Simulation Determinism: Necessary or Evil?

gearsIn my series (well, I have one previous post about checkpointing) about misunderstood simulation technology items, the turn has come to the most difficult of all it seems: determinism. Determinism is often misunderstood as meaning “unchanging” or “constant” behavior of the simulation. People tend to assume that a deterministic simulation will not reveal errors due to nondeterministic behavior or races in the modeled system, which is a complete misunderstanding. Determinism is a necessary feature of any simulation system that wants to be really helpful to its users, not an evil that hides errors.


Determinism really means this:

  • Given a certain initial state
  • And a certain sequence of external inputs
  • The end result and state of the simulation will always be the same

The key to note is that you need to require both the starting state and the sequence of external inputs to be the same in order to get the same result. If either of these change, you can well get a different result. Implementing a deterministic simulator requires all internal events and activities in the simulator to be performed in the same order and at the same time in each simulation run. It means that the host computer environment state cannot be allowed to affect the simulator execution, and that in turn means that all sorting of internal events have to be done in defined orders in all instances.

I have a story about how hard that can be in practice. I once talked to some compiler developers who had the issue that when recompiling the same program with the same set of compiler options, the results might come out different, even on the same machine. The problem was that each run of the compiler was done in a different overall system state, and this might affect how the OS memory allocation functions allocated items in memory. It turned out that in some cases, the precise value of the pointers to the items in a complex data structure were used by standard libraries to handle iteration over nodes in the data structures. Thus, a different memory allocation pattern gave a different iteration order and a different traversal order of nodes, and in the end an almost arbitrarily different result. The correct solution they had to implement was to use a defined lexical ordering to traverse and iterate, not anything dependent on the state of the host machine. It is nothing different in a simulator: define the order of everything, in order to be deterministic.


The crucial benefit that determinism brings to a simulation in general and a virtual platform in particular is repeatable debugging. With determinism and an appropriate recording mechanism (and most practically checkpointing) you can rely on being able to repeat a run resulting in a bug any number of times with the precise same sequence of events in the simulation. In particular, the same sequence and timing and timing relative to instructions executed for events visible to and relevant for the software running on the virtual platform. Especially for multicore and parallel computing systems this is incredibly powerful, and something that just cannot be achieved on physical hardware (due to its inherent randomness and chaotic behavior, see my 2006 and 2007 ESC Silicon Valley talks for more on this, at my publications and presentations pages).

If you assume stability of the simulation infrastructure and the simulation platform, determinism also makes debugging the simulation itself easier. Often, a bug in a simulation model is repeatable, and with determinism, it is easy to repeat the same external stimulus sequence to the module and debug it repeatably.

Determinism also makes it easy to detect change in the behavior of a simulation: if the same simulation setup results in a different result or final simulation state, you know something in the setup (model, model parameters, or software) changed. There is no randomness that cause changes without some fundamental parameter being changed. Such boring reliable behavior is generally exactly what you want when testing and debugging large, complex systems.

Obviously, once determinism becomes a requirement, missing determinism in a model is a bug in itself — and finding such bugs can certainly be interesting exercises.

Why Not?

Just like for checkpointing, one reason not do to determinism is that it is hard, as discussed above.

The most common reason that people claim to want to avoid determinism is that they want to explore alternatives within their simulation. Basically, there is a need for variability that would seem to be at odds with determinism. The typical argument is that “if my simulation model contains a non-deterministic choice, I want the simulation to expose that and not just make the same decision every time”. This is where determinism tends to be considered evil. However, this argument is not correct.

If we take the case that at some point P in a simulation run there are two different events E and F that can fire (since they are both posted to the same point in virtual time), a deterministic simulator will always select one and the same. This is necessary to reap the system-level benefits discussed above. However, nothing prevents us from programming a change from this behavior into our system explicitly, introducing controlled and repeatable variation. In such a setup, we will have a random decision being made in each simulation run, but one where the outcome in any particular run can be repeated by setting the same random seed parameter.

This brings the best of both worlds: variation to expose issues where there is potential non-determinism or lack of synchronization in the model, and perfect repeatability of the issues this poses in terms of target software and simulation system behavior. The reason for the simultaneous readiness can be considered to be lacking synchronization in the model, in general, and such a randomizer of behavior will expose that at several different levels. But uncontrolled randomness is not the answer.

Another common misconception is that at a higher level, determinism in a virtual platform means that target software will always run in the same way. That is not true, and misses the importance of state in the deterministic behavior equation. If the initial state when a program starts is different, a different execution will result. If software is run on top of any non-trivial operating system, there is plenty of such variation. In one of our simplest Simics demos, we show this by running an intentionally buggy race-condition-ridden program. Each time it is run, it hits a different number of race conditions. But thanks to determinism (best demoed using reverse execution), we can repeat each run perfectly.

Thus, determinism is not equal to constant behavior or lack of variation.

The reverse argument

Finally, determinism is the simplest way to implement reverse execution: if you have recording, determinism, and checkpointing, you can easily virtually reverse the execution by going back to a checkpoint and replay the execution from that point. If you stop one instruction before the current instruction, you have in essence stepped backwards one step in time. This is how both VMWare and Simics implement reverse execution and debugging. And it could not happen without determinism.

One thought on “Simulation Determinism: Necessary or Evil?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.