Department of Computer Science School of Computing and Mathematical Sciences

JStar Research Group


"Since real world applications are naturally parallel and hardware is naturally parallel, what we need is a programming model, system software, and a supporting architecture that are naturally parallel. Researchers have the rare opportunity to re-invent these cornerstones of computing, provided they simplify the efficient programming of highly parallel systems."
From The Landscape of Parallel Computing Research: A View from Berkeley, Technical Report UCB/EECS-2006-183, University of California, Berkeley, Dec 2006.

Since 2005, computers are no longer getting faster, instead they are becoming exponentially more parallel. But parallel programming is currently difficult and costly, because the widely-used programming languages of today were not designed for parallel computers,

We aim to make it easy to write high-performance parallel programs that can be retargeted to a wide variety of computer architectures. We are developing a new style of parallel programming, which separates the program logic from the parallelism details, and enables a program to be moved easily from one computer architecture to another.

In an earlier Marsden-funded project, we developed the semantics of this programming style, implemented a prototype language called Starlog, and demonstrated the automatic selection of efficient data structures, with performance within a factor of two of hand-optimized programs in most cases. (See PhD thesis by Roger Clayton). Now we are developing a new language called JStar, which applies these ideas to parallel programming.

Design Goals for JStar

Our overall goal is to change the way the world programs!

Instead of writing sequential programs, with thousands of semicolons that tell the compiler to do things more sequentially than is really necessary, JStar programs contain hundreds of rules that can all execute in parallel. The causality relationships between these rules (when you need to ensure that one rule finishes before another one starts) are expressed using 'abstract timestamps'. The fewer causality constraints you add, the more parallel your program is. This approach makes it much easier for compilers to generate aggressively parallel code that is tailored to a particular machine architecture.

Instead of using complex data structures, we will use relations, and let the compiler choose a data structure for each relation that will give good performance. This means that when we change our program to use a relation in a slightly different way, the compiler can automatically (or with some hints from the user) choose a new data structure that efficiently supports that kind of query or update.

Here is a brief summary of our design goals for JStar:

  1. As Declarative as Possible (to make transformation/proof easy)
  2. As Much Implicit Concurrency as Possible (retargetable to many architectures)
  3. Keep the parallelism hints/commands separate from the original JStar program, so that one program can have several alternative parallel implementations without changing its source code.
  4. As Java/Scala/C#-like as Possible (to reduce takeup barriers)

Some similar languages to JStar/Starlog are the OverLog and Dedalus languages from the Declarative Networking group at Berkeley (these are distributed implementations of Datalog with explicit time), and John McCarthy's Elephant 2000 (this 1992 language proposal had the ideas of a time-stamped history, data-structure-free programming, and a compiler that chooses data structures).

Current Status

We have defined the semantics of JStar, have designed a Java/Scala-like syntax, and have implemented several prototype interpeters for it. These come directly from the semantics paper, and offer three alternative evaluation orders (sequential, medium parallelism and maximum parallelism). See our examples page for some small example programs and their execution traces.

Our basic architecture is to translate JStar source programs into an intermediate language (IL), perform lots of transformations on the IL to optimize the code and parallelize it for a particular kind of machine (eg. cluster or many-core), then translate the resulting IL code into an efficient parallel program for the target machine.

We are currently using Starlog notation as our IL, so that we can use the transformations and code generator that Roger Clayton developed for sequential machines. This automatically guesses appropriate data structures for each data relation in the program, and generates sequential Java code.

On the case studies side, we have done graphics programs, LEGO robotics programs, games and calculation programs in the past (Starlog). Simon Crosby has developed distributed implementations of some JStar case studies (Primes and Life) and evaluated their performance on our cluster computer, Symphony and Paul Beard transformed those same case studies to run on a GPU using CUDA and OpenCL.

Come back to this site in a few months to find out more...


The people associated with the JStar project include:

  • AProf Mark Utting
  • Prof John Cleary
  • Roger Clayton, PhD Student 2001-2004, Data Structure Selection
  • Simon Crosby, MSc Student 2008-2010, Cluster Implementation Techniques
  • Paul Beard, COMP520 project 2009, CUDA Implementation Techniques
  • Craig Berntsen, COMP520 project 2009, OpenGL Interface
  • Jordan Schwab, COMP520 project 2009, LINQ-like syntax
  • Feifei Lin, COMP591 project 2009, JStar/SWING applications

Example Programs

A number of simple example programs are available including source code in Starlog and JStar and detailed execution traces using different scheduling algorithms.


Here are some of the most relevant papers about the Starlog language, which has similiar semantics to JStar (though the syntax of JStar is quite different). See the Starlog website for additional publications.

