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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book



Suppose that the overall computation involves performing a calculation on many sets of data, where the calculation can be viewed in terms of data flowing through a sequence of stages. How can the potential concurrency be exploited?


An assembly line is a good analogy for this pattern. Suppose we want to manufacture a number of cars. The manufacturing process can be broken down into a sequence of operations each of which adds some component, say the engine or the windshield, to the car. An assembly line (pipeline) assigns a component to each worker. As each car moves down the assembly line, each worker installs the same component over and over on a succession of cars. After the pipeline is full (and until it starts to empty) the workers can all be busy simultaneously, all performing their operations on the cars that are currently at their stations.

Examples of pipelines are found at many levels of granularity in computer systems, including the CPU hardware itself.

  • Instruction pipeline in modern CPUs. The stages (fetch instruction, decode, execute, etc.) are done in a pipelined fashion; while one instruction is being decoded, its predecessor is being executed and its successor is being fetched.

  • Vector processing (loop-level pipelining). Specialized hardware in some supercomputers allows operations on vectors to be performed in a pipelined fashion. Typically, a compiler is expected to recognize that a loop such as

    for(i = 0; i < N; i++) { a[i] = b[i] + c[i]; }

    can be vectorized in a way that the special hardware can exploit. After a short startup, one a[i] value will be generated each clock cycle.

  • Algorithm-level pipelining. Many algorithms can be formulated as recurrence relations and implemented using a pipeline or its higher-dimensional generalization, a systolic array. Such implementations often exploit specialized hardware for performance reasons.

  • Signal processing. Passing a stream of real-time sensor data through a sequence of filters can be modeled as a pipeline, with each filter corresponding to a stage in the pipeline.

  • Graphics. Processing a sequence of images by applying the same sequence of operations to each image can be modeled as a pipeline, with each operation corresponding to a pipeline stage. Some stages may be implemented by specialized hardware.

  • Shell programs in UNIX. For example, the shell command

    cat sampleFile | grep "word" | we

    creates a three-stage pipeline, with one process for each command (cat, grep, and wc).

These examples and the assembly-line analogy have several aspects in common. All involve applying a sequence of operations (in the assembly line case it is installing the engine, installing the windshield, etc.) to each element in a sequence of data elements (in the assembly line, the cars). Although there may be ordering constraints on the operations on a single data element (for example, it might be necessary to install the engine before installing the hood), it is possible to perform different operations on different data elements simultaneously (for example, one can install the engine on one car while installing the hood on another.)

The possibility of simultaneously performing different operations on different data elements is the potential concurrency this pattern exploits. In terms of the analysis described in the Finding Concurrency patterns, each task consists of repeatedly applying an operation to a data element (analogous to an assembly-line worker installing a component), and the dependencies among tasks are ordering constraints enforcing the order in which operations must be performed on each data element (analogous to installing the engine before the hood).


  • A good solution should make it simple to express the ordering constraints. The ordering constraints in this problem are simple and regular and lend themselves to being expressed in terms of data flowing through a pipeline.

  • The target platform can include special-purpose hardware that can perform some of the desired operations.

  • In some applications, future additions, modifications, or reordering of the stages in the pipeline are expected.

  • In some applications, occasional items in the input sequence can contain errors that prevent their processing.


The key idea of this pattern is captured by the assembly-line analogy, namely that the potential concurrency can be exploited by assigning each operation (stage of the pipeline) to a different worker and having them work simultaneously, with the data elements passing from one worker to the next as operations are completed. In parallel-programming terms, the idea is to assign each task (stage of the pipeline) to a UE and provide a mechanism whereby each stage of the pipeline can send data elements to the next stage. This strategy is probably the most straightforward way to deal with this type of ordering constraints. It allows the application to take advantage of special-purpose hardware by appropriate mapping of pipeline stages to PEs and provides a reasonable mechanism for handling errors, described later. It also is likely to yield a modular design that can later be extended or modified.

