Microprocessor Design/Performance Metrics

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Performance Metrics[edit | edit source]

Performance metrics are measurements of a microprocessor that help to determine how well a microprocessor performs.

For many years, computers were excruciatingly slow. Much time and effort were dedicated to finding ways of getting typical batch programs to run faster -- to reduce runtime or, in other words, to improve throughput. In the process, many other things were sacrificed.

Runtime[edit | edit source]

Runtime is the time it takes to run a program.

We will discuss some of the subtleties of accurately measuring runtime in a later Benchmarking section.

For now, let us note that, for any program running on any computer,

time per program = clock period * cycles per instruction * instructions executed per program

You see there are 3 different factors involved in the total time. If you can reduce any one of those factors, then the time will be shorter, making your users happier.

Alas, all too often attempts at making one factor shorter result in making some other factor larger. Sometimes a CPU designer will focusing on only one factor, trying to make it as small as possible, and hoping that the resulting increases in the other factors will be small enough that there is still a net improvement.

Clock rate[edit | edit source]

Clock rate (often called "clock speed") is one of the easiest to measure performance metrics, and the most over-emphasized.

As of 2008, clock rate of most CPUs is measured in MHz. A typical FPGA soft processor runs at about 10 MHz (a clock period of 100 ns), but later in this book we will explain techniques for increasing the clock rate of a FPGA soft processor to over 100 MHz (a clock period of less than 10 ns).

Cycles per Instruction[edit | edit source]

Historically, all early computers used many clock cycles during the execution of even the simplest instruction. During the RISC revolution, many designers focused on reducing this factor closer to the apparent minimum of 1 cycle per instruction. We will discuss some of the techniques used later in this book. Since then, CPUs that use techniques such as superscalar execution and multicore computing have reduced this even further. Such CPUs can (on average) use less than 1 cycle per instruction.

"CPI" is a throughput measure of how many instructions are completed (on average) for a given number of clocks. A CPU that can complete, on average, 2 instructions per cycle (a CPI of 0.5) may have a 20 stage pipeline, which inevitably causes a 20 cycle latency between an instruction fetch to the completion of that instruction. We ignore those 20 cycles when we calculate CPI.

instructions executed per program[edit | edit source]

If the program you need to run is a binary executable, this number can't be changed.

However, some CPU designers have the freedom of designing a new instruction set (or at least adding a few instructions to an old instruction set).

Early CPU designers attempted to reduce this number by adding new, more complicated instructions, that did more work. (Later this idea was retroactively called "CISC"). When a given program (perhaps a benchmark program) is re-compiled for this new instruction set and executed, it requires fewer total executed instructions to finish. Alas, these more complicated instructions often require more cycles to execute -- or worse, a longer clock period, which slows down every instruction -- so the net benefit was not as great as was hoped. In a surprising number of cases, such "RICH" instructions actually made the runtime worse (longer). Benchmarking is required to see if such changes to the instruction set are worthwhile.

Some examples where it did turn out to be worthwhile:

More complicated instructions that do more work include the "load multiple" and "store multiple" instructions of the ARM processors, the "multimedia extensions" of other processors, the MAC instructions used by most DSPs, etc.

Sometimes a CPU can be tweaked in ways that fewer instructions need to be executed in a program, without adding complexity -- the "every instruction is conditional" technique used by ARM processors (the "conditional logic" was needed anyway for conditional branches); the "add more registers" and "register windowing" ideas, each of which attempts to reduce the number of register spill/reload instructions; widening the width of the data bus, so more data can be transferred per "load" or "store" instruction (also enabling wider instructions); etc.

There are a few chips that do things in a few cycles of a single "instruction" that any von Neumann CPU would require hundreds of cycles to implement -- such as content-addressible RAM.

Processor Time[edit | edit source]

MIPS/$[edit | edit source]

When building a computer cluster, the raw MIPS of any one chip is irrelevant. When someone needs a teraflop of performance, no one chip can do it. The person is forced to keep adding CPUs until he gets the performance he wants. There are many tricks (that we will discuss later) that slightly reduce the runtime of one program on one CPU, but make that CPU much more expensive. Rather than build a teraflop system out of a few of the lowest-runtime chips, usually people build such a system out of CPUs that take slightly longer to perform any particular task, but then these people simply use a lot more of them.

In such systems is useful if the CPUs are specifically designed to coordinate their work and synchronize rapidly.

Latency[edit | edit source]

In hard real-time systems, low latency is critical.

MIPS/mW[edit | edit source]


Most CPUs in mobile electronics -- PDAs, cell phones, laptops, wireless keyboards, MP3 players, etc. -- are underclocked.

Why do people deliberately clock them at a rate far below their potential runtime performance? Because clocking them any faster squanders battery life.

Every clock tick to a particular CPU uses up (approximately) some fixed amount of energy. If it takes (hypothetically) 900,000 clock ticks on that CPU to decode one second worth of MP3, then we maximize battery life by clocking the CPU at 0.9 MHz while playing MP3s.

Say we have some other CPU that requires 4,000,000 clock ticks to decode one second worth of MP3. Which CPU should we use? The absolute fastest MIPS rating at the maximum speed is irrelevant. The "clock ticks required to decode one second worth of MP3" is irrelevant. The better CPU for a MP3 player is the one that gives the maximum battery life, assuming we are smart enough to underclock each CPU to give its maximum battery life. Or in other words (since the amount of "work" done decoding an MP3 is fixed, and the amount of energy stored in a battery is fixed), the better CPU is the one with more MIPS/mW.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  1. "CISC, RISC, and DSP Microprocessors" by Douglas L. Jones 2000 "Most quoted numbers for DSP uPs not MIPS, but MIPS/$$, MIPS/mW" "Why have RISC/CISC converged?"