TL;DR when a Dask distributed cluster runs out of memory, it can be tricky to figure out why, and even harder to resolve. What if the system that cluster workers use to store intermediate results was pluggable and allowed different implementations? And what if you could choose to plug in a storage implementation that allowed persistence of results between cluster restarts?

One of the current challenges working with Dask and using the distributed scheduler on a cluster is that the intermediate results in a task graph are held in memory on the worker nodes in the cluster. This can present a challenge to the user because if workers start running out of memory during a computation, it can be for any of multiple reasons. E.g., it could be because some individual tasks are consuming too much memory during execution, perhaps because chunks are too large or the wrong shape or the task is allocating memory unnecessarily. It could also be because the ordering of task execution is sub-optimal, and workers are being asked to hold onto lots of intermediate results. Or some combination of these and/or other factors.

If workers start running out of memory, then they can start “spilling to disk”, which I understand to mean that they write out intermediate results to their local file system. You can see this in the status dashboard, the blue bars in the memory chart start turning orange. This sounds like a good idea in principle, and should allow computations to proceed, but in my experience when you start seeing these bars turning orange, it is a precursor to everything grinding to a halt. I.e., distributed clusters start behaving in a very pathological way when workers start spilling to disk.

Ordering task execution in general is a difficult problem, and Dask generally does an admirable job of coming up with an order that manages memory and balances the other considerations. However, sometimes it does get it wrong, and in some surprisingly simple cases. One case that has come up is rechunking, i.e., when you want to transform the chunks of some array to a different shape. This can come up when you may have stored data natively in one chunk shape (e.g., tall and skinny) but a computation requires them to be in a different shape (e.g., short and fat). Several people have hit situations where rechunking causes a distributed cluster to run out of memory (e.g., here, here, here), and the underlying cause seems to be sub-optimal task ordering. Some of this has been resolved with improved heuristics around task ordering, but the solution is hard to generalise and I suspect this kind of issue will come up again.

Also, cases like this reveal the fact that, as I understand it, Dask does not schedule work in a way that is sensitive to memory requirements or availability on workers. This is quite different from the situation that those of us who previously worked with HPC scheduling systems such as SGE or SLURM may be used to, where you have to give each task a memory limit, tasks are scheduled to workers only if sufficient memory is available, and killed if they exceed their limit. This can be a pain when you get the memory limit wrong, but it can help to avoid clusters grinding to a halt because memory is overcommitted.

Some of these issues have led the Pangeo folks to develop a rechunker package, which is specifically designed to deal with the rechunking use case but in a way that strictly deals with memory availability. I.e., memory is carefully managed and intermediate results are written to some kind of persistent storage when they cannot be held in RAM. This resolves the use case where you want to perform a one-off rechunking, but doesn’t deal with other scenarios where you need to rechunk in the middle of a workflow, or other cases where task ordering can lead to excessive memory use.

This got me thinking that perhaps a useful modification to the dask distributed architecture would be to allow for storage of intermediate results in systems other than worker memory.

For example, if your cluster is running in a public cloud, what if workers could write intermediate results to object storage. This would of course potentially slow down a computation a lot, because writing to and reading from object storage would add overhead. This waste would be particularly acute where dependent tasks can be run on the same worker, i.e., where no data transfer between workers was required. However, in cases where otherwise the cluster would start moving intermediate results between workers, this might not be too bad, because the overhead of going to/from object storage might be of the same order as the overhead of network communication between workers.

If this cluster storage layer had an abstract interface that allowed different implementations, then one could imagine other approaches. E.g., a cluster could use memcached, or a distributed file system, or any other system that could provide shared storage to a cluster. The current approach of using worker RAM for storage of intermediate results could then become an instance of this interface, that could be changed for a different implementation if desired.

One of the original reasons as I understand it for using worker memory like this is it allows peer-to-peer communication between workers. I.e., when data needs to be shared between workers, there is no single bottleneck through which data must flow, rather workers can request data directly from each other. Avoiding a bottleneck is obviously desirable, but there are plenty of approaches to providing shared storage to a cluster that would also achieve this. E.g., using cloud object storage, or memcached, or a distributed file system, all would avoid a single bottleneck, and could possibly take advantage of the network efficiently.

If different storage implementations could be used, then another benefit might be that a call to persist() could allow convenient persistence of key results that lived between cluster incarnations. I.e., calling persist() currently causes a result to be materialised in cluster workers’ memory, but if the cluster is shutdown then that disappears. If instead one separated the cluster workers from the shared cluster storage, and allowed for shared storage that was backed by other systems, then the shared storage could persist after cluster shutdown, and be reused the next time a cluster was started.

I.e., one might imagine an API something like this:

# set up some kind of shared storage for the cluster, e.g.:
from dask.distributed.memory import FSMemory
memory = FSMemory("gs://my-cluster-bucket/")
# launch some kind of cluster, passing in reference to memory, e.g.:
from dask_kubernetes import KubeCluster
cluster = KubeCluster(..., memory=memory)

# connect a client to the cluster
from dask.distributed import Client
client = Client(cluster)

# set up some big computation
x = ...

# persist to the cluster's shared storage

# do some more work...

The crucial point here is that, first time x.persist() is called it runs the full computation and persists the result in the cluster’s shared storage. But if cluster is restarted and you come back later, next time it’s run it realises that the result already exists and won’t recompute it. Of course you could call to manually store the result somewhere, which is what we currently do, but that can be inconvenient because your code ends up scattered with lots of if/else statements of the form “if the result has been stored previously, load it from there, otherwise run a computation”.

Another possible advantage to abstracting out the cluster’s shared storage system and allowing for more persistent storage, is that it could open the door to supporting resumable computations. I.e., currently if a computation crashes or is interrupted part-way through, you have to restart it from the beginning. Mostly dask is targeting interactive workloads where each computation is relatively short, and the distributed scheduler is resilient to things like individual workers failing, so supporting this kind of thing has not been a priority. But I can imagine that some use cases involving longer-running computation might benefit from the ability to resume a computation from the point where it was interrupted, even if the entire cluster is shut down and restarted.

Coming back to the original discussion of debugging situations where a cluster runs out of memory, separating the cluster workers from the cluster storage, at least architecturally if not physically, would seem to be useful, because it would allow separate reporting and diagnostics of how much memory (RAM) was being used by tasks during task execution, versus how much memory (storage) was being used to hold onto intermediate results during computation of a task graph.

Of course I have no idea how easy this would be to implement, but thought I’d float the idea in case it was useful for discussion.