8. The Modular Component Architecture (MCA)

Open MPI is a highly-customizable system; it can be configured via configuration files, command line parameters, and environment variables. The main functionality of Open MPI’s configuration system is through the Modular Component Architecture (MCA).

  • This section describes the MCA itself and how to set MCA parameters at run time.

  • Later sections in this documentation describe different parts of Open MPI’s functionality, and the specific names and values of MCA parameters that can be used to affect Open MPI’s behavior.


The PMIx and PRRTE software packages also use the MCA for their configuration, composition, and run-time tuning.

8.1. Terminology

The Modular Component Architecture (MCA) is the backbone for much of Open MPI’s functionality. It is a series of projects, frameworks, components, and modules that are assembled at run-time to create an MPI implementation.

MCA parameters (also known as MCA variables) are used to customize Open MPI’s behavior at run-time.

Each of these entities are described below.

8.1.1. Projects

A project is essentially the highest abstraction layer division in the Open MPI code base.


The word “project” is unfortunately overloaded. It can be used to mean the code/resources/people in the greater Open MPI community associated with the development of a particular software package, but it can also be used to mean a major, top-level section of code within the Open MPI code base.

For the purposes of this documentation, “project” means the latter: a major, top-level section of code within the Open MPI code base.

The following projects exist in Open MPI v5.0.0rc10:

  • Open Portability Access Layer (OPAL): Low-level, operating system and architecture portability code.

  • Open MPI (OMPI): The MPI API and supporting infrastructure.

  • OpenSHMEM (OSHMEM): The OpenSHMEM API and supporting infrastructure.


Prior versions of Open MPI also included an Open MPI Runtime Environment (ORTE) project. ORTE essentially evolved into the standalone PMIx Runtime Reference Environment (PRRTE) and is now considered a 3rd-party dependency of Open MPI — not one of its included projects.

See the role of PMIx and PRRTE for more information.

8.1.2. Frameworks

An MCA framework manages zero or more components at run-time and is targeted at a specific task (e.g., providing MPI collective operation functionality). Although each MCA framework supports only a single type of component, it may support multiple components of that type.

Some of the more common frameworks that users may want or need to customize include the following:

  • btl: Byte Transport Layer; these components are exclusively used as the underlying transports for the ob1 PML component.

  • coll: MPI collective algorithms

  • io: MPI I/O

  • mtl: MPI Matching Transport Layer (MTL); these components are exclusively used as the underlying transports for the cm PML component.

  • pml: Point-to-point Messaging Layer (PML). These components are used to implement MPI point-to-point messaging functionality.

There are many frameworks within Open MPI; the exact set varies between different versions of Open MPI. You can use the ompi_info(1) command to see the full list of frameworks that are included in Open MPI v5.0.0rc10.

8.1.3. Components

An MCA component is an implementation of a framework’s formal interface. It is a standalone collection of code that can be bundled into a plugin that can be inserted into the Open MPI code base, either at run-time and/or compile-time.


Good synonyms for Open MPI’s “component” concept are “plugin”, or “add-on”.

The exact set of components varies between different versions of Open MPI. Open MPI’s code base includes support for many components, but not all of them may be present or available on your system. You can use the ompi_info(1) command to see what components are included in Open MPI v5.0.0rc10 on your system.

8.1.4. Modules

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). For example, if a node running an Open MPI application has two Ethernet NICs, the Open MPI application will contain one TCP MPI point-to-point component, but two TCP point-to-point modules.

8.1.5. Parameters (variables)

MCA parameters (sometimes called MCA variables) are the basic unit of run-time tuning for Open MPI. They are simple “key = value” pairs that are used extensively throughout Open MPI. The general rules of thumb that the developers use are:

  1. Instead of using a constant for an important value, make it an MCA parameter.

  2. If a task can be implemented in multiple, user-discernible ways, implement as many as possible, and use an an MCA parameter to choose between them at run-time.

