MPI for Python provides an object oriented approach to message passing which grounds on the standard MPI-2 C++ bindings. The interface was designed with focus in translating MPI syntax and semantics of standard MPI-2 bindings for C++ to Python. Any user of the standard C/C++ MPI bindings should be able to use this module without need of learning a new interface.

Communicating Python Objects and Array Data

The Python standard library supports different mechanisms for data persistence. Many of them rely on disk storage, but pickling and marshaling can also work with memory buffers.

The pickle (slower, written in pure Python) and cPickle (faster, written in C) modules provide user-extensible facilities to serialize generic Python objects using ASCII or binary formats. The marshal module provides facilities to serialize built-in Python objects using a binary format specific to Python, but independent of machine architecture issues.

MPI for Python can communicate any built-in or user-defined Python object taking advantage of the features provided by the mod:pickle module. These facilities will be routinely used to build binary representations of objects to communicate (at sending processes), and restoring them back (at receiving processes).

Although simple and general, the serialization approach (i.e., pickling and unpickling) previously discussed imposes important overheads in memory as well as processor usage, especially in the scenario of objects with large memory footprints being communicated. Pickling generic Python objects, ranging from primitive or container built-in types to user-defined classes, necessarily requires computer resources. Processing is also needed for dispatching the appropriate serialization method (that depends on the type of the object) and doing the actual packing. Additional memory is always needed, and if its total amount is not known a priori, many reallocations can occur. Indeed, in the case of large numeric arrays, this is certainly unacceptable and precludes communication of objects occupying half or more of the available memory resources.

MPI for Python supports direct communication of any object exporting the single-segment buffer interface. This interface is a standard Python mechanism provided by some types (e.g., strings and numeric arrays), allowing access in the C side to a contiguous memory buffer (i.e., address and length) containing the relevant data. This feature, in conjunction with the capability of constructing user-defined MPI datatypes describing complicated memory layouts, enables the implementation of many algorithms involving multidimensional numeric arrays (e.g., image processing, fast Fourier transforms, finite difference schemes on structured Cartesian grids) directly in Python, with negligible overhead, and almost as fast as compiled Fortran, C, or C++ codes.


In MPI for Python, Comm is the base class of communicators. The Intracomm and Intercomm classes are sublcasses of the Comm class. The Is_inter() method (and Is_intra(), provided for convenience, it is not part of the MPI specification) is defined for communicator objects and can be used to determine the particular communicator class.

The two predefined intracommunicator instances are available: COMM_SELF and COMM_WORLD. From them, new communicators can be created as needed.

The number of processes in a communicator and the calling process rank can be respectively obtained with methods Get_size() and Get_rank(). The associated process group can be retrieved from a communicator by calling the Get_group() method, which returns an instance of the Group class. Set operations with Group objects like like Union(), Intersect() and Difference() are fully supported, as well as the creation of new communicators from these groups using Create().

New communicator instances can be obtained with the Clone() method of Comm objects, the Dup() and Split() methods of Intracomm and Intercomm objects, and methods Create_intercomm() and Merge() of Intracomm and Intercomm objects respectively.

Virtual topologies (Cartcomm, Graphcomm, and Distgraphcomm classes, being them specializations of Intracomm class) are fully supported. New instances can be obtained from intracommunicator instances with factory methods Create_cart() and Create_graph() of Intracomm class.

Point-to-Point Communications

Point to point communication is a fundamental capability of message passing systems. This mechanism enables the transmission of data between a pair of processes, one side sending, the other receiving.

MPI provides a set of send and receive functions allowing the communication of typed data with an associated tag. The type information enables the conversion of data representation from one architecture to another in the case of heterogeneous computing environments; additionally, it allows the representation of non-contiguous data layouts and user-defined datatypes, thus avoiding the overhead of (otherwise unavoidable) packing/unpacking operations. The tag information allows selectivity of messages at the receiving end.

Blocking Communications

MPI provides basic send and receive functions that are blocking. These functions block the caller until the data buffers involved in the communication can be safely reused by the application program.

In MPI for Python, the Send(), Recv() and Sendrecv() methods of communicator objects provide support for blocking point-to-point communications within Intracomm and Intercomm instances. These methods can communicate memory buffers. The variants send(), recv() and sendrecv() can communicate generic Python objects.

Nonblocking Communications

On many systems, performance can be significantly increased by overlapping communication and computation. This is particularly true on systems where communication can be executed autonomously by an intelligent, dedicated communication controller.

MPI provides nonblocking send and receive functions. They allow the possible overlap of communication and computation. Non-blocking communication always come in two parts: posting functions, which begin the requested operation; and test-for-completion functions, which allow to discover whether the requested operation has completed.

