VRoom! blog - Memory Parallelism


I’ve not posted in 2 months, mostly because I’ve been spending time redesigning the load/store unit this posting is about these changes. This is a long post, but then I’ve been doing a lot of work.

The problem

Back when I was bringing up Linux on the system I spent a lot of time looking at low level assembler trace, watching instructions flow through the CPU it became obvious that one of the bottlenecks is when large numbers of store instructions occur together they form an effective block to earlier scheduling of loads, in particular this happens at the beginning of subroutine calls when registers are being saved.

Ideally a subroutine should start loading data from memory as soon as possibly after entry - in practice code can’t load a value into say s0 until after it has been saved on the stack - however we have an out-of-order CPU with register renaming, it can happily load s0 BEFORE it is saved - provided there’s no memory aliasing between the place where the save is being done to and where the load is being done from. Ideally we’d like to be able to push as many load instructions before all those register save instructions as possible, we want to get any cache miss from main memory started as soon as possible, then we can save the registers into the storeQ and then into cache while we wait.

The old design

The old memory design issued N loads and M stores in every clock (variously 2:1, 2:2, and 3:2) - loads and stores executed in one clock (either into the store queue or retired if there was a cache/storeQ snoop hit.

We used an old trick, the L1 TLB is fully associative, the L1 data cache is set associative - we can look up the TLB at the same time that we do the SRAM index portion (with address bits that are not translated by the VM system) and then compare the output of the TLB (the physical address) with the fetched data cache tags to choose a set - this gives us a lot of useful very low level parallelism in the load/store unit - currently we run it in 1 clock (maybe not at 5GHz :-).

These days there are some downsides to this design - essentially it’s a general computer architecture problem: page sizes have not been increasing while cache line sizes and cache sizes have - the data cache index is generated from bits of the page index (the 12 LSBs of a virtual address) that are the same for a virtual and physical address - page sizes really haven’t changed since the early 80s, and RISC-V uses the same 4k/12-bits that have been used since then - but cache lines have gotten longer and caches have got larger- we use a 512-bit cache line (64 bytes) - that’s 6-bits of addressing - leaving 6-bits for indexing the data cache. This means that a direct mapped cache (ie 1 set) can at most have 64x64 bytes - ie 4K - to get a 64k L1 cache we need 16 sets, 128k needs 32 sets. One can’t have a large cache without large numbers of sets.

There are some advantages to having large numbers of sets mostly around Meltdown/Spectre/etc using random replacement and large numbers of sets muddies the water for those sorts of exploits - the downsides are essentially a 16:1 or 32:1 mux (and a larger fanout between the TLBs and the comparators) in a critical path.


Getting back to the reason for this redesign - the big problem though is that in order to safely reorder the execution of load and store instructions safely we need to be able to compare their physical addresses when we’re doing the scheduling (not their virtual addresses as their might be aliasing) - and here we have a design where the TLB lookup and physically tagged data cache lookup are deeply intertwined. So it has to go ….

There’s another issue - the storeQ - this implicitly orders stores (and loads waiting for stores, or for cache fills) - it’s a queue, embedded in it’s design is an ordering, transactions must be retired in order, when a store reaches the head of the queue AND it’s associated instruction has reach the commit state (ie there’s no chance of a branch misprediction or a trap will cause it not be executed)`it attempts to update the L1 cache, if it gets a miss it triggers a cache line fetch and a subsequent update. This means that we can’t reorder stores to disjoint addresses post commit - and limits the number of cache line fetches we can have in parallel. The queue is nice in that it inherently embeds ordering of operations, but in reality most operations don’t require this. Again this also needs to go ….

The new design

So here’s the new design, it got a lot bigger ….:


First thing to note it’s a 2 clock latency design - first clock is triggered when the address register in a load or store is available and just performs the TLB lookup portion of an operation. The second clock is triggered when all the addresses conflicts have been ‘resolved’ (that means that there are no instructions touching the same bytes that must be done in instruction order that haven’t been pushed into the storeQ) and, if the instruction is a store, the data to be stored is available from the pipe.

