GSoC 2023 - Implementation of parallel analysis in MDAnalysis

As you might know from my previous posts, during the summer of 2023 I’ve been working on MDAnalysis during Google Summer of Code. Here I’ll summarize what I’ve done, how others can use it, and what changes will follow that in the MDAnalysis codebase in the near future.

Goals of the project

One sentence: introduce parallel execution of analysis runs in MDAnalysis library. Somewhat good introduction I also gave here when writing a proposal for the project.

In more technical details, MDAnalysis library (as of v2.6.0) contains around 30 different subclasses that can perform various molecular trajectory analysis tasks, like calculating RMSD, RMSF, various contacts, density analysis, and more advanced tasks. 24 of these subclasses are children of AnalysisBase class. This base class is written in a way that allows subclass authors care about implementing only 3 methods:

  1. _prepare() – how to initialize attributes for the analysis
  2. _single_frame() – how to do analysis of a single molecular trajectory frame
  3. _conclude() – how to transform intermediate results into final ones

With only these 3 methods implemented, by inheritance subclasses get run() method that will take care of reading the trajectory, storing the results, logging, etc.

The main goal was to re-write so that it can run in parallel on multiple processes, but make these changes invisible from the subclasses, i.e. not re-write any of their code.

What I did

Altogether, the has changed by addition of the following methods:

I’ve also added ParallelExecutor and ResultsGroup classes that abstract away parallel execution and results aggregation, respectively. And finally, I added multiprocessing and dask backends that reportedly speed up the analysis!

The current state

Currently, changes to the AnalysisBase are almost finalized. One thing that holds it back is some CI/CD issues causing tests to timeout, but all AnalysisBase-related tests run both locally and on CI/CD system.

What’s left to do

An optional thing suggested within my proposal was to actually add parallelization to the subclasses, and update tests accordingly. It turned out to be a tedious task, but finally the mechanism is finalized and described in MDAnalysisTests/analysis/, generating appropriate fixtures for testing subclasses with all supported (for the subclass) and installed (in the environment) backends.

Since it is a big change for the library, essentially changing the API for the “analysis” part of the MDAnalysis, it requires a lot of time to merge into the develop branch, and wasn’t merged within the GSoC timeframe. But the feature is expected by version 3.0 in the core library 🚀

What code got merged (or not) upstream

The main changes are summarized in the main pull-request of the project. They mostly involve changes to package/analysis/, as well as installation and CI/CD configuration files. Also, there are example changes in package/analysis/ introducing parallelization into RMSD and RMSF subclasses, showcasing the changes to be made in order to add parallelization to a certain class.

How can you use it?

Let’s imagine we’ve just learned that MDAnalysis now supports parallelization, and want to calculate RMSD of our large trajectory faster using multiple cores on our machine. Imagine we have a 16-core CPU Linux workstation with an SSD drive and a 1 us trajectory of lysozyme in water. Like this:

import MDAnalysis as mda
from MDAnalysis.analysis import rms

prefix = "./large_data/"
traj, top = f"{prefix}/md_0_1.xtc", f"{prefix}/md_0_1.gro"

u = mda.Universe(top, traj)

First we want to get a reference structure by taking the average of all frames. Like this:

from MDAnalysis.analysis.align import AverageStructure

avg = AverageStructure(mobile=u).run(backend='multiprocessing', n_workers=16)

but we get this:

ValueError                                Traceback (most recent call last)
Cell In[11], line 2
      1 from MDAnalysis.analysis.align import AverageStructure
      2 avg = AverageStructure(mobile=u).run(backend='multiprocessing', n_workers=16)
ValueError: backend=multiprocessing is not in self.available_backends=('local',) for class AverageStructure

which basically says we can use only backend='local' for the AverageStructure. Ok, let’s do that, but with a large step to save time:

avg = AverageStructure(mobile=u).run(step=100)
ref = avg.results.universe

and start our analysis run – RMSD for multiple selections to later compare them between each other:

groupselections = ("protein", "backbone", "name CA")

R = rms.RMSD(
    u,  # universe to align
    ref,  # reference universe or atomgroup
    select="backbone",  # group to superimpose and calculate RMSD

If we start it with, we won’t even know when the run would finish. Luckily, we can add some verbosity with and see a nice tqdm progressbar that shows us that ETA of the whole analysis is around 4 minutes:

5%|         | 5062/100001 [00:13<04:15, 371.20it/s]

Let’s try to speed it up now. Which backends do we have available?

>>> rms.RMSD.available_backends
('local', 'multiprocessing', 'dask')

Let’s try a built-in multiprocessing first:

>>>'multiprocessing', n_workers=4)
# CPU times: user 153 ms, sys: 74.2 ms, total: 227 ms
# Wall time: 1min 14s

OK, this is roughly 4 times faster! Amazing, roughly as we expected. Spoiler though – if we do it with 16 workers, we’ll see the total time around 40 seconds, so improvement saturates at some point.

But, we’ve lost something valuable when switching to multiprocessing – we don’t have a decent progressbar anymore. Luckily, we can use an amazing dask dashboard that allows us to monitor all tasks given to a particular dask.distributed cluster!

Let’s set up a cluster first:

from dask.distributed import Client, LocalCluster

cluster = LocalCluster(n_workers=8, 
client = Client(cluster)

and open the dashboard in our browser:

>>> cluster.dashboard_link

Now, we’re ready to pass the pre-configured client as an argument to our

Unfortunately, we won’t see much progress – we can see that all tasks got spawned, but their status will change only upon completion, and we won’t get any intermediate progress report.

But luckily, there is a way to control that: in function, you can split the workload into an arbitrary number of parts with n_parts = ..., and upon completion of each of them dask would report that. Let’s do this:, n_parts=96)

Now we’ll see intermediate progress as well as soon as each part gets completed, which is super helpful when trying to estimate the completion time.


We’ve now gone through the essence of the MDAnalysis parallelization project, and learned how to use it in your analysis either by simply adding backend='multiprocessing', n_workers=..., or setting up your own dask cluster and submitting your jobs there.

Hopefully, this project will grow further and include all existing subclasses, as well as improving the speed (which, as we saw, saturates) and memory efficiency.

If you want to contribute to the project, stay tuned for the new issues on MDAnalysis github – there definitely will be some parallelization-related things for the future described there!