Course Notes Parallel Algorithms (WISM 459), 2018/2019

Parallel Algorithms (WISM 459), 2018/2019


Rob Bisseling.

Time and place

Every Wednesday from 10.00-12.45 hour at Utrecht University, campus De Uithof. Location of lectures has changed to: room BBG017 in the Buys Ballot building. First lecture: September 12, 2018. Last lecture: December 19, 2018. No class on October 3, 2018. Each session consists of 2 times 45 min. lectures and one exercise class (or computer laboratory class, or question session) of 45 min.

Intended audience

This is a Master's course which is an elective course for students of the Master's programme Mathematical Sciences of Utrecht University, part of the Scientific Computing track and the Applied Mathematics track. The course is recommended for students in Mathematics or Computer Science who are interested in scientific computing and would like to obtain a first `hands-on experience' in parallel programming. It is also highly suitable for the Honours master programme in Theoretical Physics and Mathematical Sciences and for students interested in Complex systems or Computational Physics. The course is part of the Dutch National Master Mastermath and hence is open for all interested master students in Mathematics in the Netherlands. Registration for everybody is through Mastermath.

Course aim

Students will learn how to design a parallel algorithm for a problem from the area of scientific computing and how to write a parallel program that solves the problem.

Learning goals

After completion of the course, the student is able to


You get 8 ECTS credit points.


Today, parallel computers are appearing on our desktops. The advent of dualcore, quadcore, and octacore computers and the expected increase in the number of cores in the coming years causes a major change in our approach to software, such as the mathematical software we use in scientific computations and in the emerging area of big data computations.

Parallel computers drastically increase our computational capabilities and thus enable us to model more realistically in many application areas. To make efficient use of parallel computers, it is necessary to reorganise the structure of our computational methods. In particular, attention must be paid to the division of work among the different processors solving a problem in parallel and to the communication between them. Suitable parallel algorithms and systems software are needed to realise the capabilities of parallel computers.

We will discuss extensively the most recent developments in the area of parallel computers, ranging from multicore desktop PCs to clusters of PCs connected by switching devices, to massively parallel computers with distributed memory such as our national supercomputer Cartesius at SURFsara in Amsterdam,

The following subjects will be treated:


The course will be given in English. All reading material will be in English.


Introductory course in linear algebra. Some knowledge of algorithms. Knowledge of a modern programming language such as C, C++, C#, Python, or Java. Basic knowledge of C is helpful, as we will use this language in class, but we will organise the course in such a way that there will be time to adapt to it for those coming from another language. There are plenty of books on C; you may consider the book Practical C Programming by Steve Oualline. You can also use C++ in class, if you already know that language.


We will make use of the MulticoreBSP for C software developed by Albert-Jan Yzelman, version 2.0 (May 2018). This sofware runs on shared-memory multicore PCs, and you can also run your program with only minor changes on distributed-memory machines such as Cartesius. C++ programmers can use Zefiros Synclib as a nice alternative. If you do not possess a laptop, perhaps your project partner does (you are allowed to work in pairs). If this fails, we will find another solution for you.

You will get access to the national supercomputer Cartesius, where you can install MulticoreBSP for C on one node, giving access to at most 24 cores for thin nodes or you can use BSPonMPI (already installed) or Bulk giving access to thousands of cores.


The examination is in the form of an initial assignment (20%), a final assignment (40%), a presentation on the final assignment (20%), and a midterm exam (20%). The two assignments are carried out in the exercise/laboratory class and at home. A written report must be returned for each assignment before the deadline. Students can work individually or in pairs (but not in larger teams) on the computer programs and can hand in a single report, provided each did a fair share of the work and can account for that. Each participant has to give an individual presentation on the chosen topic of the final assignment. Presentations will be scheduled on 5 and 12 December 2018. The midterm exam must be passed with a grade of 5.5 (on a scale of 10). All students should submit reports for the assignments electronically in PDF format by email, to the teacher, Rob Bisseling. There is no further homework. All students must use LaTeX for the assignments.

The midterm exam can be retaken at the end of the course (in December) by any course participant. The maximum of the two exam grades counts as the midterm exam grade. In case of illness, or for another urgent reason, the final presentation can be retaken on an individual basis in January. In case of an insufficient final grade for the whole course (<=5), the participant is entitled to a retake, which means that one assignment can be redone within six weeks after the final grading of the course.


