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Intel Threading Building Blocks

11.1 Task-Based Programming

When striving for performance, programming in terms of threads can be a poor way to do multithreaded programming. It is much better to formulate your program in terms of logical tasks, not threads, for several reasons.
  • Matching parallelism to available resources
  • Faster task startup and shutdown
  • More efficient evaluation order
  • Improved load balancing
  • Higher–level thinking

The following paragraphs explain these points in detail.

The threads you create with a threading package are logical threads, which map onto the physical threads of the hardware. For computations that do not wait on external devices, highest efficiency usually occurs when there is exactly one running logical thread per physical thread. Otherwise, there can be inefficiencies from the mismatch. Undersubscription occurs when there are not enough running logical threads to keep the physical threads working. Oversubscription occurs when there are more running logical threads than physical threads. Oversubscription usually leads to time sliced execution of logical threads, which incurs overheads as discussed in Appendix A, Costs of Time Slicing. The scheduler tries to avoid oversubscription, by having one logical thread per physical thread, and mapping tasks to logical threads, in a way that tolerates interference by other threads from the same or other processes.

The key advantage of tasks versus logical threads is that tasks are much lighter weight than logical threads. On Linux systems, starting and terminating a task is about 18 times faster than starting and terminating a thread. On Windows systems, the ratio is more than 100. This is because a thread has its own copy of a lot of resources, such as register state and a stack. On Linux, a thread even has its own process id. A task in Intel® Threading Building Blocks, in contrast, is typically a small routine, and also, cannot be preempted at the task level (though its logical thread can be preempted).

Tasks in Intel® Threading Building Blocks are efficient too because the scheduler is unfair. Thread schedulers typically distribute time slices in a round-robin fashion. This distribution is called “fair”, because each logical thread gets its fair share of time. Thread schedulers are typically fair because it is the safest strategy to undertake without understanding the higher-level organization of a program. In task-based programming, the task scheduler does have some higher-level information, and so can sacrifice fairness for efficiency. Indeed, it often delays starting a task until it can make useful progress. Section 11.4 explains how this works, and how it saves both time and space.

The scheduler does load balancing. In addition to using the right number of threads, it is important to distribute work evenly across those threads. As long as you break your program into enough small tasks, the scheduler usually does a good job of assigning tasks to threads to balance load. With thread-based programming, you are often stuck dealing with load-balancing yourself, which can be tricky to get right.

TIP: Design your programs to try to create many more tasks than there are threads, and let the task scheduler choose the mapping from tasks to threads.

Finally, the main advantage of using tasks instead of threads is that they let you think at a higher, task-based, level. With thread-based programming, you are forced to think at the low level of physical threads to get good efficiency, because you have one logical thread per physical thread to avoid undersubscription or oversubscription. You also have to deal with the relatively coarse grain of threads. With tasks, you can concentrate on the logical dependences between tasks, and leave the efficient scheduling to the scheduler.