Complications for Computational Experiments from
Johannes K. Fichte #
TU Dresden, Germany
Markus Hecher #
TU Wien, Austria
Universität Potsdam, Germany
Ciaran McCreesh #
University of Glasgow, UK
Anas Shahab #
TU Dresden, Germany
In this paper, we revisit the approach to empirical experiments for combinatorial solvers. We provide
a brief survey on tools that can help to make empirical work easier. We illustrate origins of uncertainty
in modern hardware and show how strong the influence of certain aspects of modern hardware and
its experimental setup can be in an actual experimental evaluation. More specifically, there can be
situations where (i) two different researchers run a reasonable-looking experiment comparing the
same solvers and come to different conclusions and (ii) one researcher runs the same experiment
twice on the same hardware and reaches different conclusions based upon how the hardware is
configured and used. We investigate these situations from a hardware perspective. Furthermore, we
provide an overview on standard measures, detailed explanations on effects, potential errors, and
biased suggestions for useful tools. Alongside the tools, we discuss their feasibility as experiments
often run on clusters to which the experimentalist has only limited access. Our work sheds light on
a number of benchmarking-related issues which could be considered to be folklore or even myths.
2012 ACM Subject Classification Computer systems organization → Multicore architectures; Hard-
ware → Temperature monitoring; Hardware → Impact on the environment; Hardware → Platform
power issues; Theory of computation → Design and analysis of algorithms
Keywords and phrases Experimenting, Combinatorial Solving, Empirical Work
Digital Object Identifier 10.4230/LIPIcs.CP.2021.25
Supplementary Material Benchmark results can be found on Zenodo https://doi.org/10.5281/
Funding Johannes K. Fichte: Google Fellowship at the Simons Institute, UC Berkeley.
Markus Hecher: FWF Grants Y698 and P32830 and Grant WWTF ICT19-065.
Acknowledgements Authors are given in alphabetical order. The work has been carried out while
the first three authors were visiting the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing.
“Why trust science?” is the title of a recent popular science book by Naomi Oreskes . We
can ask the same question of combinatorial sciences, algorithms, and evaluations: Why trust
an empirical experiment? Roughly speaking, in science, we try to understand why things
happen in the real world and investigate them with the help of scientific methods. One
important aspect to make an empirical evaluation trustworthy is reproducibility. This topic
has been the subject of much recent scrutiny, with some arguing there is a reproducibility
© Johannes K. Fichte, Markus Hecher, Ciaran McCreesh, and Anas Shahab;
licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY 4.0
27th International Conference on Principles and Practice of Constraint Programming (CP 2021).
Editor: Laurent D. Michel; Article No. 25; pp. 25:1–25:21
Leibniz International Proceedings in Informatics
Schloss Dagstuhl – Leibniz-Zentrum für Informatik, Dagstuhl Publishing, Germany
25:2 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
crisis in areas fields of computer science [33, 31] and even a replicability crisis in other scientific
fields of research . Luckily in combinatorial problem solving, replicability is often already
indirectly addressed in public challenges, which many combinatorial solving communities
organize in order to foster implementations and evaluations [47, 82, 80, 83, 86, 20, 21]. The
challenges provide a place for empirical evaluations, feature shared benchmarks, and support
long-term heritage [3, 17, 22, 54]. It is therefore often assumed that everything should be
judged with respect to these benchmarks or latest solvers . However, benchmarks featured
in competitions are not necessarily robust [40, 49] and might bias towards existing solving
approaches and heuristics. On that account, one can argue that non-competitive evaluations
are quite helpful for papers that are orthogonal to classical improvements over one particular
solving technique or algorithm [19, 30]. There, one can often see a strong focus on algorithm
engineering and their evaluation , which might not always be desired from a theoretical
perspective. In particular, it makes reproducibility far less obvious than one would expect from
theory. While reproducibility initiatives are becoming fashionable [73, 59], aspects are often
left out in practical algorithm engineering and when testing combinatorial implementations:
(i) the test-setup is not given (no protocol) or error prone (no failure analysis/considerations),
(ii) modern hardware is simplified to the von-Neumann model (Princeton architecture) 
and considered deterministic, and (iii) underlying software is neglected.
In this work, we summarize a list of topics to consider that might be folklore to an
experienced engineer, but are often only mentioned between the lines while being crucial to
actual reproducibility (Section 2.1). We include a list of system and environment parameters
that are impactful when carrying out empirical work (Section 2.3). We summarize useful
tools and list practical problems that repeatedly occur when experimenting (Sections 3.1,
3.2, and 3.3). In the main part of our paper, we provide an initial list of issues caused by
modern consumer hardware that can have a notable impact if setup and configurations are
not carefully designed (Table 1). We show by example that one can achieve different results
in the number of solved instances ranging from 5%–40% on the same hardware, depending
on the setup (Experiment 1, Table 3). This could suggest that it is not always meaningful to
only prefer solvers that beat the “best” solver, but to aim for clean benchmark settings and
elaborate discussions that highlight both the solver’s advantages and disadvantages.
Related Works. There are various works that address aspects of reproducibility [3, 7, 8, 15,
16, 56, 79, 94, 98] and experimental design [39, 63, 71], including micro-benchmarking, which
requires special attention in terms of statistical analysis , [71, Ch.8]. Previous works
neglected effects of modern parallel hardware on experimenting and some aspects have only
been addressed in the background by the community. We put attention on certain issues
arising on modern machines, updating outdated assumptions on measures, and illustrating
how certain problems can be omitted. In the sequel, we revisit some of these related works.
2 Evaluating Combinatorial Algorithms
Natural sciences have a long tradition in designing experiments (DOE). Practical experiments
date back to the ancient Greek philosophers such as Thales and Anaximenes with empirically
verifiable ideas. There, methodology is key and has a long tradition with formal approaches
existing since the late 1920s [25, 26]. Methodology not only involves the experiment itself,
but also observation, measurement, and the design of test aiming to reduce external influence.
Already in 1995, Hooker  discussed challenges in competitive evaluations of heuristics. A
variety of these challenges are still of relevance in today’s combinatorial solving community.