We closely follow the book Parallel Scientific Computation: A Structured Approach using BSP and MPI (PSC), by Rob H. Bisseling, Oxford University Press, March 2004. ISBN 0-19-852939-2. I am currently working on a second edition (PSC2), and all material needed will be given to you as handouts (and it will be tested on you!).

In addition, all my slides and WWW links to background material are provided through this course page. (Pointers to other relevant links are welcome!)


LaTeX sources (in Beamer) and PDFs of all my slides (18 Mbyte in gzipped tar format). The sources may be of help to other teachers who want to teach from my book. Students may find them helpful too.

Last update of the files: November 6, 2014. The slides are complete and they cover every section of the book (first edition). They have been converted to the Beamer macros in September 2012, and have been made up to date in the process. I am adding experimental results on recent computer architectures as we go.

You can also obtain the PDFs separately. Each PDF file represents one lecture of about 45 minutes.

Chapter 1: sections 2 3 4 5-7
Chapter 2: sections 1-2 3 4 5-6
Chapter 3: sections 1-2 3 4 5 6 7
Chapter 4: sections 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Appendix C: Programming in BSP style using MPI, 1 (MPI-1) 2 (MPI-2).

Slides for the second edition

We will develop them as the second edition is written. Beta-versions will be provided below as they become available over the coming years, as separate links.
1.8 (2nd ed.)
1.9 (2nd ed.)
2.5 (2nd ed.)
3.6 (2nd ed.)
4.6 (2nd ed.)
4.10 (2nd ed.)

Further reading

Some weekly summaries and links of last years course

This year we will cover chapters 1, 2, 4 of the first edition and chapter 5 on graph matching of the second edition.

Wednesday September 12, 2017. Room 611 Hans Freudenthal building

The Bulk Synchronous Parallel model

(PSC section 1.2) What is a parallel computer? Why do we compute in parallel? The Bulk Synchronous Parallel (BSP) model by Valiant comprises an abstract machine architecture, a framework for developing algorithms, and a cost function for analysing the run time of algorithms. The BSP architecture is a set of processor-memory pairs connected by a black box communication network. BSP algorithms consist of computation supersteps and communication supersteps. Communication is costed as h-relations. The BSP cost of an algorithm is expressed in machine parameters p, g, l. The computing rate is r flop/s. Motivation of the cost model: bottlenecks at the entrance and exit of the communication network.

Parallel Inner Product Computation

(PSC section 1.3) My First Parallel Algorithm: the computation of the inner product of two vectors. Possible distributions: cyclic and block. Data distribution leads naturally to work distribution. Communication is needed to add local inner products into a global inner product. Single Program, Multiple Data (SPMD) approach: we don't want to write 400 different programs for a machine with 400 processors. One-sided communication is a great invention (in parallel computing, at least;).

Exercise class

In class: Exercise 1.2. No need to hand in.

Interesting links

Wednesday September 19, 2018. Room BBG017 in the Buys Ballot building

BSPlib, the Bulk Synchronous Parallel library.

(PSC section 1.4)


(PSC sections 1.5-1.7)

Interesting links:

Computer Laboratory BYOD (from 12.00-12.45 hour): starting with BSPlib.
This is your first hands-on session with BSPlib. Download the latest version of BSPedupack, my package of educational programs that teaches how to use BSP. Note that a beta-version for the second edition is available. Preferably use this version. Solve Exercise 1.3: try to run the benchmark, exploring your parallel environment: your own laptop and Cartesius. Change puts into gets. Also modify your program to send larger messages. How does this influence g? BYOD: If you own a laptop, bring it to class, so we can install MulticoreBSP for C, SyncLib or Bulk and check your software

Wednesday September 27, 2017.

Parallel sample sort
New material, presenting the BSP approach to sorting by regular sampling. Will become section 1.8 in PSC2.
Program bspsort and bulk synchronous message passing
Will become section 1.9 in PSC2.
12.00-12.45 Exercise class: first assigment

Start working on the first assignment, Exercise 1.7 from PSC2. Design a parallel algorithm for prime number generation. Write your first parallel program. This program should generate all prime numbers below 10,000,000 in parallel. Choosing the right distribution is the name of the game.