Before going further, it may help to illustrate how the pipeline is supposed to operate. Let Ci represent a multistep computation on data element i. Ci(j) is the jth step of the computation. The idea is to map computation steps to pipeline stages so that each stage of the pipeline computes one step. Initially, the first stage of the pipeline performs C1(1). After that completes, the second stage of the pipeline receives the first data item and computes C1(2) while the first stage computes the first step of the second item, C2(1). Next, the third stage computes C1(3), while the second stage computes C2(2) and the first stage C3(1). Fig. 4.24 illustrates how this works for a pipeline consisting of four stages. Notice that concurrency is initially limited and some resources remain idle until all the stages are occupied with useful work. This is referred to as filling the pipeline. At the end of the computation (draining the pipeline), again there is limited concurrency and idle resources as the final item works its way through the pipeline. We want the time spent filling or draining the pipeline to be small compared to the total time of the computation. This will be the case if the number of stages is small compared to the number of items to be processed. Notice also that overall throughput/efficiency is maximized if the time taken to process a data element is roughly the same for each stage.

04fig11.gifFigure 4.24 Operation of a pipeline. Each pipeline stage i computes the i-th step of the computation.

This idea can be extended to include situations more general than a completely linear pipeline. For example, Fig. 4.25 illustrates two pipelines, each with four stages. In the second pipeline, the third stage consists of two operations that can be performed concurrently.

04fig12.gifFigure 4.25 Example pipelines

Defining the stages of the pipeline

Normally each pipeline stage will correspond to one task. shows the basic structure of each stage.

If the number of data elements to be processed is known in advance, then each stage can count the number of elements and terminate when these have been processed. Alternatively, a sentinel indicating termination may be sent through the pipeline.

It is worthwhile to consider at this point some factors that affect performance.

  • The amount of concurrency in a full pipeline is limited by the number of stages. Thus, a larger number of stages allows more concurrency. However, the data sequence must be transferred between the stages, introducing overhead to the calculation. Thus, we need to organize the computation into stages such that the work done by a stage is large compared to the communication overhead. What is "large enough" is highly dependent on the particular architecture. Specialized hardware (such as vector processors) allows very fine-grained parallelism.

  • The pattern works better if the operations performed by the various stages of the pipeline are all about equally computationally intensive. If the stages in the pipeline vary widely in computational effort, the slowest stage creates a bottleneck for the aggregate throughput.

    Example 4.26. Basic structure of a pipeline stage

    while (more data)
        receive data element from previous stage
        perform operation on data element
        send data element to next stage
  • The pattern works better if the time required to fill and drain the pipeline is small compared to the overall running time. This time is influenced by the number of stages (more stages means more fill/drain time).

Therefore, it is worthwhile to consider whether the original decomposition into tasks should be revisited at this point, possibly combining lightly-loaded adjacent pipeline stages into a single stage, or decomposing a heavily-loaded stage into multiple stages.

It may also be worthwhile to parallelize a heavily-loaded stage using one of the other Algorithm Structure patterns. For example, if the pipeline is processing a sequence of images, it is often the case that each stage can be parallelized using the Task Parallelism pattern.

Structuring the computation

We also need a way to structure the overall computation. One possibility is to use the SPMD pattern (described in the Supporting Structures design space) and use each UE's ID to select an option in a case or switch statement, with each case corresponding to a stage of the pipeline.

To increase modularity, object-oriented frameworks can be developed that allow stages to be represented by objects or procedures that can easily be "plugged in" to the pipeline. Such frameworks are not difficult to construct using standard OOP techniques, and several are available as commercial or freely available products.

Representing the dataflow among pipeline elements

How dataflow between pipeline elements is represented depends on the target platform.

In a message-passing environment, the most natural approach is to assign one process to each operation (stage of the pipeline) and implement each connection between successive stages of the pipeline as a sequence of messages between the corresponding processes. Because the stages are hardly ever perfectly synchronized, and the amount of work carried out at different stages almost always varies, this flow of data between pipeline stages must usually be both buffered and ordered. Most message-passing environments (e.g., MPI) make this easy to do. If the cost of sending individual messages is high, it may be worthwhile to consider sending multiple data elements in each message; this reduces total communication cost at the expense of increasing the time needed to fill the pipeline.

If a message-passing programming environment is not a good fit with the target platform, the stages of the pipeline can be connected explicitly with buffered channels. Such a buffered channel can be implemented as a queue shared between the sending and receiving tasks, using the Shared Queue pattern.

