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Designing Parallel Algorithms: Part 4

Task-Scheduling Algorithms

Task-scheduling algorithms can be used when a functional decomposition yields many tasks, each with weak locality requirements. A centralized or distributed task pool is maintained, into which new tasks are placed and from which tasks are taken for allocation to processors. In effect, we reformulate the parallel algorithm so that what were originally conceived of as tasks become data structures representing "problems,'' to be solved by a set of worker tasks, typically one per processor.

The most critical (and complicated) aspect of a task-scheduling algorithm is the strategy used to allocate problems to workers. Generally, the chosen strategy will represent a compromise between the conflicting requirements for independent operation (to reduce communication costs) and global knowledge of computation state (to improve load balance). We discuss manager/worker, hierarchical manager/worker, and decentralized approaches.


Figure 19 illustrates a particularly simple task scheduling scheme that is nevertheless effective for moderate numbers of processors. A central manager task is given responsibility for problem allocation. Each worker repeatedly requests and executes a problem from the manager. Workers can also send new tasks to the manager for allocation to other workers. The efficiency of this strategy depends on the number of workers and the relative costs of obtaining and executing problems. Efficiency can be improved by prefetching problems so as to overlap computation and communication, and by caching problems in workers, so that workers communicate with the manager only when no problems are available locally.

Figure 19: Manager/worker load-balancing structure. Workers repeatedly request and process problem descriptions; the manager maintains a pool of problem descriptions ( p) and responds to requests from workers.

Hierarchical Manager/Worker

A variant of the manager/worker scheme divides workers into disjoint sets, each with a submanager. Workers request tasks from submanagers, which themselves communicate periodically with the manager and with other submanagers to balance load between the sets of processors for which they are responsible.

Decentralized Schemes

In completely decentralized schemes, there is no central manager. Instead, a separate task pool is maintained on each processor, and idle workers request problems from other processors. In effect, the task pool becomes a distributed data structure that is accessed by the different tasks in an asynchronous fashion. A variety of access policies can be defined. For example, a worker may request work from a small number of predefined "neighbors'' or may select other processors at random. In a hybrid centralized/distributed scheme, requests are sent to a central manager, which allocates them to workers in a round-robin fashion. Notice that while this manager will certainly be a bottleneck on large numbers of processors, it will typically be accessed less frequently than will the manager in a manager/worker scheduler and hence is a more scalable construct.

Access to a distributed data structure, such as the task pool maintained by a decentralized load-balancing scheme, can be provided in several different ways. Workers can be made responsible for both computing and managing the queue of problems. In this case, each worker must periodically poll to detect pending requests. Alternatively, computation and task pool management responsibilities can be encapsulated in separate tasks.

Termination Detection

Task-scheduling algorithms require a mechanism for determining when a search is complete; otherwise, idle workers will never stop requesting work from other workers. This termination detection operation is straightforward in centralized schemes, because the manager can easily determine when all workers are idle. It is more difficult in decentralized algorithms, because not only is there no central record of which workers are idle, but also messages in transit may be carrying tasks even when all workers appear to be idle.

Mapping Design Checklist

We have now completed our parallel algorithm design by specifying how tasks defined in previous design stages are mapped to processors. Our mapping decisions seek to balance conflicting requirements for equitable load distribution and low communication costs. When possible, we use a static mapping scheme that allocates each task to a single processor. However, when the number or size of tasks is variable or not known until runtime, we may use a dynamic load balancing scheme or reformulate the problem so that a task scheduling structure can be used to schedule computation.

The following checklist can serve as a basis for an informal evaluation of the mapping design.

  1. If considering an SPMD design for a complex problem, have you also considered an algorithm based on dynamic task creation and deletion? The latter approach can yield a simpler algorithm, however, performance can be problematic.
  2. If considering a design based on dynamic task creation and deletion, have you also considered an SPMD algorithm? An SPMD algorithm provides greater control over the scheduling of communication and computation, but can be more complex.
  3. If using a centralized load-balancing scheme, have you verified that the manager will not become a bottleneck? You may be able to reduce communication costs in these schemes by passing pointers to tasks, rather than the tasks themselves, to the manager.
  4. If using a dynamic load-balancing scheme, have you evaluated the relative costs of different strategies? Be sure to include the implementation costs in your analysis. Probabilistic or cyclic mapping schemes are simple and should always be considered, because they can avoid the need for repeated load-balancing operations.
  5. If using probabilistic or cyclic methods, do you have a large enough number of tasks to ensure reasonable load balance? Typically, at least ten times as many tasks as processors are required.

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