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What is the minimal basis for Futhark?

Posted on April 10, 2019 by Troels Henriksen

Updated 2020-10-09 to incorporate language changes.

Futhark exposes data-parallel operations in the form of functions, both higher- and first-order. In some cases, these are simply wrappers around magical intrinsic functions that get mapped to special representations in the intermediate language. For example, this is the definition of reduce in the Futhark basis library:

let reduce 'a (op: a -> a -> a) (ne: a) (as: []a): a =
  intrinsics.reduce (op, ne, as)

The reason is that the compiler has baked-in knowledge about the semantics of intrinsics.reduce: not just how to generate efficient code for the target platform, but also various properties that help optimisations such as loop fusion.

Futhark has a bit more than a dozen such intrinsics, not counting primitive scalar functions like sqrt: flatten, unflatten, concat, rotate, transpose, scatter, zip, unzip, reduce_by_index, map, reduce, scan, partition, stream_map, and stream_red. Intrinsics are never added lightly, and we try to keep their number small. However, I have been thinking about which of these intrinsics are actually critical for maintaining the asymptotic (big-O) time guarantees of Futhark, and which merely help the compiler perform constant-order optimisations. To clarify, note that parallel languages have two big-O measures for time, namely work and span. Intuitively, work is the conventional measure for the total amount of operations performed, while span is the longest chain of sequential dependencies. On a machine with an infinite number of processors, the span indicates how long it would take to run the program. The higher the span, the more sequential the program. For example, consider this non-intrinsic replacement for reduce:

let reduce 'a (op: a -> a -> a) (ne: a) (as: []a): a =
  loop x = ne for a in as do x `op` a

This function is completely sequential and therefore has work O(n) and span O(n). In contrast, intrinsics.reduce has span O(log(n)). Therefore, while this replacement is semantically correct, it is asymptotically less efficient. In this post, I will investigate how to rewrite most of Futhark’s built-in array functions using just language constructs (like loop and if) and a small set of primitives, while maintaining the asymptotic performance as much as possible, and also trying to keep the actual run-time performance good.

Starting Out

map itself is one of the foundational primitives that we will build on. It cannot be written in terms of any available simpler function. But let’s see if we can write zip, which turns two arrays into a single array of pairs:

let zip [n] 'a 'b (as: [n]a) (bs: [n]b): [n](a,b) =
   map (\i -> (as[i], bs[i])) (iota n)

Okay, this works, but what is that iota? This is the function for producing index spaces, as iota n produces an array from 0 to n-1. Can iota be written without intrinsics? In Futhark, yes, but for an interesting reason:

let iota (n: i64): [n]i64 =

Futhark has special syntax for ranges, but this feels a bit like cheating - iota is the primitive, and this syntax is just sugar. Can we express iota in any other way? Sort of. It is possible to express iota as a prefix sum on a replicated array:

let iota (n: i64): [n]i64 =
  scan (+) 0 (replicate n 1)

In some parallel languages (NESL), the prefix sum scan (+) 0 is a builtin primitive. However, for our purposes I’d prefer to express it in terms of primitives, and as we will see later, this requires iota. Catch-22. Further, replicate would now have to be a primitive, and it is not all that much simpler than iota. So, we add iota to our minimal base of assumed intrinsics and move on.

Now that we have map and zip, we can express all the other zip variants in terms of them. We can also express most of the array utility functions, like replicate:

let replicate 'a (n: i64) (x: a): [n]a =
  map (\_ -> x) (iota n)

Or concat:

let concat 't (xs: []t) (ys: []t): []t =
  map (\i -> if i < length xs
             then xs[i]
             else ys[i - length xs])
      (iota (length xs + length ys))

Or rotate:

let rotate 't (r: i64) (xs: []t): []t =
  map (\i -> xs[(i+r) % length xs])
      (iota (length xs))

Here we are bending the rules a bit. The builtin rotate is an index transformation that does not have to copy its input - hence, it is in principle O(1) work, while ours is O(n). However, any non-pathological use will eventually require the rotated array to be stored directly in memory (which is O(n)), or fused with a subsequent O(n) operation.

The remaining functions transpose, flatten, and unflatten are similarly straightforward to define, so we now have a basic parallel vocabulary. Time to move on to more interesting functions.

