Threads, CUDA, Loom, and Life

and Life


The preambule

Long story short, Avenga’s R&D department has got a surprising task to emulate a hardware version of Conway’s Game of Life using Java threads (don’t ask me why). We actually needed an emulation of Conway’s Game of Life with slightly modified rules, requiring threads independence. Traditional Java threads are a perfect choice for the task but we were not looking for easy solutions. So, we decided to try CUDA and then Loom. As you may assume our research ended up with the journey a little bit long and far from the initial target. But keep patient, as we hope you will like it.

Game of Life

To begin with, a few words about Conway’s Game of Life (or simply Life) and modifications we need. I promise this intro will be interesting even for old-school coders who know what Life is.

Conway’s Game of Life is founded on the basis of  an older and wider concept called  cellular automaton which was originally described in the 1940s by well known John von Neumann and less known (but not for our Lviv-based R&D team) Stanislaw Ulam, a Manhattan Project contributor, who was born in Lviv.

A cellular automaton is a collection of “colored” cells on a grid of a specified shape that evolves through a number of discrete time steps according to a set of rules based on the states of neighboring cells.

The definition above comes from Wolfram MathWorld, which is an eponym of another interesting scholar fascinated by automata – Stephen Wolfram.

Conway’s Game of Life itself was described by John Horton Conw  ay in 1970 (who, by the way, died very recently after COVID complications) Conway used a 2D square grid where each cell had 8 neighbors.

Every cell in the grid (world) is either black (dead) or alive (white). Each evolution step (world generation) unfolds four various action scenarios:

  • Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies, as if by underpopulation.
  • Any live cell with two or three live neighbors lives on to the next generation.
  • Any live cell with more than three live neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation.
  • Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell, as if by reproduction.

These simple rules produce interesting patterns that sometimes cycle in the time and can resample moving “organisms”,  “flowers”, “bacteria” etc. Below is depicted a well known cyclic pattern called pulsar.

pattern from Conway's Game of Life

Figure 1. Pulsar (period 3) pattern from Conway’s Game of Life

Some modern modifications of The Game of Life can be truly impressive. Below you can take a look at an example which is using a neural network as a complex rule deciding whether a cell will dye (white) or not (colorful). This network was specially trained to regenerate “tissues” of stable multicolor pattern. The rule is applied to more than 8 neighbors.

Figure 2. An advanced example of cellular automata

The Lizard example seems impossible for standard automaton rules, which would have the cell generation dependent on the previous generation. But if we loosen the restriction  for the  cell of a new generation to wait until all ancestors have been calculated and make it aware of a much bigger number of its neighbors, a miracle of Life  becomes possible. The scenario with the loosen generation restriction is very interesting for us as well.

Let our journey begin

The first instrument we decided to use was traditional Java threads. We started from the simplest case (Scenario 1), which was iterating to our target case with independent cells (Scenario 3). Then we were changing the instruments while trying  to reproduce the same scenarios.

Traditional Java threads

Scenario 1. In this scenario we have threads fully synchronized by the main thread. To calculate the next generation we simply run as many threads as our whole field has cells with the only task: check the neighboring  current generation cells, fill out the result to the new generation matrix and die.

The thread’s start is expectedly a heavy operation so next generation calculation for 10,000,000 px. takes a couple of minutes. However, our individual thread accomplishes a very short task so we observe linear (Figure 3) dependency between cells and generation time without memory (Figure 4) or CPU  problems (Figure 5).Java threads scaleFigure 3. Game iteration duration

 application for 25M worldFigure 4. Heap usage of basic application for 25M world

Code sources Figure 5. CPU usage of basic application for 25M world

Code sources are available on our GitHub.

Entry point:

You will find the environment used for Scenario 1 in the table below.

CPU 6-Core Intel Core i7@2,6 GHz
OS macOS Monterey
JRE OpenJDK Runtime Environment Temurin-17+35


Table1. Traditional environment

Scenario 2. In this scenario, we have independent threads, but still synchronized. As for Scenario 1, we are running one thread for each cell on the field but now threads live “forever” and can calculate generation by generation. To synchronize generation calculation, we use a barrier implemented by passing the generation version from one thread to another.

Of course we hit concurrent threads limit and where able to run only 63*63 field (<4000px). We still can raise the number of concurrent threads by lowering the default stack size but it won’t help to run millions of threads. This scenario failed in terms of huge fields but we’ve got a hope to emulate asynchronous Game of Life in a 64*64 field.

Code can be found on the same GitHub repository.

