Why In-Order?

Ever since the Pentium Pro, desktop PC microprocessors have implemented Out of Order (OoO) execution architectures in order to improve performance.  We’ve explained the idea in great detail before, but the idea is that an Out-of-Order microprocessor can reorganize its instruction stream in order to best utilize its execution resources.  Despite the simplicity of its explanation, implementing support for OoO dramatically increases the complexity of a microprocessor, as well as drives up power consumption. 

In a perfect world, you could group a bunch of OoO cores on a single die and offer both excellent single threaded performance, as well as great multi-threaded performance.  However, the world isn’t so perfect, and there are limitations to how big a processor’s die can be.  Intel and AMD can only fit two of their OoO cores on a 90nm die, yet the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 targeted 3 and 9 cores, respectively, on a 90nm die; clearly something has to give, and that something happened to be the complexity of each individual core. 

Given a game console’s 5 year expected lifespan, the decision was made (by both MS and Sony) to favor a multi-core platform over a faster single-core CPU in order to remain competitive towards the latter half of the consoles’ lifetime. 

So with the Xbox 360 Microsoft used three fairly simple IBM PowerPC cores, while Sony has the much publicized Cell processor in their PlayStation 3.  Both will perform absolutely much slower than even mainstream desktop processors in single threaded game code, but the majority of games these days are far more GPU bound than CPU bound, so the performance decrease isn’t a huge deal.  In the long run, with a bit of optimization and running multi-threaded game engines, these collections of simple in-order cores should be able to put out some fairly good performance. 

Does In-Order Matter?

As we discussed in our Cell article, in-order execution makes a lot of sense for the SPEs.  With in-order execution as well as a small amount of high speed local memory, memory access becomes quite predictable and code is very easily scheduled by the compiler for the SPEs.  However, for the PPE in Cell, and the PowerPC cores in Xenon, the in-order approach doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense.  You don’t have the advantage of a cacheless architecture, even though you do have the ability to force certain items to remain untouched by the cache.  More than anything having an in-order general purpose core just works to simplify the core, at the expense of depending quite a bit on the compiler, and the programmer, to optimize performance. 

Very little of modern day games is written in assembly, most of it is written in a high level language like C or C++ and the compiler does the dirty work of optimizing the code and translating it into low level assembly.  Compilers are horrendously difficult to write; getting a compiler to work is a pretty difficult job in itself, but getting one to work well, regardless of what the input code is, is nearly impossible. 

However, with a properly designed ISA and a good compiler, having an in-order core to work on is not the end of the world.  The performance you lose by not being able to extract the last bit of instruction level parallelism is made up by the fact that you can execute far more threads per clock thanks to the simplicity of the in-order cores allowing more to be packed on a die.  Unfortunately, as we’ve already discussed, on day one that’s not going to be much of an advantage. 

The Cell processor’s SPEs are even more of a challenge, as they are more specialized hardware only suitable to executing certain types of code.  Keeping in mind that the SPEs are not well suited to running branch heavy code, loop unrolling will do a lot to improve performance as it can significantly reduce the number of branches that must be executed.  In order to squeeze the absolute maximum amount of performance out of the SPEs, developers may be forced to hand code some routines as initial performance numbers for optimized, compiled SPE code appear to be far less than their peak throughput. 

While the move to in-order architectures won’t cause game developers too much pain with good compilers at their disposal, the move to multi-threaded game development and optimizing for the Cell in general will be much more challenging. 

Xenon vs. Cell How Many Threads?
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  • Shinei - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    I had hoped RSX was a good deal more powerful than G70, considering they had more time to tape it out and add stuff to it... Especially considering how bandwidth-deprived G70 is.
    I guess nVidia is REALLY banking on games becoming more pixel-shader dependant and less texture-dependant. (Mistake, if you ask me.)
    Reply
  • knitecrow - Friday, June 24, 2005 - link

    #1 woo... let the flame war begin
    Reply
  • Oliseo - Thursday, January 2, 2020 - link

    Absolutely fascinating revisiting these kind of articles. Naturally I come fully loaded with a plethera or hindsight.

    And that hindsight makes these articles rather amusing to read. Not least because it teaches us that none of can see into the future. And often that future is very different than we imagined it to be.

    And the lesson to be taken away from all of this, is that articles written today, will age similar to this one. And all of us arguing in the comments section, well, our comments will age just as badly too.

    So, going forward this year, I'm gonna simply carry around a rather large sack of salt. And I'll need a large sack of it, for all the little pinches I'll be using...

    Cheers
    Reply

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