Umbrella Sampling


Calculations of thermodynamic data and other properties rely on proper sampling of the configurational space. However, the presence of energy barriers can prevent certain configurations from being sampled properly or even sampled at all. Umbrella sampling is a simulation technique that helps to overcome those barriers and improve sampling by applying a bias along a specified collective variable. The bias takes the form of a harmonic potential and is typically constant throughout a simulation. Usually, a series of umbrella-sampled simulations are performed and analyzed together using the weighted histogram analysis method (WHAM) [12].

The functional form of the artificial bias is

\[U_\text{umbrella} = \frac{1}{2} k \left(\xi - \xi_0\right)^2\]

where \(k\) is the spring constant, \(\xi\) is the current value of the collective variable and \(\xi_0\) is the desired value of the collective variable. The success of the umbrella sampling method depends on the correct choice of \(k\) and \(\xi_0\) for the different simulations. Suitable values of \(k\) and \(\xi_0\) depend on the distances between adjacent umbrellas, and the gradient of the free energy surface at \(\xi_0\).

For more information about the umbrella sampling method, the interested reader is referred to Ref. [13].

Options & Parameters

The following parameters need to be set under "method" in the JSON input file:

"type" : "Umbrella"

The following options are available for Umbrella Sampling:

centers (required)

Array of target values for each CV. This can either be an array of numbers, or an array of an array of numbers, for multiple walkers. If only a single array is defined, it is used across all walkers.

ksprings (required)

Array of spring constants for each CV. This can either be an array of numbers, or an array of an array of numbers, for multiple walkers. If only a single array is defined, it is used across all walkers.

output_file (required)

Output file name for umbrella sampling data. This can be a string or an array of strings for multiple walkers.

output_frequency (optional)

Frequency of writing to output file. (Default: 1)

append (optional)

Boolean value which will cause umbrella sampling to either append to an existing file or override it entirely. (Default: false)

The umbrella sampling method can also be run with time dependent centers. This is equivalent to the “steered MD” method. To do so, omit "centers" and use the following options instead:

centers0 (required)

Array of initial target values for each CV. This can either be an array of numbers, or an array of an array of numbers, for multiple walkers. If only a single array is defined, it is used across all walkers.

centers1 (required)

Array of final target values for each CV. This can either be an array of numbers, or an array of an array of numbers, for multiple walkers. If only a single array is defined, it is used across all walkers.

timesteps (required)

The number of timesteps over which to scale the umbrella centers

By setting the above options, the umbrella method will linearly interpolate between centers0 and centers1 in timesteps iterations.

LAMMPS Tutorial

This tutorial will go through running Umbrella Sampling on an atomistic model of butane using LAMMPS as the MD engine. Umbrella sampling will be performed on the torsional CV of the butane C atoms.

The butane implementation in LAMMPS requires several modules to be added before being linked to SSAGES. To do this, return to your build directory and issue the following commands:

make yes-molecule
make yes-kspace

which add the MOLECULE and KSPACE LAMMPS packages. For more information on optional packages for LAMMPS, refer to the LAMMPS User Manual.

The files for running this example can be found in Examples/User/Umbrella/LAMMPS and consist of the following files:

LAMMPS input file

LAMMPS data file describing butane molecule.


Template JSON input containing information for one Umbrella Sampling simulation.

Python script for creating multiwalker_umbrella.json input file. The total number of simulations and the centers values are controlled in this file.

Once in the directory, the appropriate .json file needs to be generated. A .json file is already in the directory, umbrella_input.json, which contains the CV information and specifies the LAMMPS input files to be used. A single-walker umbrella simulation can be run directly using

ssages umbrella_input.json

The simulation will create an output file named umbrella.dat1 containing the value of the CV and the target value (the center) every 100 timesteps. From this histogram, the local free energy can be calculated.

While it is possible to run Umbrella Sampling using a single walker, typically multiple walkers (multiple umbrellas) are simulated. To run multiwalker Umbrella Sampling of butane, you can generate an input file using the script via


This will generate an input file called multiwalker_umbrella.json containing the information from umbrella_input.json duplicated 12 times with varying values of centers. These values correspond to the target values of the torsional CV.

To run multiwalker SSAGES issue the command:

mpiexec -np 12 /path/to/SSAGES/build/ssages multiwaler_umbrella.json

This will run 12 different umbrella sampling simulations simultaneously. Ideally, this example will be run in computing environment where each process can run on a different processor. The example will still work if run on a users local desktop or laptop machine, but the runtime of the code will be very large.

During the simulation 12 different output files will be generated, each containing the iteration, target value of the corresponding ‘center’ CV, and the value of the CV at the iteration number.

These output files can then be used to construct a complete free energy surface using the WHAM algorithm [12]. Though SSAGES does not currently contain its own implementation of WHAM, there are many implementations available, such as that provided by the Grossfield Lab [9].

HOOMD-blue Tutorial

This example uses the HOOMD-blue engine to run parallel simulations of a butane molecule. The free energy is measured as a function of the dihedral angle between the terminal carbons. The butane molecule has a backbone of four carbon atoms that rotates into different conformations (anti, gauche, and eclipsed). We wish to extract the free energy of this rotation, to know the energy cost of any angle between -180 degrees and 180 degrees.

This example uses Umbrella Sampling with the weighted histogram analysis method (WHAM). The WHAM tool developed by Alan Grossfield [9] is used to determine the free energy from the biased sampling we perform. Disclaimer: The parameters of this simulation (number of walkers, strength of bias potential springs, length of run, etc.) may not provide ideal sampling for this example problem, and improvements to this code are welcomed.

The files for running this example can be found in Examples/User/Umbrella/HOOMD.

Sample output files from this example code are in the Examples/User/Umbrella/HOOMD/sample_outputs folder.

Running the Example Script:

  1. Modify HOOMD-blue script: Set desired parameters (e.g. kT) in

  2. Modify input generator: Set the parameters in and umbrella_input.json. Important parameters:

  • nwalkers is the number of walkers, determining how many independent simulations will be run.


  • ksprings gives the bias potential spring strength.

  • hoomd_steps changes the length of the run.

Most of the other parameters are used to define the system and collective variables and should not be changed.

  1. Generate inputs:

  1. Run SSAGES, replacing “nwalker” with the number of walkers specified previously:

mpiexec -np nwalker /path/to/SSAGES/build/ssages multiwalker_umbrella_input.json
  1. Analyze data:

    Download the WHAM code available here [9]. Compile the program using the instructions and documentation provided. It is recommended to read this talk about the theory and practice of WHAM.

    1. Call wham: The script contains a set of parameters for calling wham.

      This requires that the executable wham is in this directory.

    1. Run visualization script:


    The script will read the output data files from SSAGES and the wham software to produce sets of figures similar to those in the talk linked above. The visualization outputs include:

    • cv_vs_time.png plots the collective variable (dihedral angle) over time. This helps check that enough autocorrelation times have passed.

    • histogram_trajectories.png shows a histogram from each of the trajectories and the regions of the CV that were sampled.

    • histogram_combined.png shows a histogram summed over all trajectories to ensure that the entire range of angles were sampled.

    • wham_free_energy.png is the free energy as a function of the dihedral angle.


  • Hythem Sidky

  • Benjamin Sikora