If the individual stages are themselves implemented as parallel programs, then more sophisticated approaches may be called for, especially if some sort of data redistribution needs to be performed between the stages. This might be the case if, for example, the data needs to be partitioned along a different dimension or partitioned into a different number of subsets in the same dimension. For example, an application might include one stage in which each data element is partitioned into three subsets and another stage in which it is partitioned into four subsets. The simplest ways to handle such situations are to aggregate and disaggregate data elements between stages. One approach would be to have only one task in each stage communicate with tasks in other stages; this task would then be responsible for interacting with the other tasks in its stage to distribute input data elements and collect output data elements. Another approach would be to introduce additional pipeline stages to perform aggregation/disaggregation operations. Either of these approaches, however, involves a fair amount of communication. It may be preferable to have the earlier stage "know" about the needs of its successor and communicate with each task receiving part of its data directly rather than aggregating the data at one stage and then disaggregating at the next. This approach improves performance at the cost of reduced simplicity, modularity, and flexibility.

Less traditionally, networked file systems have been used for communication between stages in a pipeline running in a workstation cluster. The data is written to a file by one stage and read from the file by its successor. Network file systems are usually mature and fairly well optimized, and they provide for the visibility of the file at all PEs as well as mechanisms for concurrency control. Higher-level abstractions such as tuple spaces and blackboards implemented over networked file systems can also be used. File-system-based solutions are appropriate in large-grained applications in which the time needed to process the data at each stage is large compared with the time to access the file system.

Handling errors

For some applications, it might be necessary to gracefully handle error conditions. One solution is to create a separate task to handle errors. Each stage of the regular pipeline sends to this task any data elements it cannot process along with error information and then continues with the next item in the pipeline. The error task deals with the faulty data elements appropriately.

Processor allocation and task scheduling

The simplest approach is to allocate one PE to each stage of the pipeline. This gives good load balance if the PEs are similar and the amount of work needed to process a data element is roughly the same for each stage. If the stages have different requirements (for example, one is meant to be run on special-purpose hardware), this should be taken into consideration in assigning stages to PEs.

If there are fewer PEs than pipeline stages, then multiple stages must be assigned to the same PE, preferably in a way that improves or at least does not much reduce overall performance. Stages that do not share many resources can be allocated to the same PE; for example, a stage that writes to a disk and a stage that involves primarily CPU computation might be good candidates to share a PE. If the amount of work to process a data element varies among stages, stages involving less work may be allocated to the same PE, thereby possibly improving load balance. Assigning adjacent stages to the same PE can reduce communication costs. It might also be worthwhile to consider combining adjacent stages of the pipeline into a single stage.

If there are more PEs than pipeline stages, it is worthwhile to consider parallelizing one or more of the pipeline stages using an appropriate Algorithm Structure pattern, as discussed previously, and allocating more than one PE to the parallelized stage(s). This is particularly effective if the parallelized stage was previously a bottleneck (taking more time than the other stages and thereby dragging down overall performance).

Another way to make use of more PEs than pipeline stages, if there are no temporal constraints among the data items themselves (that is, it doesn't matter if, say, data item 3 is computed before data item 2), is to run multiple independent pipelines in parallel. This can be considered an instance of the Task Parallelism pattern. This will improve the throughput of the overall calculation, but does not significantly improve the latency, however, since it still takes the same amount of time for a data element to traverse the pipeline.

Throughput and latency

There are few more factors to keep in mind when evaluating whether a given design will produce acceptable performance.

In many situations where the Pipeline pattern is used, the performance measure of interest is the throughput, the number of data items per time unit that can be processed after the pipeline is already full. For example, if the output of the pipeline is a sequence of rendered images to be viewed as an animation, then the pipeline must have sufficient throughput (number of items processed per time unit) to generate the images at the required frame rate.

In another situation, the input might be generated from real-time sampling of sensor data. In this case, there might be constraints on both the throughput (the pipeline should be able to handle all the data as it comes in without backing up the input queue and possibly losing data) and the latency (the amount of time between the generation of an input and the completion of processing of that input). In this case, it might be desirable to minimize latency subject to a constraint that the throughput is sufficient to handle the incoming data.


Fourier-transform computations

A type of calculation widely used in signal processing involves performing the following computations repeatedly on different sets of data.

  1. Perform a discrete Fourier transform (DFT) on a set of data.

  2. Manipulate the result of the transform elementwise.

  3. Perform an inverse DFT on the result of the manipulation.

Examples of such calculations include convolution, correlation, and filtering operations ([PTV93]).

A calculation of this form can easily be performed by a three-stage pipeline.

  • The first stage of the pipeline performs the initial Fourier transform; it repeatedly obtains one set of input data, performs the transform, and passes the result to the second stage of the pipeline.

