[Cplex] Strands teaser

Blaine Garst blaine at mac.com
Thu Jun 20 19:14:51 CEST 2013

Over the past several years I have been working, with Carl Hewitt, on a "strand" library built around the notion of provably minimal scheduling operations.  I was alluding to this during the conference call.

The idea is that a strand consists of a stack, register save area, and a few minimal accounting hooks.  The basic primitives for contention arbitration use standard compare-and-swap and look, at a very high level, like mutex and condition variables, but operate directly on the strand rather than a separate mutex variable.  These strands cooperate with the heavier-weight pthreads as necessary but otherwise replace them for computation.  

Venturing out of strand code into general code that calls OS primitives requires a bit of stack fixup that the compiler can arrange (a few instructions).  The key observation here is that threads have been an operating system invention to simulate multi-core and are now mostly overhead.

The scheduling primitives (enter exclusion, leave exclusion, defer to queue, resume queue) are used to implement many different policies: we have two forms of reader-writer (which has priority), a low-level gate (blocks until set), etc.  My belief is that these primitives are sufficient to model CSP, Go, Erlang, and probably several other systems (Linda?), and (the question in this forum) the lower level interactions that go on in the Cilk and OpenMP runtime libraries.  Having implemented the primitives, I can attest to their utter simplicity and minimalism, and would love to compare notes with the mechanisms in place for Cilk and OpenMP.  I suspect that OpenMP will require use of real-time scheduling policies for the underlying pthreads, which is straight-forward, which may well be of general interest.

A key issue with strands is the mechanisms to provide adaptive scheduling.  The mechanism we see is a top-down hierarchy of scheduling "objects" we call Sponsors.   The highest level Sponsor deals with pthread-pool operating system primitives found on Mac OS X (FreeBSD), and *should* be able to work with Microsoft thread pools as well (not sure about the underlying OS support there).   It subdivides computing resources with its tree of sub-Sponsors, each of which only knows about itself, its parent, and its children.  Work stealing across sponsors is a natural tree operation.

Whereas Carl and I are using these strand primitives to implement Actors, we see them as a general purpose mechanism and have been intending to offer them as such to the C committee for several months now.

Until I get that paper written, I have a question to ask: what happens when Cilk and OpenMP are used in the same program?   Unless they are built on the same underlying strand mechanism I can't help but believe that results are unpredictable and unsatisfactory.


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