  • Datalog as a parallel general purpose programming language , J. G. Cleary, M. Utting and R. Clayton, Working paper, Dept. Computer Science, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, 06/2010.
    Presents a semantics for JStar/Starlog, together with several abstract interpreters for the semantics, and proofs that relate these to traditional fixed-point semantics for locally stratified datalog programs. This is an updated version of the report below with more examples and some material about garbage collection and optimization omitted. This has been submitted for publication.
  • A semantics and implementation of a causal logic programming language, J. G. Cleary, M. Utting and R. Clayton, Working paper, Dept. Computer Science, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, 01/2009.
    Presents a semantics for JStar/Starlog, together with several abstract interpreters for the semantics, and proofs that relate these to traditional fixed-point semantics for locally stratified datalog programs.
  • Compilation of Bottom-Up Evaluation for a Pure Logic Programming Language, PhD Thesis, Roger Clayton, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand, 2004.
    Describes a compiler for Starlog including a scheme to automatically assign data-structures to relational tables using both static and run-time performance information.
  • Verification of Starlog Programs by John Cleary and Mark Utting. Presented at the Australasian Workshop on Computational Logic (AWCL'2001), Bond University, Australia.
    This presents a simple methodology for proving Starlog programs correct with respect to predicate calculus specifications. Example programs: generating all even numbers, and a resource manager that grants a synchronized token to one requestor at a time, in a fair fashion.
  • Data Structures considered Harmful by John Cleary, Mark Utting and Roger Clayton. Presented at the Australasian Workshop on Computational Logic (AWCL'2000), ANU, Canberra, Australia.
    This describes how Starlog programs avoid a premature commitment to data structures. Example programs: an engine simulation with start and stop commands, an assignment example, calculating even numbers, calculating hamming numbers. The paper also discusses the selection of efficient data structures for the hamming number program.
  • Optimising Tabling Structures for Bottom-Up Logic Programming, by Roger Clayton, John G. Cleary, Bernhard Pfahringer, and Mark Utting, Preproceedings of the International Workshop on Logic Based Program Development and Transformations 2002, pp.57-75. (A two-page extended abstract of this paper was also published in LNCS 2664).
    This paper describes a Starlog compiler that generates Java code, using SDSL (Starlog Data Structure Language) as an intermediate stage, with automatic selection of data structures.
  • Pseudo-Naive Evaluation. Donald Smith and Mark Utting, Tenth Australasian Database Conference, ADC'99, Auckland, NZ, Jan 1999.
    Describes one possible evaluation strategy for Starlog.
  • Declarative Updates in Deductive Object-Oriented Databases, by Mengchi Liu and John Cleary. International Journal of Microcomputer Applications, 15(3), pages 127-142, 1996.
    Describes a Starlog-like language with explicit database insert and delete commands for putting objects into the database. Only uses integer timestamps.
  • Updates in a temporal logic programming language, by John G. Cleary and Vinit N. Kaushik. Technical Report 1991-427-11, Department of Computer Science, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
    Introduces Starlog and shows that it is capable of directly expressing the mutation and change of clauses within a database. Some short example programs are described and used to illustrate an effective and efficient bottom-up technique for executing the language based on connection graphs, and an intelligent arithmetic constraint system.

PhD and MSc Topics

There are lots of interesting research topics in the JStar project, which could form the basis of PhD or MSc work. To illustrate some of the possible projects, consider the following JStar System Architecture diagram.

JStar System Architecture

This shows how one or more source syntaxes for JStar are translated by a front-end program into the JStar IL (Intermediate Language), where lots of analysis and optimization transformations are done. Some of these transformations convert the program into an architecture-dependent form (eg. spread the data structures over many nodes of a cluster computer, or spread the rules over many cores of a multi-core computer). After further transformations, this IL can then be translated by a back-end program into some suitable output syntax for that architecture (eg. Java for the sequential implementation, MPI for clusters, CUDA for GPUs, and perhaps Microsoft's ParallelFX library for many-core implementations). We take a strong experimental approach to parallelization, so the performance results from each run on the target machine are used to improve and tune the transformations and to develop heuristics for deciding automatically which transformations are best for each kind of program.

We classify the following PhD/MSc topic suggestions into front-end projects (mostly about language design and evaluation), back-end projects (mostly about parallelization transformations and performance evaluation) and applications projects (using JStar and designing library APIs and new programming styles that suit those APIs).

