I/O Sleuthing: Digging into Storage Performance

This article introduces new tutorial materials on I/O sleuthing for high performance.


When we run into slow input/output (I/O) problems -- and we will -- we need to understand the I/O software stack, the tuning available at each level, and the tools available to help us make sense of everything.

A tremendous amount of computation power is available to us, but it's not a single CPU providing those calculations. We harness multiple cores in a chip, then multiple chips in a node, multiple nodes in a rack, and multiple racks in a machine room. In the same way that parallelism provides more (aggregate) computation power, parallel storage gives us higher I/O rates. In the same way that computational parallelism comes with a complexity cost, so too does parallel storage.

In computer science we find abstraction layers to help address complexity. Abstraction layers are great for getting work done, but sometimes we must peek under the hood and understand what happens within these abstraction layers to understand performance.

Through benchmarking and characterization tools, we can get a good handle on why MPI-based parallel applications are experiencing particular I/O performance challenges. As we look more broadly at task-oriented and AI workloads, we need to adapt these tools; the landscape is changing but the tools can still provide insights.

Building blocks of high-performance storage

When we run an application on a supercomputer and read or write some data, that operation might go through several layers. Each of those layers plays a role in both optimizing storage performance and improving programmer productivity.

Thousands of storage devices make up the parallel file system. It would be unreasonable to try to use those devices directly. Instead, the parallel file system collects all the storage devices into a single namespace. These file systems have ideal transfer sizes and ideal levels of parallelism -- important details, but information that should be hidden from the application.

At the MPI layer, the I/O routines (often called MPI-IO) introduce the structure of the data and the notion of multiple processes working in concert. This layer is also a great place to hide file-system-specific details.

HDF5 or other high-level I/O libraries add arrays and data structures that fit well with what applications want. Instead of operating on bytes and files, these libraries operate on the kinds of data that applications are using.

Making sense of all these components

When we investigate I/O problems, we have two main tools at our disposal: I/O benchmarks for exploring storage in isolation, and characterization tools that work with the full application.

The 'IOR' benchmark has helped us measure and understand storage for decades. By adjusting block size, transfer size, and segment counts, IOR can mimic a wide array of access patterns. In addition, we use IOR to understand the effects of MPI-IO and file system tuning parameters. We used IOR to study the ways stripe counts (e.g., how many Lustre servers across which a file is stored) affected performance. We also used IOR to gain familiarity with MPI-IO's non-contiguous I/O optimizations.

The real measure of I/O performance, however, is not bytes per second but how quickly an application can generate scientific results. We use the Darshan characterization tool to observe an application's I/O in its "natural state" so to speak. Here we use Darshan to show what is happening at the file and MPI layers when HDF5 and PnetCDF optimizations kick in.

Looking beyond MPI-based applications

We developed these tools and benchmarks in an environment where MPI was the dominant programming model. AI, task-oriented workflows, and non-MPI applications are all more important workloads today. We are working to update Darshan and tools like it. For example, Darshan has a "non-MPI" mode for characterizing applications that do not call MPI.

Your turn

I hope you check out https://github.com/radix-io/io-sleuthing, try out the examples on your own file systems, and share what you learn.

Author bio

Rob Latham, as a Research Software Developer at Argonne National Laboratory, strives to make scientific applications use I/O more efficiently. After earning his BS (1999) and MS (2000) in Computer Engineering at Lehigh University (Bethlehem, PA), he worked at Paralogic, Inc., a Linux cluster start-up. His work with cluster software including MPI implementations and parallel file systems soon led him to Argonne. His research focus has been on high-performance IO for scientific applications and IO metrics. He has worked on the ROMIO MPI-IO implementation, the parallel file systems PVFS (v1 and v2), Parallel NetCDF, and Mochi I/O services. Rob is a 2022 BSSw Fellow.


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