Entry point:

Property: cell.sync=true

The environment is specified in Table 1.

Scenario 3. We are removing the threads barrier for the generations control letting them float free to simulate the modular hardware version we initially needed. This approach is closer to real-world biological cells where cells from the leg know nothing about cells from the arm.

We are limited by a 64*64 field but it’s working! Pulsar is broken and is not periodic anymore;  yet, Life is supporting itself (see Figure 6).Figure 6. Broken pulsar pattern

Code can be found on the same GitHub repository.

Entry point:

Property: cell.sync=false

We’ve got what we wanted in terms of checking Convey’s Game of Life behavior for non synchronized generations, but 64×64? Seriously?  What about GPUs with their multiple hardware cores? Let’s check.


Coming at a similar price and within the same power envelope, a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) provides considerably higher instruction throughput and memory bandwidth than a CPU.

This difference in capabilities between the GPU and the CPU exists because they are designed with different goals in mind. While the CPU is designed to handle a wide-range of tasks sequentially taking into consideration user clicks, hard drive access, etc., GPU is designed to simply run huge amounts of small concurrent operations handling massive 3D rendering tasks.

Therefore, GPU dedicates more transistors to data processing instead of allocating them to data caching and flow control.  Applications with a high degree of parallelism can exploit this massively parallel nature of the GPU to achieve performance higher than the one of a CPU.

A GPU is built around an array of Streaming Multiprocessors (SMs). A multithreaded program is partitioned into blocks of threads that function independently, so that a GPU with more multiprocessors will automatically execute the program more quickly than a GPU with fewer multiprocessors.

To access those multiprocessor capabilities for tasks like our’s, GPUs provide general-purpose platforms; in NVIDIA’s case the one’s called CUDA.

CUDA (or Compute Unified Device Architecture) is a general-purpose  parallel computing platform and programming model that leverages the parallel compute engine in NVIDIA GPUs to solve specific  computational problems more efficiently than on a CPU. CUDA comes with a software environment that allows developers to use C++ as a high-level programming language.

We’ll dig a little bit deeper into the CUDA programming model to understand how the main concepts of this model are presented in general-purpose programming languages like C/C++.

Programming model

The CUDA programming model provides an abstraction of GPU architecture that acts as a bridge between an application and its possible implementation on GPU hardware. Main concepts in this abstraction are the host and the device.

The host is the CPU available in the system. The system memory associated with the CPU is called host memory. The GPU is called a device, and GPU memory is likewise called device memory.

There are three main steps that enable executing any CUDA program:

  1. Copy the input data from host memory to device memory, also known as a host-to-device transfer.
  2. Load the GPU program and execute it, caching data on chip for performance.
  3. Copy the results from device memory to host memory, also called a device-to-host transfer.


CUDA C++ extends C++ by allowing the programmer to define C++ functions, called kernels, which, when called, are executed N times in parallel by N different CUDA threads, as opposed to being executed only once like in regular C++ functions (Figure 7).

A kernel is defined by using the __global__ declaration specifier. Each thread that executes the kernel is given a unique thread ID that is accessible within the kernel through built-in variables.

a function executed on the GPU

Figure 7. The kernel is a function executed on  the GPU


Since we are running  our research on Java, we need a way to run CUDA from Java, and it’s not hard to guess the name of such a tool. Yep, the right answer is JCuda.

JCuda allows you to interact with the CUDA runtime and driver API from Java programs. The main usage of the JCuda driver bindings makes it possible  to load PTX- and CUBIN modules and execute the kernels from a Java application.

You need to install the following tools to use CUDA on your system:

  1. CUDA-capable GPU
  2. Host compiler (default: gcc and g++ on Linux and cl.exe on Windows)
  3. NVIDIA CUDA Toolkit
  4. JCuda archive

Unfortunately we were unable to make the GPU vs CPU battle very clean and run it on the same machine but perfect performance comparison was not our goal and even our setup gives the clue regarding weak and strong points of different approaches

Scenario 1.

Now, our game is a representation of a 1D grid of cells. The application handles the processing of every cell in a separate kernel thread.

We have CudaGridProcessor, which allocates memory for the 1D grid on the device, launches the kernel function (see Listing 1), and reads results from device to host (one game generation).

Kernel function (, written in C++, describes all the steps as in basic implementation:

  •  Counts all alive neighbors of a proper cell on the current grid.
  • Updates cell state (dead or alive) according to game rules for the next generation (1D grid).

Code sources are available on our GitHub.

