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Diomidis Spinellis Publications

Some Types of Memory are More Equal than Others

Diomidis Spinellis
Department Management Science and Technology
Athens University of Economics and Business

If we want to make intelligent decisions regarding the performance of our systems, we must understand how the various types of memory we find in them work together to provide us with the illusion of a huge and blindingly fast memory store. For example, a program's space requirements often affect its execution speed. This happens, because a computer system's memory is a complex amalgam of various memory technologies, each with different cost, size, and performance characteristics. Making our program's working set small enough to get a front seat on a processor's level 1 cache may provide us with a very noticeable boost in its execution speed. Along the same lines, in today's networked computing environments and distributed applications, lower size requirements translate into lower bandwidth requirements, and therefore, swifter program loading and operation. Finally, a program's service capacity is often constrained by the space requirements of its data set.

1  Overview

↓ Increasing size CPU registers
Level 1 cache (on chip)
Level 2 cache
Level 3 cache (off chip)
Main memory
Disk cache and banked memory
Paged out memory
File-based disk storage
↑ Increasing speed and cost Off line storage
Figure 1: A modern computer's storage hierarchy.
Due to a number of engineering decisions involving complicated tradeoffs, modern computers sport numerous different memory systems layered on top of each other. (As a general rule, whenever you see `complicated tradeoffs' read `cost'.) At any point of time our data will be stored in one (or more) of these many layers, and the way a program's code is organized may take advantage of the storage system's organization, or be penalized by it. Some of the layers we will talk about are related to caching. In this article we describe them from the viewpoint of storage organization.
Let us overview how data storage is organized on a modern computer. Figure 1 illustrates the hierarchy formed by different storage technologies. Elements near the top represent scarce resources: fast but expensive. As we move toward the bottom the elements represent abundant resources: cheap but slow. The fastest way to have a processor process a data element, is for the element to be in a register (or an instruction). The register is encoded as part of the CPU instruction, and is immediately available to it. However, this advantage means that processors offer only a small fixed number of registers (8 for example on the IA-32; 128 on Sun's SPARC architecture.) See how a data processing instruction (such as ADD) is encoded on the ARM architecture:
31 28 27 26 25 24 21 20 19 16 15 12 11 0
Cond 00 I Opcode S Rn Rd Operand 2
Rn is the source register and Rd the destination. Each register is encoded using four bits, limiting the number of registers that can be represented on this architecture to 16. Registers are used for storing local variables, temporary values, function arguments, and return values. Nowadays they are allocated to their various uses by the compiler, which uses extremely sophisticated algorithms for optimizing performance at a local and global level. In older programs you may find this allocation specified by the programmers based on their intuition on which values should be placed in a register; here is a typical example from the Korn shell source code.
struct tbl *
    register const char *n;
    register struct block *l = e->loc;
    register struct tbl *vp;
    register int c;
    unsigned h;
    bool_t   array;
    int  val;
This strategy might have been beneficial when compilers had to fit in 64 kB of memory and could not afford to do anything clever with register allocation; modern compilers simply ignore the register keyword.

