Guide to parallel computing

What is parallelization?

Parallelization can improve the efficiency of running large-scale simulations by taking advantage of multicore/multiprocessor machines, computer clusters or supercomputers. Here we explain how parallelization is set up in NEST and how you can take advantage of it for your simulations.

NEST employs two methods for parallelization:

Both methods can be combined within a simulation.

See Plesser et al. (2007) for more information on NEST parallelization and be sure to check the documentation on Random numbers in NEST

Virtual processes

We use the concept of local and remote threads, called virtual processes. A virtual process (VP) is a thread residing in one of NEST’s MPI processes. For both thread and distributed parallelization, VPs simplify handling of neuron and synapses distributions. Virtual processes are distributed round-robin (i.e. each VP is allocated equal time slices, without any given a priority) onto the MPI processes and counted continuously over all processes.


Figure 29 Basic scheme showing how threads (T) and virtual processes (VP) reside in MPI processes (P) in NEST

Node distributions

The distribution of nodes depends on the type of node.

In the figure below, a node distribution for a small network consisting of spike_generator, four iaf_psc_alpha neurons, and a spike_detector in a scenario with two processes with two threads each.


Figure 30 sg=spike_generator, iaf=iaf_psc_alpha, sd=spike_detector. Numbers to the left and right indicate global ids. The proxy object in the figure is a conceptual way of keeping the id of the real node free on remote processes).


The status dictionary of each node (i.e. neuron or device) contains three entries that are related to parallel computing:

  • local (boolean): indicating if the node exists on the local process or not

  • thread (integer): id of the local thread the node is assigned to

  • vp (integer): id of the virtual process the node is assigned to

Neuron distribution

Neurons are assigned to one of the virtual processes in a round-robin fashion. On all other virtual processes, no object is created. Proxies ensure the id of the real node on a given VP is kept free.

The virtual process \(id_{vp}\) on which a neuron with global id \(gid_{node}\) is allocated is given by \(id_{vp} = gid_{node} %N_{vp}\), where \(N_{vp}\) is the total number of virtual processes in the simulation.

Device Distribution

Devices are replicated once on each thread in order to balance the load and minimize their interaction. Devices thus do not have proxies on remote virtual processes.

For recording devices configured to record to a file (property to_file set to true), the distribution results in multiple data files, each containing the data from one thread. The files names are composed according to the following scheme


The first part is the name of the model (e.g. voltmeter or spike_detector) or, if set, the label of the recording device. Next is the global id (GID) of the recording device, followed by the id of the VP assigned to the recorder. Spike files have the file extension gdf and analog recordings from the multimeter have dat as file extension.

The label and file_extension of a recording device can be set like any other parameter of a node using SetStatus.

Spike exchange and synapse update

Spike exchange in NEST takes different routes depending on the type of the sending and receiving node. There are two distinct cases.

Spikes between neurons

  • Spikes between neurons are always exchanged through the global spike exchange mechanism.

  • Neuron update and spike generation in the source neuron and spike delivery to the target neuron may be handled by different virtual process.

  • But the virtual process assigned to the target_neuron, always handles the corresponding spike delivery (see property vp in the status dictionary).

Spikes between neurons and devices

  • Spike exchange to or from neurons over connections that either originate or terminate at a device (e.g., spike_generator -> neuron or neuron -> spike_detector) bypasses the global spike exchange mechanism.

  • Spikes are delivered locally within the virtual process from or to a replica of the device. In this case, both the pre- and postsynaptic nodes are handled by the virtual process to which the neuron is assigned.

Synaptic plasticity models

For synapse models supporting plasticity, synapse dynamics in the Connection object are always handled by the virtual process of the target node.

Using multiple threads

Thread-parallel simulation is compiled into NEST by default and should work on all MacOS and Linux machines without additional requirements.

In order to keep results comparable and reproducible across different machines, the default mode is set to a single thread and multi-threading has to be turned on explicitly.

To use multiple threads for the simulation, the desired number of threads has to be set before any nodes or connections are created. The command for this is

nest.SetKernelStatus({"local_num_threads": T})

Usually, a good choice for T is the number of processor cores available on your machine.


In some situations, oversubscribing (i.e., to specify a local_num_threads that is higher than available cores on your machine) can yield 20-30% improvement in simulation speed. Finding the optimal thread number for a specific situation might require a bit of experimenting.

Using distributed computing

Build requirements

To compile NEST for distributed computing, you will need

  • a library implementation of MPI on your system. If you are on a cluster, you most likely have this already.

  • NEST development packages in the case of pre-packaged MPI library.


Please be advised that NEST should currently only be run in a homogeneous MPI environment. Running in a heterogenenous environment can lead to unexpected results or even crashes. Please contact the NEST community if you require support for exotic setups.


If using the standard installation instructions when calling cmake, add the option -Dwith-mpi=ON. The build summary should report that MPI is linked.

Please see the Installation instructions for more information on installing NEST.

Run distributed simulations

Distributed simulations cannot be run interactively, which means that the simulation has to be provided as a script. However, the script can be the same as a script for any simulation. No changes are necessary for distibuted simulation scripts: inter-process communication and node distribution is managed transparently inside of NEST.

To distribute a simulation onto 128 processes of a computer cluster, the command should look like this

mpirun -np 128 python

Please refer to the MPI library documentation for details on the usage of mpirun.


To achieve the same simulation results even when using different parallelization strategies, the number of virtual processes has to be kept constant. A simulation with a specific number of virtual processes will always yield the same results, no matter how they are distributed over threads and processes, given that the seeds for the random number generators of the different virtual processes are the same (see Random numbers in NEST).

In order to achieve a constant number of virtual processes, NEST provides the property total_num_virtual_procs to adapt the number of local threads (property local_num_threads, explained above) to the number of available processes.

The following listing contains a complete simulation script ( with four neurons connected in a chain. The first neuron receives random input from a poisson_generator and the spikes of all four neurons are recorded to files.

from nest import *
SetKernelStatus({"total_num_virtual_procs": 4})
pg = Create("poisson_generator", params={"rate": 50000.0})
n = Create("iaf_psc_alpha", 4)
sd = Create("spike_detector", params={"to_file": True})
Connect(pg, [n[0]], syn_spec={'weight': 1000.0, 'delay': 1.0})
Connect([n[0]], [n[1]], syn_spec={'weight': 1000.0, 'delay': 1.0})
Connect([n[1]], [n[2]], syn_spec={'weight': 1000.0, 'delay': 1.0})
Connect([n[2]], [n[3]], syn_spec={'weight': 1000.0, 'delay': 1.0})
Connect(n, sd)

The script is run three times using different numbers of MPI processes, but 4 virtual processes in every run:

mkdir 4vp_1p; cd 4vp_1p
mpirun -np 1 python ../
cd ..; mkdir 4vp_2p; cd 4vp_2p
mpirun -np 2 python ../
cd ..; mkdir 4vp_4p; cd 4vp_4p
mpirun -np 4 python ../
cd ..
diff 4vp_1p 4vp_2p
diff 4vp_1p 4vp_4p

Each variant of the experiment produces four data files, one for each virtual process (spike_detector-6-0.gdf, spike_detector-6-1.gdf, spike_detector-6-2.gdf, and spike_detector-6-3.gdf). Using diff on the three data directories shows that they all contain the same spikes, which means that the simulation results are indeed the same independently of the details of parallelization.