Parallel reduction

The parallelism of a reduction is often demonstrated through tree reduction, where pairs of neighbouring elements are successively combined using the reduction operator. This gives rise to a tree, where each level halves the remaining number of elements, until only a single one is left. We can easily express this in Futhark, taking some care to handle inputs whose size is not a power of two by substituting the provided neutral element:

let reduce_tree 'a (op: a -> a -> a) (ne: a) (as: []a): a =
  let as' = loop as while length as > 1 do
              map (\i ->
                     let x = if i*2 >= length as
                             then ne
                             else as[i*2]
                     let y = if i*2+1 >= length as
                             then ne
                             else as[i*2+1]
                     in x `op` y)
                  (iota (length as `div_rounding_up` 2))
  in if length as' == 0 then ne else as'[0]

This works, but is it efficient? It does O(n) work and has O(log(n)) span, so asymptotically it is fine. Let us try benchmarking it versus the default reduce for summing n integers on an NVIDIA RTX 2080 Ti:

n Builtin reduce_tree Difference
























Not too bad - we’re about a factor of three away from the builtin reduce for the largest n. I can’t really explain the strange slowdowns for 10⁴ and 10⁶, but they showed up for every run.

The tree reduction does worst for small and large n. For the smaller n, we end up executing a lot of maps on rather small arrays, which will not fully saturate the GPU. On the largest n, the problem is that reduce_by_tree exploits too much parallelism. We don’t need a hundred million threads to saturate this GPU (a hundred thousand would be more than enough), but we still pay the cost in the form of storing the intermediate arrays in memory. Futhark’s built-in reduce uses a fixed number of threads and splits the input array between them, such that each thread sequentially reduces an interval of the input. Each thread then contributes a single partial result, which are reduced in parallel. We wrote a paper on the idea, but we can also try to express it in Futhark:

let num_threads : i64 = 128 * 256

let reduce [n] 'a (op: a -> a -> a) (ne: a) (as: []a): a =
  let chunk_size = n `div_rounding_up` num_threads
  let partial_results =
    map (\t -> loop x = ne for i < chunk_size do
               let j = t + i * num_threads
               in if j < n then x `op` as[j]
                  else x)
        (iota num_threads)
  in reduce_tree op ne partial_results

We fix the number of threads to some constant, and re-use the tree reduction to handle the partial results. The unusual index calculation for j ensures a GPU-friendly memory access pattern (specifically, coalesced). If we do a naive slice for each thread instead, the function will easily run four to five times slower. In most cases, the Futhark compiler is pretty good at rearranging array dimensions to ensure efficient access, but here we are treating a one-dimensional array as an irregular multi-dimensional array using complex index arithmetic, and the compiler will not be able to understand what is going on. Writing code like the above is deep hardware-specific voodoo, and not something we expect Futhark programmers to have to do.

Our performance is quite decent:

n Builtin reduce Difference
























Note how our reduce is much slower than the builtin for small n, but almost as fast for the largest workloads. This is because we always launch the full number of threads, even when there are not enough elements in the input array to actually give every thread something to do. We can also see that run-time remains (almost) constant until we get to n=10⁷; before that the run-time is almost exclusively due to GPU overhead. The builtin reduction is a little smarter about dynamically picking the right number of threads based on the hardware and workload, whereas our reduce uses a hard-coded number. Furthermore, the compiler uses low-level tricks to efficiently combine the partial results, while we use the fairly naive reduce_tree.

It is also worth mentioning that our reduce only works correctly for operators that are commutative, while the builtin requires only associativity. Ensuring efficient memory access patterns for a non-commutative operator requires a very different implementation strategy that I’m not sure can be expressed nicely in a high-level way. Our reduce_tree works fine for non-commutative operators, however.

Parallel scan

While reductions permit implementations that are both easily understood and fairly efficient, scans are a different matter. Of course, Futhark’s builtin scan is not particularly efficient as it is, so maybe we stand a chance. The algorithm we’ll be using is a simple but work-inefficient one first presented by Danny Hillis and Guy Steele:

let scan [n] 'a (op: a -> a -> a) (_ne: a) (as: [n]a): [n]a =
  let iters = i64.f32 (f32.ceil (f32.log2 (f32.i64 n)))
  in loop as for i < iters do
       map (\j -> if j < 2**i
                  then as[j]
                  else as[j] `op` as[j-2**i])
           (iota n)

(Note that this algorithm does not use the neutral element at all!)

