Kahn process networks (Ofer Abarbanel online library)

Kahn process networks (KPNs, or process networks) is a distributed model of computation where a group of deterministic sequential processes are communicating through unbounded FIFO channels. The resulting process network exhibits deterministic behavior that does not depend on the various computation or communication delays. The model was originally developed for modeling distributed systems but has proven its convenience for modeling signal processing systems. As such, KPNs have found many applications in modeling embedded systems, high-performance computing systems, and other computational tasks. KPNs were first introduced by Gilles Kahn.[1]

Execution model

KPN is a common model for describing signal processing systems where infinite streams of data are incrementally transformed by processes executing in sequence or parallel. Despite parallel processes, multitasking or parallelism are not required for executing this model.

In a KPN, processes communicate via unbounded FIFO channels. Processes read and write atomic data elements, or alternatively called tokens, from and to channels. Writing to a channel is non-blocking, i.e. it always succeeds and does not stall the process, while reading from a channel is blocking, i.e. a process that reads from an empty channel will stall and can only continue when the channel contains sufficient data items (tokens). Processes are not allowed to test an input channel for existence of tokens without consuming them. A FIFO cannot be consumed by multiple processes, nor can multiple processes produce to a single FIFO. Given a specific input (token) history for a process, the process must be deterministic so that it always produces the same outputs (tokens). Timing or execution order of processes must not affect the result and therefore testing input channels for tokens is forbidden.

Notes on processes

  • A process need not read any input or have any input channels as it may act as a pure data source
  • A process need not write any output or have any output channels
  • Testing input channels for emptiness (or non-blocking reads) could be allowed for optimization purposes, but it should not affect outputs. It can be beneficial and/or possible to do something in advance rather than wait for a channel. For example, assume there were two reads from different channels. If the first read would stall (wait for a token) but the second read could be read a token directly, it could be beneficial to read the second one first to save time, because the reading itself often consumes some time (e.g. time for memory allocation or copying).

Process firing semantics as Petri nets

Assuming process P in the KPN above is constructed so that it first reads data from channel A, then channel B, computes something and then writes data to channel C, the execution model of the process can be modeled with the Petri net shown on the right.[2] The single token in the PE resource place forbids that the process is executed simultaneously for different input data. When data arrives at channel A or B, tokens are placed into places FIFO A and FIFO B respectively. The transitions of the Petri net are associated with the respective I/O operations and computation. When the data has been written to channel CPE resource is filled with its initial marking again allowing new data to be read.

Process as a finite state machine

A process can be modeled as a finite state machine that is in one of two states:

  • Active; the process computes or writes data
  • Wait; the process is blocked (waiting) for data

Assuming the finite state machine reads program elements associated with the process, it may read three kinds of tokens, which are “Compute”, “Read” and “Write token”. Additionally, in the Wait state it can only come back to Active state by reading a special “Get token” which means the communication channel associated with the wait contains readable data.


Due to its high expressiveness and succinctness, KPNs as underlying the model of computation are applied in several academic modeling tools to represent streaming applications, which have certain properties (e.g., dataflow-oriented, stream-based).

The open source Daedalus framework[5] maintained by Leiden Embedded Research Center at Leiden University accepts sequential programs written in C and generates a corresponding KPN. This KPN could, for example, be used to map the KPN onto an FPGA-based platform systematically.

The Ambric Am2045 massively parallel processor array is a KPN implemented in actual silicon.[6] Its 336 32-bit processors are connected by a programmable interconnect of dedicated FIFOs. Thus its channels are strictly bounded with blocking writes.


  1. ^Kahn, G. (1974). Rosenfeld, Jack L. (ed.). The semantics of a simple language for parallel programming (PDF). Proc. IFIP Congress on Information Processing. North-Holland. ISBN 0-7204-2803-3.
  2. ^Bernardeschi, C.; De Francesco, N.; Vaglini, G. (1995). “A Petri nets semantics for data flow networks”. Acta Informatica. 32: 347–374.
  3. ^Parks, Thomas M. (1995). Bounded Scheduling of Process Networks (Ph. D.). University of California, Berkeley.
  4. ^Geilen, Marc; Basten, Twan (2003). Degano, P. (ed.). Requirements on the Execution of Kahn Process Networks. Proc. 12th European Symposium on Programming Languages and Systems (ESOP). Springer. pp. 319–334. CiteSeerX
  5. ^http://daedalus.liacs.nl LIACS Daedalus framework
  6. ^Mike Butts, Anthony Mark Jones, Paul Wasson, “A Structural Object Programming Model, Architecture, Chip and Tools for Reconfigurable Computing”, Proceedings of FCCM, April 2007, IEEE Computer Society

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