Parallel Execution

Many scientific software applications are written to take advantage of multiple CPUs in some way. But often this must be specifically requested by the user at the time they run the program, rather than happening automatically.

The are three types of parallel execution we will cover are Multi-Threading(oMP), Distributed(MPI) and Job Arrays.


Whenever Slurm mentions CPUs it is referring to logical CPU's (2 logical CPU's = 1 physical core).
  • --cpus-per-task=4 will give you 4 logical cores.
  • --mem-per-cpu=512MB will give 512 MB of RAM per logical core.
  • If --hint=nomultithread is used then --cpus-per-task will now refer to physical cores, but --mem-per-cpu=512MB still refers to logical cores.

See our article on hyperthreading for more information.


Multi-threading is a method of parallelisation whereby the initial single thread of a process forks into a number of parallel threads, generally via a library such as OpenMP (Open MultiProcessing), TBB (Threading Building Blocks), or pthread (POSIX threads).

Diagram showing serial operations.
Fig. 1: In a serial operation, tasks complete one after another.


Fig. 2: Multi-threading involves dividing the process into multiple 'threads' which can be run across multiple cores.

Multi-threading is limited in that it requires shared memory, so all CPU cores used must be on the same node. However, because all the CPUs share the same memory environment things only need to be loaded into memory once, meaning that memory requirements will usually not increase proportionally to the number of CPUs.

Example script;

#!/bin/bash -e
#SBATCH --job-name=MultithreadingTest # job name (shows up in the queue)
#SBATCH --time=00:01:00 # Walltime (HH:MM:SS)
#SBATCH --mem=2048MB # memory in MB
#SBATCH --cpus-per-task=4 # 2 physical cores per task.

taskset -c -p $$ #Prints which CPUs it can use

The expected output being

pid 13538's current affinity list: 7,9,43,45


MPI stands for Message Passing Interface, and is a communication protocol used to achieve distributed parallel computation.

Similar in some ways to multi-threading, MPI does not have the limitation of requiring shared memory and thus can be used across multiple nodes, but has higher communication and memory overheads.

For MPI jobs you need to set --ntasks to a value larger than 1, or if you want all nodes to run the same number of tasks, set --ntasks-per-node and --nodes instead.

MPI programs require a launcher to start the ntasks processes on multiple CPUs, which may belong to different nodes. On Slurm systems like ours, the preferred launcher is srun rather than mpi-run.

Since the distribution of tasks across different nodes may be unpredictable, --mem-per-cpu should be used instead of --mem.

#!/bin/bash -e
#SBATCH --job-name=MPIJob    	# job name (shows up in the queue)
#SBATCH --time=00:01:00     	# Walltime (HH:MM:SS)
#SBATCH --mem-per-cpu=512MB  	# memory/cpu in MB (half the actual required memory)
#SBATCH --cpus-per-task=4 # 2 Physical cores per task. #SBATCH --ntasks=2 # number of tasks (e.g. MPI) srun pwd # Prints working directory

The expected output being



For non-MPI programs, either set --ntasks=1 or do not use srun at all. Using srun in conjunction with --cpus-per-task=1 will cause --ntasks to default to 2.

Job Arrays

Job arrays are best used for tasks that are completely independent, such as parameter sweeps, permutation analysis or simulation, that could be executed in any order and don't have to run at the same time. This kind of work is often described as embarrassingly parallel.
An embarrassingly parallel problem is one that requires no communication or dependency between the tasks (unlike distributed computing problems that need communication between tasks).

A job array will submit the same script repeatedly over a designated index using the SBATCH command #SBATCH --array

For example, the following code:

#!/bin/bash -e
#SBATCH --job-name=ArrayJob             # job name (shows up in the queue)
#SBATCH --time=00:01:00                 # Walltime (HH:MM:SS)
#SBATCH --mem=512MB                     # Memory
#SBATCH --array=1-2                     # Array jobs

pwd echo "This is result ${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}"

will submit,  ArrayJob_1 and ArrayJob_2, which will return the results This is result 1 and This is result 2 respectively.


Use of the environment variable ${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID} is the recommended method of variation between the jobs. For example:

      • As a direct input to a function.
        matlab -nodisplay -r "myFunction(${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID})"
      • As an index to an array.
        inArray=(1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128)
      • For selecting input files.
      • As a seed for a pseudo-random number.
        • In R

          task_id = as.numeric(Sys.getenv("SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID"))
        • In MATLAB

          task_id = str2num(getenv('SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID'))

        Using a seed is important, otherwise multiple jobs may receive the same pseudo-random numbers.
      • As an index to an array of filenames. 
        files=( inputs/*.dat )
        # If there are 5 '.dat' files in 'inputs/' you will want to use '#SBATCH --array=0-4' 
        This example will submit a job array with each job using a .dat file in 'inputs' as the variable input (in alphabetcial order).

Environment variables will not work in the Slurm header. In place of ${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}, you can use the token %a. This can be useful for sorting your output files e.g.

#SBATCH --output=outputs/run_%a/slurm_output.out
#SBATCH --output=outputs/run_%a/slurm_error.err

Multidimensional array example

#!/bin/bash -e

#SBATCH --open-mode append
#SBATCH --output week_times.out
#SBATCH --array 0-167 #This needs to be equal to combinations (in this case 7*24), and zero based.

# Define your dimensions in bash arrays.
arr_day=("Mon" "Tue" "Wed" "Thur" "Fri" "Sat" "Sun") 

# Index the bash arrays based on the SLURM_ARRAY_TASK)
n_time=${arr_time[$(($SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID%${#arr_time[@]}))]} # '%' for finding remainder.

echo "$n_day $n_time:00"

Avoiding Conflicts

As all the array jobs could theoretically run at the same time, it is important that all file references are unique and independent.

If your program makes use of a working directory make sure you set it e.g.

mkdir .tmp/run_${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}          #Create new directory
export TMPDIR=.tmp/run_${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}  #Set TMPDIR to point there

If you have no control over the name/path of an output used by a program, this can be resolved in a similar manner.

mkdir run_${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}                             #Create new directory
cd run_${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}        #CD to new directory
mv output.log ../outputs/output_${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}.log #Move and rename output
rm -r ../run_${SLURM_ARRAY_TASK_ID}                          #Clear directory

The Slurm documentation on job arrays can be found here.


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