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Mauricio Carneiro presented this slide deck at the workshop organized by Mnt Sinai School of Medicine on December 10, 2013. The other presentations made at the workshop were posted here.

Please note that we cannot guarantee content hosted on other websites; if outgoing links becomes outdated please let us know.

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This document explains the concepts involved and how they are applied within the GATK (and Queue where applicable). For specific configuration recommendations, see the companion document on parallelizing GATK tools.

1. Introducing the concept of parallelism

Parallelism is a way to make a program finish faster by performing several operations in parallel, rather than sequentially (i.e. waiting for each operation to finish before starting the next one).

Imagine you need to cook rice for sixty-four people, but your rice cooker can only make enough rice for four people at a time. If you have to cook all the batches of rice sequentially, it's going to take all night. But if you have eight rice cookers that you can use in parallel, you can finish up to eight times faster.

This is a very simple idea but it has a key requirement: you have to be able to break down the job into smaller tasks that can be done independently. It's easy enough to divide portions of rice because rice itself is a collection of discrete units. In contrast, let's look at a case where you can't make that kind of division: it takes one pregnant woman nine months to grow a baby, but you can't do it in one month by having nine women share the work.

The good news is that most GATK runs are more like rice than like babies. Because GATK tools are built to use the Map/Reduce method (see doc for details), most GATK runs essentially consist of a series of many small independent operations that can be parallelized.

A quick warning about tradeoffs

Parallelism is a great way to speed up processing on large amounts of data, but it has "overhead" costs. Without getting too technical at this point, let's just say that parallelized jobs need to be managed, you have to set aside memory for them, regulate file access, collect results and so on. So it's important to balance the costs against the benefits, and avoid dividing the overall work into too many small jobs.

Going back to the introductory example, you wouldn't want to use a million tiny rice cookers that each boil a single grain of rice. They would take way too much space on your countertop, and the time it would take to distribute each grain then collect it when it's cooked would negate any benefits from parallelizing in the first place.

Parallel computing in practice (sort of)

OK, parallelism sounds great (despite the tradeoffs caveat), but how do we get from cooking rice to executing programs? What actually happens in the computer?

Consider that when you run a program like the GATK, you're just telling the computer to execute a set of instructions.

Let's say we have a text file and we want to count the number of lines in it. The set of instructions to do this can be as simple as:

  • open the file, count the number of lines in the file, tell us the number, close the file

Note that tell us the number can mean writing it to the console, or storing it somewhere for use later on.

Now let's say we want to know the number of words on each line. The set of instructions would be:

  • open the file, read the first line, count the number of words, tell us the number, read the second line, count the number of words, tell us the number, read the third line, count the number of words, tell us the number

And so on until we've read all the lines, and finally we can close the file. It's pretty straightforward, but if our file has a lot of lines, it will take a long time, and it will probably not use all the computing power we have available.

So to parallelize this program and save time, we just cut up this set of instructions into separate subsets like this:

  • open the file, index the lines

  • read the first line, count the number of words, tell us the number

  • read the second line, count the number of words, tell us the number
  • read the third line, count the number of words, tell us the number
  • [repeat for all lines]

  • collect final results and close the file

Here, the read the Nth line steps can be performed in parallel, because they are all independent operations.

You'll notice that we added a step, index the lines. That's a little bit of peliminary work that allows us to perform the read the Nth line steps in parallel (or in any order we want) because it tells us how many lines there are and where to find each one within the file. It makes the whole process much more efficient. As you may know, the GATK requires index files for the main data files (reference, BAMs and VCFs); the reason is essentially to have that indexing step already done.

Anyway, that's the general principle: you transform your linear set of instructions into several subsets of instructions. There's usually one subset that has to be run first and one that has to be run last, but all the subsets in the middle can be run at the same time (in parallel) or in whatever order you want.

2. Parallelizing the GATK

There are three different modes of parallelism offered by the GATK, and to really understand the difference you first need to understand what are the different levels of computing that are involved.

A quick word about levels of computing

By levels of computing, we mean the computing units in terms of hardware: the core, the machine (or CPU) and the cluster.

