Wide Dynamic Execution, Advanced Digital Media Boost, Smart Memory Access and Advanced Smart Cache; those are the technologies that according to the marketing people at Intel enable Intel to build the high performance, low energy CPUs using the new Core architecture.

Of course, as an AnandTech Reader, you couldn't care less about which Hyper Super Advanced Label the marketing folks glue on their CPUs. "Extend the digital lifestyle by combining robust performance with low power consumption" could have been another marketing claim for the new Core architecture, but VIA already cornered that sentence for its C7 CPUs. The marketing slogans for Intel's Core and VIA's C7 are almost the same; the architectures are however vastly different.

No, let us find out what is really behind all this marketing hyper-talk, and preferably compare it with the AMD "K8" (Athlon 64, Opteron) architecture of Intel's NetBurst and Pentium M processors. That is what this article is all about. We talked to Jack Doweck, the engineer who designed the completely new Memory Reorder Buffer and Memory disambiguation system. Jack Doweck is one of the Intel Israel Development Center (IDC) architects.

The Intel "P8"

Intel marketing states that Core is a blend of P-M techniques and NetBurst architecture. However, Core is clearly a descendant of the Pentium Pro, or the P6 architecture. It is very hard to find anything "Pentium 4" or "NetBurst" in the Core architecture. While talking to Jack Doweck, it became clear that only the prefetching was inspired by experiences with the Pentium 4. Everything else is an evolution of "Yonah" (Core Duo), which was itself an improvement of Dothan and Banias. Those CPUs inherited the bus of the Pentium 4, but are still clearly children of the hugely successful P6 architecture. In a sense, you could call Core the "P8" architecture, with Banias/Dothan being based on the "P7" architecture. (Note that the architecture of Banias/Dothan was never given an official name, so we will refer to it as "P-M" for simplicity's sake.)

Of course this doesn't mean that Intel's engineers just bolted a few functional units and a few decoders on Yonah and called it a day. Jack told us that Woodcrest/Conroe/Merom are indeed based on Yonah, but that almost 80% of both the architecture and circuit design had to be redone.

CPU architecture in a nutshell

For those of you who are not so familiar with CPUs, we'll start with a crash course in CPU architectures. To understand CPU design, you must first look at the instructions that are sent to the CPU, and thus we start with the software.

Typical x86 software code consists of about 50% stores and loads, and there are about twice as many loads as there are stores. Of the remainder, about 15 to 20% of the instructions are branches (If, Then, Else), and the rest are mostly "ADD" (addition) and "MUL" (multiply) instructions. Only a very small percentage of code consists of more exotic instructions such as DIV (divisions), SQRT (square root), or other higher order math (e.g. trigonometric functions).

All these instructions are processed in a typical "Von Neuman" pipeline: Fetch, Decode, Operand Fetch, Execute, Retire.

Instructions are fetched based on the instruction pointer register, and initially they are nothing but long bit patterns to the CPU. It's only after the CPU starts decoding the bits that the instructions "start to make sense" to the CPU. Addresses and opcodes are decoded out of the instructions, and the addresses are used for the next step: the operand fetch. As you don't want the CPU to perform calculations with the addresses but rather on the content of these addresses - the "operands" - the CPU has to fetch the right data out of the data cache. Once these operands are put in the registers, the ALU is steered by the "opcode" (which has been decoded) to perform the right calculation on the operands in the registers.

The results are written to the architecture register file, the registers which can be used by the compiler. The results must also be written to the caches and the main memory, so that these are also up to date. That is the final phase, the retire phase. That is the basically how processing works in all CPUs.

The main challenge for the CPU designer today is the average memory latency the CPU sees. A Pentium 4 3.6 GHz with DDR-400 runs no less than 18 times faster than the base clock of the RAM (200 MHz). Every cycle the memory is being accessed, a minimum of 18 cycles pass on the CPU. At the same time, it takes several cycles to even send a request, and it takes a few cycles to send a request back. (We discussed this in the past in our overview of memory technology article.) The result is that wait times of 200 to 300 cycles are not uncommon on the Pentium 4. The goal of CPU cache is to avoid accessing RAM, but even if the CPU only has to go to system memory 4% of the time, that 4% of the time can lower performance significantly.

Memory Subsystem


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  • Spoonbender - Tuesday, May 02, 2006 - link

    How do you know? As the article said, the prefetching *might* in some cases decrease performance, even if it'll usually be an advantage. But I don't really think you have enough information to make a valid comparison. My point was simply that generally speaking, a 64KB, 2-way associative cache will have better hit rates than a 32KB 8-way associative. Of course, having fancy prefetching is always a good thing, but its effect *is* limited. If it was a huge improvement, people would have done that 8 years ago, instead of just messing with cache size and associativity. Reply
  • Betwon - Tuesday, May 02, 2006 - link

    Your information is too old and should be updated now.
    Prefetcher give much improvement in reducing the miss-rate.
    About 30-90% miss rate reduced.
    The good prefetcher tech is one of the most important performance factors.">
  • Betwon - Tuesday, May 02, 2006 - link

    Who is James E. Smith? I think that you should know him.

