# Parallel processing

# Parallel processing with parallel package

The base package parallel allows parallel computation through forking, sockets, and random-number generation.

Detect the number of cores present on the localhost:

parallel::detectCores(all.tests = FALSE, logical = TRUE)

Create a cluster of the cores on the localhost:

parallelCluster <- parallel::makeCluster(parallel::detectCores())

First, a function appropriate for parallelization must be created. Consider the mtcars dataset. A regression on mpg could be improved by creating a separate regression model for each level of cyl.

data <- mtcars
yfactor <- 'cyl'
zlevels <- sort(unique(data[[yfactor]]))
datay <- data[,1]
dataz <- data[,2]
datax <- data[,3:11]

fitmodel <- function(zlevel, datax, datay, dataz) {
  glm.fit(x = datax[dataz == zlevel,], y = datay[dataz == zlevel])

Create a function that can loop through all the possible iterations of zlevels. This is still in serial, but is an important step as it determines the exact process that will be parallelized.

fitmodel <- function(zlevel, datax, datay, dataz) {
  glm.fit(x = datax[dataz == zlevel,], y = datay[dataz == zlevel])

for (zlevel in zlevels) {
  print(fitmodel(zlevel, datax, datay, dataz))

Curry this function:

worker <- function(zlevel) {
    fitmodel(zlevel,datax, datay, dataz)

Parallel computing using parallel cannot access the global environment. Luckily, each function creates a local environment parallel can access. Creation of a wrapper function allows for parallelization. The function to be applied also needs to be placed within the environment.

wrapper <- function(datax, datay, dataz) {
  # force evaluation of all paramters not supplied by parallelization apply
  # these variables are now in an enviroment accessible by parallel function
  # function to be applied also in the environment
  fitmodel <- function(zlevel, datax, datay, dataz) {
    glm.fit(x = datax[dataz == zlevel,], y = datay[dataz == zlevel])
  # calling in this environment iterating over single parameter zlevel
  worker <- function(zlevel) {
    fitmodel(zlevel,datax, datay, dataz)

Now create a cluster and run the wrapper function.

parallelcluster <- parallel::makeCluster(parallel::detectCores())
models <- parallel::parLapply(parallelcluster,zlevels,
                              wrapper(datax, datay, dataz))

Always stop the cluster when finished.


The parallel package includes the entire apply() family, prefixed with par.

# Parallel processing with foreach package

The foreach package brings the power of parallel processing to R. But before you want to use multi core CPUs you have to assign a multi core cluster. The doSNOW package is one possibility.

A simple use of the foreach loop is to calculate the sum of the square root and the square of all numbers from 1 to 100000.


cl <- makeCluster(5, type = "SOCK")

f <- foreach(i = 1:100000, .combine = c, .inorder = F) %dopar% {
    k <- i ** 2 + sqrt(i)

The structure of the output of foreach is controlled by the .combine argument. The default output structure is a list. In the code above, c is used to return a vector instead. Note that a calculation function (or operator) such as "+" may also be used to perform a calculation and return a further processed object.

It is important to mention that the result of each foreach-loop is the last call. Thus, in this example k will be added to the result.

Parameter Details
.combine combine Function. Determines how the results of the loop are combined. Possible values are c, cbind, rbind, "+", "*"...
.inorder if TRUE the result is ordered according to the order of the iteration vairable (here i). If FALSE the result is not ordered. This can have postive effects on computation time.
.packages for functions which are provided by any package except base, like e.g. mass, randomForest or else, you have to provide these packages with c("mass", "randomForest")

# Random Number Generation

A major problem with parallelization is the used of RNG as seeds. Random numbers by the number are iterated by the number of operations from either the start of the session or the most recent set.seed(). Since parallel processes arise from the same function, it can use the same seed, possibly causing identical results! Calls will run in serial on the different cores, provide no advantage.

A set of seeds must be generated and sent to each parallel process. This is automatically done in some packages (parallel, snow, etc.), but must be explicitly addressed in others.

s <- seed
for (i in 1:numofcores) {
    s <- nextRNGStream(s)
    # send s to worker i as .Random.seed

Seeds can be also be set for reproducibility.

clusterSetRNGStream(cl = parallelcluster, iseed)

# mcparallelDo

The mcparallelDo package allows for the evaluation of R code asynchronously on Unix-alike (e.g. Linux and MacOSX) operating systems. The underlying philosophy of the package is aligned with the needs of exploratory data analysis rather than coding. For coding asynchrony, consider the future (opens new window) package.

# Example

Create data


Trigger mcparallelDo to perform analysis on a fork

mcparallelDo({glm(len ~ supp * dose, data=ToothGrowth)},"interactionPredictorModel")

Do other things, e.g.

binaryPredictorModel <- glm(len ~ supp, data=ToothGrowth)
gaussianPredictorModel <- glm(len ~ dose, data=ToothGrowth)

The result from mcparallelDo returns in your targetEnvironment, e.g. .GlobalEnv, when it is complete with a message (by default)


# Other Examples

# Example of not returning a value until we return to the top level
for (i in 1:10) {
  if (i == 1) {
    mcparallelDo({2+2}, targetValue = "output")
  if (exists("output")) print(i)

# Example of getting a value without returning to the top level
for (i in 1:10) {
  if (i == 1) {
    mcparallelDo({2+2}, targetValue = "output")
  if (exists("output")) print(i)

# Remarks

Parallelization on remote machines require libraries to be downloaded on each machine. Prefer package::function() calls. Several packages have parallelization natively built-in, including caret, pls and plyr.

Microsoft R Open (opens new window) (Revolution R) also uses multi-threaded BLAS/LAPACK libraries which intrinsically parallelizes many common functions.