How PLINQ processes an IEnumerable<T> on multiple cores

As Ed Essey explained in Partitioning in PLINQ, partitioning is an important step in PLINQ execution. Partitioning splits up a single input sequence into multiple sequences that can be processed in parallel. This post further explains chunk partitioning, the most general partitioning scheme that works on any IEnumerable<T>.

Chunk partitioning appears in two places in Parallel Extensions. First, it is one of the algorithms that PLINQ uses under the hood to execute queries in parallel. Second, chunk partitioning is available as a standalone algorithm through the Partitioner.Create() method.

To explain the design of the chunk partitioning algorithm, let’s walk through the possible ways of processing an IEnumerable<T> with multiple worker threads, finally arriving at the solution used in PLINQ (approach 4).


Approach 1: Load the input sequence into an intermediate array

As a simple solution, we could walk over the input sequence and store all elements into an array. Then, we can split up the array into ranges, and assign each range to a different worker.

The disadvantage of this approach is that we need to allocate an array large enough to store all input elements. If the input sequence is long, this will algorithm leads to unnecessarily large memory consumption. Also, we need to wait until the entire input sequence is ready before the workers can start executing.


Approach 2: Hand out elements to threads on demand

An entirely different approach is to have all worker threads share one input enumerator. When a worker is ready to process the next input element, it takes a shared lock, gets the next element from the input enumerator, and releases the lock.

This algorithm has a fairly large overhead because processing every element requires locking. Also, handing out elements individually is prone to poor cache behavior.

This approach does have an interesting advantage over Approach 1, though: since workers receive data on demand, the workers that finish faster will come back to request more work. In contrast, Approach 1 splits up all work ahead of time, and a worker that is done early simply goes away.


Approach 3: Hand out elements in chunks

To mitigate the two drawbacks of Approach 2 (synchronization cost and cache behavior), we can hand out elements to threads in “chunks”. When a thread is ready to process more inputs, it will take say 64 elements from the input enumerator.

Unfortunately, while this approach nicely amortizes the synchronization cost over multiple elements, it does not work well for short inputs. For example, if the input contains 50 elements and the chunk size is 64, all inputs will go into a single partition. Even if the work per element is large, we will not be able to benefit from parallelism, since one worker gets all the work.

And since IEnumerable<T> in general does not declare its length, we cannot simply tune the chunk size based on the input sequence length.


Approach 4: Hand out elements in chunks of increasing size

A solution to the problem with small inputs is to use chunks of a growing size. The first chunk assigned to each thread is of size 1 and subsequent chunks are gradually larger, until a specific threshold is reached.

Our solution doubles the chunk size every few chunks. So, each thread first receives a few chunks of size 1, then a few chunks of size 2, then 4, and so forth. Once the chunk size reaches a certain threshold, it remains constant.

This chunking strategy ensures that if the input is short, it will still get split up fairly among the cores. But, the chunk size also grows fairly quickly, and the per-chunk overheads are small for large inputs. Also, the algorithm is quite good at load-balancing, so if one worker is taking longer to process its inputs, other workers will process more elements to decrease the overall processing time.

One interesting consequence of the chunk partitioning algorithm is that multiple threads will call MoveNext() on the input enumerator. The worker threads will use a lock to ensure mutual exclusion, but the enumerator must not assume that MoveNext() will be called from a particular thread (e.g., it should not use thread-local storage, manipulate UI, etc).

The current implementation of both PLINQ chunk partitioning and Partitioner.Create() follows approach 4 fairly closely. Now you know how it behaves and why!