Friday, March 03, 2006

How does data flow execution work?

The term "data-flow" encompasses a lot of different types of execution. You might hear about "synchronous dataflow", or "process networks". LabVIEW uses "structured dataflow". Each node on a LabVIEW diagram has a set of inputs and a set of outputs. LabVIEW schedules each node to execute when one item of data has arrived on all of its inputs. The execution of the node generates all of the outputs which then trigger the following nodes to run. There is no queueing on wires unless you explicitly put a queue primitive node on the diagram. Looping (using structures such as For-loops and while-loops) are explicit rather than being implicit like in some other languages.


So, in this diagram, you can see that everything is a node. Even the constants are nodes. Node 1, 2, 3, and 4 have no inputs, just outputs. So, when the diagram runs, they can go first because they aren't waiting on anything. Node 5 waits until Nodes 1 and 2 have run. Node 6 waits on nodes 3 and 4 to run and then it runs. Node 7 waits until nodes 5 and 6 have run and then it runs. Finally, Node 8 runs. Easy to show.

So how do you implement something like this? First, it depends on the hardware you are running on. As you can see, there are a number of things that can run simultaneously. Nodes 1, 2, 3, and 4 can all run in parallel with each other since they have no dependencies. Nodes 5 and 6 can run in parallel since they don't have any dependencies. In a processing environment that supports parallelism, you could run a lot of the diagram in parallel. Node 7 is a synchronization point. It needs to wait for two different parallel operations (node 5 and node 6) to complete before it can continue.


How efficiently you can run this diagram will depend on three things


  1. How much parallel hardware is available. Can the hardware perform two adds in parallel?
  2. The overhead of scheduling each operation
  3. The overhead of synchronizing at Node 7
Silicon logic is probably the ultimate parallel processing technology. The FPGA makes this technology accessible to those without a semiconductor fab at their disposal and LabVIEW FPGA makes it accessible so you don't need a degree in a complex language like VHDL to use it. If you run this diagram on an FPGA via LabVIEW FPGA, it will specify that the FPGA should make two blocks of hardware that perform adds in parallel and then feed the data into node 7 to do the multiply. The scheduling and synchronization overhead will depend upon how you draw this diagram. In the above diagram, LabVIEW FPGA wants to be safe. It will take each output wire and turn it into a register. So, the add at node 5 will occur and the data will go into a register and wait for the clock tick to come in order to pass the data on to node 7. This is how the data is synchronized. The scheduling overhead consists of a signal that travels from node 5 to the register to tell it "data is ready" and the signal that travels to node 7 that says "ok, now you can go". it takes up space but doesn't affect speed.Now, it turns out that this safety is a little paranoid. It turns out that the two parallel adds complete is a very short amount of time. In fact, the two adds can complete in parallel and then perform the multiply all in just one clock cycle. Since you know that, you can put this diagram into what is known as a 'single cycle timed loop'. This tells the FPGA module to remove the overhead of the register between node 5 and node 7. So, FPGAs have a lot of parallel hardware and can nearly eliminate the scheduling and synchronization overhead. What's the downside? Every single operation consumes a little bit of hardware and the FPGAs aren't terribly big. That 100 VI project isn't going to fit. Also, there are some primitives that don't work in the FPGA.So what about microprocessors? A microprocessor is mainly a sequential programming engine. You give it some sequential instructions and it performs them. Some processors (like modern desktop ones) can extract a bit of parallelism from the sequential instructions. A Pentium can run a couple add or multiply instructions in parallel. Now that multicore processors are becoming more common, they can handle multiple sets of sequential instructions at once. How do you implement a structured dataflow engine in one of them? A basic dataflow scheduler has a big lookup table with a list of all of the nodes. It keeps track of which node feeds data to which and what data each node is waiting for. After each operation, the table gets updated with which nodes are waiting on which data and then which node is ready to run. In a paper I once read (that I can't find any more) this was called "fine grained dataflow". Easy, right? Well, yes but terribly inefficient. An "add" instruction in a microprocessor might take 1 clock cycle but the maintenance of that table may take 50 clock cycles or more. Having a scheduling overhead of 50:1 does not make for an efficient machine. Researchers have some techniques for reducing this overhead and some dataflow processors have also reduced the overhead in hardware. In the paper I read published many years ago, they stated that none of these techniques had really been commercially successful.

Now, one thing to notice is that computations are not particularly sensitive to the outside world. For example, if you can't execute node 5 and node 6 in parallel, it really doesn't matter the order in which you execute the instructions. You get the same answer and the operation takes the same amount of time if you do the node 5 add and then the node 6 add or vice versa. Thus, LabVIEW forms "clumps" of instructions which are all basically sequential and then only does scheduling when a clump of instructions is done (using something more efficient than the table lookup by the way). So, the LabVIEW compiler might emit something like


  1. Put "4" in register 1
  2. Put "5" in register 2
  3. Put "7" in register 3
  4. Put "8" in register 4
  5. Add registers 1 and 2 and store it back in register 2
  6. Add registers 3 and 4 and store it back in register 4
  7. Multiply registers 2 and 4 and store it back in register 2
  8. Store register 2 in memory somewhere
  9. Look for the next clump to run
This is all sequential code. While it might have been possible for the "add" in #5 and the "add" in #6 to run in parallel on different processors, the overhead of now trying to send the instruction to a separate processor and keep track of the synchronization and scheduling is so huge that you wouldn't have gotten the benefit of running them in parallel.

Now, it so happens that this example is so small, that the folks at Intel and IBM do give us some parallelism. A Pentium has multiple instruction units. When executing this sequential set of instructions, it sees that the first sets of instructions use different registers. Thus, the operations to put numbers into registers will likely occur in parallel. It might only take 1 clock cycle to execute the first 4 instructions because they don't interfere with each other. Likewise, instructions 5 and 6 operate on different sets of registers and there are multiple adders inside a pentium. Thus, those two instructions will probably be executed in parallel in the next clock cycle. Instruction number 7 is where things get interesting. It can't execute until both 5 and 6 have completed. Thus, it can't execute in parallel with instructions 5 and 6. (In fact, on some older CPUs, there might be a multiple clock delay while it waited for instructions 5 and 6 to complete). Similarly, instruction 8 can't execute until instruction 7 is complete.

So, even on a single CPU machine, you can get some small amount of parallelism. As always, thank your Intel engineer for this.

Ok, so this article is getting long so I'll stop there. If you're a LabVIEW programmer, you hopefully understand a little better how things work under the hood. If you're a student of computer architecture or parallel programming (as I once was), always pay attention to the overhead of distributing your workload because it may swamp any savings you hope to gain.

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