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Recap: Chunky Memory

For high-performance code, we've always had to be aware of paging and caching effects. Now, hardware concurrency adds a whole new layer to consider.

When you ask for a byte of memory, the system never retrieves just one byte. We probably all know that nearly all computer systems keep track—not of bytes, but of chunks of memory. There are two major levels at which chunking occurs: the operating system chunks virtual memory into pages, each of which is managed as a unit, and the cache hardware further chunks memory into cache lines, which again are each handled as a unit. Figure 1 shows a simplified view. (In a previous article, we considered some issues that arise from nonshared caches, where only subsets of processors share caches in common [2].)

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Figure 1: Chunking in the memory hierarchy.

First, consider memory pages: How big is a page? That's up to the OS and varies by platform, but on mainstream systems the page size is typically 4K or more (see Figure 2). So when you ask for just one byte on a page that's not currently in memory, you incur two main costs:

  • Speed: A page fault where the OS has to load the entire page from disk.
  • Space: Memory overhead for storing the entire page in memory, even if you only ever touch one byte from the page.

Second, consider cache lines: How big is a line? That's up to the cache hardware and again varies, but on mainstream systems the line size is typically 64 bytes (see Figure 2). So when you ask for just one byte on a line that's not currently in cache, you incur two main costs:

  • Speed: A cache miss where the cache hardware has to load the entire line from memory.
  • Space: Cache overhead for storing the entire line in cache, even if you only ever touch one byte from the line.

And now comes the fun part. On multicore hardware, if one core writes to a byte of memory, then typically, as part of the hardware's cache coherency protocol, that core will automatically (read: invisibly) take an exclusive write lock on that cache line. The good news is that this prevents other cores from causing trouble by trying to perform conflicting writes. The sad news is that it also means, well, taking a lock.

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Figure 2: Load a byte = load a line + load a page.


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