In MPI for Python, the Isend() and Irecv() methods of the Comm class initiate a send and receive operation respectively. These methods return a Request instance, uniquely identifying the started operation. Its completion can be managed using the Test(), Wait(), and Cancel() methods of the Request class. The management of Request objects and associated memory buffers involved in communication requires a careful, rather low-level coordination. Users must ensure that objects exposing their memory buffers are not accessed at the Python level while they are involved in nonblocking message-passing operations.

Persistent Communications

Often a communication with the same argument list is repeatedly executed within an inner loop. In such cases, communication can be further optimized by using persistent communication, a particular case of nonblocking communication allowing the reduction of the overhead between processes and communication controllers. Furthermore , this kind of optimization can also alleviate the extra call overheads associated to interpreted, dynamic languages like Python.

In MPI for Python, the Send_init() and Recv_init() methods of the Comm class create a persistent request for a send and receive operation respectively. These methods return an instance of the Prequest class, a subclass of the Request class. The actual communication can be effectively started using the Start() method, and its completion can be managed as previously described.

Collective Communications

Collective communications allow the transmittal of data between multiple processes of a group simultaneously. The syntax and semantics of collective functions is consistent with point-to-point communication. Collective functions communicate typed data, but messages are not paired with an associated tag; selectivity of messages is implied in the calling order. Additionally, collective functions come in blocking versions only.

The more commonly used collective communication operations are the following.

  • Barrier synchronization across all group members.
  • Global communication functions
    • Broadcast data from one member to all members of a group.
    • Gather data from all members to one member of a group.
    • Scatter data from one member to all members of a group.
  • Global reduction operations such as sum, maximum, minimum, etc.

MPI for Python provides support for almost all collective calls. Unfortunately, the Alltoallw() and Reduce_scatter() methods are currently unimplemented.

In MPI for Python, the Bcast(), Scatter(), Gather(), Allgather() and Alltoall() methods of Comm instances provide support for collective communications of memory buffers. The variants bcast(), scatter(), gather(), allgather() and alltoall() can communicate generic Python objects. The vector variants (which can communicate different amounts of data to each process) Scatterv(), Gatherv(), Allgatherv() and Alltoallv() are also supported, they can only communicate objects exposing memory buffers.

Global reduction operations on memory buffers are accessible through the Reduce(), Allreduce(), Scan() and Exscan() methods. The variants reduce(), allreduce(), scan() and exscan() can communicate generic Python objects; however, the actual required reduction computations are performed sequentially at some process. All the predefined (i.e., SUM, PROD, MAX, etc.) reduction operations can be applied.

Dynamic Process Management

In the context of the MPI-1 specification, a parallel application is static; that is, no processes can be added to or deleted from a running application after it has been started. Fortunately, this limitation was addressed in MPI-2. The new specification added a process management model providing a basic interface between an application and external resources and process managers.

This MPI-2 extension can be really useful, especially for sequential applications built on top of parallel modules, or parallel applications with a client/server model. The MPI-2 process model provides a mechanism to create new processes and establish communication between them and the existing MPI application. It also provides mechanisms to establish communication between two existing MPI applications, even when one did not start the other.

In MPI for Python, new independent process groups can be created by calling the Spawn() method within an intracommunicator (i.e., an Intracomm instance). This call returns a new intercommunicator (i.e., an Intercomm instance) at the parent process group. The child process group can retrieve the matching intercommunicator by calling the Get_parent() (class) method defined in the Comm class. At each side, the new intercommunicator can be used to perform point to point and collective communications between the parent and child groups of processes.

Alternatively, disjoint groups of processes can establish communication using a client/server approach. Any server application must first call the Open_port() function to open a port and the Publish_name() function to publish a provided service, and next call the Accept() method within an Intracomm instance. Any client applications can first find a published service by calling the Lookup_name() function, which returns the port where a server can be contacted; and next call the Connect() method within an Intracomm instance. Both Accept() and Connect() methods return an Intercomm instance. When connection between client/server processes is no longer needed, all of them must cooperatively call the Disconnect() method of the Comm class. Additionally, server applications should release resources by calling the Unpublish_name() and Close_port() functions.

One-Sided Communications

One-sided communications (also called Remote Memory Access, RMA) supplements the traditional two-sided, send/receive based MPI communication model with a one-sided, put/get based interface. One-sided communication that can take advantage of the capabilities of highly specialized network hardware. Additionally, this extension lowers latency and software overhead in applications written using a shared-memory-like paradigm.

The MPI specification revolves around the use of objects called windows; they intuitively specify regions of a process’s memory that have been made available for remote read and write operations. The published memory blocks can be accessed through three functions for put (remote send), get (remote write), and accumulate (remote update or reduction) data items. A much larger number of functions support different synchronization styles; the semantics of these synchronization operations are fairly complex.

In MPI for Python, one-sided operations are available by using instances of the Win class. New window objects are created by calling the Create() method at all processes within a communicator and specifying a memory buffer . When a window instance is no longer needed, the Free() method should be called.

