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Fundamental Concepts of Parallel Programming

An Alternate Approach: Parallel Error Diffusion

To transform the conventional error diffusion algorithm into an approach that is more conducive to a parallel solution, consider the different decomposition that were covered previously in this article. Which would be appropriate in this case? As a hint, consider Figure 4, which revisits the error distribution illustrated in Figure 3, from a slightly different perspective.

Figure 4: Error-Diffusion Error Computation from the Receiving Pixel's Perspective

Given that a pixel may not be processed until its spatial predecessors have been processed, the problem appears to lend itself to an approach where we have a producer -- or in this case, multiple producers -- producing data (error values) which a consumer (the current pixel) will use to compute the proper output pixel. The flow of error data to the current pixel is critical. Therefore, the problem seems to break down into a data-flow decomposition.

Now that we identified the approach, the next step is to determine the best pattern that can be applied to this particular problem. Each independent thread of execution should process an equal amount of work (load balancing). How should the work be partitioned? One way, based on the algorithm presented in the previous section, would be to have a thread that processed the even pixels in a given row, and another thread that processed the odd pixels in the same row. This approach is ineffective however; each thread will be blocked waiting for the other to complete, and the performance could be worse than in the sequential case.

To effectively subdivide the work among threads, we need a way to reduce (or ideally eliminate) the dependency between pixels. Figure 4 illustrates an important point that's not obvious in Figure 3 -- that in order for a pixel to be able to be processed, it must have three error values (labeled eA, eB, and eC1 in Figure 3) from the previous row, and one error value from the pixel immediately to the left on the current row. Thus, once these pixels are processed, the current pixel may complete its processing. This ordering suggests an implementation where each thread processes a row of data. Once a row has completed processing of the first few pixels, the thread responsible for the next row may begin its processing. Figure 5 shows this sequence.

Figure 5: Parallel Error Diffusion for Multi-thread, Multi-row Situation

Notice that a small latency occurs at the start of each row. This latency is due to the fact that the previous row's error data must be calculated before the current row can be processed. These types of latency are generally unavoidable in producer-consumer implementations; however, you can minimize the impact of the latency as illustrated here. The trick is to derive the proper workload partitioning so that each thread of execution works as efficiently as possible. In this case, you incur a two-pixel latency before processing of the next thread can begin. An 8.5x11-inch page, assuming 1,200 dots per inch (dpi), would have 10,200 pixels per row. The two-pixel latency is insignificant here.

The sequence in Figure 5 illustrates the data flow common to the wavefront pattern.

Other Alternatives

In the previous section, we proposed a method of error diffusion where each thread processed a row of data at a time. However, one might consider subdividing the work at a higher level of granularity. Instinctively, when partitioning work between threads, one tends to look for independent tasks. The simplest way of parallelizing this problem would be to process each page separately. Generally speaking, each page would be an independent data set, and thus, it would not have any interdependencies. So why did we propose a row-based solution instead of processing individual pages? The three key reasons are:

  • An image may span multiple pages. This implementation would impose a restriction of one image per page, which might or might not be suitable for the given application.
  • Increased memory usage. An 8.5x11-inch page at 1,200 dpi consumes 131 megabytes of RAM. Intermediate results must be saved; therefore, this approach would be less memory efficient.
  • An application might, in a common use-case, print only a single page at a time. Subdividing the problem at the page level would offer no performance improvement from the sequential case.

A hybrid approach would be to subdivide the pages and process regions of a page in a thread, as in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Parallel Error Diffusion for Multi-thread, Multi-page Situation

Note that each thread must work on sections from different page. This increases the startup latency involved before the threads can begin work. In Figure 6, Thread 2 incurs a 1/3 page startup latency before it can begin to process data, while Thread 3 incurs a 2/3 page startup latency. While somewhat improved, the hybrid approach suffers from similar limitations as the page-based partitioning scheme described above. To avoid these limitations, you should focus on the row-based error diffusion implementation illustrated in Figure 5.

Key Points

This article explored different types of computer architectures and how they enable parallel software development. The key points to keep in mind when developing solutions for parallel computing architectures are:

  • Decompositions fall into one of three categories: task, data, and data flow.
  • Task-level parallelism partitions the work between threads based on tasks.
  • Data decomposition breaks down tasks based on the data that the threads work on.
  • Data flow decomposition breaks down the problem in terms of how data flows between the tasks.
  • Most parallel programming problems fall into one of several well known patterns.
  • The constraints of synchronization, communication, load balancing, and scalability must be dealt with to get the most benefit out of a parallel program.

Many problems that appear to be serial may, through a simple transformation, be adapted to a parallel implementation.

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