J. K. Fichte, M. Hecher, C. McCreesh, and A. Shahab 25:3
In particular, emphasis on competitions tells which algorithms/implementations are better,
but not why; this remains a particularly big challenge in the SAT community [27, 91]. If
a novel implementation wins, it is accepted; otherwise, it is considered as failure, resulting
in a high incentive to find the best possible parameter settings. The challenge of designing
an experiment (DOE) has meanwhile been addressed by a more experimental community
in broad guides  or algorithm engineering works . In contrast, theoretical computer
scientists often neglect environmental considerations due to the assumption that modern
hardware behaves similar to simplified mathematical machine models  or classical hardware
models . Unfortunately, this is no longer the case for modern architectures. There is a
list of concepts and external influences that can interfere, some of which are discussed below.
2.1 Repeatability, Replicability, and Reproducibility
When conducting a study or experiment, a central goal is to reduce inconsistencies between
theoretical descriptions and actual experiments. Three major principles play a central role:
repeatability, replicability, and reproducibility. Unsurprisingly, these topics are also critically
discussed in other scientific fields  and sometimes confused with each other.
Repeatability requires repeating a computation by the same researcher with the same
equipment at reliably the same result. The main purpose is often to estimate random
errors inherent in any observation. When evaluating combinatorial solvers, repeatability
translates to running the same solver with the same configuration on a given instance multiple
times, maybe even on different hardware. Some publicly accessible evaluation platforms
for combinatorial competitions address repeatability to a certain extent, as for example,
StarExec  and Optil.io . Effective tools to measure and control the execution of
combinatorial solvers are runsolver  and BenchExec [7, 8].
Replicability, sometimes also called method reproducibility, refers to the principle that if
an experiment is replicated by independent researchers with access to the original artifacts
and same methodology, that then outcomes are the same with high confidence. When
evaluating combinatorial solvers, replicability translates to running the same solver with the
same configuration and instance on a different system by independent researchers, which is
sometimes also called recomputability. Relevant aspects relate to works such as the Heritage
projects [3, 16, 15], which preserve access to old solvers and making sources accessible
to a broad community, or Singularity, which aims for easy an setup on high-performance
computing (HPC) systems with few prerequisites on the environment [56, 98]. Another
initiative (Guix) aims for a dedicated Linux distribution that provides highly stable system
dependency configurations [1, 96]. Already in 2013, the recomputation manifesto postulated
that one can only build on previous work if it can properly be replicated as a first step .
In addition, it makes research more efficient, similarly to how high quality publications
can benefit other researchers. In contrast, some researchers argue that replicability is not
worth considering, since sharing all artifacts is a non-trivial activity, which in consequence
wastes efforts of the researchers . Still, replicability is getting solid attention within the
experimental algorithmics community , since it supports quality assurance.
Reproducibility aims for being able to obtain the same outcome using artifacts, which
independent researchers develop without help of the original authors. When evaluating
combinatorial solvers reproducibility roughly refers to another group constructing a second
solver that implements the same algorithmic ideas. For example, Knuth re-implemented SAT
algorithms from several epochs . More experimental directions are investigations into
robustness of benchmark sets and their evaluation measures . Reproducibility can also
be interpreted fairly vaguely . Interestingly, the literature on experimental setup  and
algorithm engineering  already contains a variety of suggestions to obtain reproducibility.
25:4 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
Repeatability and to some extent also replicability are the focus of our paper. Our aim
is to make researchers aware of potential problems caused by modern computer systems,
illustrate how to detect and reduce them without spending hours of debugging or over-
valuing small improvements. Before we go into details, we briefly discuss principles and
tools that support both repeatability and replicability. Since recent works on reproducibility
provide various helpful suggestions on replicability in terms of environment , we focus
only on aspects that might degrade long-term repeatability and replicability, resulting in
over-engineering or over-tooling. We argue in favour of reviving an old Unix philosophy:
build simple, short, clear, modular, and extensible code  both for the actual solver as
well as the evaluation. Always keep dependencies low and provide a statically linked binary
along with your code [89, 60] or a simple virtual environment to reproduce dependencies if
you use interpreted languages. Even if the source code does not compile with newer versions,
binary compatibility is mostly maintained for decades. The primary focus of container-based
solutions, such as Singularity , is current accessibility of scientific computing software
that requires extensive libraries and complex environments. It is quite useful if the software
is widely used, requires complicated setup on high performance computing environments, and
is continuously maintained. Container-based solutions can also be useful for building source
code on old operating systems . However, they introduce additional dependencies, increase
conceptual complexity, can have notable runtime overhead under certain conditions ,
require additional work for a proper setup (both hosts as well as containers), and increase
chances that the software does not out run of the box in 3 years. A practical observation
illustrates this quite well: already since 2010, a meta software (Vagrant) tries to wrap
providers such as VirtualBox, Hyper-V, Docker, VMWare, or AWS. While virtualization can
be tempting to use, chances are high that some of these providers upgrade functionality or
disappear entirely resulting in useless migration efforts.
2.2 An Experiment
In the beginning of Section 2, we stated classical experimental viewpoints: fixed solver or
fixed instance set. In contrast, we take a third perspective by fixing both the instance
set and the solver and focus on differences in hardware configurations. Therefore, we turn
our attention to a recent experiment on SAT solvers (time leap challenge) . We repeat
the experiment with the solver CaDiCal on other hardware to investigate side effects of
experimental setup and hardware. Also, we use set-asp-gauss as instances, which contains
200 publicly available SAT instances from a variety of domains with increasing practical
hardness 1 . We take a timeout of 900 seconds, but would like to point out that recent
SAT competitions restrict the total runtime over all instances to 5,000 seconds. We run
experiments on the following environments: Comet Lake (i7 Gen10): Intel i7-10710U
4.7 GHz, Linux 5.4.0-72-generic, Ubuntu 20.04; Haswell (Xeon Gen4): 2x Intel Xeon
E5-2680v3 CPUs, Linux 3.10.0-1062, RHEL 7.7; Rome (Zen2): 2x AMD EPYC 7702,
Linux 3.10.0-1062, RHEL 7.7; and Skylake (Xeon Gen6): Xeon Silver 4112 CPU, Linux
version 4.15.0-91, Mint 19. We explicitly include cheap mobile hardware by using a Comet
Lake (i7 Gen10) CPU, since not every group can afford expensive server hardware or spend
valuable research time on setting up stable experiments on a cluster.
