Speaking once again on Parallelism and Computer Science Education at the Intel Developer Forum

Cross-posted from my old Adobe Blog

As a hiring manager building teams working on modern computer software; I’ve often been disappointed in the lack of a proper foundation in parallel algorithms and architectures being taught in current Computer Science curricula. To that end, I’ve been working with a group called the Educational Alliance for a Parallel Future that aims to improve Computer Science curricula in this critical area. The EAPF is once again convening a panel of educators and industry representatives to talk about this important issue and once again I am delighted to participate.

The panel is entitled: Parallel Education Status Check – Which Programming Approaches Make the Cut for Parallelism in Undergraduate Education? Unlike previous iterations of this panel where we spoke in generalities, this time we’ll be diving a bit deeper into specific technologies that we think are good starting places for educators to introduce to their students.

Here is an excerpt of the abstract:
The industry and research communities face increasing workforce preparedness challenges in parallel (and distributed) computing, due to today’s ubiquitous multi-/many-core and cloud computing. Underlying the excitement over technical details of the newest platforms is one of the thorniest questions facing educators and practitioners — What languages, libraries, or programming models are best suited to make use of current and future innovations? This panel will confront this conundrum directly through discussions with technical managers and academics from different perspectives. The session is convened by the Educational Alliance for a Parallel Future (EAPF), an organization with wide-ranging industry/academia/research membership, including Intel, ACM, AMD, and other prominent technology corporations.

The panel will be presented on September 15th, 2011 at 10:15am as part of the Intel Developer Forum 2011 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California. There are free passes for interested educators. Register now for a free IDF day pass using promo code DCPACN1.

My specific take has always been that I am not as interested in grounding in a specific parallelism library or abstraction. The pace of change in this area has only increased over the last few years with the rise of multi-core, GPGPU, HPC and heterogenous computing. Techniques and libraries have arisen, gained adoption, and fallen out of favor one after another.

A developer who only understands how algorithms can be mapped to OpenMP-style libraries is not as useful once the team moves to Grand Central Dispatch or OpenCL. A grounding in traditional task-level parallelism as well as data-parallelism techniques is a starting point. It is important not only to understand what each of them are but the different types of problems that they are each applicable to.

Higher level abstractions like OpenMP are good for introductory courses. However, it is important to understand fully how high-level abstractions map to lower level implementations and even the hardware itself. Understanding the hardware your software runs on is critical to find the best performance for your code. It is also critical to understanding why one particular higher level library might work better than another for a particular task on specific hardware.

Once you understand things like hyperthreading, pThreads, locking mechanisms, and why OpenCL or CUDA maps really well to specific problems, but not to others, then you can return to using higher level abstractions that let you focus on your algorithm and not the details.

If I was a Dean of Computer Science somewhere, I’d look to creating a curriculum where parallel programming using higher-level abstractions was part of the introductory courses using something like C++11, OpenMP or TBB. Mid-level requirements would include some computer architecture instruction. Specifically, how computer architecture maps to the software that runs on top of it. This may also include some lower level instruction in things like pThreads, Race conditions, lock-free programming or even GPU or heterogenous programming techniques using OpenCL. In later courses focused more on software engineering, specific areas like graphics, or larger projects: I’d encourage the students to use whichever tools they found most appropriate to the tasks at hand. This might even include very high level proprietary abstractions like DirectCompute or C++AMP as long as the students could make the tradeoffs intelligently because of their understanding of the area from previous courses.

Given that the panel consists of representatives from Intel, AMD, Microsoft, Georgia Tech as well as myself, I’m expecting this to be a very spirited conversation. I hope to see you there.

More information:
Paul Steinberg’s blog post about the panel
Ben Gaster’s post

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