For example, an easy MCA parameter to describe is the boundary between short and long messages in TCP wire-line transmissions. “Short” messages are sent eagerly whereas “long” messages use a rendezvous protocol. The decision point between these two protocols is the overall size of the message (in bytes). By making this value an MCA parameter, it can be changed at run-time by the user or system administrator to use a sensible value for a particular environment or set of hardware (e.g., a value suitable for 1Gpbs Ethernet is probably not suitable for 100 Gigabit Ethernet, and may require even a third different value for 25 Gigabit Ethernet).

8.2. Setting MCA parameter values

MCA parameters may be set in several different ways.


Having multiple methods to set MCA parameters allows, for example, system administrators to fine-tune the Open MPI installation for their hardware / environment such that normal users can simply use the default values (that were set by the system administrators).

HPC environments — and the applications that run on them — tend to be unique. Providing extensive run-time tuning capabilities through MCA parameters allows the customization of Open MPI to each system’s / user’s / application’s particular needs.

The following are the different methods to set MCA parameters, listed in priority order:

  1. Command line parameters

  2. Environment variables

  3. Tuning MCA parameter files

  4. Configuration files


Due to how the PMIx and PRRTE projects both evolved to become independent projects from Open MPI (see this section for more detail), they both have their own MCA system for setting MCA parameters.

Hence, all the information about MCA parameters below also applies to PMIx and PRRTE.

8.2.1. Command line parameters

The highest-precedence method is setting MCA parameters on the command line. For example:

shell$ mpirun --mca mpi_show_handle_leaks 1 -np 4 a.out

This sets the MCA parameter mpi_show_handle_leaks to the value of 1 before running a.out with four processes. In general, the format used on the command line is --mca <param_name> <value>.


When setting a value that includes spaces, you need to use quotes to ensure that the shell understands that the multiple tokens are a single value. For example:

shell$ mpirun --mca param "value with multiple words" ...


Setting Open MPI MCA parameters via the command line entails using the --mca CLI option. When setting PMIx- and PRRTE-specific MCA parameters via configuration files, use a different CLI option:

Open MPI






8.2.2. Environment variables

Next, environment variables are searched. Any environment variable named OMPI_MCA_<param_name> will be used. For example, the following has the same effect as the previous example (for sh-flavored shells):

shell$ export OMPI_MCA_mpi_show_handle_leaks=1
shell$ mpirun -np 4 a.out


Just like with command line values, setting environment variables to values with multiple words requires shell quoting, such as:

shell$ export OMPI_MCA_param="value with multiple words"


Setting Open MPI MCA parameters via environment variables entails prefixing the parameter name with OMPI_MCA_. When setting PMIx- and PRRTE-specific MCA parameters via environment variables, use a different prefix:

Open MPI






8.2.3. Tuning MCA parameter files


TODO This entire section needs to be checked for correctness.

Simple text files can be used to set MCA parameter values for a specific application.

The mpirun --tune CLI option allows users to specify both MCA parameters and environment variables from within a single file.

MCA parameters set in tuned parameter files will override any MCA parameters supplied in global parameter files (e.g., $HOME/.openmpi/mca-params.conf), but not command line or environment parameters.

Consider a tuned parameter file name foo.conf that is placed in the same directory as the application a.out. A user will typically run the application as:

shell$ mpirun -np 2 a.out

To use the foo.conf tuned parameter file, this command line changes to:

shell$ mpirun -np 2 --tune foo.conf a.out

Tuned parameter files can be coupled if more than one file is to be used. If there is another tuned parameter file called bar.conf, it can be added to the command line as follows:

shell$ mpirun -np 2 --tune foo.conf,bar.conf a.out

The contents of tuned files consist of one or more lines, each of which contain zero or more -x and –mca options. Comments are not allowed. For example, the following tuned file:

-x envvar1=value1 -mca param1 value1 -x envvar2
-mca param2 value2
-x envvar3

is equivalent to:

shell$ mpirun \
    -x envvar1=value1 -mca param1 value1 -x envvar2 \
    -mca param2 value2
    -x envvar3 \
    ...rest of mpirun command line...

