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Dask and future tutorial

Training materials for parallelization with Dask and Ray in Python and the future package in R. See the top menu for separate pages on each topic.

View the Project on GitHub berkeley-scf/tutorial-dask-future

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Flexible parallel processing using the Dask package in Python and the future package in R

1. This Tutorial

This tutorial covers the use of R’s future and Python’s Dask packages, well-established tools for parallelizing computions on a single machine or across multiple machines. There is also a bit of material on Python’s Ray package, which was developed more recently (but has been around for a while).

You should be able to replicate much of what is covered here provided you have Rand Python on your computer, but some of the parallelization approaches may not work on Windows.

This tutorial assumes you have a working knowledge of either R or Python, but not necessarily knowledge of parallelization in R or Python.

Materials for this tutorial, including the Markdown files and associated code files that were used to create these documents are available on GitHub in the gh-pages branch. You can download the files by doing a git clone from a terminal window on a UNIX-like machine, as follows:

git clone

This tutorial by Christopher Paciorek of the UC Berkeley Statistical Computing Facility is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

2. Some useful terminology

  • cores: We’ll use this term to mean the different processing units available on a single node.
  • nodes: We’ll use this term to mean the different computers, each with their own distinct memory, that make up a cluster or supercomputer.
  • processes: instances of a program executing on a machine; multiple processes may be executing at once. A given executable (e.g., Python or R) may start up multiple processes at once. Ideally we have no more user processes than cores on a node.
  • threads: multiple paths of execution within a single process; the OS sees the threads as a single process, but one can think of them as ‘lightweight’ processes. Ideally when considering the processes and their threads, we would have the number of total threads across all processes not exceed the number of cores on a node.
  • forking: child processes are spawned that are identical to the parent, but with different process IDs and their own memory.
  • sockets: some of R’s parallel functionality involves creating new R processes (e.g., starting processes via Rscript) and communicating with them via a communication technology called sockets.
  • tasks: This term gets used in various ways (including in place of ‘processes’), but we’ll use it to refer to the individual computational items you want to complete - e.g., one task per cross-validation fold or one task per simulation replicate/iteration.

3. Types of parallel processing

There are two basic flavors of parallel processing (leaving aside GPUs): distributed memory and shared memory. With shared memory, multiple processors (which I’ll call cores) share the same memory. With distributed memory, you have multiple nodes, each with their own memory. You can think of each node as a separate computer connected by a fast network.

3.1. Shared memory

For shared memory parallelism, each core is accessing the same memory so there is no need to pass information (in the form of messages) between different machines. But in some programming contexts one needs to be careful that activity on different cores doesn’t mistakenly overwrite places in memory that are used by other cores.

However, except for certain special situations, the different worker processes on a given machine do not share objects in memory. So most often, one has multiple copies of the same objects, one per worker process.


Threads are multiple paths of execution within a single process. If you are monitoring CPU usage (such as with top in Linux or Mac) and watching a job that is executing threaded code, you’ll see the process using more than 100% of CPU. When this occurs, the process is using multiple cores, although it appears as a single process rather than as multiple processes.

Note that this is a different notion than a processor that is hyperthreaded. With hyperthreading a single core appears as two cores to the operating system.

Threads generally do share objects in memory, thereby allowing us to have a single copy of objects instead of one per thread.

3.2. Distributed memory

Parallel programming for distributed memory parallelism requires passing messages between the different nodes.

The standard protocol for passing messages is MPI, of which there are various versions, including openMPI.

Tools such as Dask, Ray and future all manage the work of moving information between nodes for you (and don’t generally use MPI).

3.3. Other type of parallel processing

We won’t cover either of these in this material.


GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) are processing units originally designed for rendering graphics on a computer quickly. This is done by having a large number of simple processing units for massively parallel calculation. The idea of general purpose GPU (GPGPU) computing is to exploit this capability for general computation.

Most researchers don’t program for a GPU directly but rather use software (often machine learning software such as Tensorflow or PyTorch) that has been programmed to take advantage of a GPU if one is available.

Spark and Hadoop

Spark and Hadoop are systems for implementing computations in a distributed memory environment, using the MapReduce approach.

Note that Dask provides a lot of the same functionality as Spark, allowing one to create distributed datasets where pieces of the dataset live on different machines but can be treated as a single dataset from the perspective of the user.

4. Package comparison

See this outline for an overview comparison of future ( R ), Dask (Python) and Ray (Python)

  • Use cases
    • future
      • parallelizing tasks
      • one or more machines (nodes)
    • Dask
      • parallelizing tasks
      • distributed datasets
      • one or more machines (nodes)
    • Ray
      • parallelizing tasks
      • building distributed applications (interacting tasks)
      • one or more machines (nodes)
  • Task allocation
    • future
      • static by default
      • dynamic optional
    • Dask
      • dynamic
    • Ray
      • dynamic (I think)
  • Shared memory
    • future
      • shared across workers only if using forked processes (multicore plan on Linux/MacOS)
        • if data modified, copies need to be made
      • data shared across static tasks assigned to a worker
    • Dask
      • shared across workers only if using threads scheduler
      • data shared across tasks on a worker if data are delayed
    • Ray
      • shared across all workers on a node via the object store (nice!)
  • Copies made
    • future
      • generally copy one per worker, but one per task with dynamic allocation
    • Dask
      • generally one copy per worker if done correctly (data should be delayed)
    • Ray
      • one copy per node if done correctly (use ray.put to use object store)

5. Python’s Dask package

Please see the Python dask materials.

6. R future package

Please see R future materials.

7. Python’s Ray package

For a very brief introduction to Ray, please see the Python Ray materials.