The benchmark set is available for download at https://www.cs.uni-potsdam.de/wv/projects/sets/
J. K. Fichte, M. Hecher, C. McCreesh, and A. Shahab 25:5
Table 1 Number of solved instances out of 200 SAT instances running the solver CaDiCal on
varying platforms. Column s(15) contains the number of solved instances when timeout is 15 minutes;
f and p refer to the CPU frequency in GHz and number of solvers running in parallel, respectively.
The t column contains the total runtime in hours for all instances solved within 15 minutes.
Processor (CPU) f p s(15) t[h]
Skylake 3.0 1 190 5.12
Haswell 3.3 1 189 3.89
Rome 3.4 1 190 3.79
Comet Lake 4.7 1 191 3.81
Comet Lake 4.7 6 189 6.13
Comet Lake 4.7 12 176 7.18
Table 1 illustrates the results of the experiment on varying hardware. Unsurprisingly, the
modern hardware running at 4.7 GHz solves the most instances. Somewhat unexpected is
that two potentially faster processors solve fewer instances. Namely, the Rome CPU which
is faster than the Skylake CPU solves fewer instances and similarly the Haswell solves fewer
instances than the Skylake. Since both processors are different generations one might expect
that the AMD CPU is simply slower. While the 5% fewer solved instances might seem not
much comparing the results to the ones of the time leap challenge, it would mean that a
ten year old solver solves almost the same number of instances on a modern hardware as
CaDiCal on very recent hardware. Below, we explain that this is clearly not the case and
illustrate details of the experimental setup that contribute to the low number of solved
instances. In contrast, when comparing the number of solved instances for the Comet Lake
configurations, it is obvious to an experienced reader that while the Comet Lake CPU
exposes 12 software cores, due to multithreading (MT) only 6 physical cores are available.
Still, when using all physical cores, we have more than 30% higher runtime, which can be
particularly problematic when comparing to settings that prefer total runtime as measure. To
avoid this, we could simply not run solvers in parallel; however, this seems quite impractical
and inefficient. In the following sections, we clear up which problems in the setup may have
caused the differences and illustrate how to avoid such issues.
2.3 Uncertainty on Modern Hardware
Modern processors can do many calculations at the same time by using multiple cores on each
processor and each core also has built-in a certain parallelism. While this can be exploited
explicitly in terms of parallel programming frameworks, some features are already done by
on-board circuits or firmware, which is a low level software layer between the CPU hardware
and the operating system. Compile time optimizations such as automated parallel execution
optimization and cache performance optimization  can then automatically employ specific
features. For example, loop optimization tries to automatically rewrite loops in programs such
that the loop can be executed in parallel on multiprocessor systems. Scheduling splits loops
so that they can run concurrently on multiple processors. Vectorization optimizes for running
many loop iterations on parallel hardware that supports single instruction multiple data
(SIMD). Therefore, instead of processing a single element of a vector N times, m elements
of a vector are processed simultaneously N/m times. In fact, modern CPUs have so-called
vector instruction sets such as SSE, AVX, NEON, or SVE depending on the architecture,
which makes them SIMD hardware. Loop vectorization can have a significant impact on
25:6 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
the runtime due to effects on pipeline synchronization or data-movement timing. Usually,
dependency analysis tries to optimize these operations. But depending on the compiler
(GCC, Intel, or LLVM) different runtimes of the resulting binary can be observed .
Processor specific features add to less pre-calculable behavior. Turbo Boost, which was
introduced around 2008, allows to dynamically overclock the CPU if the operating system
requests the highest performance state of the processor . Thermal design power (TDP),
which was established around 2012, allows to scale the power (energy transfer rate) variably
between 50W and 155W  to save energy depending on the system load. In particular, this
is active on laptop systems that are not connected to an electrical outlet or if certain system
sensors detect high temperature. Turbo Boost 2.0 was introduced around 2011 and it uses
time windows with different levels of power limits, so that a processor can boost its frequency
beyond its thermal design power, which can thus only be maintained for a few seconds without
destroying the CPU . Huge Pages, which were increased to 1GB, can reduce the overhead
of virtual memory translations by using larger virtual memory page sizes which increases the
effective size of caches in the memory pipeline . Branch prediction, whose early forms
already date back to the 1980s in SPARC or MIPS , speculates on the condition that
most likely occurs if a conditional operation is run. Modern CPUs have a quite sophisticated
branch prediction system, which executes potential operations in parallel . The CPU
can then complete an operation ahead of time if it made a good guess and significantly
speed up the computation. This often depends on how frequently the same operation is used.
Otherwise, if the branch predictor guessed wrong, the CPU executes the other branch of
operation with some delay, which can be longer than expected as modern processors tend to
have quite long pipelines so that the misprediction delay is between 10 and 20 clock cycles.
The situation gets more complicated when substantial architectural bugs are mitigated or
patched, as this can notably slow down the total system performance [58, 53].
Clearly, we need practical empirical evaluations of algorithms and techniques and often-
times it is not useful to just restrict an evaluation to existing benchmarks used in competitions,
if they even exists. But just the “complications” or, more formally, source for an error in mea-
surement mentioned above, could make the outcome of an experiment far less deterministic
than one would expect. For that reason, we suggest a more rigorous process when evaluating
implementations, including the understanding of measurements and effects of potential errors
on the outcome as well as approaches to reduce unexpected and not entirely deterministic
effects. In a way, the following sections provide a modern perspective on simple measures
(runtime) that incorporate state-of-the-art in hardware and operating system technology.
3 Measurements and Hardware Effects
In the following, we discuss measurements used when evaluating runtime of empirical work.
Along with the measures, we recap useful measuring and controlling tools. Since most of the
tools are highly specific to the kernel in the used operating system, we restrict ourselves to
recent versions of Linux and widely used distributions thereof.