Although the typical use case for tuned parameter files is to be specified on the command line, they can also be set as MCA parameters in the environment. The MCA parameter mca_base_envvar_file_prefix contains a comma-delimited list of tuned parameter files exactly as they would be passed to the --tune command line option. The MCA parameter mca_base_envvar_file_path specifies the path to search for tuned files with relative paths.


TODO Check that these MCA var names ^^ are correct.

8.2.4. Configuration files

Finally, simple configuration text files can be used to set MCA parameter values. Parameters are set one per line (comments are permitted). For example:

# This is a comment
# Set the same MCA parameter as in previous examples
mpi_show_handle_leaks = 1

Note that quotes are not necessary for setting multi-word values in MCA parameter files. Indeed, if you use quotes in the MCA parameter file, they will be used as part of the value itself. For example:

# The following two values are different:
param1 = value with multiple words
param2 = "value with multiple words"

By default, two files are searched (in order):

  1. $HOME/.openmpi/mca-params.conf: The user-supplied set of values takes the highest precedence.

  2. $prefix/etc/openmpi-mca-params.conf: The system-supplied set of values has a lower precedence.

More specifically, the MCA parameter mca_param_files specifies a colon-delimited path of files to search for MCA parameters. Files to the left have lower precedence; files to the right are higher precedence.


Keep in mind that, just like components, these parameter files are only relevant where they are “visible” (see this FAQ entry). Specifically, Open MPI does not read all the values from these files during startup and then send them to all nodes in the job. Instead, the files are read on each node during each process’ startup.

This is intended behavior: it allows for per-node customization, which is especially relevant in heterogeneous environments.


TODO This table needs to be checked for correctness.


Setting Open MPI MCA parameters via configuration files entails editing (by default) the mca-params.conf or openmpi-mca-params.conf files. When setting PMIx- and PRRTE-specific MCA parameters via configuration files, set them (by default) in different files:

Open MPI

$HOME/.openmpi/mca-params.conf or $prefix/etc/openmpi-mca-params.conf


$HOME/.pmix/mca-params.conf or $prefix/etc/openpmix-mca-params.conf


$HOME/.prrte/mca-params.conf or $prefix/etc/prte-mca-params.conf

8.3. Selecting which Open MPI components are used at run time

Each MCA framework has a top-level MCA parameter that helps guide which components are selected to be used at run-time. Specifically, every framework has an MCA parameter of the same name that can be used to include or exclude components from a given run.

For example, the btl MCA parameter is used to control which BTL components are used. It takes a comma-delimited list of component names, and may be optionally prefixed with ^. For example:


The Byte Transfer Layer (BTL) framework is used as the underlying network transports with the ob1 Point-to-point Messaging Layer (PML) component.

# Tell Open MPI to include *only* the BTL components listed here and
# implicitly ignore all the rest:
shell$ mpirun --mca btl self,sm,usnic ...

# Tell Open MPI to exclude the tcp and uct BTL components
# and implicitly include all the rest
shell$ mpirun --mca btl ^tcp,uct ...

Note that ^ can only be the prefix of the entire comma-delimited list because the inclusive and exclusive behavior are mutually exclusive. Specifically, since the exclusive behavior means “use all components except these”, it does not make sense to mix it with the inclusive behavior of not specifying it (i.e., “use all of these components”). Hence, something like this:

shell$ mpirun --mca btl self,sm,usnic,^tcp ...

does not make sense — and will cause an error — because it says “use only the self, sm, and usnic components” but also “use all components except tcp”. These two statements clearly contradict each other.

8.4. Common MCA parameters

Open MPI has a large number of MCA parameters available. Users can use the ompi_info(1) command to see all available MCA parameters.


Similarly, you can use the pmix_info(1) and prte_info(1) commands to see all the MCA parameters available for the PMIx and PRRTE projects, respectively.

