The Use of Graphical Processing Units (GPU’s) In Astronomy

Graphical Processing Units (GPU’s) were designed in the first instance to handle graphics intensive applications. Their design is radically different from the Central Processing Units that power computers. Whereas a modern CPU has several cores, allowing small-scale parallelisation, a  GPU has in some cases millions of data parallel threads. Moreover, the chips contain largely floating point units. This architecture gives GPU’s far superior processing power over CPU’s.

Comparison of COU and GPU architecture (Credit:

Comparison of COU and GPU architecture (Credit:

GeForce 6600GT (NV43) GPU (Source/Photographer: Berkut)

GeForce 6600GT (NV43) GPU (Source/Photographer: Berkut)

GPU’s have in recent years been shown to have applicability beyond their original purpose. With CPU clockrates staying steady, GPU’s are increasingly attracting attention in astronomy (as in other sciences of course) as a means of processing the vast quantities of data being made available.  In the early days, programmers had to make their codes look like video applications to run on GPU’s. Now there are special frameworks that allow science applications run on GPU’s’; the best known of these is NVIDIA’s Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) framework. And algorithms must be rewritten to make them data parallel; that is, data are distributed across different threads or nodes. So there is still a difficult learning curve in using GPU’s.

In a fascinating recent paper, Barsdell, Barnes and Fluke (2010) have analyzed astronomy algorithms to understand which algorithms can be best engineered to run on GPU’s; the way the engineering is done is critical to getting the best performance out of CPU’s. Barsdell, Barnes and Fluke used algorithm analysis to understand  how to well  algorithms can be optimized to run in parallel in a GPU environment (as opposed to implementation optimization).

The table below summarizes their conclusions; it shows the efficiency with which various algorithms run on GPU’s:

Broadly speaking, the following are characteristics of high efficiency algorithms:

  • Can be parallelized into many fine-grained elements.
  • Neighboring threads access similar locations in memory.
  • Minimize neighboring threads that execute different instructions.
  • Have high arithmetic intensity
  • Avoid host-device memory transfers
This entry was posted in Astronomy, cyberinfrastructure, GPU's, High performance computing, Parallelization, programming, software engineering, software maintenance and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Use of Graphical Processing Units (GPU’s) In Astronomy

  1. Steve B says:

    Couple of comments that may be useful:
    1) NVIDIA hosts a GPU tech conference every year in San Jose, which can be useful to attend to learn the tech, learn about developments, meet vendors, and see that broad science being done with GPUs.
    2) For InfiniBand networks, some newer architectures allow limited RDMA access to GPU memories, alleviating a bit of the CPU-GPU transfer hit.
    3) It can be argued that the additional benefit of GPU processing locks one into a single architecture; further, the rework of existing and development of new algorithms and the effective specialized expertise required should also be considered when deciding to move.
    4) And, as always, design, prototype, and test, test, test — a colleague in geosciences recently learned the hard way that #3 was a bugger for his chosen application, having gone through six months of development to gain a factor 1.3 in performance.

  2. astrocompute says:

    Thank you for your comments. I was unaware of the NVIDIA meeting. You may find the next post interesting: it is about managing the risks in using GPU’s.

  3. Pingback: — GPUs in astronomy

  4. Pingback: Cosmological Calculations with GPUs | Astronomy Computing Today

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