CPU Architecture Improvements: Background

Despite all of this platform discussion, we must not forget that Haswell is the fourth tock since Intel instituted its tick-tock cadence. If you're not familiar with the terminology by now a tock is a "new" microprocessor architecture on an existing manufacturing process. In this case we're talking about Intel's 22nm 3D transistors, that first debuted with Ivy Bridge. Although Haswell is clearly SoC focused, the designs we're talking about today all use Intel's 22nm CPU process - not the 22nm SoC process that has yet to debut for Atom. It's important to not give Intel too much credit on the manufacturing front. While it has a full node advantage over the competition in the PC space, it's currently only shipping a 32nm low power SoC process. Intel may still have a more power efficient process at 32nm than its other competitors in the SoC space, but the full node advantage simply doesn't exist there yet.

Although Haswell is labeled as a new micro-architecture, it borrows heavily from those that came before it. Without going into the full details on how CPUs work I feel like we need a bit of a recap to really appreciate the changes Intel made to Haswell.

At a high level the goal of a CPU is to grab instructions from memory and execute those instructions. All of the tricks and improvements we see from one generation to the next just help to accomplish that goal faster.

The assembly line analogy for a pipelined microprocessor is over used but that's because it is quite accurate. Rather than seeing one instruction worked on at a time, modern processors feature an assembly line of steps that breaks up the grab/execute process to allow for higher throughput.

The basic pipeline is as follows: fetch, decode, execute, commit to memory. You first fetch the next instruction from memory (there's a counter and pointer that tells the CPU where to find the next instruction). You then decode that instruction into an internally understood format (this is key to enabling backwards compatibility). Next you execute the instruction (this stage, like most here, is split up into fetching data needed by the instruction among other things). Finally you commit the results of that instruction to memory and start the process over again.

Modern CPU pipelines feature many more stages than what I've outlined here. Conroe featured a 14 stage integer pipeline, Nehalem increased that to 16 stages, while Sandy Bridge saw a shift to a 14 - 19 stage pipeline (depending on hit/miss in the decoded uop cache).

The front end is responsible for fetching and decoding instructions, while the back end deals with executing them. The division between the two halves of the CPU pipeline also separates the part of the pipeline that must execute in order from the part that can execute out of order. Instructions have to be fetched and completed in program order (can't click Print until you click File first), but they can be executed in any order possible so long as the result is correct.

Why would you want to execute instructions out of order? It turns out that many instructions are either dependent on one another (e.g. C=A+B followed by E=C+D) or they need data that's not immediately available and has to be fetched from main memory (a process that can take hundreds of cycles, or an eternity in the eyes of the processor). Being able to reorder instructions before they're executed allows the processor to keep doing work rather than just sitting around waiting.

Sidebar on Performance Modeling

Microprocessor design is one giant balancing act. You model application performance and build the best architecture you can in a given die area for those applications. Tradeoffs are inevitably made as designers are bound by power, area and schedule constraints. You do the best you can this generation and try to get the low hanging fruit next time.

Performance modeling includes current applications of value, future algorithms that you expect to matter when the chip ships as well as insight from key software developers (if Apple and Microsoft tell you that they'll be doing a lot of realistic fur rendering in 4 years, you better make sure your chip is good at what they plan on doing). Obviously you can't predict everything that will happen, so you continue to model and test as new applications and workloads emerge. You feed that data back into the design loop and it continues to influence architectures down the road.

During all of this modeling, even once a design is done, you begin to notice bottlenecks in your design in various workloads. Perhaps you notice that your L1 cache is too small for some newer workloads, or that for a bunch of popular games you're seeing a memory access pattern that your prefetchers don't do a good job of predicting. More fundamentally, maybe you notice that you're decode bound more often than you'd like - or alternatively that you need more integer ALUs or FP hardware. You take this data and feed it back to the team(s) working on future architectures.

The folks working on future architectures then prioritize the wish list and work on including what they can.

Other Power Savings & The Fourth Haswell The Haswell Front End
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  • jwcalla - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Apple doesn't have any fabs though and if Samsung isn't willing to re-sign another contract, they're going to be in a bit of a bind. In other words, it won't be cheap. And even if Samsung does re-up, you can be sure that it'll come with an additional $1.05b price tag to offset any "losses" in their mobile division.

    I felt the first page overestimated Apple's influence quite a bit. They have ~5% desktop marketshare and 0% in the server space. Not to trivialize any loss in CPU sales, but Intel's primary headwinds don't involve a possible Apple switch to ARM.
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Apple's influence comes from the mobile market which is beginning to dwarf the PC market (and is larger than the server market in terms of volume). Apple is the largest tablet maker and a major smart phone manufacturer. There hardware is backed by one of the largest digital media markets. To do this Apple is the worlds largest consumer of flash memory whom orders are large enough to directly affect NAND pricing.

    With the rest of the industry going ultra mobile, they'll have to compete with Apple who is already entrenched. Sure the PC will survive but mainly for legacy work and applications. Their isn't enough of a PC market in the future to be viable long term with so many players.
    Reply
  • jwcalla - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    While all this is true, the first page seems to indicate that Intel is really pushing the low power envelop partly because of rumors that Apple will move away from Intel chips in their laptop / ultrabook products.

    While I'm sure Intel is happy to be in MBAs, etc., losing that business isn't going to be as big a deal as the other pressures facing the PC market (as you mention).

    Now if WinRT on ultrabooks / laptops began to take off... that would be a huge problem for Intel.
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Saturday, October 06, 2012 - link

    Losing just the MacBook AIr isn't going to hurt Intel much as a whole but it is doubtful that Apple would just move that product line to ARM. The rest of the line up would likely follow. The results by the numbers would hurt Intel but nothing to doom the company. Intel does have the rest of the PC industry to fall back upon... except the PC market is shrinking.

