VRoom! blog - Combining ALUs and Branch Units


Wow, this was a fun week VRoom! made it to the front page of HackerNews - for those new here this is an occasional blog post on architectural issues as they are investigated - VRoom! is very much a work in progress.

This particular blog entry is about a recent exploration around the way that we handle branches and ALUs.

Branch units vs ALU units

The current design has 1 branch unit per hart (a ‘hart’ is essentially a RISCV CPU context - an N-way simultaneous multi-threaded machine has N harts even if they share memory interfaces, caches and ALUs). It also has M ALUs - currently two.

After a lot of thinking about branch units and ALU units it seemed that they have a lot in common - both have a 64-bit adder/subtracter in their core, and use 2 register read ports and a write port. Branch units only use the write port for call instructions - some branches, unconditional relative branches don’t actually hit the commitQ at all, conditional branches simply check that the predicted destination is correct, if so they become an effective no-op, otherwise they trigger a commitQ flush and a BTC miss.

So we’ve made some changes to the design to be able to optionally make a combined ALU/branch unit, and to be able to build the system with those instead of the existing independent branch and ALUs units (it’s a Makefile option so relatively easy to change). Running a bunch of tests on our still useful Dhrystone we get:

Branch ALU Combined DMips/MHz Area Register Ports  
1 2 0 6.33 3x 6/3 2022-03-25-combined-branches.md
0 0 2 6.14 2x 4/2  
0 0 3 6.49 3x 6/3  
0 0 4 6.49 4x 8/4  

Which is interesting - 3 combined Branch/ALU units outperform the existing 1 Branch/2 ALU with roughly the same area/register file ports. So we’ll keep that.

It’s also interesting that 4 combined ALUs performs exactly the same as the 3 ALU system (to the clock) even though the 4th ALU gets scheduled about 1/12 of the time - essentially this is because because we’re scheduling ALUs out of order (and speculatively) the 3rd ALU happily takes on that extra work without changing how fast the final instructions get retired.

One other interesting thing here, and the likely reason for much of this performance improvement is that we can now retire multiple branches per clock - we need to be able to do something sensible if multiple branches fail branch prediction in the same clock - the correct solution is to give priority to the misprediction closest to the end of the pipe (since the earlier instruction should cause the later one to be flushed from the pipe).

What’s also interesting is: what would happen if we build a 2-hart SMT machine? previously such a system would have had 2 branch units and 2 ALUs - looking at current simulations a CPU is keeping 1 ALU busy close to 90%, the second to ~50%, the 3rd ~20% - while we don’t have any good simulation data yet we can guess that 4 combined ALUs (so about the same area) would likely satisfy a dual SMT system - mostly because the 2 threads would share I/Dcaches and as a result run a little more slowly (add that to the list of future experiments).

VRoom! go Boom!

Scheduling N units is difficult - essentially we need to look at all the entries in the commitQ and choose the one closest to the end of the pipe ready to perform an ALU operation on ALU 0. That’s easy the core of it looks something a bit like this (for an 8 entry Q):

always @(*)
casez (req) 
8'b???????1: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 0; end
8'b??????10: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 1; end
8'b?????100: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 2; end
8'b10000000: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 7; end
8'b00000000: alu0_enable = 0;

for ALU 1 it looks like (answering the question: what is the 2nd bit if 2 or more bits are set):

always @(*)
casez (req) 
8'b??????11: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 1; end
8'b?????110: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 2; end
8'b????1100: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 3; end
8'b00000000: alu1_enable = 0;

For more ALUs it gets more complex for a 3264 entry commitQ it’s also much bigger, for dual SMT systems there are 2 commitQs so 64/128 entries (we interleave the request bits from the two commitQs to give them fair access to the resources).

Simply listing all the bit combinations with 3 bits set out of 128 bits in a case statement just listing all of them gets unruly - but really we do want to express this in a manner where we can provide a maximum amount of parallelism to the synthesis tools we’re using, hopefully they’ll find optimizations that are not obvious - so long ago we had reformulated it to something like this:

always @(*)
casez (req) 
8'b???????1: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 0;
		casez (req[7:1]) 
		7'b??????1: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 1; end
		7'b?????10: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 2; end
		7'b????100: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 3; end
		7'b1000000: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 7; end
		7'b0000000: alu1_enable = 0;
8'b??????10: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 1; 
		casez (req[7:2]) 
		6'b?????1: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 2; end
		6'b????10: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 3; end
		6'b???100: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 4; end
		6'b100000: begin alu1_enable = 1; alu1_rd = 7; end
		6'b000000: alu1_enable = 0;
8'b?????100: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 2; 
8'b10000000: begin alu0_enable = 1; alu0_rd = 7; alu1_enable = 0; end
8'b00000000: begin alu0_enable = 0; alu1_enable = 0; end

etc etc we have C code that will spit this out for an arbitrary number of ALUs (arbitrary depths) the 2 ALU scheduler for a 32 entry commitQ happily compiles under verilator/iverilog and on Vivado (yosys currently goes bang! we suspect upset by this combinatorial explosion). When we switched to 3 ALUs (we tried this a while ago) it happily compiled on verilator (takes a while) and runs. When we compiled up the 4 ALU scheduler on verilator it went Bang! the kernel OOM killer got it (on a 96Gb laptop) - looking at the machine generated code it was 200K lines of verilog …. oops … 3 ALUs was compiling 50k, 2 ALUs ~10k …. serious combinatorial explosion!

Luckily we’d already found another way to solve this problem elsewhere (we have 6! address units) so dropping some other code in to generate this scheduler wasn’t hard (900 lines rather than 200k) - we’re going to need to spend some time looking at how well this new code performs, it had always been expected to be one of the more difficult areas for timing - we might need to find some 95% heuristics here that are not perfect but allow us higher core clock speeds - time will tell. Sadly Yosys still goes bang, must be something else.


Combined branch ALUs seem to provide a performance improvement with little increase in area - we’ll keep them.

Next time: Probably something about trace caches, might take a while