    Data Cache Prefetching Using a Global History Buffer -- the prefetcher bring the great performance improvement! From 20-110%
    Of course, you can download the full-text pdf file, if you have a IEEE member account. I can download and view it, but can not release it.
    slides ppt">
  • Sunrise089 - Monday, May 01, 2006 - link

    flak flak flak

    Seriously - props to the author on a good article, but if I had one comment it would be that there are length issues to trying to provide the ammount of background needed for this sort of article. I think it's best to either just draw the comparisons between the two chips, or do a full-length many thousands of words write-up on the technical importance of the various topics. I read the article, and while writen well and informative in it's conclusions, I cannot say all the background was enough to make me really understand the concepts better. For example I already knew what out-of-order execution was, but only being able to read a few hundred words more on it didn't allow me to really learn enough to understand all of the reasons why the K8 had a disadvantage in that area, and if all you wanted was for me to understand that it did indeed have the disadvanatge, you could have just said so.
  • JohanAnandtech - Monday, May 01, 2006 - link

    It is indeed an issue I struggled with. Writing full length articles on these subjects doesn't sound like a good idea for me: I personally do not like lengthy articles either. So I tried to keep a balance between being technical and keeping it understandable.

    Anyway, Just ask about the points where you were lost. Especially on the OoO matters: it is much more interesting than "AMD has a disadvantage". Basically, reordering happens between the decoding and the execute phase.

    Pushing loads forward helps in two ways:
    1.Whenever a load fails to get it's data from the L1-cache, the CPU has to find other instructions to execute. As loads are very common, it is easier to fill the gaps than when you can not move loads before other loads.

    2. If a load gets pushed forward and a L1-cache miss for that load occurs, it isn't that bad. This is very simplified, but assume the load has been pushed 5 cycles forward, and your L2-cache latency is 10, you only have to wait 5 cycles instead of 10.
  • Furen - Monday, May 01, 2006 - link

    I'll be the grammar nazi today, lol.

    Last page, paragraph 5: "[...] increasing the <b>wideness</b> of each unit [...]"
    Width, perhaps? "Wideness" refers to either quality or state (neither of which is discrete) while "width" also also applies to measurable fact (128-bits wide, for example). You can talk about the wideness of the units, for example, but you cannot talk about increasing their wideness...

    Great article, by the way, it's been long since I've read such an enjoyable article.
  • emboss - Monday, May 01, 2006 - link

    Just a quick note ... on page 4 you have the table with the execution unit details. There's a couple things incorrect (IMO) in the numbers.

    First, you list the number of double precision FLOPs per cycle. Double precision can be done with SSE, so in the K8 you can do 2 DP ADDs and 2 DP MULs every two cycles (due to the 64-bit wide datapaths), a total of 2 DP FLOPs per cycle.

    Core can do two SSE operations per cycle (the two symmetric units), giving it a total of 4 DP FLOPs per cycle. The third SSE unit does not handle FP ops, but instead handles shuffles and the like.

    Obviously, double both of these numbers if you want a "peak" single precision FLOPs per cycle.

    If instead you were meaning about extended precision (64 bit precision, 80 bit floats) x87 operations, it's exactly the same concept as above since Core has apparently has combined SSE/x87 units (and a fully pipelined FMUL, unlike the P4). This gives both the K8 and Core 2 EP FLOPs per cycle.

    Finally, you have the number of SSE units for the K7 wrong. The K7, like the K8, has two SSE units (FADD and FMUL), and the same 64 bit datapath as the K8. Of course, the K7 cannot handle SSE2, so must use x87 instructions for double precision (ie: two DP FLOPs per cycle).

    Apart from that, very nice article! I've been trying to optimise SSE code for the Core processor and have had to do things by trial and error thanks to the complete void of any decent documentation from Intel. One thing in particular was that I was finding "odd" performance properties with SSE that pointed towards it having two FMUL units. Being symmetric units explains a lot!
  • JarredWalton - Monday, May 01, 2006 - link

    See above note regarding Core Duo versus Core "Conroe". (Nice naming scheme, Intel. *grumble*) I will let Johan take care of the rest of your comment as appropriate. (His knowledge of the low level details of all of the microarchitectures discussed here definitely surpasses mine!)

    Unfortunately, it's not particularly surprising to find out that optimal code for Core Duo may need to be slightly tweaked in order to extract the most performance from Conroe. Still, they ought to be similar enough that you own by optimizing for Core Duo. The flipside is the optimal code for Conroe could very likely run worse on Core Duo and other processors. Such is the price of progress, I guess.
  • prx99 - Monday, May 01, 2006 - link

    Core is not the first x86 having 4 decoders. That was AMDs K5.

    I remember a statement from AMD that in some design they considered adding one more decoder. It turned out to actually slow down the design because the amount of clock speed lost was not compensated for by the smaller amount of performance gained.

    In my interpretation the fusion is done past the initial decoding, so there is not way more that 4 x86 ops can be decoded in a clock cycle (I'm referring to the "4+1" figure). The profit from fusion is not in the decoding stage but in the out of order engine.

    At AMDs, the "1 branch per cycle" rule is limited to branches seen by the predictor. A branch which is generally not taken is invisible to the prediction engine and therefore free.

    The original P4 indeed had a L1 latency of 2. The major P4 redesign in Prescott however increased it to 3.

    Load/store reordering is already done by the P4, but the penalty from a misprediction is fairly high. This is the drawback of any kind of prediction, whether branches or memory access: It speeds up things when being correct, but slows them down quite a bit more when not. This was the general picture seen in the P4: many applications were sped up by some amount, but some suffered greatly because they systematically fooled the P4's engines.

    Gruss, Andreas
  • Betwon - Wednesday, May 03, 2006 - link

    Without branch prediction, K8 will become very very poor. Too terrible!

    The prediction is much better than the forever penalty.

    The penalty of disprediction is just the penalty of doing nothing.(don't predict)

    The penalty is fairly high. If you are against the prediction, you will find that the penalty will happen in K8 every 3 instructions averagely. K8@1.8G(without branch predictor ) will fail to win the old Pentium3@1G(with branch predictor ).

    This is the drawback of lack of prediction, whether branches or memory access: It can not speeds up anything, but often slows down.
    Without branch prediction, K8 will be down!

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