Hand in a report on Exercise 1.7 (in PSC2) presenting your algorithm and the experimental results, before the deadline Wednesday October 17, 10.00 hour. Note that you can work in pairs.

Interesting links:

Wednesday October 3, 2018.

No class
Because of the Woudschoten conference on scientific computing

Wednesday October 10, 2018.

Sequential LU Decomposition

(PSC sections 2.1-2.2)

Parallel LU Decomposition

(PSC section 2.3)

Exercise class
Continue work on the prime number sieve. Discuss your approaches with me.

Wednesday October 17, 2018.

Two-Phase Broadcasting

(PSC section 2.4)

High-performance LU decomposition
(PSC2 section 2.5)
Question hour on exam material
Exam material: the handouts of Chapters 1 and 2.

Wednesday October 24, 2018

11.00-12.45 Midterm exam on Chapters 1 and 2. Room 042 in the Ruppert building.
Exam material: only the material of the handouts. Note the different location.

Interesting links, previous exams from the archive. Exams from 2012, 2013 only on Chapter 1 of the material (60 minutes). Exams 2017 on Chapter 1, 3 (90 minutes).

Wednesday October 31, 2018. Guest lecture by Jan-Willem Buurlage (CWI). Room BBG017 in the Buys Ballot building

10.00-10.45 Bulk: A Modern C++ Interface for Bulk-Synchronous Parallel Programs

Abstract: The programming landscape today is vastly different from when the BSPlib interface was conceived. Modern programming languages have useful features compared to e.g. the low-level C language, but most are not yet suited for high performance computing applications. Bulk is a novel programming interface and library for BSP programs, that leverages modern C++ to strike a balance between performance, expressability and safety. In this talk, I will introduce this library, and show the differences between Bulk and BSPlib by discussing the code for common tasks in both interfaces.

Paper (accepted mansucript): Bulk: a Modern C++ Interface for Bulk-Synchronous Parallel Programs by Jan-Willem Buurlage, Tom Bannink, and Rob H. Bisseling, in Proceedings Euro-Par 2018, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Vol. 11014, Springer, 2018, pp. 519-532. Published version.

Today's slides on Bulk by Jan-Willem Buurlage.

11.00-11.45 Sequential sparse matrix-vector multiplication

(PSC section 4.1) Introduction to application of sparse matrices. Sparse matrices and computerised tomography.

Today's slides on sparse matrix-vector multiplication by Jan-Willem Buurlage.

12.00-12.45 Exercise class

Choose a new assignment. Possibilities: You can parallelise your own problem, or choose one of the exercises from the book PSC/PSC2. For example:

Please try to discuss the chosen topic with the teacher before November 14 and register the topic. You can work in pairs, but have to give individual presentations on the topic. To ensure diversity of the presentations, all topics must be different. First come, first serve, so register once you know you want a topic.

Wednesday November 7, 2018

Sparse matrices and their data structures

(PSC section 4.2)

Parallel sparse matrix-vector multiplication

(PSC section 4.3)

Exercise class
Discussion of first assignment and midterm exam.

Wednesday November 14, 2018

11.45-12.45 Cartesian matrix distributions

(PSC section 4.4)

Mondriaan sparse matrix distribution

(PSC section 4.5)

Exercise class
Work on final project.

Wednesday November 21, 2018

Medium-grain method for sparse matrix distribution

(New material, will become section 4.6 of PSC2).

Parallel algorithm for hybrid-BSP

(New material, will become section 4.10 of PSC2).

Exercise class
Work on your final project and discuss it with me.

Interesting links:

Wednesday November 28, 2018.

Parallel graph matching
(New material, PSC2 Chapter 5)
Exercise class
Work on final project

Interesting links:

Wednesday December 5, 2018.

Presentations final project

Wednesday December 12, 2018.

More presentations final project
Also: course evaluation.

Wednesday December 19, 2018.

11.00-12.45 Retake midterm exam Room 409 Hans Freudenthal building

Please fill out the Mastermath digital evaluation form.

Deadline second assignment Wednesday January 16, 2019, 12.00 hour.

Hand in a report (by email, in printable PDF) before the deadline. Please use the batch system of Cartesius and not the interactive system for your test runs. The interactive system is only for development. Running your parallel program on hundreds of processor cores will give you a bonus.

Frequently asked questions

Other courses that teach the BSP model (among others)

Last update of this page: December 19, 2018
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