Front-End Projects

  • Static Analysis: JStar programs have a number of integrity and type constraints that are needed to ensure that the causality orderings specified by the programmer are consistent with the code. Checking these is a non-decidable problem in general, and in Starlog we used some simple fixed-point abstract interpretation algorithms and the automated theorem prover Simplify to check the constraints. This project will involve developing static analysis algorithms to check the correctness of JStar programs and to optimize them by deriving information about the types and ranges of variables etc. This will probably be done with the aid of modern SMT solvers such as Yices and Z3. This project will require a good theory background and will suit someone who is interested in type checking, abstraction interpretation, and automated theorem proving.
  • Meta-Compiler for JStar: we are moving towards writing the next version of the JStar compiler as a declarative program in JStar, similar to the Evita Raced ideas from Berkeley. This project will be to develop transformations, query optimizations and code generation strategies in this declarative compilation framework.
  • Example-Based JStar Programming Environment: Relations are the core data structures that are used in all JStar programs. This project will experiment with developing interactive environments that allow relations to be defined visually and then populated with example tuples, either automatically (randomly-generated tuples, min-max tuples, pairwise tuples, etc.) or manually (by typing in several tuples). These tuples will then be used as test inputs for each JStar rule that is defined, and the output of the rule will be compared against the example tuples in the output relation. The goal is to provide an interactive unit testing environment for JStar.
  • Correctness Proofs for JStar: For the future (see the Verification of Starlog Programs paper in the publications section for some similar verification ideas for Starlog).
  • Orderings: Every JStar (or Starlog) program has an associated ordering on the tuples in its tables. This project will investigate ways of specifying these orderings, verifying their correctness, and automating their extraction from programs.

Back-End Projects

  • Parallelization for Many-Core Computers: Our first parallel back-end will be aimed at many-core computers. The plan is to generate Java code that uses thread pools, Future<T> objects, parallel iterators, concurrent data structures, etc. The goal is to create lots of tasks at a good level of granularity. For performance evaluation experiments, we have access to several 8-core hyperthreaded machine (16 threads).
  • Parallelization for GPUs: This project will research transformations for using GPUs (Graphics Processing Units) as the execution engine for JStar. Modern GPUs have dozens of simple cores and can handle thousands of concurrent threads with almost zero overhead when switching between threads. A promising back-end target for GPUs is to generate OpenCL code, using the JavaCL library to interface that code to Java.
  • Parallelization for FPGAs: For the future.
  • Garbage collection: Research the theory of how garbage collection can be done and what constitutes correct garbage collection. Implement garbage collectors in both sequential and distributed environments. Evaluate the performance of different garbage collectors and the tradeoffs between memory usage, execution time, and algorithmic complexity.
  • Memory locations as data structures: In Starlog it is possible to specify assignment where a tuple has different values at different times and the most recent assignment is used as its current value. In principle it is possible to compile such a specification to code which destructively overwrites a single memory location to store the current value. The project will be to precisely specify when this is safe, to include a transformation for this into the compiler, and to evaluate its impact on performance.
  • Data (size) dependent data structures: It is clear that in some applications the appropriate data structures to use depend on properties of input data which cannot be known at compile time. Such properties include the size of the data and the distribution of keys. This project will investigate ways to gracefully and efficiently switch which data structures are used as the properties become apparent, will implement such a scheme, and evaluate its impact on performacne including execution time, memory usage, and overall system robustness.
  • Disk storage as a data structures: A common technique in programming when data to be processed exceeds the available RAM is to store the data in external files and to process it incrementally from there. For example, data might be written to a file externally sorted then re-read and processed in order. This project will add such external file processing to the Starlog armamentarium of potential data structures. It will include specifying, implementing and evaluating the performance of such techniques.

Application Projects

We need more experience with the JStar style of programming in many application areas. This typically involves designing a JStar API for a given application domain, implementing that API (mostly in Java), writing example JStar programs that use the API, experimenting with different styles of interaction with the library, and perhaps performing some usability experiments to see how easy other programmers find it to understand and use the libraries.

Here are a few examples of the kinds of projects that are possible.

  • Genomics: Develop JStar programs for assembling DNA fragments into full genomes. This is a CPU and I/O intensive task, so will be a challenging application for JStar.
  • GUI Games: Develop libraries and programming styles for developing interactive GUI applications in JStar. This will probably be done on top of Java Swing, but the GUI layout will be controlled by relations defined in the JStar program, similar to how a XAML XML file can define a .NET GUI. A good test of the new libraries would be to use them to write some simple interactive games in JStar.
  • Database Applications: Develop JStar libraries and programming styles for connecting to relational databases and doing queries and updates. Since JStar already uses relations as its programming paradigm for in-memory data, it should be able to support an elegant connection to external databases.
  • CSV Query and Transform: Develop JStar libraries and example programs for reading and writing CSV files and space-separated data files directly to/from JStar in-memory relations. Since JStar has powerful features for querying and transforming in-memory tables, this will give us a domain-specific language in which a three or four line program can query one or several CSV files in very flexible ways, a bit like using SQL to query a relational database. This will be useful for analyzing web log files, querying and transforming simple text databases etc. This project could also include experimenting with alternative JStar styles of doing byte-oriented and line-oriented file I/O. This is a smaller project that is suitable for an honours or masters student or a COMP477 project.

Please let us know if you are interested in these topics and would like more information.

Mark Utting, Department of Computer Science, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand