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Title of Manuscript: Parallel Priority-Flood Depression Filling For Trillion Cell Digital Elevation Models On Desktops Or Clusters

Authors: Richard Barnes

Corresponding Author: Richard Barnes (

DOI Number of Manuscript: 10.1016/j.cageo.2016.07.001

Code Repositories

The algorithm described in the paper above has been implemented as part of the RichDEM terrain analysis suite. The suite is included here as a submodule; the code is accessible via the src link.

Included in this directory is a makefile which will the aforementioned code. Also included is information for acquiring datasets and example jobs of how to run them. Code for correctness testing lives in src.


High-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) are increasingly available; however, attempts to use these in existing hydroanalysis algorithms has created problems which take too long to solve and which are too big to fit into a computer's working memory. This has led to research on parallel algorithms and algorithms which explicitly manage memory. Parallel approaches do not scale well because they require many nodes and frequent communication between these nodes. Memory-managing algorithms have to read and write subdivisions of the data numerous times because they suffer from low access locality. Here, I adopt a tile-based approach which unifies the parallel and memory-managing paradigms. I show that it is possible to perform depression-filling on a tiled DEM with a fixed number of memory access and communication events per tile, regardless of the size of the DEM. The result is an algorithm that works equally well on one core, multiple cores, or multiple machines and can take advantage of large memories or cope with small ones. The largest dataset on which I run the algorithm has 2 trillion (2*10^12) cells. With 48 cores, processing required 291 minutes to completion and 9.4 compute-days. This test is three orders of magnitude larger than any previously performed in the literature, but took only 1-2 orders of magnitude more compute-time. Complete, well-commented source code and correctness tests are available for download from a repository.


The program can be produced simply by running make. However, certain prerequisites are necessary for this to be successful.

For compilation, the following command will set you up on a Debian-based system:

sudo apt-get install make openmpi-bin libgdal-dev libopenmpi-dev

If you wish (as I did) to compile the code on XSEDE, certain modules must be loaded:

module load intel/2015.2.164
module load mvapich2_ib

Note that temporary files can be stored in:


or some similar directory.

Running make will produce an executable called parallel_pf.exe.

Running the above compiles the program to run the cache strategy. Using make compile_with_compression will enable the cacheC strategy instead. This strategy is not compiled by default because it requires the Boost Iostreams library. This libary can be installed with:

sudo apt-get install libboost-iostreams-dev

Running the Program

parallel_pf.exe can be run without arguments from the command line to show a comprehensive explanation of the program and its options. This same text is in the file help.txt.

In order to process data, you will need to run parallel_pf.exe in MPI. For example:

mpirun -n 4 ./parallel_pf.exe one @offloadall dem.tif outroot -w 500 -h 500

In the foregoing example -n 4 indicates that the program should be run in parallel over four processes. One of these processes (the one with MPI rank #0) acts as a master process. It does limited computation but stores information from all of the other processes. This requires less memory than one would think, as discussed in the manuscript.

Layout Files

A layout file is a text file with the format:

file1.tif, file2.tif, file3.tif,
file4.tif, file5.tif, file6.tif, file7.tif
         , file8.tif,          ,

where each of fileX.tif is a tile of the larger DEM collectively described by all of the files. All of fileX.tif must have the same shape; the layout file specifies how fileX.tif are arranged in relation to each other in space. Blanks between commas indicate that there is no tile there: the algorithm will treat such gaps as places to route flow towards (as if they are oceans). Note that the files need not have TIF format: they can be of any type which GDAL can read. Paths to fileX.tif are taken to be relative to the layout file.

Several example layout files are included in the tests/ directory and end with the .layout extension.

MPI Profiling

Although the program tracks its total communication load internally, I have also used mpiP to profile the code's communication. The code can be downloaded here and compiled with:

./configure --with-binutils-dir=/usr/lib
make shared
make install #Installs to a subdirectory of mpiP

Prerequisites include: binutils-dev.

mpiP can be used to profile any MPI program without the need to compile it with the program. To do so, run the following line immediately before launching mpirun:

export LD_PRELOAD=path/to/

Although the program tracks its maximum memory requirements internally, I have also used /usr/bin/time to record this. An example of such an invocation is:

mpirun -output-filename timing -n 4 /usr/bin/time -v ./parallel_pf.exe one @offloadall dem.tif outroot -w 500 -h 500

This will store memory and timing information in files beginning with the stem timing.


For running tests, the following command will set you up on a Debian-based system:

sudo apt-get install python3-gdal python-gdal gdal-bin

The directory tests contains all of the information and layouts associated with the tests described in the paper. The most immediately useful are probably the tests/beauford test, which includes a small DEM suitable for testing the correctness of various tile sizing configurations, and the tests/srtm_small test (see the file in that directory for further information), which tests the "many" mode on a 3x3 excerpt of the SRTM Region 3 data.

Other subdirectories of tests are named for the dataset they pertain to and contain directions for acquiring the datasets and example jobs for running them using SLURM.

The beauford and srtm_small tests can be run using the script. This script can be running using one of the following:

./ tests/beauford/beauford.tif
./ tests/srtm_small/srtm_small.layout

Once data has been acquired and placed in these directories.

In the case of a layout file being used, the script will merge all of the tiles together. This merged file, or, in the case of a single input file being used, that file, will be depression filled using the algorithm in a single-core mode. This generates an authoritative answer against which correctness is checked. The program then iterates over many tile sizes to ensure that they all compare correctly against this authoritative answer.


The communication.hpp header file abstracts all of the MPI commands out of main.cpp. This is useful for generating communication statistics, but also preempts a day when the message passing is reimplemented using std::threads so that the program can be compiled for use on a single node/desktop without having to include MPI as a dependency.


This code is part of the RichDEM codebase, which includes state of the art algorithms for quickly performing hydrologic calculations on raster digital elevation models. The full codebase is available at


Different MPI Polling methods