Performing Experiments on HPC Systems

A lot of the work we do in the Reed lab involves running computational experiments on High Performance Computing (HPC) systems. These experiments often consist of performing multi-objective optimization to aid decision making in complex systems, a task that requires hundreds of thousands of simulation runs and may not possible without the use of thousands of computing core. This post will outline some best practices for performing experiments on HPC systems.

1. Have a Plan

By nature, experiments run on HPC systems will consume a large amount of computational resources and generate large amounts of data. In order to stay organized, its important to have a plan for both how the computational resources will be used and how data will be managed.

Estimating your computational resources

Estimating the scale of your experiment is the first step to running on an HPC system. To make a reasonable estimate, you’ll need to gather the following pieces of information:

  • How long (in wall clock time) does a single model run take on your local machine?
  • How many function evaluations (for an MOEA run) or ensemble model runs will you need to perform?
  • How long do you have in wall clock time to run the experiment?

Using this information you can estimate the number of parallel processes that you will need to successfully run the experiment. Applications such as running the Borg MOEA are known as, “embarrassingly parallel” and scale quite well with an increase in processors, especially for problems with long function evaluation times (see Hadka and Reed, 2013 for more info). However, many other applications scale poorly, so it’s important to be aware of the parallel potential of your code. A helpful tip is to identify any inherently serial sections of the code which create bottlenecks to parallelization. Parallelizing tasks such as Monte Carlo runs and MOEA function evaluations will often result in higher efficiency than paralellizing the simulation model itself. For more resources on how to parallelize your code, see Bernardo’s post from last year.

Once you have an idea of the scale of your experiment, you’ll need to estimate the experiment’s computational expense. Each HPC resource has its own charging policy to track resource consumption. For example, XSEDE tracks charges in “service units” which are defined differently for each cluster. On the Stampede2 Cluster, a service unit is defined as one node-hour of computing time, so if you run on 100 nodes for 10 hours, you spend 1,000 service units regardless of how many core per node you utilize. On the Comet Cluster, a service unit is charged by the core-hour, so if you run 100 nodes for 10 hours and each utilizes 24 core, you’ll be charged 24,000 service units. Usually, the allocations you receive to each resource will be scaled accordingly, so even though Comet looks more expensive, you likely have a much large allocation to work with. I usually make an estimate of service units I need for an experiment and add another 20% as a factor of safety.

Data management:

Large experiments often create proportionately large amounts of data. Before you start, its important to think about where this data will be stored and how it will be transferred to and from the remote system. Many clusters have limits to how much you can store on different drives, and breaking these limits can cause performance issues for the system. System administrators often don’t take kindly to these performance issues and in extreme cases, breaking the rules may result in suspension or removal from a cluster. It helps to create an informal data management plan for yourself that specifies:

  1. How will you transfer large amounts of data to and from the cluster (tools such as Globus are helpful here).
  2. Where will you upload your code and how your files will be structured
  3. Where will you store data during your experimental runs. Often clusters have “scratch drives” with large or unlimited storage allocations. These drives may be cleaned periodically so they are not suitable for long term storage.
  4. Where will you store data during post processing. This may still be on the cluster if your post processing is computationally intensive or your local machine can’t handle the data size.
  5. Where will you store your experimental results and model data for publication and replication.

2. Test on your local machine

To make the most of your time on a cluster, its essential that you do everything you can to ensure your code is properly functioning and efficient before you launch your experiment. The biggest favor you can do for yourself is to properly test your code on a local machine before porting to the HPC cluster. Before porting to a cluster, I always run the following 4 checks:

  1. Unit testing: the worst case scenario after a HPC run is to find out there was a major error in your code that invalidates your results. To mitigate this risk as much as possible, it’s important to have careful quality control. One helpful tool for quality control is unit testing to examine every function or module in your code and ensure it is working as expected. For an introduction to unit testing, see Bernardo’s post on Python and C++.
  2. Memory checking: in low level code (think C, C++) memory leaks can be silent problem that throws off your results or crash your model runs. Sometimes, memory leaks can go undetected during small runs but add up and crash your system when run in large scale experiments. To test for memory leaks, make sure to use tools such as Valgrind before uploading your code to any cluster. This post features a nice introduction to Valgrind with C++.
  3. Timing and profiling: Profile your code to see which parts take longest and eliminate unnecessary sections. If you can, optimize your code to avoid computationally intensive pieces of code such as nested loops. There are numerous tools for profiling low level codes such as Callgrind and gprof. See this post for some tips on making your C/C++ code faster.
  4. Small MOEA tests: Running small test runs (>1000 NFE) will give you an opportunity to ensure that the model is properly interacting with the MOEA (i.e. objectives are connected properly, decision variables are being changed etc.). Make sure you are collecting runtime information so you can evaluate algorithmic performance

3. Stay organized on the cluster

After you’ve fully tested your code, it’s time to upload and port to the cluster. After transferring your code and data, you’ll likely need to use the command line to navigate files and run your code. A familiarity with Linux command line tools, bash scripting and command line editors such as vim can make your life much easier at this point. I’ve found some basic Linux training modules online that are very useful, in particular “Learning Linux Command Line” from Linked-in learning (formerly was very useful.

Once you’ve got your code properly organized and compiled, validate your timing estimate by running a small ensemble of simulation runs. Compare the timing on the cluster to your estimates from local tests and reconfigure your model runs if needed. If performing an experiment with an MOEA, run a small number of NFE on a development or debug node confirm that the algorithm is running and properly parallelizing. Then run a single seed of the MOEA and perform runtime diagnostics to ensure things are working more or less as you expect. Finally, you’re ready to run the full experiment.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions

These tips have been derived from my experiences running on HPC systems, if anyone else has tips or best practices that you find useful, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

2 thoughts on “Performing Experiments on HPC Systems

  1. Pingback: Measuring the parallel performance of the Borg MOEA – Water Programming: A Collaborative Research Blog

  2. Pingback: Easy batch parallelization of code in any language using mpi4py – Water Programming: A Collaborative Research Blog

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