The three one-sided MPI operations for remote write, read and reduction are available through calling the methods Put(), Get(), and Accumulate() respectively within a Win instance. These methods need an integer rank identifying the target process and an integer offset relative the base address of the remote memory block being accessed.

The one-sided operations read, write, and reduction are implicitly nonblocking, and must be synchronized by using two primary modes. Active target synchronization requires the origin process to call the Start() and Complete() methods at the origin process, and target process cooperates by calling the Post() and Wait() methods. There is also a collective variant provided by the Fence() method. Passive target synchronization is more lenient, only the origin process calls the Lock() and Unlock() methods. Locks are used to protect remote accesses to the locked remote window and to protect local load/store accesses to a locked local window.

Parallel Input/Output

The POSIX standard provides a model of a widely portable file system. However, the optimization needed for parallel input/output cannot be achieved with this generic interface. In order to ensure efficiency and scalability, the underlying parallel input/output system must provide a high-level interface supporting partitioning of file data among processes and a collective interface supporting complete transfers of global data structures between process memories and files. Additionally, further efficiencies can be gained via support for asynchronous input/output, strided accesses to data, and control over physical file layout on storage devices. This scenario motivated the inclusion in the MPI-2 standard of a custom interface in order to support more elaborated parallel input/output operations.

The MPI specification for parallel input/output revolves around the use objects called files. As defined by MPI, files are not just contiguous byte streams. Instead, they are regarded as ordered collections of typed data items. MPI supports sequential or random access to any integral set of these items. Furthermore, files are opened collectively by a group of processes.

The common patterns for accessing a shared file (broadcast, scatter, gather, reduction) is expressed by using user-defined datatypes. Compared to the communication patterns of point-to-point and collective communications, this approach has the advantage of added flexibility and expressiveness. Data access operations (read and write) are defined for different kinds of positioning (using explicit offsets, individual file pointers, and shared file pointers), coordination (non-collective and collective), and synchronism (blocking, nonblocking, and split collective with begin/end phases).

In MPI for Python, all MPI input/output operations are performed through instances of the File class. File handles are obtained by calling the Open() method at all processes within a communicator and providing a file name and the intended access mode. After use, they must be closed by calling the Close() method. Files even can be deleted by calling method Delete().

After creation, files are typically associated with a per-process view. The view defines the current set of data visible and accessible from an open file as an ordered set of elementary datatypes. This data layout can be set and queried with the Set_view() and Get_view() methods respectively.

Actual input/output operations are achieved by many methods combining read and write calls with different behavior regarding positioning, coordination, and synchronism. Summing up, MPI for Python provides the thirty (30) methods defined in MPI-2 for reading from or writing to files using explicit offsets or file pointers (individual or shared), in blocking or nonblocking and collective or noncollective versions.

Environmental Management

Initialization and Exit

Module functions Init() or Init_thread() and Finalize() provide MPI initialization and finalization respectively. Module functions Is_initialized() and Is_finalized() provide the respective tests for initialization and finalization.


MPI_Init() or MPI_Init_thread() is actually called when you import the MPI module from the mpi4py package, but only if MPI is not already initialized. In such case, calling Init()/Init_thread() from Python is expected to generate an MPI error, and in turn an exception will be raised.


MPI_Finalize() is registered (by using Python C/API function Py_AtExit()) for being automatically called when Python processes exit, but only if mpi4py actually initialized Therefore, there is no need to call Finalize() from Python to ensure MPI finalization.

Implementation Information

  • The MPI version number can be retrieved from module function Get_version(). It returns a two-integer tuple (version,subversion).
  • The Get_processor_name() function can be used to access the processor name.
  • The values of predefined attributes attached to the world communicator can be obtained by calling the Get_attr() method within the COMM_WORLD instance.


MPI timer functionalities are available through the Wtime() and Wtick() functions.

Error Handling

In order facilitate handle sharing with other Python modules interfacing MPI-based parallel libraries, the predefined MPI error handlers ERRORS_RETURN and ERRORS_ARE_FATAL can be assigned to and retrieved from communicators, windows and files using methods Set_errhandler() and Get_errhandler().

When the predefined error handler ERRORS_RETURN is set, errors returned from MPI calls within Python code will raise an instance of the exception class Exception, which is a subclass of the standard Python exception RuntimeError.


After import, mpi4py overrides the default MPI rules governing inheritance of error handlers. The ERRORS_RETURN error handler is set in the predefined COMM_SELF and COMM_WORLD communicators, as well as any new Comm, Win, or File instance created through mpi4py. If you ever pass such handles to C/C++/Fortran library code, it is recommended to set the ERRORS_ARE_FATAL error handler on them to ensure MPI errors do not pass silently.


Importing with from mpi4py.MPI import * will cause a name clashing with standard Python Exception base class.