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Multiprocessing is the use of two or more central processing units (CPUs) within a single computer system. [1] [2] The term also refers to the ability of a system to support more than one processor or the ability to allocate tasks between them. There are many variations on this basic theme, and the definition of multiprocessing can vary with context, mostly as a function of how CPUs are defined (multiple cores on one die, multiple dies in one package, multiple packages in one system unit, etc.).


According to some on-line dictionaries, a multiprocessor is a computer system having two or more processing units (multiple processors) each sharing main memory and peripherals, in order to simultaneously process programs. [3] [4] A 2009 textbook defined multiprocessor system similarly, but noting that the processors may share "some or all of the system’s memory and I/O facilities"; it also gave tightly coupled system as a synonymous term. [5]

At the operating system level, multiprocessing is sometimes used to refer to the execution of multiple concurrent processes in a system, with each process running on a separate CPU or core, as opposed to a single process at any one instant. [6] [7] When used with this definition, multiprocessing is sometimes contrasted with multitasking, which may use just a single processor but switch it in time slices between tasks (i.e. a time-sharing system). Multiprocessing however means true parallel execution of multiple processes using more than one processor. [7] Multiprocessing doesn't necessarily mean that a single process or task uses more than one processor simultaneously; the term parallel processing is generally used to denote that scenario. [6] Other authors prefer to refer to the operating system techniques as multiprogramming and reserve the term multiprocessing for the hardware aspect of having more than one processor. [2] [8] The remainder of this article discusses multiprocessing only in this hardware sense.

In Flynn's taxonomy, multiprocessors as defined above are MIMD machines. [9] [10] As the term "multiprocessor" normally refers to tightly coupled systems in which all processors share memory, multiprocessors are not the entire class of MIMD machines, which also contains message passing multicomputer systems. [9]


Possibly the first expression of the idea of multiprocessing was written by Luigi Federico Menabrea in 1842, about Charles Babbage's analytical engine (as translated by Ada Lovelace): "the machine can be brought into play so as to give several results at the same time, which will greatly abridge the whole amount of the processes." [11]

Key topics

Processor symmetry

In a multiprocessing system, all CPUs may be equal, or some may be reserved for special purposes. A combination of hardware and operating system software design considerations determine the symmetry (or lack thereof) in a given system. For example, hardware or software considerations may require that only one particular CPU respond to all hardware interrupts, whereas all other work in the system may be distributed equally among CPUs; or execution of kernel-mode code may be restricted to only one particular CPU, whereas user-mode code may be executed in any combination of processors. Multiprocessing systems are often easier to design if such restrictions are imposed, but they tend to be less efficient than systems in which all CPUs are utilized.

Systems that treat all CPUs equally are called symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) systems. In systems where all CPUs are not equal, system resources may be divided in a number of ways, including asymmetric multiprocessing (ASMP), non-uniform memory access (NUMA) multiprocessing, and clustered multiprocessing.

Master/slave multiprocessor system

In a master/slave multiprocessor system, the master CPU is in control of the computer and the slave CPU(s) performs assigned tasks. The CPUs can be completely different in terms of speed and architecture. Some (or all) of the CPUs can have share common bus, each can also have a private bus (for private resources), or they may be isolated except for a common communications pathway. Likewise, the CPUs can share common RAM and/or have private RAM that the other processor(s) cannot access. The roles of master and slave can change from one CPU to another.

An early example of a master/slave multiprocessor system is the Tandy/Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 16 desktop computer which came out in February 1982 and ran the multi-user/multi-tasking Xenix operating system, Microsoft's version of UNIX (called TRS-XENIX). The Model 16 has 3 microprocessors, an 8-bit Zilog Z80 CPU running at 4MHz, a 16-bit Motorola 68000 CPU running at 6MHz and an Intel 8021 in the keyboard. When the system was booted, the Z-80 was the master and the Xenix boot process initialized the slave 68000, and then transferred control to the 68000, whereupon the CPUs changed roles and the Z-80 became a slave processor that was responsible for all I/O operations including disk, communications, printer and network, as well as the keyboard and integrated monitor, while the operating system and applications ran on the 68000 CPU. The Z-80 could be used to do other tasks.

The earlier TRS-80 Model II, which was released in 1979, could also be considered a multiprocessor system as it had both a Z-80 CPU and an Intel 8021 [12] microprocessor in the keyboard. The 8021 made the Model II the first desktop computer system with a separate detachable lightweight keyboard connected with by a single thin flexible wire, and likely the first keyboard to use a dedicated microprocessor, both attributes that would later be copied years later by Apple and IBM.