This implementation is work-inefficient in that it requires O(n log(n)) operations, while a sequential scan only requires O(n). However, the span is O(log(n)), which is the best we can hope for. Work-efficient parallel scan algorithms do exist, but they are more complicated, and I’m not sure they can be expressed with the parallel vocabulary we have developed so far (they need either recursion or scatter). Further, they might not even be faster in practice. Most GPU scans (including the builtin one generated by the Futhark compiler) use a work-inefficient method for certain sub-computations, because it makes better use of hardware resources. Anyway, let’s see how fast our scan is.

n Builtin scan Difference
























Ouch. Scan is one of those algorithms that require quite careful implementation, and ours is just too simple. Let’s move on.

Finishing up

So far we depend on intrinsics for map and iota, and have scatter, reduce_by_index, partition, stream_map, and stream_red left to handle.

For scatter, which is a kind of parallel in-place update of an array, there’s an easy answer: it must be an intrinsic as well. There is no efficient way to express it using a map. It may be possible to come up with some elaborate scheme where each element performs a search for the value it’s supposed to be replaced with, but it would be extremely inefficient.

partition is a kind of generalised filter, which can be expressed with a combination of scan and scatter:

let filter 'a (p: a -> bool) (as: []a): []a =
  let keep = map (\a -> if p a then 1 else 0) as
  let offsets = scan (+) 0 keep
  let num_to_keep = reduce (+) 0 keep
  in if num_to_keep == 0
     then []
     else scatter (replicate num_to_keep as[0])
                  (map (\(i, k) -> if k == 1 then i-1 else -1)
                       (zip offsets keep))

I won’t bother benchmarking this one, since it builds on scan, which performs atrociously. Similarly, reduce_by_index is implemented in the compiler with a sophisticated multi-versioned approach that leverages primitive atomics when possible, but it can also be implemented by sorting followed by a segmented reduction. Both of these operations are non-intrinsic library functions that are implemented in terms of map, scan, and scatter.

Last up are stream_red and stream_map. These are fairly subtle constructs that are used to expose optimisation opportunities to the compiler. However, their semantics are quite simple:

let stream_map 'a 'b [n] (f: (c: i64) -> [c]a -> [c]b) (as: [n]a): [n]b =
  f n as

let stream_red 'a 'b [n] (op: b -> b -> b) (f: (c: i64) -> [c]a -> b) (as: [n]a): b =
  f n as

But this is too simple - the point of these combinators is permitting the per-chunk function (f) to be sequential (but more work-efficient), and exploiting parallelism by dividing the input into parts, each of which is then processed by a thread. Thus, by merely applying f to the whole array, as above, we may end up with a fully sequential program. A more reasonable approach is to reorganise the input arrays into size-1 chunks, and apply f to each of these:

let stream_map 'a 'b (f: (c: i64) -> [c]a -> [c]b) (as: []a): []b =
  as |> unflatten (length as) 1 |> map (f 1) |> flatten

let stream_red 'a 'b (op: b -> b -> b) (f: (c: i64) -> [c]a -> b) (as: []a): b =
  as |> unflatten (length as) 1 |> map (f 1) |> reduce op (f 0 [])

A good implementation, and what the compiler does, is more like our reduce: split the input into as many chunks as necessary to saturate the hardware, and assign each chunk to a thread.

Trying it out

As a larger example, let’s try writing a simple dot product using these constructs:

let dotprod [n] (xs: [n]i32) (ys: [n]i32): i32 =
  reduce (+) 0 (map (\(x, y) -> x*y) (zip xs ys))

And running it on the RTX 2080 Ti for various values of n:

n With builtins With ours Difference
























For n=10⁸, the dotprod using intrinsic reduce is almost twice as fast, but we saw earlier that our reduce is only 10% slower. What’s going on? The explanation is that the compiler deeply understands the intrinsic reduce, and is able to fuse the map with it, such that the array produced by map is never actually manifested in memory. In this program, and many others, the bottleneck is how fast we can move bytes in and out of memory, so avoiding unnecessary intermediate arrays has a major impact on performance. This fusion does not take place with our home-made reduce.


Like many languages, Futhark has a good number of intrinsic functions that are specially known to the compiler. However, as we have seen above, most of these can be expressed in fairly simple Futhark code using only three core primitives (map, iota, and scatter). Performance does suffer for nontrivial programs, because the compiler will not understand the algebraic structure of the custom functions, and so will not perform important structural optimisations.

In summary: use the builtin functions whenever possible; don’t try to outrun reduce (unless you are really clever, and if you do, please tell me how!)

If you wish to look at the full code, it is here: miniprelude.fut, miniprelude-benchmark.fut.