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The OpenMPI Architecture

Open MPI is an open source software implementation of The Message Passing Interface (MPI) standard. Before the architecture and innards of Open MPI will make any sense, a little background on the MPI standard must be discussed.

Edgar Gabriel, Graham E. Fagg, George Bosilca, Thara Angskun, Jack J. Dongarra, Jeffrey M. Squyres, Vishal Sahay, Prabhanjan Kambadur, Brian Barrett, Andrew Lumsdaine, Ralph H. Castain, David J. Daniel, Richard L. Graham, and Timothy S. Woodall. Open MPI: Goals, concept, and design of a next generation MPI implementation. In Proc. 11th European PVM/MPI Users' Group Meeting, pages 97–104, September 2004.

The Message Passing Interface (MPI)

The MPI standard is created and maintained by the MPI Forum, an open group consisting of parallel computing experts from both industry and academia. MPI defines an API that is used for a specific type of portable, high-performance inter-process communication (IPC): message passing. Specifically, the MPI document describes the reliable transfer of discrete, typed messages between MPI processes. Although the definition of an "MPI process" is subject to interpretation on a given platform, it usually corresponds to the operating system's concept of a process (e.g., a POSIX process). MPI is specifically intended to be implemented as middleware, meaning that upper-level applications call MPI functions to perform message passing.

MPI defines a high-level API, meaning that it abstracts away whatever underlying transport is actually used to pass messages between processes. The idea is that sending-process X can effectively say "take this array of 1,073 double precision values and send them to process Y". The corresponding receiving-process Y effectively says "receive an array of 1,073 double precision values from process X." A miracle occurs, and the array of 1,073 double precision values arrives in Y's waiting buffer.

Notice what is absent in this exchange: there is no concept of a connection occurring, no stream of bytes to interpret, and no network addresses exchanged. MPI abstracts all of that away, not only to hide such complexity from the upper-level application, but also to make the application portable across different environments and underlying message passing transports. Specifically, a correct MPI application is source-compatible across a wide variety of platforms and network types.

MPI defines not only point-to-point communication (e.g., send and receive), it also defines other communication patterns, such as collective communication. Collective operations are where multiple processes are involved in a single communication action. Reliable broadcast, for example, is where one process has a message at the beginning of the operation, and at the end of the operation, all processes in a group have the message. MPI also defines other concepts and communications patterns that are not described here. (As of this writing, the most recent version of the MPI standard is MPI-2.2.

Open MPI

The first version of the MPI standard, MPI-1.0, was published in 1994 [Mes93]. MPI-2.0, a set of additions on top of MPI-1, was completed in 1996.

In the first decade after MPI-1 was published, a variety of MPI implementations sprung up. Many were provided by vendors for their proprietary network interconnects. Many other implementations arose from the research and academic communities. Such implementations were typically "research-quality," meaning that their purpose was to investigate various high-performance networking concepts and provide proofs-of-concept of their work. However, some were high enough quality that they gained popularity and a number of users.

Open MPI represents the union of four research/academic, open source MPI implementations: LAM/MPI, LA/MPI (Los Alamos MPI), and FT-MPI (Fault-Tolerant MPI). The members of the PACX-MPI team joined the Open MPI group shortly after its inception.

The members of these four development teams decided to collaborate when we had the collective realization that, aside from minor differences in optimizations and features, our software code bases were quite similar. Each of the four code bases had their own strengths and weaknesses, but on the whole, they more-or-less did the same things. So why compete? Why not pool our resources, work together, and make an even better MPI implementation?

After much discussion, the decision was made to abandon our four existing code bases and take only the best ideas from the prior projects. This decision was mainly predicated upon the following premises:

  • Even though many of the underlying algorithms and techniques were similar among the four code bases, they each had radically different implementation architectures, and would be incredible difficult (if not impossible) to merge.
  • Each of the four also had their own (significant) strengths and (significant) weaknesses. Specifically, there were features and architecture decisions from each of the four that were desirable to carry forward. Likewise, there were poorly optimized and badly designed code in each of the four that were desirable to leave behind.
  • The members of the four developer groups had not worked directly together before. Starting with an entirely new code base (rather than advancing one of the existing code bases) put all developers on equal ground.

Thus, Open MPI was born. Its first Subversion commit was on November 22, 2003.

Abstraction Layer Architecture

Open MPI has three main abstraction layers:

  • Open, Portable Access Layer (OPAL): OPAL is the bottom layer of Open MPI's abstractions. Its abstractions are focused on individual processes (versus parallel jobs). It provides utility and glue code such as generic linked lists, string manipulation, debugging controls, and other mundane—yet necessary—functionality. OPAL also provides Open MPI's core portability between different operating systems, such as discovering IP interfaces, sharing memory between processes on the same server, processor and memory affinity, high-precision timers, etc.

  • Open MPI Run-Time Environment (ORTE) (pronounced "or-tay"): An MPI implementation must provide not only the required message passing API, but also an accompanying run-time system to launch, monitor, and kill parallel jobs. In Open MPI's case, a parallel job is comprised of one or more processes that may span multiple operating system instances, and are bound together to act as a single, cohesive unit. In simple environments with little or no distributed computational support, ORTE uses rsh or ssh to launch the individual processes in parallel jobs. More advanced, HPC-dedicated environments typically have schedulers and resource managers for fairly sharing computational resources between many users. Such environments usually provide specialized APIs to launch and regulate processes on compute servers. ORTE supports a wide variety of such managed environments, such as (but not limited to): Torque/PBS Pro, SLURM, Oracle Grid Engine, and LSF.

  • Open MPI (OMPI): The MPI layer is the highest abstraction layer, and is the only one exposed to applications. The MPI API is implemented in this layer, as are all the message passing semantics defined by the MPI standard. Since portability is a primary requirement, the MPI layer supports a wide variety of network types and underlying protocols. Some networks are similar in their underlying characteristics and abstractions; some are not.


Although each abstraction is layered on top of the one below it, for performance reasons the ORTE and OMPI layers can bypass the underlying abstraction layers and interact directly with the operating system and/or hardware when needed (as depicted in Figure). For example, the OMPI layer uses OS-bypass methods to communicate with certain types of NIC hardware to obtain maximum networking performance.

Each layer is built into a standalone library. The ORTE library depends on the OPAL library; the OMPI library depends on the ORTE library. Separating the layers into their own libraries has acted as a wonderful tool for preventing abstraction violations. Specifically, applications will fail to link if one layer incorrectly attempts to use a symbol in a higher layer. Over the years, this abstraction enforcement mechanism has saved many developers from inadvertently blurring the lines between the three layers.

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