- An interactive tutorial for NESL -

This is an interactive tutorial for the NESL parallel programming language. The emphasis of the tutorial is on features that support parallelism. The tutorial is organized as an introduction to NESL followed by the following two examples and a brief comparison of the language to other parallel languages.

There are several exercises within the tutorial. All code can be run interactively, and feel free to change the code and values before submitting it.

- Introduction -

NESL is a data-parallel language -- it supports parallelism with operations over the data. The parallel constructs of NESL are: A key feature of NESL is the support of nested parallelism, which allows for the above constructs to be nested. NESL also supplies a well defined "cost model". In this model, algorithms can be analyzed in terms of the total work (number of operations) and depth (longest path of sequential dependencies) they require.

NESL is loosely based on ML, a functional language, but the reader need not know anything about functional languages to get through the tutorial.


NESL supports parallelism through operations on sequences. The sequences are similar to one-dimensional arrays in sequential languages but on a parallel machine are somehow spread across the processors. In NESL sequences are specified using square brackets
 [2, 1, 9, -3]  
and indices are zero based, i.e. a[0] extracts the first element of the sequence a. Characters sequences can be written shorthand between double quotes

 "this is a sequence of characters" 
Elements of a sequence can be of any type including other sequences
but must all be of the same type.

The Parallel Apply-to-each

The most important parallel feature in NESL is the apply-to-each construct. This construct uses a set-like notation. For example, the expression
squares each elements of the sequence [3, -4, -9, 5]. This can be read: "in parallel, for each a in the sequence [3, -4, -9, 5], square a". The idea is that in an implementation on a parallel machine the elements of the sequence will be spread across the processors and each processors will work on its share of the data.

The apply-to-each construct can be used with any function, whether primitive or user defined. So, for example, we could define a factorial function and then apply it in parallel:

This differs from many data-parallel languages which only allow a fixed set of operations to be applied in parallel, such as elementwise adding two arrays. As we will see shortly, allowing arbitrary functions to be applied in parallel allows for nested parallelism, which is a key feature of NESL. Also the astute reader might note that the running time of the factorial function depends on its input and therefore we do not want to spread the parallel calls to factorial evenly across the processors. The problem is that one processor might be allocated a set of large numbers and need to do much more work than the others. In fact, since we do not necessarily know the cost of user defined code as a function of their input, implementations of NESL must somehow load balance work across processors dynamically.

The apply-to-each has two additional important features -- it can be used over multiple sequences, and it can be used to subselect elements. The semicolon (;) is used when applying a function over arguments from multiple sequences. For example, the expression

adds the two sequences elementwise. The sequences must be of the same length (NESL will give an error if they are not). The pipe symbol (|) is used to subselect elements of a sequence based on a filter. For example, the expression
can be read: "in parallel, for each a in the sequence [3, -4, -9, 5] such that a is greater than 0, square a". The elements that remain maintain their relative order. This can be implemented in a straightforward manner to run in parallel.

Some Parallel Operations

In addition to the parallelism supplied by apply-to-each, NESL provides a set of functions on sequences, each of which can be implemented in parallel. Here are examples of some of these functions:
One of the more important function on sequences is the write function, which supplies a mechanism to modify multiple values of a sequence in parallel.
write takes two arguments: the first is the sequence to modify and the second is a sequence of integer-value pairs that specify what to modify. For each pair (i,v) the value v is inserted into position i of the destination sequence. For example
inserts the -2, 5 and 9 into the sequence at locations 4, 2 and 5, respectively. These modifications are implemented to run in parallel. If an index is repeated, then one value is written non-deterministically. For readers familiar with the variants of the PRAM model, we note that the write function is analogous to an ``arbitrary'' concurrent write.

- Exercise 1 -

Write a function, that takes two sequences of equal length and takes their dot product. In particular for two sequences A and B of length n, it should return: Sumi=0n-1 Ai * Bi.

This should return 19. If you are desperate here is the solution. You might find the Nesl Quick Reference Guide helpful.

Try exercises 2 and 3.

Nested Parallelism

The support of nested parallelism is one of the key ideas behind NESL. Nested parallelism allows one to express a very broad set of algorithms in a clean and concise way. The term refers to the property that if we make a set of parallel calls, they in turn can each make a set of parallel calls, in a nested fashion. We note that this differs from futures since futures allow for parallelism that is not nested.

Nested parallelism is supported in NESL by allowing parallel functions to be used in an apply-to-each. For example, we could apply the sum function in parallel over a nested sequence,

In this expression there is parallelism both within each sum and across the sums. There are two main uses for such nesting of parallel calls:
  1. implementing nested parallel loops, and
  2. implementing parallel divide-and-conquer.

As an example of nested parallel loops consider the following code for sorting a sequence of n unique keys.

In this code to generate the rank of each key we make a total of n2 comparisons in parallel. This is implemented by nesting the parallel calls so that one apply-to-each is inside another.

- Exercise 5 -

Write a function that returns all the primes up to n by checking for each integer i from 2 through n if it is a multiple of some integer in the range [2...1+sqrt(i)]. The function isqrt takes the square root of an integer.

Hint: you can use the expression [2:n] to generate a sequences of integers from 2 to n. The function mod(i,j) takes the modulus of i and j (i.e. the remainder).

The Nesl Quick Reference Guide, and the the solution.

Try exercise 4.