Instruction and data streams

In multiprocessing, the processors can be used to execute a single sequence of instructions in multiple contexts (single-instruction, multiple-data or SIMD, often used in vector processing), multiple sequences of instructions in a single context (multiple-instruction, single-data or MISD, used for redundancy in fail-safe systems and sometimes applied to describe pipelined processors or hyper-threading), or multiple sequences of instructions in multiple contexts (multiple-instruction, multiple-data or MIMD).

Processor coupling

Tightly coupled multiprocessor system

Tightly coupled multiprocessor systems contain multiple CPUs that are connected at the bus level. These CPUs may have access to a central shared memory (SMP or UMA), or may participate in a memory hierarchy with both local and shared memory (SM)(NUMA). The IBM p690 Regatta is an example of a high end SMP system. Intel Xeon processors dominated the multiprocessor market for business PCs and were the only major x86 option until the release of AMD's Opteron range of processors in 2004. Both ranges of processors had their own onboard cache but provided access to shared memory; the Xeon processors via a common pipe and the Opteron processors via independent pathways to the system RAM.

Chip multiprocessors, also known as multi-core computing, involves more than one processor placed on a single chip and can be thought of the most extreme form of tightly coupled multiprocessing. Mainframe systems with multiple processors are often tightly coupled.

Loosely coupled multiprocessor system

Loosely coupled multiprocessor systems (often referred to as clusters) are based on multiple standalone single or dual processor commodity computers interconnected via a high speed communication system (Gigabit Ethernet is common). A Linux Beowulf cluster is an example of a loosely coupled system.

Tightly coupled systems perform better and are physically smaller than loosely coupled systems, but have historically required greater initial investments and may depreciate rapidly; nodes in a loosely coupled system are usually inexpensive commodity computers and can be recycled as independent machines upon retirement from the cluster.

Power consumption is also a consideration. Tightly coupled systems tend to be much more energy efficient than clusters. This is because considerable economy can be realized by designing components to work together from the beginning in tightly coupled systems, whereas loosely coupled systems use components that were not necessarily intended specifically for use in such systems.

Loosely coupled systems have the ability to run different operating systems or OS versions on different systems.

See also

Related Research Articles

Central processing unit Central component of any computer system which executes input/output, arithmetical, and logical operations

A central processing unit (CPU), also called a central processor, main processor or just processor, is the electronic circuitry that executes instructions comprising a computer program. The CPU performs basic arithmetic, logic, controlling, and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions in the program. This contrasts with external components such as main memory and I/O circuitry, and specialized processors such as graphics processing units (GPUs).

Computer multitasking Concurrent execution of multiple processes

In computing, multitasking is the concurrent execution of multiple tasks over a certain period of time. New tasks can interrupt already started ones before they finish, instead of waiting for them to end. As a result, a computer executes segments of multiple tasks in an interleaved manner, while the tasks share common processing resources such as central processing units (CPUs) and main memory. Multitasking automatically interrupts the running program, saving its state and loading the saved state of another program and transferring control to it. This "context switch" may be initiated at fixed time intervals, or the running program may be coded to signal to the supervisory software when it can be interrupted.

Motorola 68000 Microprocessor

The Motorola 68000 is a 16/32-bit complex instruction set computer (CISC) microprocessor, introduced in 1979 by Motorola Semiconductor Products Sector.

Motorola 68020

The Motorola 68020 is a 32-bit microprocessor from Motorola, released in 1984. A lower cost version was also made available, known as the 68EC020. In keeping with naming practices common to Motorola designs, the 68020 is usually referred to as the "020", pronounced "oh-two-oh" or "oh-twenty".

Non-uniform memory access

Non-uniform memory access (NUMA) is a computer memory design used in multiprocessing, where the memory access time depends on the memory location relative to the processor. Under NUMA, a processor can access its own local memory faster than non-local memory. The benefits of NUMA are limited to particular workloads, notably on servers where the data is often associated strongly with certain tasks or users.

Process (computing) Particular execution of a computer program

In computing, a process is the instance of a computer program that is being executed by one or many threads. It contains the program code and its activity. Depending on the operating system (OS), a process may be made up of multiple threads of execution that execute instructions concurrently.

Thread (computing) Smallest sequence of programmed instructions that can be managed independently by a scheduler

In computer science, a thread of execution is the smallest sequence of programmed instructions that can be managed independently by a scheduler, which is typically a part of the operating system. The implementation of threads and processes differs between operating systems, but in most cases a thread is a component of a process. Multiple threads can exist within one process, executing concurrently and sharing resources such as memory, while different processes do not share these resources. In particular, the threads of a process share its executable code and the values of its dynamically allocated variables and non-thread-local global variables at any given time.

