I have some tasks I want to do in JS that are resource intensive. For this question, lets assume they are some heavy calculations, rather then system access. Now I want to run tasks A, B and C at the same time, and executing some function D when this is done.
The async library provides a nice scaffolding for this:
async.parallel([A, B, C], D);
How do I make this be actually parallel?
First, you won't really be running in parallel while in a single node application. A node application runs on a single thread and only one event at a time is processed by node's event loop. Even when running on a multi-core box you won't get parallelism of processing within a node application.
That said, you can get processing parallelism on multicore machine via forking the code into separate node processes or by spawning child process. This, in effect, allows you to create multiple instances of node itself and to communicate with those processes in different ways (e.g. stdout, process fork IPC mechanism). Additionally, you could choose to separate the functions (by responsibility) into their own node app/server and call it via RPC.
What is the thing done typically by async code to not block the caller (when working with NodeJS)? Is it starting a child process?
It is not starting a new process. Underneath, when async.parallel is used in node.js, it is using
process.nextTick(). And nextTick() allows you to avoid blocking the caller by deferring work onto a new stack so you can interleave cpu intensive tasks, etc.
Long story short
Node doesn't make it easy "out of the box" to achieve multiprocessor concurrency. Node instead gives you a non-blocking design and an event loop that leverages a thread without sharing memory. Multiple threads cannot share data/memory, therefore locks aren't needed. Node is lock free. One node process leverages one thread, and this makes node both safe and powerful.
When you need to split work up among multiple processes then use some sort of message passing to communicate with the other processes / servers. e.g. IPC/RPC.
For more see:
Awesome answer from SO on What is Node.js... with tons of goodness.