AMD Graphics Core Next: Out With VLIW, In With SIMD

The fundamental issue moving forward is that VLIW designs are great for graphics; they are not so great for computing. However AMD has for all intents and purposes bet the company on GPU computing – their Fusion initiative isn’t just about putting a decent GPU right on die with a CPU, but then utilizing the radically different design attributes of a GPU to do the computational work that the CPU struggles at. So a GPU design that is great at graphics and poor at computing work simply isn’t sustainable for AMD’s future.

With AMD Graphics Core Next, VLIW is going away in favor of a non-VLIW SIMD design. In principal the two are similar – run lots of things in parallel – but there’s a world of difference in execution. Whereas VLIW is all about extracting instruction level parallelism (ILP), a non-VLIW SIMD is primarily about thread level parallelism (TLP).

Without getting unnecessarily deep into the differences between VLIW and non-VLIW (we’ll save that for another time), the difference in the architectures is about what VLIW does poorly for GPU computing purposes, and why a non-VLIW SIMD fixes it. The principal issue is that VLIW is hard to schedule ahead of time and there’s no dynamic scheduling during execution, and as a result the bulk of its weaknesses follow from that. As VLIW5 was a good fit for graphics, it was rather easy to efficiently compile and schedule shaders under those circumstances. With compute this isn’t always the case; there’s simply a wider range of things going on and it’s difficult to figure out what instructions will play nicely with each other. Only a handful of tasks such as brute force hashing thrive under this architecture.

Furthermore as VLIW lives and dies by the compiler, which means not only must the compiler be good, but that every compiler is good. This is an issue when it comes to expanding language support, as even with abstraction through intermediate languages you can still run into issues, including issues with a compiler producing intermediate code that the shader compiler can’t handle well.

Finally, the complexity of a VLIW instruction set also rears its head when it comes to optimizing and hand-tuning a program. Again this isn’t normally a problem for graphics, but it is for compute. The complex nature of VLIW makes it harder to disassemble and to debug, and in turn difficult to predict performance and to find and fix performance critical sections of the code. Ideally a coder should never have to work in assembly, but for HPC and other uses there is a good deal of performance to be gained by doing so and optimizing down to the single instruction.

AMD provided a short example of this in their presentation, showcasing the example output of their VLIW compiler and their new compiler for Graphics Core Next. Being a coder helps, but it’s not hard to see how contrived things are under VLIW.

VLIW
// Registers r0 contains "a", r1 contains "b"
// Value is returned in r2

00   ALU_PUSH_BEFORE
       1  x: PREDGT     ____, R0.x,  R1.x
             UPDATE_EXEC_MASK UPDATE PRED
01 JUMP   ADDR(3)
02 ALU
       2  x: SUB        ____, R0.x,  R1.x
       3  x: MUL_e      R2.x, PV2.x, R0.x
03 ELSE POP_CNT(1) ADDR(5)
04 ALU_POP_AFTER
       4  x: SUB        ____, R1.x,  R0.x
       5  x: MUL_e      R2.x, PV4.x, R1.x
05 POP(1) ADDR(6)

 

Non-VLIW SIMD
// Registers r0 contains "a", r1 contains "b"
// Value is returned in r2

v_cmp_gt_f32       r0,r1        
  //a > b, establish VCC
s_mov_b64    
      s0,exec        //Save current exec mask
s_and_b64    
      exec,vcc,exec  //Do "if"
s_cbranch_vccz 
   label0         //Branch if all lanes fail
v_sub_f32    
      r2,r0,r1       //result = a - b
v_mul_f32    
      r2,r2,r0       //result=result * a


s_andn2_b64    
    exec,s0,exec   //Do "else" (s0 & !exec)
s_cbranch_execz    label1         //Branch if all lanes fail
v_sub_f32    
      r2,r1,r0       //result = b - a
v_mul_f32    
      r2,r2,r1       //result = result * b

s_mov_b64    
      exec,s0        //Restore exec mask

 

VLIW: it’s good for graphics, it’s often not as good for compute.

So what does AMD replace VLIW with? They replace it with a traditional SIMD vector processor. While elements of Cayman do not directly map to elements of Graphics Core Next (GCN), since we’ve already been talking about the SP we’ll talk about its closest replacement: the SIMD.

Not to be confused with the SIMD on Cayman (which is a collection of SPs), the SIMD on GCN is a true 16-wide vector SIMD. A single instruction and up to 16 data elements are fed to a vector SIMD to be processed over a single clock cycle. As with Cayman, AMD’s wavefronts are 64 instructions meaning it takes 4 cycles to actually complete a single instruction for an entire wavefront.  This vector unit is combined with a 64KB register file and that composes a single SIMD in GCN.

As is the case with Cayman's SPs, the SIMD is capable of a number of different integer and floating point operations. AMD has not gone into fine detail yet of what those are, but we’re expecting something similar to Cayman with the possible exception of how transcendentals are handled. One thing that we do know is that FP64 performance has been radically improved: the GCN architecture is capable of FP64 performance up to ½ its FP32 performance. For home users this isn’t going to make a significant impact right away, but it’s going to help AMD get into professional markets where such precision is necessary.

 

Prelude: The History of VLIW & Graphics Many SIMDs Make One Compute Unit
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  • mariush - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    Last paragraph, last page....

    It’s clear that 2011 is shaping up to be a big year for GPUs, and we’re not even half-way through. So stay tuned, there’s much more to come.

    Say what?
    Reply
  • ajp_anton - Thursday, December 22, 2011 - link

    It's an old article (I'm guessing June 17th based on first comment), but bumped to the top because of the "launch". Don't know why the article's date is new... Reply
  • AbheekG - Friday, August 9, 2019 - link

    2019 and still an article worth studying and referring to. Amazing job with this, it's a prime example of quality tech journalism! Reply

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