When evaluating algorithms, a central question is how long its implementation actually runs
on the input data (runtime). There are five main measures that are interesting in this context:
real-time, user-time, system-time, CPU-usage, and system load. The real-time, frequently
just called wallclock time, measures the elapsed time between start and end of a considered
program (method entry and exit). In contrast, CPU-time measures the actual amount of
J. K. Fichte, M. Hecher, C. McCreesh, and A. Shahab 25:7
time for which a CPU was used when executing a program. More precisely, the user-time
measures how much CPU-time was utilized and system-time how much the operating system
has used the CPU-time due to system calls by the considered program. Both measures
neglect waiting times for input/output (I/O) operations or entering a low-power mode due
to energy saving or thermal reasons. There are more detailed time measures on time spent in
user/kernel space, idle, waiting for disk, handling interrupts, or waiting for external resources
if the system runs on a hypervisor. CPU-usage considers the ratio of CPU-time to the
CPU capacity as a percentage. It allows for estimating how busy a system is, to quantify
how processors are shared between other programs. The system load indicates how many
programs have been waiting for resources, e.g., a value of 0.05 means that 0.05 processes
were waiting for resources. The system load is often given as load average which states the
last average of a fixed period of time; by default, system tools report three time periods (1, 5,
and 15 minutes). If the load average goes above the number of physical CPUs on the system,
a program has to idle and wait for free resources on the CPU.
Suggested Measure for Runtime. When measuring runtime, the obvious measure is to
use elapsed time, so as to measure the real-time of a program. However, when setting
an experiment, we aim to (i) reduce external influences, (ii) conduct reasonable failure
analysis, or (iii) use an alternative measure in the worst-case. Real-time can be unreliable
on sequential systems as a program can be influenced by other programs running on the
system and the program competes on resources with the operating system. For that reason,
dated guides on experimenting suggested to run a clean system and obtain a magic overhead
factor, which follows Direction (ii) replacing an expected failure analysis. More recent guides,
follow Direction (iii) and suggest to use CPU-time [63, 71], mainly arguing that real-time
minus unwanted external interruption should roughly equal used CPU-time when evaluating
sequential combinatorial solvers that use a CPU close to 100%. However, we believe that the
best approach for an experimental setup is always to follow Direction (i) and reduce external
influences. Suggestions on CPU-time are outdated as modern hardware is inherently parallel.
Even small single-board computers such as the Raspberry Pi have multi-core processors.
This allows to run programs and the operating system simply in parallel. Still, CPU-time
might prove useful to estimate a degree of parallelism or debug unexpected behavior.
Expected Errors. Real-time is measured by an internal clock of the computer. Nowadays,
hardware clocks are still not very accurate. Expected time drifts are about one second
per day , which is often negligible for standard experiments as micro-benchmarking is
anyways rarely meaningful. But, time drift can be far higher, for example, when system
load is very high  and systems run within virtual machine guests [44, 6, 85]. Since
modern cryptography still requires exact system times, all state-of-the-art operating systems
synchronize the system clock frequently. Unfortunately, many widely used tools do not
incorporate time drifts and corrections by time synchronization utilities. Thus, if time drifts
are high (virtual machines) or a misconfiguration of the synchronization service occurs,
measures can be completely unreliable. Note that we can expect difference between CPU-
time and real-time in cases where heavy or slow access to storage occurs, slow network
is involved, or unexpected parallel execution happens. However, this should be ground
to investigate details and either eliminate problems in the experimental setup or update
problematic program parts, if possible. A classical example occurs when using the ILP solver
CPLEX, which sets by default a number of threads equal to the number of cores or 32 threads
(whichever number is smaller). An issue, which can especially happen when measuring
25:8 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
CPU-time, is due to the operating system and specific tooling. Namely, a program starts
multiple processes, e.g., the program calls a SAT solver, but the monitoring tool captures
only one process.
Tools to Measure Runtime. A standard system tool is GNU time , which provides CPU-
time, real-time, and CPU usage of an executed program when run with the command-line
flag -v. Note that time refers to a function in the Linux shell whereas GNU time can be
found at /usr/bin/time. GNU time suffers from issues with time skew. A compact, free, and
open source tool with extended functionality is runsolver . It can be easily compiled
and requires only few additional packages, but also suffers from issues with time skew. An
extensive monitoring tool is perf, which is available in the linux kernel since version 2.6.31
(2009) . Perf provides statistical profiling of the entire system when run with flag stat.
It is easy to use and well documented, but requires installation of an additional package,
an additional kernel module, and setting kernel security parameters (perf_event_paranoid,
nmi_watchdog) [55, 61]. However, perf is usually available on maintained HPC environments.
Restricting Runtime. Oftentimes when running experiments, we are interested in setting
an upper bound on the runtime, let the program run until this time, then terminate
and measure how many inputs have been solved successfully. Classical tools to impose
a timeout are timeout , prlimit , and ulimit (obsolete ). These tools use a
kernel function (timer_create) to register a timer. The tools notify the considered program
about the occurred timeout by sending a signal to terminate the program, but only to the
started program that is responsible to handle potentially started children (entire process
hierarchy). For that reason, these tools are often useless or require to build additional
wrapper scripts when running academic code, which often omit proper signal handling. A
popular tool in the research community that circumvents these problems is the already
above mentioned tool Runsolver , which uses a sampling based approach. It monitors
and terminates the entire hierarchy of processes started by the tested program. However,
signals are sent to child processes first, which may need additional exception handling in the
tested program. Furthermore, the sampling-based approach may cause measurable overhead
in used resources. runexec is modern and thorough tool for imposing detailed runtime
restrictions. It can be found within the larger framework for reliable benchmarking and
resource measurement (BenchExec) . runexec uses kernel control groups (cgroups) to
limit resources [46, 36]. Cgroups are precise, but cause a certain overhead and are fairly quite
hard to use manually. Unfortunately, BenchExec does not directly support commonly used
schedulers in HPC environments (except AWS), requires administrative privileges during
setup, specially configured privileges at runtime, and fairly new distributions and kernels. It
is only widely available on Ubuntu or systems running kernels of version at least 5.11.
Suggested Tooling. In principle, we find runexec quite helpful when restricting runtime.