- Sparse Matrix Multiplication -

Sparse matrices, which are common in scientific applications, are matrices in which most elements are zero. To save space and running time it is critical to only store the nonzero elements. A standard representation of sparse matrices in sequential languages is to use an array with one element per row each of which contains a linked-list of the nonzero values in that row along with their column number. A similar representation can be used in parallel. In NESL a sparse matrix can be represented as a sequence of rows, each of which is a sequence of (column-number, value) pairs of the nonzero values in the row. The matrix
A =
2.0 -1.0 0 0
-1.0 2.0 -1.0 0
0 -1.0 2.0 -1.0
0 0 -1.0 2.0
is represented in this way as
A = [[(0, 2.0), (1, -1.0)],
     [(0, -1.0), (1, 2.0), (2, -1.0)],
     [(1, -1.0), (2, 2.0), (3, -1.0)],
     [(2, -1.0), (3, 2.0)]]
where A is a nested sequence. This representation can be used for matrices with arbitrary patterns of nonzero elements since each subsequence can be of a different size.

A common operation on sparse matrices is to multiply them by a dense vector. In such an operation, the result is the dot-product of each sparse row of the matrix with the dense vector. The NESL code for taking the dot-product of a sparse row with a dense vector x is:

  sum({v * x[i] : (i,v) in row});
This code takes each index-value pair (i,v) in the sparse row, multiplies v with the ith value of x, and sums the results.

The full code for multiplying a sparse matrix A represented as above by a dense vector x requires that we apply the above code to each row in parallel, which gives

This example has nested parallelism since there is parallelism both across the rows and within each row for the dot products. The total depth of the code is the maximum of the depth of the dot products, which is the logarithm of the size of the largest row. The total work is proportional to the total number of nonzero elements.

- Exercise 6 -

Write code that takes a sparse matrix (represented as shown above) and extracts any column i. For example, for the matrix example used above, the function get_column(A,2) should extract column 2 and return [0.0, -1.0, 2.0, -1.0].

Hint: You might find the construct [0:n] useful.

The Nesl Quick Reference Guide and the solution.

Try exercise 7.

- Planar Convex-Hull -

Our next example solves the planar convex hull problem: Given n points in a plane, find which of them lie on the perimeter of the smallest convex region that contains all points. This example shows another use of nested parallelism for divide-and-conquer algorithms. The algorithm we use is a parallel Quickhull, so named because of its similarity to the Quicksort algorithm. As with Quicksort, the strategy is to pick a ``pivot'' element, split the data based on the pivot, and recurse on each of the split sets. Also as with Quicksort, the pivot element is not guaranteed to split the data into equally sized sets, and in the worst case the algorithm requires O(n2) work, however in practice the algorithm is often very efficient.

Here is the code for the parallel quickhull algorithm

The algorithm is based on the recursive routine hsplit. This function takes a set of points in the plane and two points p1 and p2 that are known to lie on the convex hull and returns all the points that lie on the hull clockwise from p1 to p2, inclusive of p1, but not of p2. In the example below, given all the points [A, B, C, ..., P], p1 = A and p2 = P, hsplit would return the sequence [A, B, J, O]. In hsplit, the order of p1 and p2 matters, since if we switch A and P, hsplit would return the hull along the other direction [P, N, C].

Convex Hull Image
The hsplit function first removes all the elements that cannot be on the hull because they lie below the line between p1 and p2 (which we denote by p1-p2). This is done by removing elements whose cross product with the line between p1 and p2 is negative. In the case p1 = A and p2 = P, the points [B, D, F, G, H, J, K, M, O] would remain and be placed in the sequence packed. The algorithm now finds the point, pm, furthest from the line p1-p2. The point pm must be on the hull since as a line at infinity parallel to p1-p2 moves toward p1-p2, it must first hit pm. The point pm (J in the running example) is found by taking the point with the maximum cross-product. Once pm is found, hsplit calls itself twice recursively using the points (p1, pm) and (pm, p2) ((A, J) and (J, P) in the example). When the recursive calls return, hsplit flattens the result, thereby appending the two subhulls.

The overall convex-hull algorithm works by finding the points with minimum and maximum x coordinates (these points must be on the hull) and then using hsplit to find the upper and lower hull.

- Comparison to other parallel languages -

There have been many parallel languages suggested over the past two decades. A reading list on many of these languages can be found here (warning: this is a couple years out of date). As compared to most of these languages, NESL puts much more emphasis on making code very high-level and concise. This has the obvious benefit (i.e. quicksort is 10 lines of code in NESL instead of 1700 for an MPI implementation), but puts much more responsibility on the compiler and runtime system. This can potentially entail serious loss of performance. It is hard to make a general statement, however, about how much performance one loses with a language such as NESL since it depends highly on In fact, the most interesting research in a language such as NESL is working on techniques to make the performance approach that of hand-tuned low-level code.

Here we give a brief comparison of NESL to some other parallel languages.


These are not actually languages but library extensions that can be used with existing sequential languages (currently C and Fortran). Both supply a set of routines for a sequential task on one processor to communicate with tasks on other processors. In these language extensions it is up to the user to partition the data among the tasks, and handle all communication. MPI (the Message-Passing Interface) is a follow-up of PVM (the Parallel Virtual Machine) and is an attempt to develop a standard. MPI supplies a richer set of utilities for global operations (i.e. summing a value from each processor) and for partitioning processors into groups than PVM (although many of these features are appearing in newer releases of PVM).

So why does it take over 1000 lines of code to express Quicksort in MPI as compared to 10 in NESL? The problem lies in the management and partitioning of data. Quicksort is a particular challenge in message-passing libraries such as PVM or MPI because of the highly dynamic nature -- the sizes of subproblems is not known until run time. However, even with more static tasks such as the O(n2) work sort given above end up requiring much more code. Here we give an outline of what is required to implement quicksort in MPI or PVM. We assume the data starts out evenly distributed across the processors.

We have left out many details and we encourage you to look at the code to appreciate what is involved.


To be filled in.
Guy Blelloch, blelloch@cs.cmu.edu.