2  Main Memory and its Caches

The next four layers of our hierarchy (from the level 1 cache up to the main memory) involve the specification of data through a memory address. This (typically 16, 32, or 64-bit) address is often encoded on a word separate from the instruction (it can also be specified through a register) and thus may involve an additional instruction fetch. Worse, it involves interfacing with dynamic RAMs, the storage technology used for a computer's main memory, which is simply not keeping pace with the speed increases of modern processors. Fetching an instruction or data element from main memory can have the processor wait for a time equivalent to that of the execution of hundreds of instructions. To minimize this penalty, modern processors include facilities for storing temporary copies of frequently used data on faster, more versatile, more easily accessible, and, of course, more expensive memory: a cache. For a number of reasons a memory cache is typically organized as a set of blocks (typically 8-128 bytes long) containing the contents of consecutive memory addresses. Keep this fact in your mind, we'll come back to it later on.
The level 1 cache is typically part of the processor's die. Often it is split into an area used for storing instructions, and one used for storing data, because the two have different access patterns. To minimize the cache's impact on the die size (and therefore on the processor's production yield1 and its cost) this cache is kept relatively small. For example, the Sun microSPARC I featured a 4 kB instruction and a 2 kB data cache; moving upward, the Intel 3.2 GHz Pentium 4 processor features a 1 MB cache.
Because of the inherent size limitations of the on-chip cache, a level 2 cache is sometimes implemented through a separate memory chip and control logic, either packaged with the processor, or located near the processor. This, can be a lot larger: it used to be 64 kB on early 486 PC motherboards; an Intel 3.2GHz Xeon processor comes with 2MB. Finally, computer manufacturers are increasingly introducing in their designs a level 3 cache, which either involves different speed versus cost tradeoffs, or is used for keeping a coherent copy of data in multiprocessor designs.
How do these levels of the memory hierarchy relate to our code and its properties? Mainly in two ways: by reducing a program's memory consumption, and increasing its locality of reference, we can often increase its time performance. All of us have witnessed the pathological case where increased memory consumption coupled with a lack of locality of reference leads to a dramatic performance drop due to thrashing. In the following paragraphs we will examine the meritorious side of the coin, where appropriate design and implementation decisions can lead to time performance increases.
First of all, memory savings can translate into speed increases, when the corresponding data set is made to fit into a more efficient part of a memory hierarchy. In an ideal world, all our computer's memory would consist of the high-speed memory chips used in its cache. (This ideal world actually exists, and it is called a government-funded supercomputer.) We can however also pretend to live in the ideal world, by being frugal in the amount of memory our application requires. If that amount is small enough to fit into the level 2 (or, even better, the level 1) cache, then we will notice an (often dramatic) speed increase. Here is an actual code comment detailing this fact.
// Be aware that time will be affected by the buffer fitting/not
// fitting in the cache (ie, if default_total*sizeof(T) bytes
// fit in the cache).
Cases where the effort of fitting an application into a cache can be a worthwhile exercise typically involve tight, performance-critical, code. For example, a JVM implementation that could fit in its entirety into a processor's level 1 instruction cache would enjoy substantial performance benefits over one that couldn't.
There are however many cases where our program's data or instructions could never fit the processor's cache. In such cases, improving a program's locality of reference can result into speed increases, as data elements are more likely to be found in a cache. Improved locality of reference can occur both at the microscopic level (for example two structure elements being only 8 bytes apart), and at the macroscopic level (for example the entire working set for a calculation fitting in a 256 kB level 1 cache). Both can increase a program's speed, but for different reasons.
Related data elements that are very close together in memory, have an increased chance to appear together in a cache block; one of them causing the other to be prefetched. Earlier on, we mentioned that caches organize their elements in blocks associated with consecutive memory addresses. This organization can result in increased memory access efficiency as the second related element is essentially fetched from the slow main memory as a side effect of filling the corresponding cache block. For this reason some style guides (such as the following excerpt from the FreeBSD documentation) recommend placing structure members together ordered by use.
 * When declaring variables in structures, declare them sorted
 * by use, then by size, and then by alphabetical order.  The
 * first category normally doesn't apply, but there are
 * exceptions.  Each one gets its own line.
(The exceptions referred to above, are probably performance critical sections of code, sensitive to the phenomenon we described.)
In other cases, a calculation may use a small percentage of a program's data. When that working set is concentrated in a way that it can all fit into a cache at the same time, the calculation will all run at the speed of the cache, and not at that of the much slower main memory. Here is a comment from the NetBSD TCP processing code describing the rationale behind a design to improve the data's locality of reference.
 * (2) Allocate syn_cache structures in pages (or some other
 *     large chunk).  This would probably be desirable for
 *     maintaining locality of reference anyway.
Locality of reference can also be important for code; here is another related comment from the X Window System VGA server code.
 * Reordered code for register starved CPU's (Intel x86) plus
 * it achieves better locality of code for other processors.

