An elastic MapReduce framework based on Phoenix
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Elastic Phoenix

Quick Start

  1. Note that Elastic Phoenix has been tested ONLY under Linux on 64-bit x86. In particular, running Elastic Phoenix in virtual machines requires the Nahanni shared memory system, which is available ONLY for Linux KVM.
  2. Build configuration is found in the file.
  3. make should build the Elastic Phoenix framework and the example applications in the tests directory.
  4. To run an application, first start the master, then start one or more workers. If using Nahanni shared memory, the master and workers can be in separate virtual machines.


Phoenix is a shared-memory implementation of the MapReduce parallel programming framework. Phoenix was originally developed at Stanford University.

One limitation of Phoenix is that once a Phoenix MapReduce application has started running, it is not possible to add more computational power to the job. This is due to the fact that all the worker threads in a Phoenix job run in a single process, communicating using in-memory data structures. Sometimes, as when using non-dedicated infrastructure, it is not possible to know in advance how many processors will be available.

Elastic Scaling

Elastic Phoenix allows multiple worker processes to participate in a single MapReduce job. These processes can run in separate virtual machines running on the same physical host, using the Nahanni shared memory mechanism for Linux KVM. This allows computational power to be added to a job by launching another VM, perhaps automatically. This makes Elastic Phoenix well-suited to cloud environments, where resources are allocated as virtual machine instances.

Elastic scaling is accomplished by splitting computation between a single master process and at least one worker process. The master is responsible for splitting the input data, generating tasks, and merging the final output. The worker processes execute the map and reduce tasks. Communication and coordination between the master and the workers takes place using a shared memory region. When running all processes on the same machine, POSIX shared memory is used. When running in separate virtual machines, Nahanni shared memory is used.

The shared memory region contains the task queue, the input data, the intermediate values produced by map tasks, and final output values produced by reduce tasks.


For the most part, the Elastic Phoenix API is identical to the original Phoenix API. However, there are some key differences:

  1. The splitter function takes an additional parameter, a splitter_mem_ops_t, which contains pointers to memory allocation functions. The splitter must use these functions to allocate the data returned in the map arguments. This means that the common pattern of mmaping a file and returning offsets from the splitter does not work in Elastic Phoenix.
  2. The splitter might be re-run if it generates too many tasks (see below). This means that we must be able to reset the splitter's state. This is done by passing a negative req_units argument to the splitter.
  3. The framework provides a new function, map_reduce_cleanup, which should be called by applications when they are done with the results of a MapReduce job.
  4. Applications may provide two new functions, prep and cleanup, which will be executed only in the master process. prep is called before any other work is done, and is a good place to open files that may only be present on the node running the master process. The cleanup function is called by the map_reduce_cleanup function, in the master only. It is a good place to close files that were opened in prep.
  5. map_reduce_init now takes two arguments, argc and argv, which should be pointers to your application's argc and argv. This is because Elastic Phoenix applications take some framework arguments, which are stripped and processed by map_reduce_init. Because of this, it is important to call map_reduce_init before processing any application-specific arguments.

Sample Applications

The tests directory contains several sample applications, based on the original sample applications included with Phoenix:

  • word_count is a simple word_count application, which operates the same way as the original.
  • histogram calculates the histogram of a bitmap image, operating the same way as the original.
  • linear_regression generates a linear approximation of a set of points, and operates the same way as the original.
  • string_match looks through a list of keys, calculating a hash for each in order to count how many times each of a hard-coded list of words appears. It has been modified slightly from the original to be more interesting.

The following applications that were included in the original have been excluded:

  • matrix_multiply calculated the output values in-place, i.e. it didn't emit them to the MapReduce framework. This doesn't work in Elastic Phoenix, since the workers run in separate processes.
  • pca requires multiple MapReduce tasks, which is currently not supported in Elastic Phoenix.
  • kmeans runs iterative MapReduce tasks, which is currently not supported in Elastic Phoenix.

Input data for the sample applications can be downloaded from the original Phoenix website.

Running an Application

Every Elastic Phoenix application takes the following arguments:

  • -h and -v: Are we running on the host (-h) or in a VM (-v)?
  • -m and -w: Are we the master (-m) process or a worker (-w)?
  • -d : Where to access shared memory. A POSIX memory object name if -h is specified, or the path the the Nahanni UIO device if -v is specified.
  • -s : The size of the shared memory, in megabytes.
  • --: End of Phoenix arguments. Any arguments after -- are given to the application.

You must specify at least one of -h or -v, one of -m or -w, -d, and -s on the commandline.

The master process must be started first. After that, any number of worker processes can be started.

Known Issues and Limitations

glibc Versions

When running processes in multiple virtual machines, it is important that all machines being used have the same version of glibc installed. In particular, because Elastic Phoenix relies on pthreads structures in inter-VM shared memory, different pthreads implementations between machines can cause problems.

Job Size Restrictions

The size of the shared memory segment limits the size of job that can be executed. All of the split input data must fit in shared memory. This data is freed as map tasks run, but some of the intermediate data must fit in shared memory with it. The intermediate data is freed as reduce tasks run, but some final data will be in shared memory with it. In other words, the amount of shared memory needed for a given job will depend heavily on the application.

Additionally, the task queue is in shared memory and has a limited number of task slots. The framework will try to split data such that the task queue is not exhausted, but this relies on the application-provided data unit size. The framework will increase the number of units in each split until it successfully splits all the data, allowing for applications that estimate the unit size (e.g. word count). Choosing a good estimate will reduce the number of iterations required to split your data.

We have successfully run the following examples with 4GB of shared memory:

  • Histogram with 1.4GB of input.
  • Word Count with 10MB of input.
  • Linear Regression with 500MB of input.
  • String Match with 500MB of input.

Multiple MapReduce Jobs

In standard Phoenix, you can run multiple MapReduce jobs in a single executable. For example, a common pattern is to do some computation in one MapReduce job then sort the output with another. This is not possible in the current version of Elastic Phoenix.

An added complication here is that all workers and the master receive the same output data, not a copy. This means that if you, for example, qsort the output data in your main program, the results will be unpredictable, since qsort will be running on the same data array simultaneously in multiple threads. A reasonable way around this is to do the sort and output in the cleanup function, so it happens only the master. See the word count sample for an example of this.

Number of Workers

Output queues for worker threads are pre-allocated, so the maximum number of worker threads is defined in src/distributed.h. The default is 32, which at the default 4 threads per worker allows for 8 workers.

Contact Information

Elastic Phoenix was developed in the Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta. Elastic Phoenix is made available under a BSD-style license, found in the LICENSE file. The original Phoenix source code was made available by Stanford University under the same license.

Adam Wolfe Gordon

Paul Lu