Biowulf High Performance Computing at the NIH


The Message Passing Interface (MPI) is a mechanism that parallel applications can use for inter-process communication across the various network interconnects used by Biowulf compute nodes. MPI is used by parallel programs that require tight coupling between processes running on different nodes, as opposed to programs that run independently in parallel, such as the different sub-jobs of a swarm.

The MPI specification defines an application programmming interface (API), which is a set of functions that can be called by programs to pass data. The advantage of using this API is that program users and developers can choose the implementation that runs best on their target system without having to develop low-level communication routines independently.

The Biowulf staff maintains two of the most popular MPI implementations for the convenience of our users: OpenMPI and MVAPICH2. Both of these implementations have been extensively tested on the cluster and are known to work well with the current hardware and networking topology. Further details on both are given below:


OpenMPI is the most frequently used MPI implementation on Biowulf. It is easy to use and integrates well with the Slurm batch system. A large number of modules are available, however, the staff recommends using version 4.0.4 or later. Older versions are deprecated and their corresponding modules may be removed in the future. However, programs compiled against OpenMPI 4 will only run correctly on Biowulf InfiniBand nodes (i.e. nodes having the ibfdr, ibhdr, or ibhdr100 node features). All nodes in the multinode partition have InfiniBand support.

To list all available Compiler and OpenMPI combinations, run:

module avail openmpi/


MVAPICH is another very popular MPI implementation developed at Ohio State University. It is notable for its excellent support for various types of InfiniBand networks.

To list all available Compiler and MVAPICH2 combinations, run:

module avail mvapich2/

Helpful environment variables for OpenMPI

Versions of OpenMPI prior to 4.1 on Biowulf are compiled with support for the OpenIB transport library, which is used for InfiniBand communication. However, OpenMPI versions ≥ 4.0.0 also include the newer UCX transport library. The UCX library is the preferred comunication library for InfiniBand. Using both OpenIB and UCX can cause confusing (but harmless) warnings. To suppress these warnings when using the 4.0 versions of OpenMPI, set the following environent variables in your batch script:

export OMPI_MCA_btl_openib_allow_ib=1
export OMPI_MCA_pml=ucx
export OMPI_MCA_btl=^openib

MPI startup and process management

Whichever MPI implementation is chosen needs to communicate with the Slurm job scheduler at runtime in order to determine which resources have been allocated to the job and their topology. For recent versions of both OpenMPI (4.0.0 or newer) and MVAPICH (2.3.4+), this may be done through the PMIx (Process Management Interface for eXascale) framework. This framework is automatically used when the following command is used to launch the job:

srun --pmi=pmix program arguments

Note that no information needs to be given regarding number of processes to be used; the MPI implemmentation will figure that out via the information passed from the scheduler via PMIx.

Some older versions of OpenMPI also have modules that support the PMI-2 process management framework. For these versions, jobs can be launched via:

srun --pmi=pmi2 program arguments

Users may also elect to use the mpirun and mpiexec programs, which are included in the $PATH by default after an MPI module is loaded, to start MPI programs. These programs can also use the standard Slurm process management functionality as opposed to an external PMI library, The general syntax is:

mpirun -np $SLURM_NTASKS program arguments

For more information, please see the guide for using MPI with slurm.