12.6. Open MPI terminology

Open MPI is a large project containing many different sub-systems and a relatively large code base. Let’s first cover some fundamental terminology in order to make the rest of the discussion easier.

Open MPI has multiple main sections of code:

  • OSHMEM: The OpenSHMEM API and supporting logic

  • OMPI: The MPI API and supporting logic

  • OPAL: The Open Portable Access Layer (utility and “glue” code)

There are strict abstraction barriers in the code between these sections. That is, they are compiled into separate libraries: liboshmem, libmpi, libopen-pal with a strict dependency order: OSHMEM depends on OMPI, OMPI depends on OPAL. For example, MPI executables are linked with:

shell$ mpicc myapp.c -o myapp
# This actually turns into:
shell$ cc myapp.c -o myapp -lmpi ...

More system-level libraries may listed after -lmpi, but you get the idea. libmpi will implicitly pull libopen-pal into the overall link step.

Strictly speaking, these are not “layers” in the classic software engineering sense (even though it is convenient to refer to them as such). They are listed above in dependency order, but that does not mean that, for example, the OMPI code must go through the OPAL code in order to reach the operating system or a network interface.

As such, this code organization more reflects abstractions and software engineering, not a strict hierarchy of functions that must be traversed in order to reach a lower layer. For example, OMPI can directly call the operating system as necessary (and not go through OPAL). Indeed, many top-level MPI API functions are quite performance sensitive; it would not make sense to force them to traverse an arbitrarily deep call stack just to move some bytes across a network.

Note that Open MPI also uses some third-party libraries for core functionality:

  • PMIx


  • Libevent

  • Hardware Locality (“hwloc”)

These are discussed in detail in the required support libraries section.

Here’s a list of terms that are frequently used in discussions about the Open MPI code base:

  • MCA: The Modular Component Architecture (MCA) is the foundation upon which the entire Open MPI project is built. It provides all the component architecture services that the rest of the system uses. Although it is the fundamental heart of the system, its implementation is actually quite small and lightweight — it is nothing like CORBA, COM, JINI, or many other well-known component architectures. It was designed for HPC — meaning that it is small, fast, and reasonably efficient — and therefore offers few services other than finding, loading, and unloading components.

  • Framework: An MCA framework is a construct that is created for a single, targeted purpose. It provides a public interface that is used by external code, but it also has its own internal services. See the list of Open MPI frameworks in this version of Open MPI. An MCA framework uses the MCA’s services to find and load components at run-time — implementations of the framework’s interface. An easy example framework to discuss is the MPI framework named btl, or the Byte Transfer Layer. It is used to send and receive data on different kinds of networks. Hence, Open MPI has btl components for shared memory, OpenFabrics interfaces, various protocols over Ethernet, etc.

  • Component: An MCA component is an implementation of a framework’s interface. Another common word for component is “plugin”. It is a standalone collection of code that can be bundled into a unit that can be inserted into the Open MPI code base, either at run-time and/or compile-time.

  • Module: An MCA module is an instance of a component (in the C++ sense of the word “instance”; an MCA component is analogous to a C++ class, and an MCA module is analogous to a C++ object). For example, if a node running an Open MPI application has two Ethernet NICs, the Open MPI application will contain one TCP btl component, but two TCP btl modules. This difference between components and modules is important because modules have private state; components do not.

Frameworks, components, and modules can be dynamic or static. That is, they can be available as plugins or they may be compiled statically into libraries (e.g., libmpi).