The documentation for these commands are not included in the Open MPI docs, but they are both quite similar to ompi_info(1).

The vast majority of these MCA parameters, however, are not useful to most users. Indeed, there only are a handful of MCA parameters that are commonly used by end users. As described in the ompi_info(1) man page, MCA parameters are grouped into nine levels, corresponding to the MPI standard’s tool support verbosity levels. In general:

  • Levels 1-3 are intended for the end user.

    • These parameters are generally used to effect whether an Open MPI job will be able to run correctly.


    Parameters in levels 1-3 are probably applicable to most end users.

  • Levels 4-6 are intended for the application tuner.

    • These parameters are generally used to tune the performance of an Open MPI job.

  • Levels 7-9 are intended for the MPI implementer.

    • These parameters are esoteric and really only intended for those who work deep within the implementation of Open MPI code base itself.

Although the full list of MCA parameters can be found in the output of ompi_info(1), the following list of commonly-used parameters is presented here so that they can easily be found via internet searches:

  • Individual framework names are used as MCA parameters to select which components will be used. For example, the btl MCA parameter is used to select which components will be used from the btl framework. The coll MCA parameter is used to select which coll components are used. And so on.

  • Individual framework names with the _base_verbose suffix appended (e.g., btl_base_verbose, coll_base_verbose, etc.) can be used to set the general verbosity level of all the components in that framework.

    • This can be helpful when troubleshooting why certain components are or are not being selected at run time.

  • Many network-related components support “include” and “exclude” types of components (e.g., btl_tcp_if_include and btl_tcp_if_exclude). The “include” parameters specify an explicit set of network interfaces to use; the “exclude” parameters specify an explicit set of network interfaces to ignore. Check the output from ompi_info(1)’s full list to see if the network-related component you are using has “include” and “exclude” network interface parameters.


    You can only use the “include” or the “exclude” parameter — they are mutually exclusive from each other.

  • opal_mca_base_component_show_load_errors: By default, Open MPI emits a warning message if it fails to open a DSO component at run time. This typically happens when a shared library that the DSO requires is not available.


    In prior versions of Open MPI, components defaulted to building as DSOs (vs. being included in their parent libraries, such as libmpi.so). On misconfigured systems, sometimes network acceleration libraries would not be present, meaning that HPC-class networking components failed to open at run time. As such, Open MPI would typically fall back to TCP as a network transport, which usually led to poor performance of end-user applications.

    Having Open MPI warn about such failures to load was useful because it alerted users to the misconfiguration.


    By default, Open MPI v5.0.0rc10 includes all components in its base libraries (e.g., on Linux, libmpi.so includes all the components that were built with Open MPI, and therefore no component need to be opened dynamically), and does not build its components as DSOs.

    This MCA parameter only affects the behavior of when a component DSO fails to open.

    This MCA parameter can take four general values:

    1. yes or a boolean “true” value (e.g., 1): Open MPI will emit a warning about every component DSO that fails to load.

    2. no or a boolean “false” value (e.g., 0): Open MPI will never emit warnings about component DSOs that fail to load.

    3. A comma-delimited list of frameworks and/or components: Open MPI will emit a warning about any dynamic component that fails to open and matches a token in the list. “Match” is defined as:

      • If a token in the list is only a framework name, then any component in that framework will match.

      • If a token in the list specifies both a framework name and a component name (in the form framework/component), then only the specified component in the specified framework will match.

      For example, if the value of this MCA parameter is accelerator,btl/uct, then Open MPI warn if any component in the accelerator framework or if the UCT BTL fails to load at run time.

    4. The value can also be a ^ character followed by a comma-delimited list of framework[/component] values: This is similar to the comma-delimited list of tokens, except it will only emit warnings about dynamic components that fail to load and do not match a token in the list.

      For example, if the value of this MCA parameter is ^accelerator,btl/uct, then Open MPI will only warn about the failure to load DSOs that are neither in the accelerator framework nor are the UCT BTL.