Symmetric multiprocessing

Symmetric multiprocessing or shared-memory multiprocessing (SMP) involves a multiprocessor computer hardware and software architecture where two or more identical processors are connected to a single, shared main memory, have full access to all input and output devices, and are controlled by a single operating system instance that treats all processors equally, reserving none for special purposes. Most multiprocessor systems today use an SMP architecture. In the case of multi-core processors, the SMP architecture applies to the cores, treating them as separate processors.

Parallel computing Programming paradigm in which many processes are executed simultaneously

Parallel computing is a type of computation in which many calculations or processes are carried out simultaneously. Large problems can often be divided into smaller ones, which can then be solved at the same time. There are several different forms of parallel computing: bit-level, instruction-level, data, and task parallelism. Parallelism has long been employed in high-performance computing, but has gained broader interest due to the physical constraints preventing frequency scaling. As power consumption by computers has become a concern in recent years, parallel computing has become the dominant paradigm in computer architecture, mainly in the form of multi-core processors.


In computing, MIMD is a technique employed to achieve parallelism. Machines using MIMD have a number of processors that function asynchronously and independently. At any time, different processors may be executing different instructions on different pieces of data.

Sequent Computer Systems

Sequent Computer Systems was a computer company that designed and manufactured multiprocessing computer systems. They were among the pioneers in high-performance symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) open systems, innovating in both hardware and software.

Coprocessor Type of computer processor

A coprocessor is a computer processor used to supplement the functions of the primary processor. Operations performed by the coprocessor may be floating point arithmetic, graphics, signal processing, string processing, cryptography or I/O interfacing with peripheral devices. By offloading processor-intensive tasks from the main processor, coprocessors can accelerate system performance. Coprocessors allow a line of computers to be customized, so that customers who do not need the extra performance do not need to pay for it.

In computing, SPMD is a technique employed to achieve parallelism; it is a subcategory of MIMD. Tasks are split up and run simultaneously on multiple processors with different input in order to obtain results faster. SPMD is the most common style of parallel programming. It is also a prerequisite for research concepts such as active messages and distributed shared memory.

AT&T Computer Systems is the generic name for American Telephone & Telegraph's unsuccessful attempt to compete in the computer business. In return for divesting the local Bell Operating Companies, AT&T was allowed to have an unregulated division to sell computer hardware and software.


Binary Modular Dataflow Machine (BMDFM) is software that enables running an application in parallel on shared memory symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) computers using the multiple processors to speed up the execution of single applications. BMDFM automatically identifies and exploits parallelism due to the static and mainly dynamic scheduling of the dataflow instruction sequences derived from the formerly sequential program.

Multi-core processor Microprocessor with more than one processing unit

A multi-core processor is a computer processor on a single integrated circuit with two or more separate processing units, called cores, each of which reads and executes program instructions. The instructions are ordinary CPU instructions but the single processor can run instructions on separate cores at the same time, increasing overall speed for programs that support multithreading or other parallel computing techniques. Manufacturers typically integrate the cores onto a single integrated circuit die or onto multiple dies in a single chip package. The microprocessors currently used in almost all personal computers are multi-core.

Multithreading (computer architecture) Ability of a CPU to provide multiple threads of execution concurrently

In computer architecture, multithreading is the ability of a central processing unit (CPU) to provide multiple threads of execution concurrently, supported by the operating system. This approach differs from multiprocessing. In a multithreaded application, the threads share the resources of a single or multiple cores, which include the computing units, the CPU caches, and the translation lookaside buffer (TLB).

TRS-80 Model II

The TRS-80 Model II is a computer system launched by Tandy in October 1979, and targeted at the small-business market. It is not an upgrade of the original TRS-80 Model I, but a new system.

Asymmetric multiprocessing

An asymmetric multiprocessing system is a multiprocessor computer system where not all of the multiple interconnected central processing units (CPUs) are treated equally. For example, a system might allow only one CPU to execute operating system code or might allow only one CPU to perform I/O operations. Other AMP systems might allow any CPU to execute operating system code and perform I/O operations, so that they were symmetric with regard to processor roles, but attached some or all peripherals to particular CPUs, so that they were asymmetric with respect to the peripheral attachment.

A multiprocessor system is defined as "a system with more than one processor", and, more precisely, "a number of central processing units linked together to enable parallel processing to take place".


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