Entry point:

Compared to traditional threads implementation, the performance increased by (!) 8000 times and has almost linear growth. See Table 2 for the details on the environment and Figure 8 for the performance graph.CUDA performanceFigure 8. CUDA performance

CPU 2-Core Intel Core i5-4210U@1.70GHz
OS Windows 10
JRE HotSpot Runtime Environment (build 1.8.0_321-b07)


Table 2. The environment of CUDA

Scenarios 2 and 3 with independent threads are not possible due to the nature of CUDA and GPU which is a pity because seeing chaotic Scenario 3 life development in FullHD resolution would have been spectacular.

Looks like we are missing the way to have a really huge amount of independent threads but… there will always be someone to fill the vacancy. Meet the Java Loom Project!


Project Loom is an OpenJDK project that aims to enable “easy-to-use, high-throughput lightweight concurrency and new programming models on the Java platform.” The project aims to accomplish this by adding three new constructs:

  • Virtual threads
  • Delimited continuations
  • Tail-call elimination

The key to all of this is virtual threads. They are managed by the Java runtime and, unlike the existing platform threads, are not one-to-one wrappers of OS threads.

Loom adds the ability to control execution, suspending and resuming it, by reifying its state not as an OS resource, but as a Java object known to the VM, and under the direct control of the Java runtime.

Whereas the OS can support up to a few thousand active threads, the Java runtime can support millions of virtual threads. Every unit of concurrency in the application domain can be represented by its own thread, making programming concurrent applications easier. Forget about thread-pools, just spawn a new thread, one per task.

Below is the environment we’ll use for all scenarios and here is the code on our GitHub (branch loom).

CPU 6-Core Intel Core i7@2,6 GHz
OS macOS Monterey
JRE OpenJDK Runtime Environment Temurin-17+35


Table 3. Environment Loom

Scenario 1. Almost the same as we had in the traditional Java threads case but with virtual threads instead of the traditional ones. But take a look at the performance testing results: they differ significantly.Virtual thread Figure 9. Virtual thread based game iteration chartthe performance testing resultsFigure 10. Game performance comparison on different types of Java threads

The 5000*5000 iteration lasted less than 1 minute (FYR: it took 20.8 min on Java platform threads).

The biggest heap usage – 5059.77MB.Heap size and usage heapFigure 9. Heap usage of basic application on virtual threads

Average CPU usage – 36%.Average CPU usageFigure 10. CPU usage of basic application on virtual threads

Scenario 2

As we remember, there was a 4k platform threads limitation.

Let’s try to simulate a much bigger 2500*2500 world:

Application successfully starts and runs – max. heap usage 10.62GB.Java platform threadsFigure 11. Heap usage of decentralized application on virtual threadsAverage CPU usage - 85.4%.Figure 12. CPU usage of decentralized application on virtual threads

Despite requiring 6250000 virtual threads, there is one fork join pool with 12 carrier threads (see Figure 13).performance testing resultsFigure 13. Threads visualization of Loom decentralized application

However, we encountered the sad outcome: starting the virtual thread doesn’t guarantee that it will begin execution at all under some circumstances. We experienced application blocking as some cell processors are forever waiting for their neighbors.

Scenario 3

In contradiction to Scenario 2, now cells are not waiting for neighbors to have the appropriate version so we made an assumption that may help all threads to finally start and execute. And we were right: the iteration finished (all threads executed) but we discovered another sad outcome – second generation of Life took significantly bigger amount of time; the third again took some extra time, and so on and so forth (See Figure 14).Scenario 3Figure 14. Game iteration performance comparison on virtual threads


We started with the idea to see how Life will behave with the switched off synchronization and ended up with an interesting journey familiarizing us with CUDA and Loom and uncovering their pros and cons compared to each other and traditional threads approach.

The considered several ‘Game of Life’ algorithms allow us to clearly see the main pros and cons of parallel computing on the CPU and GPU, as well as on an existing JVM platform and future virtual threads.

It is necessary to distinguish algorithm performance comparison as:

  • CPU vs GPU.
  • JVM virtual vs platform threads.


  • GPU is much faster in terms of parallel data processing despite the slowest part there – the CPU-to-GPU data transfer and vice versa.
  • CPU can handle self-organized concurrent simultaneous live threads when GPU is not designed to handle long living interacting threads.

Java platform vs virtual threads

Platform Virtual
System stability stable unstable*
Simultaneous threads defined limit undefined limit
Parallel execution slower faster
Size heavyweight lightweight



* in case of concurrent self organized live simultaneous threads:

– some threads may not start

– waiting threads become available after a huge delay.

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