Memory Models: x86 is TSO, TSO is Good

By chance, I got to attend a day at the UPMARC Summer School with a very enjoyable talk by Francesco Zappa Nardelli from INRIA. He described his work (along with others) on understanding and modeling multiprocessor memory models. It is a very complex subject, but he managed to explain it very well.

He showed a very interesting discussion from a few years ago on the x86 memory model and the implementation of spinlocks in the Linux kernel. Various experts went back and forth over whether the final MOV that sets a lock variable to 1 needed to be prefixed by LOCK or not. The discussion ended when Linus Torvalds said “I know that it is needed”. Only to see an Intel architect finally intervene and say “you know, really, it isn’t needed”. This was followed by a series of releases of Intel manuals documenting the x86 memory model, with increasing precision in each release. Intel also actually changed the published rules along the road, withdrawing some optimizations as they realized that they would break existing software.

Note that such a description of a memory model must both describe existing hardware, and serve as the guideline for future hardware. Therefore, there are optimizations that are not implemented today but which are possible given the rules. Such optimization opportunities can be removed from the rulebook as long as they have never been part of shipping hardware, so it is not as crazy as it might sound.

Anyway, the point that Francesco made was both to tell an interesting story from history, and making the point that describing and understanding memory models is hard. I certainly agree with that. I recall an ISCA many years ago when some computer architecture professors all agreed that very few people really understand consistency and weak memory models.

To make life easier for programmers, Francesco and Peter Sewell (in Cambridge) has defined their own set of rules for x86 memory consistency. This is not an architecture spec, but a rule set for regular programmers. It is found at http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~pes20/weakmemory/. Essentially, the conclusion is that x86 in practice implements the old SPARC TSO memory model.

They have also attempted to formalize the Power Architecture memory model. Both the actual memory model and their model of it can only be described as very complex. The programmer’s model is expressed in terms of store queues, speculative instruction execution, and commits of instructions. Not something you easily keep in your head. It is interesting to note that ARM MPCore essentially copied the Power Architecture.

He showed an interactive simulation of the Power memory model, and the way that you need to think about it in terms of propagating information between threads and committing them. It is possible to propagate values and then another propagation overrides a value before the thread commits… Fun. Or a headache.

The big take-away from the talk for me is that it confirms the observation made may times before that SPARC TSO seems to be the optimal memory model. It is sufficiently understandable that programmers can write correct code without having barriers everywhere. It is sufficiently weak that you can build fast hardware implementation that can scale to big machines.

Maybe TSO does not theoretically scale in the same insane way as Power or Alpha does/did. But the cost of that theoretical scalability is that programmers might have to litter their code with sync operations just to get it to run correctly. With too many sync operations, the code will run very slowly negating any advantage on the hardware level. Note that sync operations can be very expensive. Doug Lea, in the audience, pointed out that a sync can cost up to 300 cycles on a POWER5.

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