more complicated use case. The more intuitive way to understand distributed-memory parallelism is in the case where tasks are run on different computers, as those tasks more obviously have their own memory.

As an example, distributed-memory parallelism could be used to calculate the expected number of people commuting into each USA county per day. To calculate the number of commuters, let's say you require population data from the surrounding counties. The work to calculate commuters by county could be divided up by state, so that a different computer could handle all of the calculations for each state. The counties at the border of each state, however, need information from the neighboring counties in another state in order to complete their calculations. The process working on New Jersey, for example, would need to communicate with the processes working on the surrounding states (Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York) to complete its work. In other words, at some point the process on one computer needs to communicate with the processes on other computers in order to finish its tasks.

This is one of the more complicated types of parallelism, since it requires a high level of communication between different tasks to ensure that everything runs properly.

Since multiple processes are needed to complete a job, distributed-memory parallelism is often referred to as multiprocessing.

Methods Associated with Distributed-Memory Parallelism

The most common method to implement distributed-memory parallelism is MPI. MPI is an Application Programming Interface (API) that stands for Message-Passing Interface, and can be used in Fortran, C, and C++/

For those working with machine learning, you may also consider Spark/Hadoop, Dask, and General Multiprocessing.

Example Diagram

Three rectangles (three computers), with two circles inside each rectangle (two spots in memory per node, each spot running a separate process) and one arrow extending out from each circle (one task to be run on one CPU-core per process).

This schematic diagram represents a distributed memory job which runs on three nodes, each node with two different processes, and each process with one thread.

Example SLURM Script

--nodes = 3 # node count
--ntasks = 2 # total number of tasks across all nodes
--cpus-per-task = 1 # cpu-cores per task (>1 if multi-threaded tasks)

Example Code

Try running this MPI example.

4. Accelerator Parallelism (GPU's, and FPGA's)

Accelerator Parallelism uses different types of computer hardware, such as Graphical Processing Units (GPUs) and Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), to simply do computations faster than any CPU chip is able to. A CPU, for example, can have tens of processing cores, but a GPU has thousands.

To learn more about GPU's, see our GPU Computing page, or view our Research Computing's Workshops & Live Training page for the next Introduction to GPU Programming workshop.

To learn more about FPGA's, check out Research Computing's Workshops & Live Training page for upcoming in-person trainings, or search the page for material from past workshops. For example, you can access a recording of Intel's workshop on FPGAs from Spring 2021, or the content from the Intro to Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) workshop from Fall 2021.

Example Code

Try running several GPU examples from Research Computing's Introduction to GPU Programming workshop.

In Summary

To summarize, the burden of modifying the code to take advantage of multiple cores or multiple nodes is on the programmer. There are multiple types of parallelism to choose from, but just running code on a ‘bigger’ computer doesn’t make it run faster.

Resource lists by topic, compiled by staff in Princeton's Research Computing and PICSciE groups:

Check Research Computing's upcoming workshop schedule for deeper training on Parallel Programming topics. (Workshops on parallel computing are typically held in the Fall semester).

Online Resources Used to Write This Guide

A Primer on Parallel Programming, by Garrett Wright

University of Oklahoma's Supercomputing in Plain English Workshop Series, by Henry Neeman

Material for Princeton's R in HPC Workshop, by Ben Hicks

Parallel Programming Primer I: Fundamental Concepts, and Parallel Programming Primer II: Multiprocessing and Multithreading by Saurav Dhungana