Running Parallel Jobs on JupyterHub in R

JupyterHub offers a multi user environment for running Jupyter Notebooks. Research Computing provides access to a JupyterHub environment with parallel processing support. This tutorial will demonstrate how to use the parallel R package to run simple parallel jobs within the R kernel on JupyterHub.


  • Connect to a remote cluster for parallel processing
  • Use the parallel package to run jobs


  • parallel
  • MASS

Setup and basic use

First you must connect to a cluster where you will be doing your parallel processing. In this example, we will just be using the cores available on your local machine, but if you are running your job through JupyterHub, you can use any of the RC resources described here.

options(jupyter.plot_mimetypes = 'image/png')


num_cores <- detectCores()
cl <- makeCluster(num_cores)

The parallel package contains functions that mirror the base R sapply function. The following example will calculate the square of each number in a sequence in parallel.

square <- function(x) {
parSapply(cl, 1:10, square)
 [1]   1   4   9  16  25  36  49  64  81 100

Evaluating expressions in parallel with clusterEvalQ

The clusterEvalQ function can be used include R packages into each node of your cluster. More generally, clusterEvalQ evaluates expressions within each node. For instance, let’s say you wanted to simulate draws from a negative binomial distribution using the rnegbin function in the MASS package. To make the function available to each node, clusterEvalQ evaluates the expression library(MASS) on each node:

clusterEvalQ(cl, library(MASS))
[1] "MASS"      "stats"     "graphics"  "grDevices" "utils"     "datasets" 
[7] "methods"   "base"     

[1] "MASS"      "stats"     "graphics"  "grDevices" "utils"     "datasets" 
[7] "methods"   "base"     

[1] "MASS"      "stats"     "graphics"  "grDevices" "utils"     "datasets" 
[7] "methods"   "base"     

[1] "MASS"      "stats"     "graphics"  "grDevices" "utils"     "datasets" 
[7] "methods"   "base"     

A list is printed with one element per node, showing the packages that are loaded.

While clusterEvalQ evaluates literal expressions on each node, clusterExport can export objects to the global environment of each node. For instance, if we want to have each node generate 1000 samples from a negative binomial distribution, we can do the following:

nb_draws <- clusterEvalQ(cl, rnegbin(n = 1000, mu = 2, theta = .3))
List of 4
 $ : int [1:1000] 0 0 0 0 3 0 1 1 8 0 ...
 $ : int [1:1000] 0 5 0 1 0 9 1 1 5 1 ...
 $ : int [1:1000] 1 0 0 0 3 0 2 0 1 11 ...
 $ : int [1:1000] 0 1 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 7 ...

Now we have draws from a negative binomial distribution for each node. Let’s visualize the cumulative distribution function (CDF) for each of the samples.

plot(ecdf(nb_draws[[1]]), main = 'CDF: negative binomial samples')
for (i in 2:num_cores){
    plot(ecdf(nb_draws[[i]]), add = TRUE, col = i)
core_seq <- 1:num_cores
legend('right', col = core_seq, 
      legend = paste('Node', core_seq), 
      pch = 19, bty = 'n')


Parallel versions of lapply and sapply with built-in and custom functions

If we have a list of values, we can apply functions to the elements of the list in parallel using parSapply or parLapply. With our list nb_draws, we can calculate a sample means for each set of draws by applying the mean function over the list of simulations.

parSapply(cl, nb_draws, mean)
[1] 2.082 1.825 2.120 2.085

Let’s compare the time it takes to do these operations 10000 times in serial vs. in parallel. In this case, we’re calling a user defined function get_nb_mean.

get_nb_mean <- function(i = NULL, pars) {
    # i is a dummy argument
    # unroll parameters
    n <- pars[1] 
    mu <- pars[2]
    theta <- pars[3]
    # draw a sample and compute the mean
    x <- MASS::rnegbin(n, mu, theta)

n_replicates <- 10000
pars <- c(n = 1000, mu = 2, theta = .3)

# serially
  serial_vals <- replicate(n_replicates, get_nb_mean(pars = pars))  

# in parallel
    par_vals <- parSapply(cl, 1:n_replicates, get_nb_mean, pars = pars)    
   user  system elapsed 
  2.089   0.020   2.120 

   user  system elapsed 
  0.006   0.001   0.567 

With four cores working in parallel, these operations are about 3.5 times faster! (Though we might expect 4x speed improvements, there is overhead associated with the parallel operations that prevents a full 4x speedup).

Note that in our custom function, we specified a dummy argument i which is never used inside of the function definition. This is still useful however as a means for implementing a parallel version of the replicate function, because we can apply our function over a vector of integer values (in this case 1:n_replicates), but the value of i has no effect on the output of get_nb_mean(). For large iterative simulations applied over clusters, the iterators package can also be used.

Once you have finished, run the stopCluster function to free up resources.



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