In the second clock load transactions either get resolved because they hit in the dcache or are snooped (from as yet uncommitted stores) from the storeQ. All store and fence transactions, IO transactions, loads that miss in dcache/snoop, loads that suffer hazards (for example a 4 byte load that discovers a single byte in that range waiting to be stored in the storeQ), all of these cases get put into the storeQ.

Pending transactions

The minimum transaction time is now 2 clocks, but it can be many more - we’re processing A address transactions (TLB lookups) per clock - we’re simulating with 6, but will likely have to drop back to 4 on the FPGA system. Some transactions can’t be completed right away, some store transactions might still be waiting for the data to store to become available, some might be hung up because there’s an instruction ahead of them that needs to be executed (in this context ‘executed’ means a load that hits in the icache or snoops in the storeQ, or any other instruction that has be pushed into the storeQ), or because there’s a preceding instruction that hasn’t been through the address unit (and therefore we can’t tell if there might be a load/store dependency.

The Pending Transactions buffer is a list of transactions (one entry for every instruction entry in the commitQ) that have been through the address unit - each entry contains a physical address, a mask of the bytes it will read or write (8 bits on a 64-bit machine), fence/amo dependency information and a hazard bitmask. The hazard bitmask is similar to the ‘hazard’ structure that we used in the old storeQ (and in the new storeQ described below) essentially each entry contains a bitmask (1 bit for every other pending transaction), each bit is set if that other pending transaction entry blocks this one.

For example: a load transaction might be blocked by one or more stores to one or more of the bytes the load loads, it might also be blocked by a fence or amoXXX instruction - it wont leave the pending transactions store until all of these blocking instructions have also left - it will likely find these hazards again (and maybe more, new ones) as it’s entered into the storeQ via the snoop operation.

Load/Store Units

The load store units have a scheduler that looks at how many free storeQ entries are ready (have 0 hazards) and chooses N load/store operations to perform, it prioritizes loads because in general we want to move loads before stores wherever possible and because we also use the load unit to retire completed loads (and things like AMOXXX, LC and SC) - each load unit has a dedicated write port into the general register file.

The load/store scheduler bypasses the pending transaction buffer in a way that it picks up entries from the address unit that are about to be written, this is how we can do 2 clock operations.

The load unit starts a dcache access and a snoop operation into the storeQ and then ….

Stores and fences are similar, they always go into the storeQ, we perform a simpler snoop just to discover hazard information.

The new store queue

As mentioned above the storeQ is no longer a simple queue of entries where stuff gets put in at one end and interesting stuff happens to entries that reach the other end (and are ready to be committed).

Now it’s more of a heap, with multiple internal ad-hoc queues being created dynamically on the fly. This is done as part of the snoop we used to look for speculatively satisfying load transactions from as yet uncommitted stores, and a search for hazards (as described above) - we still do that but now we search for a wider class of ‘hazards’ that in also represent store-store ordering (making sure that stores to the same location occur in the same order), load-store dependencies (loads from the same location as stores occur after the ones that are before them in instruction order) and store-load dependences (stores don’t occur until after the loads that read the current data in a location have completed), we also use hazards to represent fence and amo-style blockages.

A ‘hazard’ is actually represented by a bit mask with one bit for each storeQ entry, a storeQ entry is created with the hazards detected when the storeQ is snooped at the load/store unit stage. Logic keeps track of which hazard bits are valid, clearing bits as transactions ahead in the ad-hoc queues are retired a storeQ entry is not allowed to proceed until all its hazards have been cleared.

Store entries also keep track of activity in the cache lines they would access - the load/store unit has an implicit understanding with the underlying cache coherency fabric that it will never make multiple concurrent transaction requests for the same cache line. Now if one storeQ entry makes a request for a cache line the others must wait (but when it arrives they all get woken up). With this new storeQ we don’t have to wait for an entry to reach the head of the queue and we can now have many outstanding cache transactions (before it was just one store and a few loads).


