Introduction to the Multicore Programming Practices Guide

Rob Oshana, David Stewart, and Max Domeika - Working Group Chairs, Multicore Association

February 25, 2013

Rob Oshana, David Stewart, and Max Domeika - Working Group Chairs, Multicore AssociationFebruary 25, 2013

Editor’s Note: This article is an introduction to the Multicore Association (MCA) Multicore Programming Practices Guide developed by the members and available for download from the MCA web site. The Guide is a detailed set of best practices for employing an evolutionary approach to multicore development.

Multicore processors have been available for many years; however, their widespread use in commercial products and across multiple market segments has only recently occurred. This ‘multicore era’ transpired because processor architects ran into power & performance limits of single core processors.

The multicore era shifts more of the responsibility for performance gains onto the software developer who must direct how work is distributed amongst the cores. In the future, the number of cores integrated onto one processor is expected to increase, which will place even greater burden on the software developer.

Like many new eras in the computer industry, numerous supporting software development tools and technologies have been introduced with the aim of helping developers obtain maximum performance benefit with minimal effort. One of the potential challenges that may hinder developers is the conflict between an intrinsic quality of developing for multicore processors and the inertia of existing software.

Prior to the multicore processor era, developers obtained performance increases through processor upgrades and the inherent clock frequency boosts and microarchitecture improvements. These upgrades required minimal software changes.

Obtaining performance increases in the multicore era requires developers to invest in significant software modifications to, in effect, transform current sequential applications into parallel ones. This modification is nontrivial and introduces new challenges, spanning the traditional development phases of program analysis, design, implementation, debug, and performance tuning.

In stark contrast, the inertia of existing software is undeniable. To meet tight deadlines, development projects rarely have the freedom to make wholesale changes to applications, and instead limit risk by minimizing them.

This means that a developer considering a move to multicore processors may not have the luxury of taking on a new parallel programming language or even re-architecting the application to support widespread concurrency. Instead, many development projects in the computing industry are adopting an evolutionary approach to enabling multicore processors.

This approach employs existing programming tools and technology and a systematic method of introducing and debugging concurrency in existing software.

The MPP Guide
The Multicore Association (MCA) Multicore Programming Practices (MPP) Guide is a detailed set of best practices for employing this evolutionary approach to multicore development. The following sections detail the goal of the MPP guide, the target audience, how to apply the MPP guide, and areas not covered.

In writing this document, the MPP working group made decisions and compromises in what and how much this document targets. The following are thoughts on some of the higher level decisions made:

  • API choices – Pthreads and MCAPI were selected for several reasons. These two APIs cover the two main categories of multicore programming - SMP and message passing. Second, Pthreads is a very commonly used API for SMP. MCAPI is a recently introduced API, but is novel in being a message passing-based multicore API that specifically targets embedded homogeneous and heterogenuous applications.
  • Architecture categories – The architecture categories (homogeneous multicore with shared memory, heterogeneous multicore with mix of shared and non-shared memory, and homogeneous multicore with non-shared memory) are in priority order and reflect the group’s assessment of use in embedded applications. Admittedly, the second category is a superset of the first and third. The motivation for listing these three categories separately is due to the widespread and common use of techniques associated with the first and third, namely SMP techniques and process-level parallelism. The following paragraphs dissect this goal and offer more detail.

Detailed Description
A concise set of best practices is a collection of best known methods for accomplishing the task of development for multicore processors.

The intent is to share development techniques that are known to work effectively for multicore processors thus resulting in reduced development costs through a shorter time-to-market and a more efficient development cycle for those employing these techniques. The phases of software development discussed in MPP and a summary of each follows:
  • Program analysis and high level design is a study of an application to determine where to add concurrency and a strategy for modifying the application to support concurrency.
  • Implementation and low level design is the selection of design patterns, algorithms, and data structures and subsequent software coding of the concurrency.
  • Debug comprises implementation of the concurrency in a manner that minimizes latent concurrency issues, enabling of an application to be easily scrutinized for concurrency issues, and techniques for finding concurrency issues.
  • Performance concerns improving turnaround time or throughput of the application by finding and addressing the effects of bottlenecks involving communication, synchronization, locks, load balancing, and data locality.
  • Existing technology includes the programming models and multicore architectures detailed in the guide and are limited to a few that are in wide use today.
  • Existing software, also known as legacy software, is the currently used application as represented by its software code. Customers using existing software have chosen to evolve the implementation for new product development instead of re-implementing the entire application to enable multicore processors.

Business Impact
Readers of the MPP guide who apply the detailed steps may save significant costs in development projects. Cost savings can be applied to developer efficiency in analyzing and designing the implementation, a reduced number of bugs in the implementation, and increased likelihood of the implementation meeting performance requirements. These savings lead to faster time-to-market and lower development cost.

Target Audience
The MPP guide is written specifically for engineers and engineering managers of companies considering or implementing a development project involving multicore processors and favoring the use of existing multicore technology. Specifically, the benefits of this guide to the specific target audience are summarized below:
  • Software developers who are experienced in sequential programming will benefit from reading this guide as it will explain new concepts which are essential when developing software targeted at multicore processors.
  • Engineering managers running technical teams of hardware and software engineers will benefit from reading this guide by becoming knowledgeable about development for multicore processors and the learning curve faced by their software developers.
  • Project managers scheduling and delivering complex projects will benefit from reading this guide as it will enable them to appreciate, and appropriately schedule, projects targeting multicore processors.
  • Test engineers developing tests to validate functionality and verify performance will benefit from reading this guide as it will enable them to write more appropriate and more efficient tests for multicore-related projects.

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