It is reliable and has very helpful features such as warning the user about unexpected
high system loads. However, it has strong requirements, both in terms of privileges and
dependencies, and can be hard to setup, especially in combination with existing cluster
scheduling systems. GNU time and timeout are both system tools available out of the box.
Though, when using timeout we require additional tools (e.g., pstree) and a bit of scripting
to handle an entire process hierarchy. Still, both tools might be the best choice if only
standard system resources are available and no libraries can be installed. For older systems
that are well-maintained or where additional libraries can be installed, we suggest runsolver
J. K. Fichte, M. Hecher, C. McCreesh, and A. Shahab 25:9
(enforcement) in combination with perf (measurement). Both tools keep setup and handling
at a minimum. Issues on potential time-skew and sampling-based issues are minimized and
more detailed statistics (memory) can be outputted if needed. However, using this tooling
requires to check carefully if the system is over-committed or if runsolver terminated a
program too late. If required kernel modules or security parameters for perf cannot be
installed/set, runsolver in combination with GNU time can be a reasonable alternative.
3.2 CPUs and Scaling
Modern hardware has features to dynamically overclock the CPU, which then can run at
high frequency for a short period of time (Turbo Boost). Frequency scaling can save energy
(Thermal power design) when processes do not require full capabilities of the system. These
features can significantly impact performance and uncertainty on modern hardware .
We provide a brief experiment in Section 3.3 to illustrate effects. Within the operating
system, the concept is known as dynamic CPU frequency scaling or CPU throttling, which
allows a processor to run at frequency that is not its maximum frequency to conserve power
or to save the CPU from overheating if the frequency is beyond its thermally save base
frequency. In fact, modern operating systems have options to manually set performance
states. In Linux, the CPU frequency scaling (CPUFreq) subsystem is responsible for scaling.
It consists of three layers, namely, the core, scaling governors, and scaling drivers .
Available capabilities to modify the CPU frequency depend on the available hardware and
driver . A scaling governor implements a scaling algorithm to estimate the required CPU
capacity . However, minimum and maximum frequency can also be fixed by modifying
kernel values. Specifications of modern CPUs detail the safe operating temperature (Thermal
Velocity Boost Temperature) that still allows to boost the cores to their maximum frequency.
Tools to Modify the CPU Frequency. The tool cpupower provides functions to gather
information about the physical CPU and set the scaling frequency. The flag frequency-
info lists supported limits, activated governor, and current frequency. The tool turbostat
allows to obtain extended information about base frequency, the maximum frequency, and
the maximum turbo frequency depending on how many cores are active. The program
frequency-set allows to set the maximum and minimum scaling frequency using flags -u
and -d, respectively. However, the values can also be manually read/set in the kernel by
modifying a text file. The turbo needs to be manually modified depending on the driver .
The current frequency can be tested explicitly by running the command: perf stat -e
cycles -I 1000 cat /dev/urandom > /dev/null.
Revisiting the Experiment. With the knowledge of frequency scaling at hand, we focus
our attention to Table 2. There, we state runtime results and number of solved instances in
dependence of platform and CPU frequency. More precisely, the maximum CPU frequency
and the chosen frequency scaling. Obviously, the runtime and number of solved instances
significantly depends on the frequency scaling of the CPU, which already explains why
CPUs that permit a higher frequency show less solved instances. From the number of solved
instances for Comet Lake (i7 Gen10) CPU and Coppermine (PIII) CPU, we can also
see that an increase in CPU frequency alone is clearly not the reason for modern solvers
running faster on modern hardware than on old hardware.
25:10 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
Table 2 Number of solved SAT instances running the solver CaDiCal on varying platforms.
Column s(x) contains the solved instances when the runtime is cut off after x minutes. fa , fe , and
p refer to the available and effective frequency of the CPU in GHz and number of solvers running in
parallel, respectively. The t[h] column contains the total runtime in hours for all instances solved
within 15 minutes. We enforced limits using kernel governor parameters. Frequencies marked by ⋆
are CPU base-frequencies. † we could not enforce frequencies due to administrative restrictions.
For Coppermine (PIII), we directly list the results by Fichte et al. .
Processor fa fe p s(15) t[h] Processor fa fe p s(15) t[h]
Coppermine 0.5 0.5 1 98 8.93 Haswell 3.3 2.5 1 189 3.89
Comet Lake 4.7 0.5 1 160 9.99 Skylake 3.0 3.0 1 190 5.12
Comet Lake 4.7 0.8 1 174 9.09 Comet Lake 4.7 3.9 1 191 3.81
Comet Lake 4.7 1.5 1 177 7.12 Rome 3.4 2.0 1 190 3.79
Comet Lake 4.7 2.0 1 189 5.13
Suggested Setup. When handling thermal management for experiments, one usually bal-
ances between three objectives (i) stability and repeatability of the experiment; (iia) maximum
speed vs (iib) throughput; and (iii) low effort or no access to thermal management func-
tions of the operating system while aiming to balance (i) and (ii). If we focus our setup
on Objective (i), a conservative choice is to set the CPU frequency to its base frequency
and limit the parallel processes according to available NUMA regions. Then, the thermal
management has limited effects on an experiment. Running the same experiment another
system, where the CPU frequency was fixed to the same value and where the memory layout
is comparable, shows similar results for CPU-intensive solvers. Such an approach could
simplify certain aspects of repeatability. However, then the number of solved instances is
lower than the actual capabilities of the hardware, the experiment takes longer, and fewer
instances are solved. If we balance towards Objective (iia) obtaining maximum speed of
the individual solvers, we ignore thermal management, run at maximum speed, and execute
all runs sequentially. However, then throughput is low, only a low number of instances are
solved, and vasts of resources on typical server CPUs are wasted. If we balance towards
Objective (iib) obtaining maximum throughput during the experiment, we run a number of
solvers in parallel for which there is low effect on the turbo frequency. We can obtain the
value by the tool turbostat. For example, a turbo frequency of 3.9GHz might be acceptable
over 4.7GHz if 4 additional solvers can be run in parallel. In fact, one could also simply
try to repeat the experiments often to avoid balancing between Objective (iia) and (iib),
which would however often require plenty of resources. If we are in Situation (i) with no
access to modify the CPU thermal management capabilities or we just want to keep tuning
efforts low while still having a reasonable throughput at low solving time, we can just test
a reasonable setup. We lookup the thermal velocity boost (TVB) temperature, e.g., .
