Parallel Collections

Creating Custom Parallel Collections


Parallel collections without combiners

Just as it is possible to define custom sequential collections without defining their builders, it is possible to define parallel collections without defining their combiners. The consequence of not having a combiner is that transformer methods (e.g. map, flatMap, collect, filter, …) will by default return a standard collection type which is nearest in the hierarchy. For example, ranges do not have builders, so mapping elements of a range creates a vector.

In the following example we define a parallel string collection. Since strings are logically immutable sequences, we have parallel strings inherit immutable.ParSeq[Char]:

class ParString(val str: String)
extends immutable.ParSeq[Char] {

Next, we define methods found in every immutable sequence:

  def apply(i: Int) = str.charAt(i)

  def length = str.length

We have to also define the sequential counterpart of this parallel collection. In this case, we return the WrappedString class:

  def seq = new collection.immutable.WrappedString(str)

Finally, we have to define a splitter for our parallel string collection. We name the splitter ParStringSplitter and have it inherit a sequence splitter, that is, SeqSplitter[Char]:

  def splitter = new ParStringSplitter(str, 0, str.length)

  class ParStringSplitter(private var s: String, private var i: Int, private val ntl: Int)
  extends SeqSplitter[Char] {

    final def hasNext = i < ntl

    final def next = {
      val r = s.charAt(i)
      i += 1

Above, ntl represents the total length of the string, i is the current position and s is the string itself.

Parallel collection iterators or splitters require a few more methods in addition to next and hasNext found in sequential collection iterators. First of all, they have a method called remaining which returns the number of elements this splitter has yet to traverse. Next, they have a method called dup which duplicates the current splitter.

    def remaining = ntl - i

    def dup = new ParStringSplitter(s, i, ntl)

Finally, methods split and psplit are used to create splitters which traverse subsets of the elements of the current splitter. Method split has the contract that it returns a sequence of splitters which traverse disjoint, non-overlapping subsets of elements that the current splitter traverses, none of which is empty. If the current splitter has 1 or fewer elements, then split just returns a sequence of this splitter. Method psplit has to return a sequence of splitters which traverse exactly as many elements as specified by the sizes parameter. If the sizes parameter specifies fewer elements than the current splitter, then an additional splitter with the rest of the elements is appended at the end. If the sizes parameter requires more elements than there are remaining in the current splitter, it will append an empty splitter for each size. Finally, calling either split or psplit invalidates the current splitter.

   def split = {
      val rem = remaining
      if (rem >= 2) psplit(rem / 2, rem - rem / 2)
      else Seq(this)

    def psplit(sizes: Int*): Seq[ParStringSplitter] = {
      val splitted = new ArrayBuffer[ParStringSplitter]
      for (sz <- sizes) {
        val next = (i + sz) min ntl
        splitted += new ParStringSplitter(s, i, next)
        i = next
      if (remaining > 0) splitted += new ParStringSplitter(s, i, ntl)

Above, split is implemented in terms of psplit, which is often the case with parallel sequences. Implementing a splitter for parallel maps, sets or iterables is often easier, since it does not require psplit.

Thus, we obtain a parallel string class. The only downside is that calling transformer methods such as filter will not produce a parallel string, but a parallel vector instead, which may be suboptimal - producing a string again from the vector after filtering may be costly.

Parallel collections with combiners

Let’s say we want to filter the characters of the parallel string, to get rid of commas for example. As noted above, calling filter produces a parallel vector, and we want to obtain a parallel string (since some interface in the API might require a sequential string).

To avoid this, we have to write a combiner for the parallel string collection. We will also inherit the ParSeqLike trait this time to ensure that return type of filter is more specific - a ParString instead of a ParSeq[Char]. The ParSeqLike has a third type parameter which specifies the type of the sequential counterpart of the parallel collection (unlike sequential *Like traits which have only two type parameters).

class ParString(val str: String)
extends immutable.ParSeq[Char]
   with ParSeqLike[Char, ParString, collection.immutable.WrappedString]

All the methods remain the same as before, but we add an additional protected method newCombiner which is internally used by filter.

  protected[this] override def newCombiner: Combiner[Char, ParString] = new ParStringCombiner

Next we define the ParStringCombiner class. Combiners are subtypes of builders, and they introduce an additional method called combine, which takes another combiner as an argument and returns a new combiner which contains the elements of both the current and the argument combiner. The current and the argument combiner are invalidated after calling combine. If the argument is the same object as the current combiner, then combine just returns the current combiner. This method is expected to be efficient, having logarithmic running time with respect to the number of elements in the worst case, since it is called multiple times during a parallel computation.

Our ParStringCombiner will internally maintain a sequence of string builders. It will implement += by adding an element to the last string builder in the sequence, and combine by concatenating the lists of string builders of the current and the argument combiner. The result method, which is called at the end of the parallel computation, will produce a parallel string by appending all the string builders together. This way, elements are copied only once at the end instead of being copied every time combine is called. Ideally, we would like to parallelize this process and copy them in parallel (this is being done for parallel arrays), but without tapping into the internal representation of strings this is the best we can do– we have to live with this sequential bottleneck.

private class ParStringCombiner extends Combiner[Char, ParString] {
  var sz = 0
  val chunks = new ArrayBuffer[StringBuilder] += new StringBuilder
  var lastc = chunks.last

  def size: Int = sz

  def +=(elem: Char): this.type = {
    lastc += elem
    sz += 1

  def clear = {
    chunks += new StringBuilder
    lastc = chunks.last
    sz = 0

  def result: ParString = {
    val rsb = new StringBuilder
    for (sb <- chunks) rsb.append(sb)
    new ParString(rsb.toString)

  def combine[U <: Char, NewTo >: ParString](other: Combiner[U, NewTo]) = if (other eq this) this else {
    val that = other.asInstanceOf[ParStringCombiner]
    sz +=
    chunks ++= that.chunks
    lastc = chunks.last

How do I implement my combiner in general?

There are no predefined recipes– it depends on the data-structure at hand, and usually requires a bit of ingenuity on the implementer’s part. However, there are a few approaches usually taken:

  1. Concatenation and merge. Some data-structures have efficient implementations (usually logarithmic) of these operations. If the collection at hand is backed by such a data-structure, its combiner can be the collection itself. Finger trees, ropes and various heaps are particularly suitable for such an approach.

  2. Two-phase evaluation. An approach taken in parallel arrays and parallel hash tables, it assumes the elements can be efficiently partially sorted into concatenable buckets from which the final data-structure can be constructed in parallel. In the first phase different processors populate these buckets independently and concatenate the buckets together. In the second phase, the data structure is allocated and different processors populate different parts of the data structure in parallel using elements from disjoint buckets. Care must be taken that different processors never modify the same part of the data structure, otherwise subtle concurrency errors may occur. This approach is easily applicable to random access sequences, as we have shown in the previous section.

  3. A concurrent data-structure. While the last two approaches actually do not require any synchronization primitives in the data-structure itself, they assume that it can be constructed concurrently in a way such that two different processors never modify the same memory location. There exists a large number of concurrent data-structures that can be modified safely by multiple processors– concurrent skip lists, concurrent hash tables, split-ordered lists, concurrent avl trees, to name a few. An important consideration in this case is that the concurrent data-structure has a horizontally scalable insertion method. For concurrent parallel collections the combiner can be the collection itself, and a single combiner instance is shared between all the processors performing a parallel operation.

Integration with the collections framework

Our ParString class is not complete yet. Although we have implemented a custom combiner which will be used by methods such as filter, partition, takeWhile or span, most transformer methods require an implicit CanBuildFrom evidence (see Scala collections guide for a full explanation). To make it available and completely integrate ParString with the collections framework, we have to mix an additional trait called GenericParTemplate and define the companion object of ParString.

class ParString(val str: String)
extends immutable.ParSeq[Char]
   with GenericParTemplate[Char, ParString]
   with ParSeqLike[Char, ParString, collection.immutable.WrappedString] {

  def companion = ParString

Inside the companion object we provide an implicit evidence for the CanBuildFrom parameter.

object ParString {
  implicit def canBuildFrom: CanCombineFrom[ParString, Char, ParString] =
    new CanCombinerFrom[ParString, Char, ParString] {
      def apply(from: ParString) = newCombiner
      def apply() = newCombiner

  def newBuilder: Combiner[Char, ParString] = newCombiner

  def newCombiner: Combiner[Char, ParString] = new ParStringCombiner

  def apply(elems: Char*): ParString = {
	val cb = newCombiner
	cb ++= elems

Further customizations– concurrent and other collections

Implementing a concurrent collection (unlike parallel collections, concurrent collections are ones that can be concurrently modified, like collection.concurrent.TrieMap) is not always straightforward. Combiners in particular often require a lot of thought. In most parallel collections described so far, combiners use a two-step evaluation. In the first step the elements are added to the combiners by different processors and the combiners are merged together. In the second step, after all the elements are available, the resulting collection is constructed.

Another approach to combiners is to construct the resulting collection as the elements. This requires the collection to be thread-safe– a combiner must allow concurrent element insertion. In this case one combiner is shared by all the processors.

To parallelize a concurrent collection, its combiners must override the method canBeShared to return true. This will ensure that only one combiner is created when a parallel operation is invoked. Next, the += method must be thread-safe. Finally, method combine still returns the current combiner if the current combiner and the argument combiner are the same, and is free to throw an exception otherwise.

Splitters are divided into smaller splitters to achieve better load balancing. By default, information returned by the remaining method is used to decide when to stop dividing the splitter. For some collections, calling the remaining method may be costly and some other means should be used to decide when to divide the splitter. In this case, one should override the shouldSplitFurther method in the splitter.

The default implementation divides the splitter if the number of remaining elements is greater than the collection size divided by eight times the parallelism level.

def shouldSplitFurther[S](coll: ParIterable[S], parallelismLevel: Int) =
    remaining > thresholdFromSize(coll.size, parallelismLevel)

Equivalently, a splitter can hold a counter on how many times it was split and implement shouldSplitFurther by returning true if the split count is greater than 3 + log(parallelismLevel). This avoids having to call remaining.

Furthermore, if calling remaining is not a cheap operation for a particular collection (i.e. it requires evaluating the number of elements in the collection), then the method isRemainingCheap in splitters should be overridden to return false.

Finally, if the remaining method in splitters is extremely cumbersome to implement, you can override the method isStrictSplitterCollection in its collection to return false. Such collections will fail to execute some methods which rely on splitters being strict, i.e. returning a correct value in the remaining method. Importantly, this does not effect methods used in for-comprehensions.

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