  • Core: the level below the machine. On your laptop or desktop, the CPU (central processing unit, or processor) contains one or more cores. If you have a recent machine, your CPU probably has at least two cores, and is therefore called dual-core. If it has four, it's a quad-core, and so on. High-end consumer machines like the latest Mac Pro have up to twelve-core CPUs (which should be called dodeca-core if we follow the Latin terminology) but the CPUs on some professional-grade machines can have tens or hundreds of cores.

  • Machine: the middle of the scale. For most of us, the machine is the laptop or desktop computer. Really we should refer to the CPU specifically, since that's the relevant part that does the processing, but the most common usage is to say machine. Except if the machine is part of a cluster, in which case it's called a node.

  • Cluster: the level above the machine. This is a high-performance computing structure made of a bunch of machines (usually called nodes) networked together. If you have access to a cluster, chances are it either belongs to your institution, or your company is renting time on it. A cluster can also be called a server farm or a load-sharing facility.

Parallelism can be applied at all three of these levels, but in different ways of course, and under different names. Parallelism takes the name of multi-threading at the core and machine levels, and scatter-gather at the cluster level.

Multi-threading

In computing, a thread of execution is a set of instructions that the program issues to the processor to get work done. In single-threading mode, a program only sends a single thread at a time to the processor and waits for it to be finished before sending another one. In multi-threading mode, the program may send several threads to the processor at the same time.

Not making sense? Let's go back to our earlier example, in which we wanted to count the number of words in each line of our text document. Hopefully it is clear that the first version of our little program (one long set of sequential instructions) is what you would run in single-threaded mode. And the second version (several subsets of instructions) is what you would run in multi-threaded mode, with each subset forming a separate thread. You would send out the first thread, which performs the preliminary work; then once it's done you would send the "middle" threads, which can be run in parallel; then finally once they're all done you would send out the final thread to clean up and collect final results.

If you're still having a hard time visualizing what the different threads are like, just imagine that you're doing cross-stitching. If you're a regular human, you're working with just one hand. You're pulling a needle and thread (a single thread!) through the canvas, making one stitch after another, one row after another. Now try to imagine an octopus doing cross-stitching. He can make several rows of stitches at the same time using a different needle and thread for each. Multi-threading in computers is surprisingly similar to that.

Hey, if you have a better example, let us know in the forum and we'll use that instead.

Alright, now that you understand the idea of multithreading, let's get practical: how do we do get the GATK to use multi-threading?

There are two options for multi-threading with the GATK, controlled by the arguments -nt and -nct, respectively. They can be combined, since they act at different levels of computing:

  • -nt / --num_threads controls the number of data threads sent to the processor (acting at the machine level)

  • -nct / --num_cpu_threads_per_data_thread controls the number of CPU threads allocated to each data thread (acting at the core level).

Not all GATK tools can use these options due to the nature of the analyses that they perform and how they traverse the data. Even in the case of tools that are used sequentially to perform a multi-step process, the individual tools may not support the same options. For example, at time of writing (Dec. 2012), of the tools involved in local realignment around indels, RealignerTargetCreator supports -nt but not -nct, while IndelRealigner does not support either of these options.

In addition, there are some important technical details that affect how these options can be used with optimal results. Those are explained along with specific recommendations for the main GATK tools in a companion document on parallelizing the GATK.

Scatter-gather

If you Google it, you'll find that the term scatter-gather can refer to a lot of different things, including strategies to get the best price quotes from online vendors, methods to control memory allocation and… an indie-rock band. What all of those things have in common (except possibly the band) is that they involve breaking up a task into smaller, parallelized tasks (scattering) then collecting and integrating the results (gathering). That should sound really familiar to you by now, since it's the general principle of parallel computing.

So yes, "scatter-gather" is really just another way to say we're parallelizing things. OK, but how is it different from multithreading, and why do we need yet another name?

As you know by now, multithreading specifically refers to what happens internally when the program (in our case, the GATK) sends several sets of instructions to the processor to achieve the instructions that you originally gave it in a single command-line. In contrast, the scatter-gather strategy as used by the GATK involves a separate program, called Queue, which generates separate GATK jobs (each with its own command-line) to achieve the instructions given in a so-called Qscript (i.e. a script written for Queue in a programming language called Scala).

At the simplest level, the Qscript can involve a single GATK tool*. In that case Queue will create separate GATK commands that will each run that tool on a portion of the input data (= the scatter step). The results of each run will be stored in temporary files. Then once all the runs are done, Queue will collate all the results into the final output files, as if the tool had been run as a single command (= the gather step).

