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 (and consequently heat generation) 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.
Parallel computing is closely related to concurrent computing—they are frequently used together, and often conflated, though the two are distinct: it is possible to have parallelism without concurrency (such as bit-level parallelism), and concurrency without parallelism (such as multitasking by time-sharing on a single-core CPU).
In parallel computing, a computational task is typically broken down into several, often many, very similar sub-tasks that can be processed independently and whose results are combined afterwards, upon completion.
In contrast, in concurrent computing, the various processes often do not address related tasks; when they do, as is typical in distributed computing, the separate tasks may have a varied nature and often require some inter-process communication during execution.
Parallel computers can be roughly classified according to the level at which the hardware supports parallelism, with multi-core and multi-processor computers having multiple processing elements within a single machine, while clusters, MPPs, and grids use multiple computers to work on the same task.
Specialized parallel computer architectures are sometimes used alongside traditional processors, for accelerating specific tasks.
In some cases parallelism is transparent to the programmer, such as in bit-level or instruction-level parallelism, but explicitly parallel algorithms, particularly those that use concurrency, are more difficult to write than sequential ones, because concurrency introduces several new classes of potential software bugs, of which race conditions are the most common.
Communication and synchronization between the different subtasks are typically some of the greatest obstacles to getting optimal parallel program performance.
Parallel computing can also be applied to the design of fault-tolerant computer systems, particularly via lockstep systems performing the same operation in parallel. This provides redundancy in case one component fails, and also allows automatic error detection and error correction if the results differ.
As parallel computers become larger and faster, we are now able to solve problems that had previously taken too long to run. Fields as varied as bioinformatics (for protein folding and sequence analysis) and economics (for mathematical finance) have taken advantage of parallel computing.