3  Disk Cache and Banked Memory

Moving down our memory hierarchy, before reaching the disk-based file storage, we encounter two strange beasts: the disk cache and banked memory. The disk cache is a classic case of space over time optimization, the banked memory is ... embarrassing. Accessing data stored in any of the two involves approximately the same processing overhead, and for this reason they appear together in our table. Nevertheless, their purpose and operation are completely different, so we'll examine each one it turn.
The disk cache is an area of the main memory reserved for storing temporary copies of disk contents. Accessing data on disk-based storage is at least an order of magnitude slower than accessing main-memory. Note that this figure represents a best (and relatively rare) case: sustained serial I/O to or from a disk device. Any random access operation involving a head seek and a disk rotation is a lot slower; a six orders of magnitude difference between disk and memory access time (12ms over 2ns) should not surprise you. To overcome this burden, an operating systems aggressively keeps copies of the disk contents in an area of the main memory it reserves for this purpose. Any subsequent read or write operations involving the same contents (remember the locality of reference principle) can then be satisfied by reading or writing the corresponding memory blocks. Of course, the main memory differs from the disk in that its contents get lost when power is lost; therefore, periodically (for example every 30s on some Unix systems) the cache contents are written to disk.
Furthermore, for some types of data (such as elements of a database transaction log, or a filesystem's directory contents-the so-called directory metadata) the 30s flush interval can be unacceptably high; such data is often scheduled to be written to disk in a synchronous manner, or through a time-ordered journal. Keep in mind here that some filesystems, either by default (the Linux ext2fs), or through an option (the FreeBSD FFS with soft updates enabled), will write directory metadata to disk in an asynchronous manner. This affects what will happen when the system powers down in an anomalous fashion, due to a power failure or a crash. In some implementations after a reboot the filesystem's state may not be consistent with the order of the operations that were performed on it before the crash.
Nevertheless, the performance impact of the disk cache is big enough to make a difference between a usable system, and one that almost grinds to a halt. For this reason, many modern operating systems will use all their free memory as a disk cache.
As we mentioned, banked memory is an embarrassment, and we should not be discussing it at all, but for the fact, that the same embarrassment keeps recurring (in different forms) every couple of years. Recall that with a variable N bits wide we can address 2N different elements. Consider the task of estimating the number of elements we might need to address (the size of our address space) over the lifetime of our processor's architecture. If we allocate more bits to a variable (say a machine's address register) than those we would need to address our data, we end-up wasting valuable resources. On the other hand, if we underestimate the number of elements we might need to address we will find ourselves in a tight corner.
Intel Address Addressing Stopgap measure
architecture bits limit
8080 16 64 kB IA-16 segment registers
IA-16 20 1MB XMS (Extended Memory Specification); LIM EMS (Lotus/Intel/Microsoft Expanded Memory Specification)
IA-32 32 4GB PAE (Physical Address Extensions); AWE (Address Windowing Extensions)
Table 1: Successive address space limitations, and their interim solutions.
In Table 1 you can see three generations of address space limitations encountered within the domain of Intel architectures, and a description of the corresponding solutions. Note that the table refers only to an architecture's address space; we could draw similar tables for other variables, such as those used for addressing physical bytes, bytes in a file, bytes on a disk, and machines on the internet. The technologies associated with the table's first two rows are fortunately no longer relevant. One would think that we would have known better by now to avoid repeating those mistakes, but this is sadly untrue.
At the time of writing some programs and applications are facing the 4GB limit of the 32-bit address space. There are systems, such as database servers or busy web application servers, that can benefit from having at their disposal more than 4GB of physical memory. New members of the IA-32 architecture have hardware that can address more than 4GB of physical memory. This feature comes under the name Physical Address Extensions (PAE). Nowadays, we don't need segment registers or BIOS calls to extend the accessible memory range, because the processor's paging hardware already contains a physical to virtual address translation feature. All that is needed is for the address translation tables to be extended to address more than 4GB. Nevertheless, this processor feature still does not mean that an application can transparently access more than 4GB of memory. At best, the operating system can allocate different applications in a physical memory area larger than 4GB by appropriately manipulating their corresponding virtual memory translation tables. Also, the operating system can provide an API so that an application can request different parts of the physical memory to be mapped into its virtual memory space; again a stopgap measure, which involves the overhead of operating system calls. An example of such an API are the Address Windowing Extensions (AWE) available on the Microsoft Windows system.

4  Swap Area and File-based Disk Storage

The next level down in our memory storage hierarchy moves us away from the relatively fast main memory, into the domain governed by the (in comparison) abysmally slow and clunky mechanical elements of electromagnetic storage devices (hard disks). The first element we encounter here is the operating system's swap area containing the memory pages it has temporarily stored on the disk, in order to free the main memory for more pressing needs. Also here might be pages of code that has not yet been executed and will be paged-in by demand. At the same level, in terms of performance, but more complicated to access, in terms of the API, is the file-based disk storage. Both areas have typically orders of magnitude larger capacity than the system's main memory. Keep however in mind that on many operating systems the amount of available swap space or the amount of heap space a process can allocate is fixed by the system administrator and can not grow above the specified limit, without manual administrative intervention. On many Unix systems the available swap space is determined by the size of the device or file specified in the swapon call and the corresponding command; on Windows systems the administrator can place a hard limit on the maximum size of the paging file. It is therefore unwise not to check the return value of a malloc memory allocation call against the possibility of memory exhaustion. The code in the following code excerpt could well crash when run on a system low on memory.
      TMPOUTNAME = (char *) malloc (tmpname_len);
      strcpy (TMPOUTNAME, tmpdir);
The importance of the file-based disk storage in relationship to a program's space performance is that disk space tends to be a lot larger than a system's main memory. Therefore a strategy, which Bentley terms uncaching, can save main memory by storing data into secondary storage. If the data is persistent and rarely used, or does not exhibit a significant locality of reference in the program's operation, then the program's speed may not be affected; in some cases by removing the caching overhead it may even be improved. In other cases, when main memory gets tight, this approach may be the only affordable one. As an example, the Unix sort implementations will only sort a certain amount of data in-core. When the file to be sorted exceeds that amount, the program will work by splitting its work into parts sized according to the maximum amount it can sort. It will sort in memory each part and write the result onto a temporary disk file. Finally, it will merge sort the temporary files, producing the end result. As another example, the nvi editor will use a backing file to store the data corresponding to the edited file. This makes it possible to edit arbitrarily large files, limited only by the size of the available temporary disk space.

