Parallel Meep

Meep supports distributed-memory parallelism via MPI. This allows it to scale up from single multi-core machines to multi-node clusters and supercomputers, and to work on large problems that may not fit into the memory of one machine. Meep simulations can use hundreds of processors, if necessary. Of course, your problem must be sufficiently large in order to benefit from many processors.

Installing Parallel Meep

To build from source the parallel version of Meep, you must have a version of MPI installed on your system. For an overview, see Build From Source/MPI.

We also strongly recommend installing the HDF5 package with parallel I/O support if you are going to run with more than a few cores/processors. HDF5 needs to be configured with the flag --enable-parallel. You may also have to set the CC environment variable to mpicc. Unfortunately, the parallel HDF5 library therefore cannot be used with the serial Meep, so you may have to choose to install either the serial or the parallel Meep, but not both.

If you don't install HDF5 with parallel I/O support, you can still do I/O from MPI — Meep has some hacks to let it write HDF5 files using serial I/O from multiple processes, one at a time. However, this does not scale very well to many processors. Some MPI implementations have been observed to freeze under the strain of trying to write from many processes at once.

Then you just configure Meep with the flag --with-mpi. If you run the resulting Python or Scheme script, it runs on a single process; to run with multiple cores/processors you should use mpirun as described in the next section. Because you can run the parallel Meep in a single process using this approach (i.e., mpirun -np 1 python or just python, mpirun -np 1 meep foo.ctl or just meep foo.ctl), there is no need to separately compile and install the serial version of Meep.

Using Parallel Meep

The parallel version of Meep is designed to operate completely transparently: you use the same Python or Scheme script as for the serial version; the output is the same but it is just faster. In Python, the output of each process that is not the master (rank 0) is sent to devnull, and in Scheme, the special print function only prints output from the master process.

In order to run MPI programs, you typically have to use a command like mpirun with an argument to indicate how many processes you want to use. Consult your MPI documentation. For example, with many popular MPI implementations, to run with 4 processes you would use something like:


mpirun -np 4 python > foo.out


mpirun -np 4 meep foo.ctl > foo.out

There is one important requirement: every MPI process must be able to read the input file or whatever your script file is called. On most systems, this is no problem, but if for some reason your MPI processes don't all have access to the local filesystem then you may need to make copies of your input file or something.

For a potential improvement in load balancing, you can try setting split_chunks_evenly=False in the Simulation constructor.

In general, you cannot run Meep interactively on multiple processors.

Different Forms of Parallelization

Parallel Meep works by taking your simulation and dividing the cell among the MPI processes. This is the only way of parallelizing a single simulation and enables simulating very large problems.

However, there is an alternative strategy for parallelization. If you have many smaller simulations that you want to run, say for many different values of some parameter, then you can just run these as separate jobs. Such parallelization is known as embarrassingly parallel because no communication is required. Meep provides no explicit support for this mode of operation, but of course it is quite easy to do yourself: just launch as many Meep jobs as you want, perhaps changing the parameters via the command-line using a shell script.

Meep also supports thread-level parallelism (i.e., multi-threading) on a single, shared-memory, multi-core machine for multi-frequency near-to-far field computations.

Technical Details

When you run Meep under MPI, the following is a brief description of what is happening behind the scenes. For the most part, you shouldn't need to know this stuff. Just use the same Python/Scheme script file exactly as you would for a uniprocessor simulation.

First, every MPI process executes the Python/Scheme file in parallel. The processes communicate however, to only perform one simulation in sync with one another. In particular, the cell is divided into "chunks", one per process, to roughly equally divide the work and the memory. For additional details, see Chunks and Symmetry as well as Section 2.2 ("Grid chunks and owned points") of Computer Physics Communications, Vol. 181, pp. 687-702, 2010.

When you time-step via Python's or Scheme's run-until, etc., the chunks are time-stepped in parallel, communicating the values of the pixels on their boundaries with one another. In general, any Meep function that performs some collective operation over the whole cell or a large portion thereof is parallelized, including: time-stepping, HDF5 I/O, accumulation of flux spectra, and field integration via integrate_field_function (Python) or integrate-field-function (Scheme), although the results are communicated to all processes.

Computations that only involve isolated points, such as get_field_point (Python) or get-field-point (Scheme), or Harminv (Python) or harminv (Scheme) analyses, are performed by all processes redundantly. In the case of get_field_point or get-field-point, Meep figures out which process "knows" the field at the given field, and then sends the field value from that process to all other processes. This is harmless because such computations are rarely performance bottlenecks.

Although all processes execute the Python/Scheme file in parallel, print statements are ignored for all process but one (process #0). In this way, you only get one copy of the output.

Sometimes you only want an operation to take place on one process. A common use case is showing a matplotlib plot with, or saving a file with plt.savefig(). In cases where you need to distinguish different MPI processes in your Python/Scheme file, you can use the following functions:

meep.am_master(), (meep-am-master) — Returns true if the current process is the master process (rank 0).

This can be useful for calling external I/O or visualization routines, e.g. Matplotlib plotting functions, that you only want to execute on the master process. Note that the Scheme (print) or Python print functions are already set up so that by default their output is suppressed on non-master processes.

Warning: Most Meep functions operating on the simulation (e.g. fields or structure) are "collective" operations that must be called from all processes in the same sequence — if you call them from only one process via am_master (or my_rank) checks, then they will deadlock. Code inside an am_master check should generally only call non-Meep library functions.

meep.count_processors(), (meep-count-processors) — Returns the number of processes that Meep is using in parallel.

meep.my_rank(), (meep-my-rank) — Returns the index of the process running the current file, from zero to (meep-count-processors)–1.

meep.all_wait(), (meep-all-wait) — Blocks until all processes execute this statement (MPI_Barrier).

For large multicore jobs with I/O, it may be necessary to have (meep-all-wait) as the last line in the Scheme file to ensure that all processors terminate at the same point in the execution. Otherwise, one processor may finish and abruptly terminate the other processors.