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Fundamental Concepts of Parallel Programming

Shameem Akhter, a platform architect at Intel, and Jason Roberts, a senior software engineer at Intel, are the authors of Multi-Core Programming: Increasing Performance through Software Multithreading on which this article is based. Copyright (c) 2008 Intel Corporation. All rights reserved.

Developers who are unacquainted with parallel programming generally feel comfortable with traditional programming models, such as object-oriented programming. In this case, a program begins at a defined point, such as the main() function, and works through a series of tasks in succession. If the program relies on user interaction, the main processing instrument is a loop in which user events are handled. From each allowed event -- a button click, for example -- the program performs an established sequence of actions that ultimately ends with a wait for the next user action.

When designing such programs, developers enjoy a relatively simple programming world because only one thing is happening at any given moment. If program tasks must be scheduled in a specific way, it's because the developer imposes a certain order on the activities. At any point in the process, one step generally flows into the next, leading up to a predictable conclusion, based on predetermined parameters.

To move from this linear model to a parallel programming model, designers must rethink the idea of process flow. Rather than being constrained by a sequential execution sequence, programmers should identify those activities that can be executed in parallel. To do so, they must see their programs as a set of tasks with dependencies between them. Breaking programs down into these individual tasks and identifying dependencies is known as decomposition. A problem may be decomposed in several ways: by task, by data, or by data flow. Table 1 summarizes these forms of decomposition. As you shall see, these different forms of decomposition mirror different types of programming activities.

Table 1: Major Forms of Decomposition

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