5  The Lineup

Nominal Worst case Sustained Productivity
Component size latency throughput $1 buys (Bytes read / s / $)
(MB/s) Worst case Best case
L1 D cache 64 KB 1.4ns 19022 10.7 KB 7.91·1012 2.19·1014
L2 cache 512 KB 9.7ns 5519 12.8 KB 1.35·1012 7.61·1013
DDR RAM 256 MB 28.5ns 2541 9.48 MB 3.48·1014 2.65·1016
Hard drive 250 GB 25.6ms 67 2.91 GB 1.22·1011 2.17·1017
Table 2: Performance and cost of various memory types.
(Author pauses to wear his flame retardant suit.) To give you a feeling of how different memory types compare in practice I've calculated some numbers for a fairly typical configuration, based on some currently best-selling middle-range components: an AMD Athlon XP 3000+ processor, a 256 MB PC2700 DDR memory module, and a 250 GB 7200 RPM Maxtor hard drive. The results appear in Table 2. I obtained the component prices from on January 19, 2006. I calculated the cost of the cache memory by multiplying the processor's price by the die area occupied by the corresponding cache divided by the total size of the processor die (I measured the sizes on a die photograph). The worst case latency column lists the time it would take to fetch a byte, under the worst possible scenario: for example, a single byte from the same bank and following a write for the DDR RAM; with a maximum seek, rotational latency, and controller overhead for the hard drive. On the other hand, the sustained throughout column lists numbers where the devices operate close to ideal conditions for pumping out bytes as fast as possible: 8 bytes delivered at double the bus speed for the DDR RAM; the maximum sustained outer diameter data rate for the hard drive. In all cases, the ratio between bandwidth implied by the worst case latency and the sustained bandwidth is at least one order of magnitude, and it is this difference that allows our machines to deliver the performance we expect. In particular, the ratio is 27 for the level 1 cache, 56 for the level 2 cache, 76 for the DDR RAM, and 1.8 million for the hard drive. Note that as we move away from the processor there are more tricks we can play to increase the bandwidth, and we can get away with more factors that increase the latency.
The byte cost for each different kind of memory varies by three orders of magnitude: with one dollar we can buy KBs of cache memory, MBs of DDR RAM, and GBs of disk space. However, as one would expect, cheaper memory has a higher latency and a lower throughput. Things get more interesting when we examine the productivity of various memory types. Productivity is typically measured as output per unit of input; in our case I calculated it as read operations per second and $ cost for one byte. As you can see, if we look at the best case scenarios (the device operating at its maximum bandwidth), the hard drive's bytes are the most productive. In the worst case (latency-based) scenarios the productivity performance of the disk is abysmal, and this is why disks are nowadays furnished with abundant amounts of cache memory (8 MB in our case). The most productive device in the worst case latency-based measurements is the DDR RAM. These results are what we would expect from an engineering point of view: the hard disk, which is workhorse used for storing large amounts of data with the minimum cost, should offer the best overall productivity under ideal (best case) conditions, while the DDR RAM, which is used for satisfying a system's general purpose storage requirements, should offer the best overall productivity even under worst case conditions. Also note the low productivity of the level 1 and level 2 caches. This factor easily explains why processor caches are relatively small: they work admirably well, but they are expensive for the work they do.
What can we learn as programmers and system administrators from these numbers? Modeling the memory performance of modern systems is anything but trivial. As a programmer try to keep the amount of memory you use low and increase the locality of reference, so as to take advantage of the available caches and bandwidth-enhancing mechanisms. As a system administrator try to understand your users' memory requirements in terms of the hierarchy we saw, before making purchasing decisions; depending on your workload you may want to trade processor speed for memory capacity or bandwidth, or the opposite. Finally, always, measure carefully before you think about optimizing. And, next time you send a program whizzing through your computer's memory devices, spare a second to marvel the sophisticated technical and economic ecosystem these devices form.

Parts of this article are excerpted from the book Diomidis Spinellis Code Quality: The Open Source Perspective. Addison Wesley, 2006. The last section was inspired from the book's Exercise 5-8.

Diomidis Spinellis is an associate professor in the Department of Management Science and Technology at the Athens University of Economics and Business, a FreeBSD committer, and a four-times winner of the International Obfuscated C Code Contest.


1A larger processor die means there is a higher chance for an impurity to result in a malfunctioning chip, thus lowering the production's yield.