Then, we execute a run with parallel solvers and sample CPU temperature. After evaluating
several parallel runs, we favor a configuration where the median temperature is below the
TVB temperature and the maximum temperature rarely exceeds TVB temperature.
3.3 CPUs and Parallel Execution
In the 2000s, the end of Moore’s law  seemed near as CPU frequency improvements for
silicon-based chips started to slow down [9, 78]. Parallel computation started to compensate
for this trend and multi-core hardware found its way into consumer computers around
J. K. Fichte, M. Hecher, C. McCreesh, and A. Shahab 25:11
2004. In 2021, parallel hardware is widespread, for example, standard desktop hardware
regularly has 8 cores (Intel i9 or Apple M1) or 12 cores (AMD Ryzen) and server systems
go up to 64 cores (AMD Rome) or even 128 cores (Ampere Altra) per CPU where multiple
sockets are possible. Still, parallel solving is rare in combinatorial communities such as SAT
solving [35, 62] or beyond . So a common question that arises in empirical problem
solving is whether one can execute sequential solvers meaningful in parallel and speed-up the
solution of the overall set of considered instances for an empirical experiment. While it clearly
makes sense to carry out an experiment in parallel, one needs some background understanding
on the hardware architecture of multi-core systems and on how to gather information about
the actual system on which experiments are run. Modern systems with multiple processors on
multiple sockets and processors that have multiple cores use a special memory design, namely
Non-uniform memory access (NUMA). There, access time to RAM depends on the memory
location relative to the physical core. Each processor is directly connect to separate memory;
access to “remote” RAM is still possible, but the requests are much slower since they pass
through the CPU that controls the local RAM. If the operating system supports NUMA and
the user is aware of the NUMA layout of the used system, the hardware architecture can
help to eliminate performance degeneration that can occur due to allocation of RAM that is
associated with another socket [37, 57]. The effect can be measurable, if consecutive pages
are used by exactly one process as done in combinatorial solving. NUMA hardware layout
also effects the cache hierarchy (L1, L2, often L3) and address translation buffers (TLB).
Recall that caches can have a measurable effect on effectiveness of combinatorial solvers .
Evidently, if running an experiment a modern operating system does not solely execute the
program under test. It runs function of the operating system itself, events from the hardware
such as input from disk, network, user-interfaces or output to graphics devices. Further,
programs or functions to control or monitor the program under test are running. These
functions might interrupt the execution of the program under test and are often triggered by
a mechanism called interrupt. In system programming an interrupt service routine (ISR)
handles a specific interrupt condition and is often associated with system drivers or system
calls. A common urban legend among students in the combinatorial solving community
is that interrupt handling happens on CPU Core 0 (monarch core) and hence no solver
should be scheduled on Core 0. However, this is only true when booting the system when
firmware hands over control to the operating system kernel. Then, only one core is running,
which usually is Core 0, takes on all ISR handling, initializes the system and starts all other
cores. In old operating systems load was not distributed to other cores by default and hence
the core that started the system would handle all ISRs. However, since version 2.4 Linux
supports a concept called SMP affinity, which allows to distribute interrupt handling .
The actual balancing and distribution of hardware interrupts over multiple cores is then
done by a system process, namely irqbalance . Depending on the Linux distribution the
balancing is done one-shot at system start, during runtime, or entirely omitted. Nonetheless,
it might be helpful to understand the configured system behavior .
Tooling for Information on the CPU. Often, we need information on the CPU as starting
point for setting up parallel execution of an experiment. Linux reports information on the
CPU in the proc filesystem as text (/proc/cpuinfo) . Among the information is data
about the CPU model, microcode, available cores, and instruction sets. The tool lscpu,
which is part of util-linux in most distributions, reports more details on the CPU such as
architecture, cache sizes, number of sockets, number of virtual or physical cores, number
of threads per core, details on NUMA regions, and active flags. More detailed information
25:12 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
on NUMA regions can be obtained by running the tool numactl with flag –hardware, using
lscpu, or by manually listing details in the cpulist. Note that NUMA regions and core
numbering can be a bit tricky as cores and NUMA regions are often not in consecutive order.
Restricting NUMA, CPU, and IRQ affinity. When running a program on a multicore
system, the scheduler in the operating system decides on which core the program runs. In
principle, this depends on the current load and on a memory placement policy of the system.
Some enterprise distributions have automated processes running (numad), which automatically
estimate or balance NUMA affinity. Primary benefits are reported for long-running processes
with high resource load, but degeneration for continuous unpredictable memory access
patterns. The core and allowed memory regions can also be manually restricted. The tool
numactl provides functionalities to force the execution of a program to certain NUMA nodes
or cores, including strict settings . The tool runsolver, which we already mentioned
above, allows for setting the NUMA and CPU affinity. On modern distributions, these
settings can also be set when running a program by systemd. Literature on manually tuning
NUMA regions and CPU affinity reports both positive and negative effects, but less than 5%
performance gain on full core CPU loads [38, 43]. Hence, detailed manual tuning might have
a far less effect than what is usually anticipated within the community. Since combinatorial
solvers often rely on fast access to caches, it might be more important to ensure that caches
are accidentally shared between several running solvers. In principle, the IRQ affinity can be
managed manually by setting dedicated flags for the system service irqbalance. However,
time might be better spent on avoiding over-committing CPUs.
