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High Performance Parameter Server Design


This design doc focuses on implementing a high performance parameter server (PS). For the functionality of the PS, please refer to this design doc.

The PS receives gradients from workers, applies gradients to parameters, and sends the latest parameters to workers. Receiving gradients and sending parameters are primary I/O workloads of the PS, and updating parameters cost CPU resource. Since one PS could receive gradients from more than one worker, both I/O workload and CPU workload could be heavy.

The current PS is in Python. Due to the existence of GIL of Python, gradients are applied to parameters sequentially with only one CPU core. As a result, the receiving gradients service is also blocked, and waiting for current gradients to be consumed. We want to remove this bottleneck and make full utilization of multiple CPU cores.

Usually, the first thing that comes to mind is using C++ to reimplement a high performance parameter server. But we have some concerns on the development efficiency of C++. Go is another potential choice. In this doc, we will go through the key points of implementing a high performance parameter server to see if Go is competent for the job and could substitute C++ in all or in part.


The PS provides services to workers with gRPC library. Both C++ and Go are well supported in gRPC. Go has better development efficiency than C++.


The gradients and parameters on PS are represented by tensors. And applying gradients to parameters, which is also called optimization, is actually a math operation of tensors.


We have to support both dense tensor and sparse tensor. Besides, different element data types are also needed, such as int8/int32/float16/float32/float64. Int8 and float16 are used in training based quantization.

Each tensor operator has to support different data types. C++ supports generics with template programming, while Go does not support generics directly.

Math library

There are different kinds of optimizers, which need some tensor operations. There are many mature math libraries developed with C++. For example, eigen is used in TensorFlow and Paddle, aten is used in Pytorch. These math libraries provide abundant tensor operators and support both CPU and GPU. Besides, these math libraries could call some state-of-the-art blas libraries internally, such as MKL and cuBLAS. With these math libraries, the operators in optimizers could be implemented easily and efficiently.

It seems that there are few math libraries in Go. Gosl is no longer active, and gonum does not support MKL. Generally, the math library ecology of Go is far from competing to C++. And we also have some worry with the performance of math libraries in Go.


In C++, we use thread based scheduling. Threads are scheduled by the operating system. Usually, we will implement a thread pool for computation, and another thread pool for IO. The parameter optimization will be processed by the computation thread pool in parallel. In further, to reduce the overhead of context switching, we could bind a thread to a certain CPU core by setting CPU affinity to the thread. It will increase the cache hit rate of a CPU core.

In Go, there is no concept of thread, we use goroutine instead. Goroutines are scheduled by Go runtime. Goroutine is not preemptive. There are four classes of events that occur in Go programs and allow the scheduler to make scheduling decisions. This does not mean it will always happen in one of these events. It means the scheduler gets the opportunity.

  • The use of the keyword go
  • Garbage collection
  • System calls
  • Synchronization and Orchestration

Go supports concurrent programming well with first-class concepts, goroutine and channel.


Considering the tradeoff between development efficiency and program performance, we plan to put communication and scheduling parts in Go, and computation part in C++.

Cgo enables the creation of Go packages that call C code. And the overhead of cgo is slight. The optimization operators will be implemented in C++, wrapped with C interface, and exposed to Go.

The receiving gradients and sending parameters services are implemented in Go. Once receiving gradients from a worker, a goroutine will be launched to do optimization.