Note that Queue has additional capabilities, such as managing the use of multiple GATK tools in a dependency-aware manner to run complex pipelines, but that is outside the scope of this article. To learn more about pipelining the GATK with Queue, please see the Queue documentation.

Compare and combine

So you see, scatter-gather is a very different process from multi-threading because the parallelization happens outside of the program itself. The big advantage is that this opens up the upper level of computing: the cluster level. Remember, the GATK program is limited to dispatching threads to the processor of the machine on which it is run – it cannot by itself send threads to a different machine. But Queue can dispatch scattered GATK jobs to different machines in a computing cluster by interfacing with your cluster's job management software.

That being said, multithreading has the great advantage that cores and machines all have access to shared machine memory with very high bandwidth capacity. In contrast, the multiple machines on a network used for scatter-gather are fundamentally limited by network costs.

The good news is that you can combine scatter-gather and multithreading: use Queue to scatter GATK jobs to different nodes on your cluster, then use the GATK's internal multithreading capabilities to parallelize the jobs running on each node.

Going back to the rice-cooking example, it's as if instead of cooking the rice yourself, you hired a catering company to do it for you. The company assigns the work to several people, who each have their own cooking station with multiple rice cookers. Now you can feed a lot more people in the same amount of time! And you don't even have to clean the dishes.

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This document provides technical details and recommendations on how the parallelism options offered by the GATK can be used to yield optimal performance results.

Overview

As explained in the primer on parallelism for the GATK, there are two main kinds of parallelism that can be applied to the GATK: multi-threading and scatter-gather (using Queue).

Multi-threading options

There are two options for multi-threading with the GATK, controlled by the arguments -nt and -nct, respectively, which can be combined:

  • -nt / --num_threads controls the number of data threads sent to the processor
  • -nct / --num_cpu_threads_per_data_thread controls the number of CPU threads allocated to each data thread

For more information on how these multi-threading options work, please read the primer on parallelism for the GATK.

Memory considerations for multi-threading

Each data thread needs to be given the full amount of memory you’d normally give a single run. So if you’re running a tool that normally requires 2 Gb of memory to run, if you use -nt 4, the multithreaded run will use 8 Gb of memory. In contrast, CPU threads will share the memory allocated to their “mother” data thread, so you don’t need to worry about allocating memory based on the number of CPU threads you use.

Additional consideration when using -nct with versions 2.2 and 2.3

Because of the way the -nct option was originally implemented, in versions 2.2 and 2.3, there is one CPU thread that is reserved by the system to “manage” the rest. So if you use -nct, you’ll only really start seeing a speedup with -nct 3 (which yields two effective "working" threads) and above. This limitation has been resolved in the implementation that will be available in versions 2.4 and up.

Scatter-gather

For more details on scatter-gather, see the primer on parallelism for the GATK and the Queue documentation.

Applicability of parallelism to the major GATK tools

Please note that not all tools support all parallelization modes. The parallelization modes that are available for each tool depend partly on the type of traversal that the tool uses to walk through the data, and partly on the nature of the analyses it performs.

Tool Full name Type of traversal NT NCT SG
RTC RealignerTargetCreator RodWalker + - -
IR IndelRealigner ReadWalker - - +
BR BaseRecalibrator LocusWalker - + +
PR PrintReads ReadWalker - + -
RR ReduceReads ReadWalker - - +
UG UnifiedGenotyper LocusWalker + + +

Recommended configurations

The table below summarizes configurations that we typically use for our own projects (one per tool, except we give three alternate possibilities for the UnifiedGenotyper). The different values allocated for each tool reflect not only the technical capabilities of these tools (which options are supported), but also our empirical observations of what provides the best tradeoffs between performance gains and commitment of resources. Please note however that this is meant only as a guide, and that we cannot give you any guarantee that these configurations are the best for your own setup. You will probably have to experiment with the settings to find the configuration that is right for you.

