Comparing Paradigms:
Virtual Shared Memory vs. Message-Passing

Existing software tools generally take one of two major approaches to parallel program execution: message passing or virtual shared memory computing. These two paradigms differ in many ways, but most importantly in their approaches to storing the data that is shared among the various components of a parallel program and to making the data available to the components that need it as the program runs.

Message Passing

Message passing is a model that arises directly from the architecture of distributed memory multiprocessors and networks of workstations; the best known examples are MPI, a widely implemented standard message passing system, and PVM, a system developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In this approach, each program datum belongs to some specific process, and it must be explicitly transmitted to any other processes that need it as the program progresses. Sending and receiving a single such message requires many steps by both the transmitting and receiving processes, and parallel programs built with message passing systems typically send many, many messages in the course of execution.

Virtual Shared Memory

The virtual shared memory (VSM) approach is built around a familiar paradigm for writing parallel programs; multiple processes interacting with and communicating by means of shared memory. The best known products of this type are SCAI's Linda® and Paradise® systems.

Linda provides a single, logically shared memory to all of the processes in a parallel program. Each process sees the same data space, and it can read or write shared data at will using simple operations, often comprising only a single line of code. No process ever has to worry about directly communicating with any other process; all such low level operations are handled by the system itself. The VSM works in this way regardless of whether it resides physically in a single memory, or (as is more often the case) it is actually distributed among the various processors participating in a program execution.

Paradise generalizes the Linda model by offering multiple VSMs that can exist independently of any particular application. This means that VSMs can be used to share information among applications that run at entirely different times. In addition to the capabilities of Linda, Paradise also includes a number of features that are aimed more at flexible distributed computing environments than at "pedal to the metal" parallel applications.

VSM-based systems like Linda and Paradise also differ from message passing libraries in that they include high-level coordination languages for parallel programming. They add functionality to a standard programming language like C, C++, or Fortran for managing ensembles of independent processes, usually via a small set of simple operations which programmers use to implement parallelism.

The VSM approach has a number of benefits:

  • It is very simple to learn and to use, enabling existing programs to be parallelized rapidly and new ones to be developed easily.
  • It makes creating portable programs much less complicated, since architecture-specific low-level details are hidden from the user.
  • It enables advanced parallel execution features like dynamic load balancing to be implemented easily.

An Illustration

In order to illustrate the differences between the message passing and VSM approaches to parallel programming in a concrete way, we present some sample code taken from the PVM documentation, along with the code required to perform the identical tasks using the C-Linda system. The entire program uses a "master-worker" design in which the master handles data input and output and oversees the entire execution. The program fragments below, which would be executed by each of the component "worker" processes in the parallel program, implement three distinct phases in the computation:

  • obtain the necessary input data from the master
  • perform a calculation (in a function work that is not shown)
  • return the results to the master
Why Linda?
 About VSM

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