  • The second stage of the pipeline performs the desired elementwise manipulation; it repeatedly obtains a partial result (of applying the initial Fourier transform to an input set of data) from the first stage of the pipeline, performs its manipulation, and passes the result to the third stage of the pipeline. This stage can often itself be parallelized using one of the other Algorithm Structure patterns.

  • The third stage of the pipeline performs the final inverse Fourier transform; it repeatedly obtains a partial result (of applying the initial Fourier transform and then the elementwise manipulation to an input set of data) from the second stage of the pipeline, performs the inverse Fourier transform, and outputs the result.

Each stage of the pipeline processes one set of data at a time. However, except during the initial filling of the pipeline, all stages of the pipeline can operate concurrently; while the first stage is processing the N-th set of data, the second stage is processing the (N — l)-th set of data, and the third stage is processing the (N - 2)-th set of data.

Java pipeline framework

The figures for this example show a simple Java framework for pipelines and an example application.

The framework consists of a base class for pipeline stages, PipelineStage, shown in , and a base class for pipelines, LinearPipeline, shown in . Applications provide a subclass of PipelineStage for each desired stage, implementing its three abstract methods to indicate what the stage should do on the initial step, the computation steps, and the final step, and a subclass of LinearPipeline that implements its abstract methods to create an array containing the desired pipeline stages and the desired queues connecting the stages. For the queue connecting the stages, we use LinkedBlockingQueue, an implementation of the BlockingQueue interface. These classes are found in the java.util. concurrent package. These classes use generics to specify the type of objects the queue can hold. For example, new LinkedBlockingQueue<String> creates a BlockingQueue implemented by an underlying linked list that can hold Strings. The operations of interest are put, to add an object to the queue, and take, to remove an object, take blocks if the queue is empty. The class CountDownLatch, also found in the java.util.concurrent package, is a simple barrier that allows the program to print a message when it has terminated. Barriers in general, and CountDownLatch in particular, are discussed in the Implementation Mechanisms design space.

The remaining figures show code for an example application, a pipeline to sort integers. is the required subclass of LinearPipeline, and is the required subclass of PipelineStage. Additional pipeline stages to generate or read the input and to handle the output are not shown.

Known uses

Many applications in signal and image processing are implemented as pipelines.

The OPUS [SR98] system is a pipeline framework developed by the Space Telescope Science Institute originally to process telemetry data from the Hubble Space Telescope and later employed in other applications. OPUS uses a blackboard architecture built on top of a network file system for interstage communication and includes monitoring tools and support for error handling.

Example 4.27. Base class for pipeline stages

import java.util.concurrent.*;

abstract class PipelineStage implements Runnable {

    BlockingQueue in;
    BlockingQueue out;
    CountDownLatch s;

    boolean done;

    //override to specify initialization step
   abstract void firstStep() throws Exception;
   //override to specify compute step
   abstract void step() throws Exception;
   //override to specify finalization step
   abstract void lastStep() throws Exception;
   void handleComputeException(Exception e)
   { e.printStackTrace(); }
   public void run()
   { firstStep();
   while(!done){ step();}
   catch(Exception e){handleComputeException(e);}
   finally {s.countDown();}
   public void init(BlockingQueue in,
   BlockingQueue out,
   CountDownLatch s)
   { this.in = in; this.out = out; this.s = s;}

Airborne surveillance radars use space-time adaptive processing (STAP) algorithms, which have been implemented as a parallel pipeline [CLW+00]. Each stage is itself a parallel algorithm, and the pipeline requires data redistribution between some of the stages.

Fx [GOS94], a parallelizing Fortran compiler based on HPF [HPF97], has been used to develop several example applications [DGO+94,SSOG93] that combine data parallelism (similar to the form of parallelism captured in the Geometric Decomposition pattern) and pipelining. For example, one application performs 2D Fourier transforms on a sequence of images via a two-stage pipeline (one stage for the row transforms and one stage for the column transforms), with each stage being itself parallelized using data parallelism. The SIGPLAN paper ([SSOG93]) is especially interesting in that it presents performance figures comparing this approach with a straight data-parallelism approach.

