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What makes our Systems Slow?

Estimates say that we currently run our computers at way below 100% efficiency. The theoretical peak performance (usually measured in FLOPS - floating point operations per second) is much higher than any practical peak performance reached by any application. This is particularly true for highly parallel hardware. The more hardware parallelism we provide to an application, the better the application must scale in order to efficiently use all the resources of the machine. Roughly speaking, we distinguish two forms of scalability: strong scaling (see Amdahl's Law) and weak scaling (see Gustafson's Law). Strong scaling is defined as how the solution time varies with the number of processors for a fixed total problem size. It gives an estimate of how much faster can we solve a particular problem by throwing more resources at it. Weak scaling is defined as how the solution time varies with the number of processors for a fixed problem size per processor. In other words, it defines how much more data can we process by using more hardware resources.

In order to utilize as much hardware parallelism as possible an application must exhibit excellent strong and weak scaling characteristics, which requires a high percentage of work executed in parallel, i.e. using multiple threads of execution. Optimally, if you execute an application on a hardware resource with N processors it either runs N times faster or it can handle N times more data. Both cases imply 100% of the work is executed on all available processors in parallel. However, this is just a theoretical limit. Unfortunately, there are more things which limit scalability, mostly inherent to the hardware architectures and the programming models we use. We break these limitations into four fundamental factors which make our systems SLOW:

Each of those four factors manifests itself in multiple and different ways; each of the hardware architectures and programming models expose specific forms. However the interesting part is that all of them are limiting the scalability of applications no matter what part of the hardware jungle we look at. Hand-helds, PCs, supercomputers, or the cloud, all suffer from the reign of the 4 horsemen: Starvation, Latency, Overhead, and Contention. This realization is very important as it allows us to derive the criteria for solutions to the scalability problem from first principles, it allows us to focus our analysis on very concrete patterns and measurable metrics. Moreover, any derived results will be applicable to a wide variety of targets.


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