    Apple is one of Intel's best gateway into the ultra mobile market. Apple has made indications that they want to merge iOS and OS X over the long term which would likely result in dropping either ARM or x86 hardware to simplify the line up.

    WinRT is also a threat to Intel and
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Saturday, October 06, 2012 - link

    (Hrm... got cut off there)

    WinRT is also a threat to Intel but WinRT has next to zero market share. The threat here is any success it obtains. Apple on the other hand controls ~75% of the tablet market last I checked.

    Andriod is a bit neutral to Intel as manufacturers can transition between ARM and x86 versions with relative ease. Intel will just have to offer competitive hardware at competitive prices here. The sub 10W Haswell parts are going to be competitive but price is a great unknown. The ARM SoC's are far cheaper than what Intel has traditionally been comfortable with. So even if Intel were to acquire all of the Android tablet market, it would be a minority at this time and over the short term (even in the best case scenario, it'd take time for Android based tablets to surpass the iPad in terms of market share).

    So ultimately it would be best for Intel to snag Apple's support due to their dominant market share in the tablet space and influential position in the smart phone space.
    Reply
  • andrewaggb - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Agree with others. Best Anandtech article I've read in a long time.

    Most articles lack the detail and insights that this one has.
    Reply
  • mrdude - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Great article. Great depth, great info and very thorough. Hats off :)

    But I couldn't shake the feeling that I was missing perhaps the most important bit of information: price.

    Obviously, Intel isn't going to give that away 9 months away from the presumed launch date -- though in typical fashion we'll see it leaked early. It still is the biggest question regarding Haswell's, and in turn Intel's, success against ARM.

    I think most consumers are already at that good enough stage, where your Tegra 3 or Snapdragon S4 can fulfill all of their computing needs on a tablet or a phone. The biggest drawback for productivity purposes isn't necessarily the "lack of CPU performance" but rather the lack of a proper keyboard/mouse, gaming, along with a rare application or two that's still locked to x86 (Office rings a bell, though not for long). Or I should say, these were drawbacks. Not any longer.

    So is Intel going to cut their margins and go for volume? Or are they just going to keep their massive margins and price themselves out of contention? Apple carries with itself a brand name that people want. It's become more than a gadget but a fashion accessory. People don't mind paying for Apple tax. I don't think I ever will, but at least I can notice the trend. The Intel brand doesn't carry with it the same cult following and neither does x86. Unless Intel is willing to compete with ARM on price, lowering the cost of their products below Apple's, I don't think think the substantial increases in efficiency and performance will matter all that much.
    Reply
  • name99 - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    "Sandy Bridge made ports 2 & 3 equal class citizens, with both capable of being used for load or store address calculation. In the past you could only do loads on port 2 and store addresses on port 3. Sandy Bridge's flexibility did a lot for load heavy code, which is quite common. Haswell's dedicated store address port should help in mixed workloads with lots of loads and stores."

    The rule of thumb numbers are, on "ordinary" integer type code:
    1/6 instructions are branches
    1/6 are writes
    2/6 are reads
    2/6 are ALU

    This makes it more obvious why Intel moved as it did.
    You want to sustain as close to 4ops/cycle as you can.
    This means that your order of adding abilities should be exactly as Intel has done
    - first two ALUs
    - next two read/writes per cycle (ideal would be a mix of load/store) but Intel gave us that you can do a load+store per cycle

    - next two loads per cycle

    - next make sure the branches aren't throttled (because back-to-back branches are common, and you want branches resolved ASAP)
    - next make the load-store system wide enough to sustain a MAC per cycle (two loads+store)

    It's hard to see what is left to complain about at this level.
    And of course we have better lock performance. So what's left?

    What I think still have substantial room for improvement (correct me if I'm wrong) is
    (a) TLB coverage
    (b) TLB efficiency.

    TLB coverage could be improved with a 2nd level TLB but (as far as I know) Intel doesn't go in for that, unlike POWER.
    By TLB efficiency, I mean not needing to lose performance due to different address spaces. Unfortunately Intel seems screwed here. The POWER segment scheme (especially the 64-bit scheme) is REALLY powerful here in allowing multiple address spaces to coexist, so that multiple shared libraries, the main app code, IO, and memory mapped files, can all have persistent simultaneous TLB entries. (Note that this has nothing to do with the Intel segment scheme --- different technology, to solve a different problem.)

    As far as I know, right now all Intel has is a single ASID representing a process. Better than no ASID, and having to flush the TLB on every context switch; but not especially good at sharing entries --- so (again as far as I know) shared libraries or shared mem-mapped files being used by multiple processes, even when they are mapped to the same address, have to have separate TLB entries, each one with a different ASID corresponding to the process calling them.
    Reply
  • name99 - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Stupid me. I should have read the entire article. So we do have a (nicely sized 2nd level TLB).

    I guess my only remaining complaint now is that ASIDs are too coarse a tool.
    In principle you could get dove some of the problems I mention using dedicated large pages for some particular purposes (eg to over the OS code and data, the equivalent of the frame buffer for modern windowing systems, and some pool of common shared libraries).
    Does anyone know the extent to which both Windows and OSX actually make use of dedicated large pages in this way?
    Reply
  • Peanutsrevenge - Friday, October 05, 2012 - link

    Great article Anand, but when will Anand cloning be incorporated in CPU designs so we can all have one of you at home to pull out and extract information from @ will ? ?

    Although, with that said, I was already made aware of much of this recently from listening in to some random guys babbling about tech stuff on a podcast ;)
    Reply

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