Example 4.28. Base class for linear pipeline

import java.util.concurrent.*;

abstract class LinearPipeline {
   PipelineStage[] stages;
   BlockingQueue[] queues;
   int numStages;
   CountDownLatch s;

   //override method to create desired array of pipeline stage objects
   abstract PipelineStage[] getPipelineStages(String[] args);
   //override method to create desired array of BlockingQueues
   //element i of returned array contains queue between stages i and i+1
   abstract BlockingQueue[] getQueues(String[] args);
   LinearPipeline(String[] args)
   { stages = getPipelineStages(args);
   queues = getQueues(args);
   numStages = stages.length;
   s = new CountDownLatch(numStages);
   BlockingQueue in = null;
   BlockingQueue out = queues[0];
   for (int i = 0; i != numStages; i++)
   { stages[i].init(in,out,s);
   in = out;
   if (i < numStages-2) out = queues[i+1]; else out = null;
   public void start()
   { for (int i = 0; i != numStages; i++)
   { new Thread(stages[i]).start();

[J92] presents some finer-grained applications of pipelining, including inserting a sequence of elements into a 2-3 tree and pipelined mergesort.

Related Patterns

This pattern is very similar to the Pipes and Filters pattern of [BMR+96]; the key difference is that this pattern explicitly discusses concurrency.

For applications in which there are no temporal dependencies between the data inputs, an alternative to this pattern is a design based on multiple sequential pipelines executing in parallel and using the Task Parallelism pattern.

Example 4.29. Pipelined sort (main class)

import java.uti1.concurrent.*;

class SortingPipeline extends LinearPipeline {

  /*Creates an array of pipeline stages with the
   number of sorting stages given via args. Input
   and output stages are also included at the
   beginning and end of the array. Details are omitted.
   PipelineStage[] getPipelineStages(String[] args)
   { //....
   return stages;
   /* Creates an array of LinkedBlockingQueues to serve as
   communication channels between the stages. For this
   example, the first is restricted to hold Strings,
   the rest can hold Comparables. */
   BlockingQueue[] getQueues(String[] args)
   { BlockingQueue[] queues = new BlockingQueue[totalStages - 1];
   queues[0] = new LinkedBlockingQueue<String>();
   for (int i = 1; i!= totalStages -1; i++)
   { queues[i] = new LinkedBlockingQueue<Comparable>();}
   return queues;
   SortingPipeline(String[] args)
   { super(args);
   public static void main(String[] args)
   throws InterruptedException
   { // create pipeline
   LinearPipeline 1 = new SortingPipeline(args);
   1.start(); //start threads associated with stages
   l.s.await(); //terminate thread when all stages terminated
   System.out.println("All threads terminated");

At first glance, one might also expect that sequential solutions built using the Chain of Responsibility pattern [GHJV95] could be easily parallelized using the Pipeline pattern. In Chain of Responsibility, or COR, an "event" is passed along a chain of objects until one or more of the objects handle the event. This pattern is directly supported, for example, in the Java Servlet Specification [1] [SER] to enable filtering of HTTP requests. With Servlets, as well as other typical applications of COR, however, the reason for using the pattern is to support modular structuring of a program that will need to handle independent events in different ways depending on the event type. It may be that only one object in the chain will even handle the event. We expect that in most cases, the Task Parallelism pattern would be more appropriate than the Pipeline pattern. Indeed, Servlet container implementations already supporting multithreading to handle independent HTTP requests provide this solution for free.

Example 4.30. Pipelined sort (sorting stage)

class SortingStage extends PipelineStage
   Comparable val = null;
   Comparable input = null;

   void firstStep() throws InterruptedException
   { input = (Comparable)in.take();
     done = (input.equals("DONE"));
     val = input;

   void step() throws InterruptedException
   { input = (Comparable)in.take();
       done = (input.equals("DONE"));
       if (!done)
       { if(val.compareTo(input)<0)
          { out.put(val); val = input; }
           else { out.put(input); }
       } else out.put(val);

   void lastStep() throws InterruptedException
   { out.put("DONE"); }

The Pipeline pattern is similar to the Event-Based Coordination pattern in that both patterns apply to problems where it is natural to decompose the computation into a collection of semi-independent tasks. The difference is that the Event-Based Coordination pattern is irregular and asynchronous where the Pipeline pattern is regular and synchronous: In the Pipeline pattern, the semi-independent tasks represent the stages of the pipeline, the structure of the pipeline is static, and the interaction between successive stages is regular and loosely synchronous. In the Event-Based Coordination pattern, however, the tasks can interact in very irregular and asynchronous ways, and there is no requirement for a static structure.

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