Suggested Tooling and Setup. Experiments that involve measuring runtime need exclusive
access to the machine on which experiments are run, i.e., no other software interferes in the
background (e.g., running a system update, database, file server, browser, GUI with visual
effects) and no other users access the system in the meantime. If the hardware is used for
other purposes, runtime differences of 30% and more are common. If an experiment runs on
an HPC environment, a uniform configuration is indispensable, i.e., all nodes have the same
CPU, microcode, and memory layout. The number of scheduled solver resources should never
equal the number of cores on the system, since almost all combinatorial solvers use CPU(s) at
full load and operating system and measurement tools require a certain overhead. If NUMA
layout details are missing, one can take a rough estimate. Assume that controlling and
monitoring software as well as the operating system need one core per tested program, add
the expected number of occupied cores of the tested solver, and for a safe buffer multiply the
result by two. However, a better approach is to gather detailed information and test whether
an anticipated setup is stable. Information on the available CPUs and NUMA regions can
be obtained by using the tools lscpu and numactl. Modern operating systems implement
NUMA scheduling already well. However, it is still important to report details of the system
within logs of the experiments. If manual NUMA region enforcement is needed, each running
solver should only access the NUMA region on which it is pinned to . Solvers requiring
fast caches should not be scheduled in parallel on cores sharing L1 and L2 cache.
Effects of Parallel Runs, CPU Scaling, and Timeouts in Practice
In the previous section, we listed complications that may occur from technical specifications
of modern processors and techniques present in modern operating systems. Next, we present
a detailed experiment on parallel execution of solvers incorporating effects of actual processor
frequency, stability of parallel runs, thermal issues, in combination with runtime and number
J. K. Fichte, M. Hecher, C. McCreesh, and A. Shahab 25:13
Table 3 Overview on frequency scaling, thermal observations, and the number of solved instances
(out of 200) on an Intel Comet Lake (i7 Gen10) processor for different number of parallel runs
of the solver CaDiCal. The column “p” refers to an upper bound on the number of instances that
are solved in parallel and “tr [h]” refers to the total runtime of the experiment in hours. While
the maximum CPU frequency is 4.7 GHz, the column “fo ” states the observed frequency in GHz
and fstd to its standard deviation. Column “θo ” lists the observed CPU temperature; θmax to the
maximum temperature in ◦ C. The column “s(x)” contains the number of solved instances when
the runtime is cut off after x minutes. The column “ts ” refers to the total runtime (real-time) of
the solved instances in hours at maximum runtime of 1500s for each instance. Finally, “s5k” how
many instances can be solved in 5000s if instances are ordered by hardness and each run has at most
1500s. We used a simple python wrapper to start the parallel runs.
p tr [h] fo [GHz] fstd θo [◦ C] θmax s(1) s(5) s(10) s(15) s(25) ts [h] s5k
1 7.37 3.90 0.26 53.4 64.0 132 179 190 191 193 4.43 161
2 4.06 3.69 0.29 60.8 72.5 125 179 189 191 193 4.97 158
4 2.49 3.30 0.28 74.2 92.0 120 175 183 190 192 5.74 150
6 1.85 2.95 0.30 76.6 94.5 111 171 181 189 191 6.68 142
8 1.77 2.81 0.46 74.5 94.0 98 160 176 183 190 8.28 131
10 1.77 2.71 0.57 74.0 92.0 88 155 174 181 189 9.66 123
12 1.59 2.59 0.51 87.0 72.5 75 145 171 176 187 10.82 117
14 1.47 2.51 0.28 91.5 72.5 70 140 162 174 184 11.17 111
of solved instances. We specify the setup, used measures, and common expectations of which
some might be contradictory. In order to obtain a better view on effects of timeouts, we
increase the maximum runtime per instance to 1500 seconds.
▶ Experiment 1 (Parallel Runs). We investigate complications of solving multiple instances
in parallel with one sequential SAT solver on a fixed hardware.
Setup: solve 200 instances by one SAT solver (CaDiCal) on Comet Lake (i7 Gen10),
maximum runtime per instance (timeout) 1500 seconds.
Measures: Runtime (real-time) [h], number of solved instances, temperature (median
of sampling each 1s the average temperature over all cores) [ ◦ C], and CPU
frequency (median of sampling each 1s the average over all cores) [GHz].
Expectation 1a: Solving should never be executed in parallel on one machine as the
runtime and number of solved instances significantly differ otherwise.
Expectation 1b: Full parallel capabilities should be employed as long as runtime and
number of solved instances remains similar.
Expectation 2: Relying on multithreading degrades runtime.
Expectation 3: Measures are stable over small runtime changes.
Observations. Results of the first experiment are illustrated in Table 3. The number of
solved instances for 1, 5, 10, 15, and 25 minutes provide an overview on how many instances
can be solved quickly. Unsurprisingly, the total runtime of an experiment depends on the
number of parallel processes running. More precisely, the total runtime of the experiment
varies between 7.37 hours and 1.77 hours when running 1 or 10 instances in parallel. Just
by running 4 instances in parallel instead of 1 we cut runtime down to 33% of the original
runtime and still to 55% for 2 instances. However, the total real-time of the solved instances
varies between 4.43 hours and 5.74 hours (23%). The number of solved instances varies by
25:14 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
1500 Median (1M)
18:00 19:00 20:00 21:00 22:00 23:00 00:00
1500 1 sample/s
05:15 05:30 05:45 06:00 06:15 06:30 06:45
Figure 1 Illustration of the CPU frequency scaling when running the sequential solver CaDiCal
on the considered instance set by solving in parallel 1 instance (upper) and 8 instances (lower).
2% at 25 minutes and 5% at 15 minutes, 13% at 5 minutes, and 33% at 1 minute timeout.
When comparing the effect on the measure how many instances can be solved within 5000s,
we obtain a notable 24% decrease. Surprisingly, the median CPU frequency never reached
4.7GHz even when running only one instance. The actual frequency reduced significantly
when more instances are running. Figure 1 illustrates the changes of the CPU frequency over
time for 1 and 8 instances solved in parallel. We see that the frequency is hardly consistent
and increases significantly as soon as most instances are finished and less processes run in
parallel. When using multiple cores, the median CPU temperature increases significantly and
may even spike (94◦ C) close to the maximum operating temperature of the CPU (100◦ C).
