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Cameron and Tracey Hughes

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Are the Emperor's New Clothes Transparent or Just Invisible?

May 27, 2009

Surely some vendor should be able to come along and make the number of cores or processors transparent to our application. After all, isn't one of the operating system's jobs to hide the details of the hardware from the programmer?Why can't we just do business as usual and let some piece of software hide or abstract the parallelism away? That is the goal, right? To be able to do parallel without really doing parallel.

You know just like one of those new fangled eat-whatever-you-like exercise-free weightloss programs. There's gotta be, or soon to be, some new high-level software doodad that will let the developer take full advantage of massive multicore configurations without doing any parallel programming at all. I mean we had third-generation languages that abstracted machine architectures away and paved the way for user programming (or at least that's how it was billed at the time). Fourth-generation languages appeared not long after third-generation languages with a similar promise. Why get bogged down in all of the procedural mess of a third-generation language when you can have the clarity and simplicity of a nice declarative fourth-generation language. At each stage, the promise was to make detail oriented programming obsolete. Not only was the goal to free the developer from the complexity and minutia of the previous generation technology but also with each higher level abstraction the theory was that there would be less and less reliance on, or need for, specially trained or highly skilled programmers.

With each level, tools cropped up that claimed even further freedom. There were code generation tools that automatically generated third-generation language code (3GL) without the need to do 3GL programming, database base tools appeared that seemed to require no database programming or even knowledge of database programming. Now we have Web-Site-In-A-Box (no web development or programming required!). Surely the horizon of parallel programming prognosticates a similar fate right? Presto! Instant Parallelism. Of course, there is a fallacy in all of this, or at the very least a little intellectual dishonesty. These Paradigm-In-A-Box solutions with No-Programming-Necessary usually only work on very well traveled roads. They usually only work for problems where the solutions have become so standardized and so commoditized that the vendor is doing little more than repackaging the obvious and providing a simple convenience for those up against deadlines or budgets. The Paradigm-In-A-Box approaches for the most part are not able to scale horizontally across platforms, vendor-specific products, or problem domains. The Paradigm-In-A-Box approaches also usually fail miserably when confronted with multiparadigm software development.

Ahem... Tracey and I tend to notice right-off-the-bat that the emperor is stark naked and that the new clothes are often the same old seductive see-through machinations that promise to take the "do" out of doing and "work" out of working. As one famous werewolf hunter once said "there is no silver bullet". The software development efforts needed to take true advantage of massively parallel configurations require a substantial paradigm shift from where we are now. That's not to say that our current models of concurrency that address multiuser scenarios, or client/web server scenarios don't have any place in our future parallel universe, but we are saying the manifestation and realization of massive parallelism in complex goal-driven software systems will require that we rethink some of our fundamental notions of what computer programming is at its core. While biologically-inspired, or nature-inspired parallelism is all the big craze in the research community and may very well yield fruit. Tracey and I are still (sadly) possibly (naively) stuck on the work, findings, and ghosts of ICOT and parts of the Fifth Generation project. The AI-Complete wild goose chases we're on right now are simply not compatible with the Transparent-Parallelism-In-A-Box solutions that some of the well intended vendors are producing at the moment. It's not that the emperor had no clothes on, it's just they were transparent (or was it invisible?).

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