Tool RTC IR BR PR RR UG
Available modes NT SG NCT,SG NCT SG NT,NCT,SG
Cluster nodes 1 4 4 1 4 4 / 4 / 4
CPU threads (-nct) 1 1 8 4-8 1 3 / 6 / 24
Data threads (-nt) 24 1 1 1 1 8 / 4 / 1
Memory (Gb) 48 4 4 4 4 32 / 16 / 4

Where NT is data multithreading, NCT is CPU multithreading and SG is scatter-gather using Queue. For more details on scatter-gather, see the primer on parallelism for the GATK and the Queue documentation.

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Overview

One of the key challenges of working with next-gen sequence data is that input files are usually very large. We can’t just make the program open the files, load all the data into memory and perform whatever analysis is needed on all of it in one go. It’s just too much work, even for supercomputers.

Instead, we make the program cut the job into smaller tasks that the computer can easily process separately. Then we have it combine the results of each step into the final result.

Map/Reduce

Map/Reduce is the technique we use to achieve this. It consists of three steps formally called filter, map and reduce. Let’s apply it to an example case where we want to find out what is the average depth of coverage in our dataset for a certain region of the genome.

  • filter determines what subset of the data needs to be processed in each task. In our example, the program lists all the reference positions in our region of interest.

  • map applies the function, i.e. performs the analysis on each subset of data. In our example, for each position in the list, the program looks into the BAM file, pulls out the pileup of bases and outputs the depth of coverage at that position.

  • reduce combines the elements in the list of results output by the map function. In our example, the program takes the coverage numbers that were calculated separately for all the reference positions and calculates their average, which is the final result we want.

This may seem trivial for such a simple example, but it is a very powerful method with many advantages. Among other things, it makes it relatively easy to parallelize operations, which makes the tools run much faster on large datasets.

Walkers, filters and traversal types

All the tools in the GATK are built from the ground up to take advantage of this method. That’s why we call them walkers: because they “walk” across the genome, getting things done.

Note that even though it’s not included in the Map/Reduce technique’s name, the filter step is very important. It determines what data get presented to the tool for analysis, selecting only the appropriate data for each task and discarding anything that’s not relevant. This is a key part of the Map/Reduce technique, because that’s what makes each task “bite-sized” enough for the computer to handle easily.

Each tool has filters that are tailored specifically for the type of analysis it performs. The filters rely on traversal engines, which are little programs that are designed to “traverse” the data (i.e. walk through the data) in specific ways.

There are three major types of traversal: Locus Traversal, Read Traversal and Active Region Traversal. In our interval coverage example, the tool’s filter uses the Locus Traversal engine, which walks through the data by locus, i.e. by position along the reference genome. Because of that, the tool is classified as a Locus Walker. Similarly, the Read Traversal engine is used, you’ve guessed it, by Read Walkers.

The GATK engine comes packed with many other ways to walk through the genome and get the job done seamlessly, but those are the ones you’ll encounter most often.

Further reading

A primer on parallelism with the GATK How can I use parallelism to make GATK tools run faster?

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Imagine a simple question like, "What's the depth of coverage at position A of the genome?"

First, you are given billions of reads that are aligned to the genome but not ordered in any particular way (except perhaps in the order they were emitted by the sequencer). This simple question is then very difficult to answer efficiently, because the algorithm is forced to examine every single read in succession, since any one of them might span position A. The algorithm must now take several hours in order to compute this value.

Instead, imagine the billions of reads are now sorted in reference order (that is to say, on each chromosome, the reads are stored on disk in the same order they appear on the chromosome). Now, answering the question above is trivial, as the algorithm can jump to the desired location, examine only the reads that span the position, and return immediately after those reads (and only those reads) are inspected. The total number of reads that need to be interrogated is only a handful, rather than several billion, and the processing time is seconds, not hours.

This reference-ordered sorting enables the GATK to process terabytes of data quickly and without tremendous memory overhead. Most GATK tools run very quickly and with less than 2 gigabytes of RAM. Without this sorting, the GATK cannot operate correctly. Thus, it is a fundamental rule of working with the GATK, which is the reason for the Central Dogma of the GATK:

All datasets (reads, alignments, quality scores, variants, dbSNP information, gene tracks, interval lists - everything) must be sorted in order of one of the canonical references sequences.

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This may seem crazy considering we released the big 3.0 version not two weeks ago, but yes, we have a new version for you already! It's a bit of a special case because this release is all about the hardware-based optimizations we had previously announced. What we hadn't announced yet was that this is the fruit of a new collaboration with a team at Intel (which you can read more about here), so we were waiting for everyone to be ready for the big reveal.