Interpretation. On the considered set of instances, the number of solved instances and
real-time over all solved instances decreases with an increasing number of instances run in
parallel. The effect is particularly high, if the timeout was set very low or if the measure is
number of instances solved within 5000s. This is not entirely surprising, since instances in
the considered set were selected by Hoos et al.  using a distribution of instance hardness
leading to many instances of medium hardness and a few easy and hard instances. Then, if
the considered timeout is low, a small constant improvement by hardware effects can increase
the number of solved instances notably. In contrast, there is only a 2% difference between
number of solved instances when timeouts are higher. The measure of solved instances within
5000s is particularly runtime dependent and hence configuration of the experimental setup
has notable effects. Regarding runtime, we can see that the real-time over all solved instances
almost doubles when running almost as many instances as cores are available. However,
the entire experiment finishes significantly faster, i.e., about 24% of the original runtime.
Surprisingly, the CPU frequency was far below the potential 4.7GHz. If we check more
details on the specification of the Comet Lake (i7 Gen10) CPU or by running the tool
turbostat, we observe that the maximum frequency of the CPU is only 3.9GHz if 6 cores
are active, i.e., not explicitly suspended. While our considered system has 12 MT cores, it
has only 6 physical cores. Hence, we observe a measurable degeneration in number of solved
instances when running more instances in parallel than present physical cores are present.
When considering runtime, we observe a considerable increase when more than 2 instances
run in parallel, as CPU frequency measurably drops and temperature increases significantly.
J. K. Fichte, M. Hecher, C. McCreesh, and A. Shahab 25:15
Outcome. After summarizing observations and interpretation of our experiment, we briefly
evaluate phrased expectations from above. In theory, we would expect that Expectation 1a is
true for real-time and number of solved instances within 5000s, which is also quite sensitive
for runtime influences. Indeed, there is a measurable influence in runtime, but only slightly
decrease in number of solved instances, while the experiment finishes much faster. If we
take higher timeout, the number of parallel executions affects the runtime only if already
known rough estimates are exceeded. Still, the number of parallel executions is influenced
by throttling of the processor. Expectation 1b clearly does not hold. All measures are
influenced by a higher system load and hence by solving several instances in parallel. While
we can confirm Expectation 3 in the experiment, multithreading is not the only reason.
Clearly, already when using all available cores runtime and number of solved degenerate.
Unfortunately, our experiment does not fulfill Expectation 3. All considered measures are
influenced by parallel execution. Especially, limiting the total solving time is prone to
hardware effects and might accidentally over-highlight constant runtime improvements. Since
the frequency is also not stable when running only one instance, fixing the frequency might
be a reasonable approach during experimenting. However, if the base-frequency is exceeded,
a stable frequency should be estimated and experimentally verified before comparing runtime
and number of solved instances with multiple solvers. In our case, operating the CPU at
fixed 3GHz showed stable frequency results when running 1–2 instances in parallel. Under
the light of the mentioned complications, we fear that a single measure incorporating runtime,
number of solved instances, and a cutoff time is problematic if setup is neglected.
Input and output performance, I/O for short, talks about read or write operations involving
a storage device. On a desktop computer storage is usually restricted to local disks. On
cluster environments, nodes have access to a central storage over network, fast temporary
storage (over network), and local disks. Here, a variety of different topics are involved, for
example, hardware (storage arrays/network), network protocols, and file systems, which can
make it inherently complicated. Therefore, we provide only a brief and simple suggestion:
keep external influence as low a possible. When reading input and writing output, use a
shared memory file system (shm) to avoid external overhead. Before starting the solver under
test, input files are copied in-memory. Then, measuring runtime starts when executing the
solver, which takes as input the temporary files on the memory and outputs only to a shared
memory file system. The measurement ends when the solver is terminated and afterwards
temporary files are copied to the permanent storage and deleted from the temporary storage.
This approach minimizes side effects from slow network devices and avoids side effects that
may occur with large files and system file caches, especially when running multiple solvers
on the same input. However, if files are too large or solvers need the entire RAM, temporary
in-memory cannot be used and fast local disks (e.g., NVMe) can provide an alternative.
Empirical evaluations are essential to confirm observations in algorithmics and combinatorics
beyond theory. Many evaluations typically focus on comparing runtimes and number of
solved instances, since both measures are easy targets for comparison and probably roughly
reflect needs of end users. However, the number of solved instances is sensitive to the chosen
benchmark, so one has to be cautious about it. Playing devils advocate, we can even ask to
what extent runtime is even a meaningful measure on modern hardware. If one solver is a
factor of ten faster than another, we are fairly confident in it, but does modern hardware
25:16 Complications for Computational Experiments from Modern Processors
allow for accurate comparisons at a range of, say, 10%, which might be the contribution of
an individual feature or optimization towards the hardware? Similar to experimental physics,
we can simply repeat an experiment often or repeat in different environments. However,
in combinatorial solving this is not always possible if many solvers need to be tested or a
reasonably high number of hard instances have to be considered. Hence, we believe that an
experimental setup should still be carried out thoroughly. Future work could consider up to
what extent certain aspects can be neglected and how repetition can circumvent minor issues.
In fact, our work only explains and illustrates certain complications from modern hardware
to make researchers aware of potential issues. In a way, we also show that complications do
not just concern CPU frequency, but also the experimental setup (timeouts, cutoffs, parallel
running processes). Clearly, there is no reason to forbid the use of certain platforms, if we
are aware of complications. On the meta level, we believe that clearly marking strengths and
weaknesses of solvers provides more insights than finding scenarios where one solver is best.
An interesting question for future research is the boarder topic of SIMD and branch
prediction, which could affect repeatability, replicability, and reproducibility. Both features
are quite relevant for how a good solver author can write code, but it is unclear whether
they can even change the overall results when comparing two solvers. In practice, one could
maybe investigate issues by taking different versions of a CPU (or different firmware).
Further, we think that papers presenting experimental evaluations could provide a simple
benchmark protocol as appendix, similar to literature as part of reproducibility work. Best
practices and checklists could be developed in a community effort after thorough discussions
and more detailed works. This can also include detailed guides or suggested configurations for
standard cluster schedulers such as Slurm . Having a list of common parameters to report
or even practical tools could prevent manual repetitive labor. Thereby, we leave room for
actual scientific questions, e.g., why implementations are efficient for certain domains [91, 29].
Finally, our experiments focused on consumer hardware, detailed investigations with
server hardware are interesting for future investigations to confine limits of parallel execution.
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