Verifying Parallel Programs with MPI-Spin

Half Day Tutorial

Stephen F. Siegel
Verified Software Laboratory , University of Delaware

Standard testing and debugging techniques are notoriously ineffective when applied to parallel programs, due to the numerous sources of nondeterminism arising from parallelism. MPI-Spin, an extension of the model checker Spin for verifying and debugging MPI-based parallel programs, overcomes many of the limitations associated with the standard techniques. By exploring all possible executions of an MPI program, MPI-Spin can conclude, for example, that a program cannot deadlock on any execution. If the program can deadlock, MPI-Spin can exhibit a trace showing exactly how the program fails, greatly facilitating debugging.

This tutorial will serve as an introduction to MPI-Spin. Through a series of examples and exercises, participants will learn to use MPI-Spin to check for deadlocks, race conditions, and discrepancies in the numerical computations performed by MPI programs. The only prerequisites are familiarity with C and the basic MPI operations; no prior verification experience is required. Participants are encouraged to download and install MPI-Spin before the tutorial, following the instructions at spin .

The tutorial is divided into four parts, each lasting approximately 45 minutes:

  1. introduction and tool demonstration,
  2. language basics,
  3. using MPI-Spin,
  4. verifying correctness of numerical computations.

Introduction and demonstration.

The introduction will begin with a discussion of some of the most common problems plaguing developers of MPI programs. In addition to the issues mentioned above, issues related to performance, such as the question of whether or not it is safe to remove a particular barrier statement from an MPI program, will also receive attention. The limitations of testing and other dynamic methods will also be explored. The basic tasks involved in model checking will then be introduced: the construction of a model of the program being verified, the formulation of one or more properties of the model, and the use of automated algorithmic techniques for checking that every execution of the model satisfies the property. The limitations of model checking will also be discussed; these include the state explosion problem and the problem of accurately constructing appropriate models of programs. It will be emphasized that, while modeling requires a certain degree of skill, it is not more difficult than programming and with a little practice most MPI programmers can become very effective modelers. The remainder of this part of the tutorial will consist of a tool demonstration, which will also introduce the main example used throughout the tutorial, the diffusion program.

Language basics.

Some knowledge of programming languages carries over into modeling languages, but modeling differs in several significant ways. In this part of the tutorial, the basic syntax and semantics of the MPI-Spin input language will be described in a progressive, methodical way. The description will start with those syntactic elements dealing with process declaration and management, then move on to variables and types, then expressions, and finally the different types of statements provided by the language. Throughout, the diffusion example will be used to illustrate the various language constructs.

Using MPI-Spin.

This part will begin with a discussion of abstraction and how the choice of appropriate abstractions can lead to models that are both efficient and conservative. These notions will be defined precisely and illustrated using diffusion and matmat, a program that computes the product of two matrices using a master-slave pattern. In the latter example, the consequences of using various abstractions for the variables in the program will be explored. It will be shown that different choices are appropriate for verifying different properties of matmat. Once a model has been constructed, the MPI-Spin tool itself must be executed on that model. As is the case for any complex tool (such as a compiler), there are many options, parameters, and flags available to the user. The most commonly used options will be described and their effects demonstrated using the examples introduced previously. This will be followed by a “hands-on” exercise in which MPI-Spin is used to explore the consequences of modifications to the diffusion code.

Verifying Correctness of Numerical Computations.

The fourth part of the tutorial deals with a recent and exciting development in the field of model checking for HPC: techniques using symbolic execution to verify properties of the numerical computations carried out by parallel programs. These techniques are supported in MPI-Spin through an abstract datatype MPI_Symbolic together with a number of operations on that type, such as SYM_add and SYM_multiply. The idea is to model the inputs to the program as symbolic constants xi and the output as a vector of symbolic expressions in the xi . The output vector can be analyzed for a number of purposes. Most importantly, it can be compared against the symbolic output vector produced by a trusted sequential version of the program. In this way, model checking can be used to show that for all inputs, and for all possible executions of the parallel program on the input, the parallel program will produce the same results as the sequential one. This technique will be illustrated using matmat and, if time permits, a more complex example implementing the Gaussian elimination algorithm.

About the Speaker

  Stephen Siegel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences at the University of Delaware.  His current research focuses on formal methods for software verification,
especially for parallel scientific software.  To support this work, he has developed MPI-Spin, an extension to the popular model checker Spin for verifying MPI-based parallel programs.  (MPI-Spin is under active development and is freely available from  He is also interested in scientific computing more broadly and is collaborating with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory on the development of a state-of-the-art neutron transport code.

Previously, Dr. Siegel worked on the INCA project, applying integer linear programming techniques to verification problems.  Before that, he worked mainly in pure mathematics, studying computational problems in the representation theory and cohomology of finite groups, areas which he is interested in applying to verification.  His papers on these subjects are available at .


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