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FastFlow: high-performance parallel patterns and building blocks in C++

FastFlow is a programming library implemented in modern C++ and targeting multi/many-cores (there exists an experimental version based on ZeroMQ targeting distributed systems). It offers both a set of high-level ready-to-use parallel patterns and a set of mechanisms and composable components (called building blocks) to support low-latency and high-throughput data-flow streaming networks.

FastFlow simplifies the development of parallel applications modelled as a structured directed graph of processing nodes. The graph of concurrent nodes is constructed by the assembly of sequential and parallel building blocks as well as higher-level easy-to-use components (i.e. parallel patterns) modelling typical schemas of parallel computations (e.g., pipeline, task-farm, parallel-for, etc.). FastFlow efficiency stems from the optimized implementation of the base communication and synchronization mechanisms and from its layered software design.

FastFlow's Building Blocks

FastFlow nodes represent sequential computations executed by a dedicated thread. A node can have zero, one or more input channels and zero, one or more output channels. As typical is in streaming applications, communication channels are unidirectional and asynchronous. They are implemented through Single-Producer Single-Consumer (SPSC) FIFO queues carrying memory pointers. Operations on such queues (that can have either bounded or unbounded capacity) are based on non-blocking lock-free synchronization protocol. To promote power-efficiency vs responsiveness of the nodes, a blocking concurrency control operation mode is also available.

The semantics of sending data references over a communication channel is that of transferring the ownership of the data pointed by the reference from the sender node (producer) to the receiver node (consumer) according to the producer-consumer model. The data reference is de facto a capability, i.e. a logical token that grants access to a given data or to a portion of a larger data structure. Based on this reference-passing semantics, the receiver is expected to have exclusive access to the data reference received from one of the input channels, while the producer is expected not to use the reference anymore.

The set of FastFlow building blocks is:

node. This is the basic abstraction of the building blocks. It defines the unit of sequential execution in the FastFlow library. A node encapsulates either user’s code (i.e. business logic) or RTS code. User’s code can also be wrapped by a FastFlow node executing RTS code to manipulate and filter input and output data before and after the execution of the business logic code. Based on the number of input/output channels it is possible to distinguish three different kinds of sequential nodes: standard node with one input and one output channel, multi-input with many inputs and one output channel, and finally multi-output with one input and many outputs. A generic node performs a loop that: i) gets a data item (through a memory reference to a data structure) from one of its input queues; ii) executes a functional code working on the data item and possibly on a state maintained by the node itself by calling its service method svc(); iii) puts a memory reference to the resulting item(s) into one or multiple output queues selected according to a predefined or user-defined policy.

node combiner. It allows the user to combine two nodes into one single sequential node. Conceptually, the operation of combining sequential nodes is similar to the composition of two functions. In this case, the functions are the service functions of the two nodes (e.g., the svc method). This building block promotes code reuse through fusion of already implemented nodes and it can also be used to reduce the threads used to run the data-flow network by executing the functions of multiple nodes by a single thread.

pipeline. The pipeline allows building blocks to be connected in a linear chain. It is used both as a container of building blocks as well as an application topology builder. At execution time, the pipeline building block models the data-flow execution of its building blocks on data elements flowing in a streamed fashion.

farm. It models functional replication of building blocks coordinated by a master node called Emitter. The simplest form is composed of two computing entities executed in parallel: a multi-output master node (the Emitter), and a pool of pipeline building blocks called Workers. The Emitter node schedules the data elements received in input to the Workers using either a default policy (i.e. round-robin or on-demand) or according to the algorithm implemented by the user code defined in its service method. In this second scenario, the stream elements scheduling is controlled by the user through a custom policy.

All-to-All The All-to-All (briefly A2A) building block defines two distinct sets of Workers connected accordig to the shuffle communication pattern. This means that each Worker in the first set (called L-Worker) is connected to all the Workers in the second set (called R-Workers). The user may implement any custom distribution policy in the L-Workers (e.g., sending each data item to a specific worker of the R-Worker set, broadcasting data elements, executing a by-key routing, etc). The default distribution policy is round-robin.

A brief description of the FastFlow building block software layer can be found here.

Available Parallel Patterns

In FastFlow, all parallel patterns available are implemented on top of building blocks. Parallel Patterns are parametric implementations of well-known structures suitable for parallelism exploitation. The high-level patterns currently available in FastFlow library are: ff_Pipe, ff_Farm/ff_OFarm, ParallelFor/ParallelForReduce/ParallelForPipeReduce, poolEvolution, ff_Map, ff_mdf, ff_DC, ff_stencilReduce.

Differenting from the building block layer, the parallel patterns layer is in continuous evolution. As soon as new patterns are recognized or new smart implementations are available for the existing patterns, they are added to the high-level layer and provided to the user.

Building the library

FastFlow is header-only, no need for building.

See the BUILD.ME file for instructions about building unit tests and examples.

Supported Platforms

FastFlow is currently actively supported for Linux with gcc >4.8, x86_64 and ARM Since version 2.0.4, FastFlow is expected to work on any platform with a C++11 compiler.

FastFlow Maintainer

Massimo Torquati [email protected] (University of Pisa)

FastFlow History

The FastFlow project started in the beginning of 2010 by Massimo Torquati (University of Pisa) and Marco Aldinucci (University of Turin). Over the years several other people (mainly from the Parallel Computing Groups of the University of Pisa and Turin) contributed with ideas and code to the development of the project. FastFlow has been used as run-time system in three EU founded research projects: ParaPhrase, REPARA and RePhrase.

How to cite FastFlow

Aldinucci, M. , Danelutto, M. , Kilpatrick, P. and Torquati, M. (2017). Fastflow: High‐Level and Efficient Streaming on Multicore. In Programming multi‐core and many‐core computing systems (eds S. Pllana and F. Xhafa). FF_DOI_badge


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