Intel inside GATK

So basically, the story is that we've started collaborating with the Intel Bio Team to enable key parts of the GATK to run more efficiently on certain hardware configurations. For our first project together, we tackled the PairHMM algorithm, which is responsible for a large proportion of the runtime of HaplotypeCaller analyses. The resulting optimizations, which are the main feature in version 3.1, produce significant speedups for HaplotypeCaller runs on a wide range of hardware.

We will continue working with Intel to further improve the performance of GATK tools that have historically been afflicted with performance issues and long runtimes (hello BQSR). As always, we hope these new features will make your life easier, and we welcome your feedback in the forum!

In practice

Note that these optimizations currently work on Linux systems only, and will not work on Mac or Windows operating systems. In the near future we will add support for Mac OS. We have no plans to add support for Windows since the GATK itself does not run on Windows.

Please note also that to take advantage of these optimizations, you need to opt-in by adding the following flag to your GATK command: -pairHMM VECTOR_LOGLESS_CACHING.

Here is a handy little table of the speedups you can expect depending on the hardware and operating system you are using. The configurations given here are the minimum requirements for benefiting from the expected speedup ranges shown in the third column. Keep in mind that these numbers are based on tests in controlled conditions; in the wild, your mileage may vary.

Linux kernel version Architecture / Processor Expected speedup Instruction set
Any 64-bit Linux Any x86 64-bit 1-1.5x Non-vector
Linux 2.6 or newer Penryn (Core 2 or newer) 1.3-1.8x SSE 4.1
Linux 2.6.30 or newer SandyBridge (i3, i5, i7, Xeon E3, E5, E7 or newer) 2-2.5x AVX

To find out exactly which processor is in your machine, you can run this command in the terminal:

$ cat /proc/cpuinfo | grep "model name"                                                                                    
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz
model name  : Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-2600 CPU @ 3.40GHz

In this example, the machine has 4 cores (8-threads), so you see the answer 8 times. With the model name (here i7-2600) you can look up your hardware's relevant capabilities in the Wikipedia page on vector extensions.

Alternatively, Intel has provided us with some links to lists of processors categorized by architecture, in which you can look up your hardware:

Penryn processors

  • http://ark.intel.com/products/codename/26543/Penryn
  • http://ark.intel.com/products/codename/24736/Wolfdale
  • http://ark.intel.com/products/codename/26555/Harpertown
  • http://ark.intel.com/products/codename/25006/Dunnington

Sandy Bridge processors

  • http://ark.intel.com/products/codename/29900/Sandy-Bridge?wapkw=sandy+bridge+processors

Finally, a few notes to clarify some concepts regarding Linux kernels vs. distributions and processors vs. architectures:

  • SandyBridge and Penryn are microarchitectures; essentially, these are sets of instructions built into the CPU. Core 2, core i3, i4, i7, Xeon e3, e5, e7 are the processors that will implement a specific architecture to make use of the relevant improvements (see table above).

  • The Linux kernel has no connection with Linux distribution (e.g. Ubuntu, RedHat etc). Any distribution can use any kernel they want. There are "default kernels" shipped with each distribution, but that's beyond the scope of this article to cover (there are at least 300 Linux distributions out there). But you can always install whatever kernel version you want.

  • The kernel version 2.6.30 was released in 2009, so we expect every sane person or IT out there to be using something better than this.

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We're very excited to announce that we have started collaborating with a team from Intel (yep, that Intel) to optimize key parts of the GATK code to make it run faster. The first fruits of this collaboration --a set of hardware-based optimizations for the PairHMM algorithm in HaplotypeCaller-- are available as of today in version 3.1 of the GATK. Please see the release notes and version highlights in the Version History section of the Guide for details.

Of course this is only the beginning, and we're looking forward to delivering more performance improvements for various other GATK tools moving forward as part of this collaboration.

What's really cool is that this collaboration extends beyond our little GATK team; the Intel Bio Team is also going to be working with other groups at the Broad Institute to make their software run faster as well, all with the goal of accelerating scientific research and discovery.

For more details and background information, see the Bio-IT World story here: http://www.bio-itworld.com/2014/3/20/broad-intel-announce-speed-improvements-gatk-powered-by-intel-optimizations.html

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