We’re currently at the point where this new design passes the sanity tests, I’m sure it’s still buggy and I need to spend some times writing some architectural white-box tests trying to poke in the obviously hard to trigger corners.

It’s big! lots of NxM stuff - but then this whole design was always based on asking the question “what if we throw gates at it?” we have to do lots of comparisons to discover where the hazards are if we want to get real memory parallelism.

I’m currently simulating a 6:4:4:6 system - 6 address units, 4 load and 4 store units and 6 write ports to the storeQ (so no more than 6 of the load/store units can be scheduled per clock, this area needs some work). 4 load units means 4 read ports on the dcache, there’s also still only 1 dcache write port there which limits write bandwidth, and how fast the storeQ can drain, this also needs some work, and will change in the future.


I’ve done a small amount of micro-benchmarking - close examination of code sequences show that the area I was particularly targeting (write bursts at the beginning of subroutines due to register saves) perform well, the address unit fills to capacity (they’re all offsets from the same register SP, and they’re ready to schedule almost right away), the store unit also fills, and the load units fill as soon as the commitQ starts presenting loads, at that point stores start sitting as pending transactions and loads pass them to be handled - which is also one of our goals.

The main downside is that our one clock load has become a 2 clock load, places where we load an address from memory and then immediately load something from that address suffer.

I had thought I was done with dhrystone, but it still proves to be useful as a small easy to run test that exposes microarchitectural issues so here are the results:

Dhrystone on the old design sat at 4.27 dhrystone/MHz - we recently switched to a clang compile because we expected it to expose more parallelism to the instruction stream - all numbers (before and after) here are running that same code image and now is at 5.88 which meets our original architectural target (a hand wavy number “5+” pulled out of thin air …) - not a bad increase.

Dhrystone is a very branchy test, we can issue up to 8 instructions per clock but running dhrystone we only get 3.61 - that limits how full our pipe can get and how much parallelism can likely happen - on this new run we see an average of 2.33 instructions executed per clock (it can’t be larger than that 3.61 issue rate). This is still a useful benchmark as it’s worth spending time figuring out where those IPC are being lost, I’m pretty sure the 2-clock load is now getting some of it, but on the whole it’s been a great trade for an almost 40% performance increase. Note that that 3.61 issue rate/2.33 IPC implies that the largest dhrystone/MHz we can reach with this code base is effectively with tweakage is ~9.1.

Switching to clang seems to have exposed a BTC issue, which needs to be fixed which might push us to ~6.2ish (more hand waving here), but after that probably the next big dhrystone boost will come from installing an L0 instruction trace cache that should bust the 3.61 issue rate up to close to 8 and expose more parallelism to this new load/store architecture - that’s for another day.

Future Work

This has been a big change, it needs more testing, I need to move it back onto the AWS/FPGA platform for more shaking out, that in itself will be a big job, I’ll probably build a 4:2:2:4 system and even then it may not fit in a VU9P (anyone want to contribute a VU13/VU19 board to the cause?). That’s going to take a long time.

The new storeQ and the pending transactions block have evolved to be quite similar - I can’t help but feel there’s fat there that can be removed. The one main sticking point is data life times, the pending transactions are tied 1-1 with commitQ entries (just located elsewhere because otherwise routing might be a nightmare) while storeQ entries can long outlive the commitQ entries that birth them (a storeQ entry can’t issue a dcache change, or the memory request to fill the dcache entry it wants to change until after its associated commitQ entry has been committed, and is about to be recycled).

I also want to start some more serious work on timing, not to make a real chip but to give me more feedback on my microarchitecture decisions (I’m sure some stuff will blow up in my face :-) to that end I’ve started investigating getting a build into OpenLane/Skyworks - again not with the intent of taping something out (it’ probably too big for any of the open source runs) but more as a reality check.

Next time: Verilog changes