cpu architecture – How many clock cycles do the stages of a simple 5 stage processor take?

Classic 5-stage RISC pipelines are designed around single-cycle latency L1d / L1i, allowing 1 IPC (instruction per clock) in code without cache misses or other stalls. ie the hopefully common / good case. Every stage must have a worst-case critical path latency of 1 cycle, or trigger a stall.

Clock speeds were lower back then (even relative to 1 gate delay) so you could get more done in a single cycle, and the caches were simpler, often 8k direct-mapped, single port, sometimes even virtually tagged (VIVT) so TLB lookup wasn’t part of the access latency.
First-gen MIPS, the R2000 (and R3000), had on-chip controllers1 for its direct-mapped PIPT split L1i/L1d write-through caches, but the actual tags+data were off-chip, from 4K to 64K. Achieving the required single-cycle latency with this setup limited clock speeds to 15 MHz (R2000) or 33 MHz (R3000) with available SRAM technology. The TLB was fully on-chip.

vs. modern Intel/AMD using 32kiB 8-way VIPT L1d/L1i caches, with at least 2 read + 1 write port for L1d, at such high clock speed that access latency is 4 cycles best-case on Intel SnB-family, or 5 cycles including address-generation. Modern CPUs have larger TLBs, too, which also adds to the latency. This is ok when out-of-order execution and/or other techniques can usually hide that latency, but classic 5-stage RISCs just had one single pipeline, not separately pipelined memory access. See also Cycles/cost for L1 Cache hit vs. Register on x86? for some more links about how performance on modern superscalar out-of-order exec x86 CPUs differs from classic-RISC CPUs.

If you wanted to raise clock speeds for the same transistor performance (gate delay)you’d divide the fetch and mem stages into multiple pipeline stages (ie pipelines them more heavily), if cache access was even on the critical path (ie if cache access could no longer be done in one clock period). The downside of lengthening the pipeline is raising branch latency (cost of a mispredict, and the amount of latency a correct prediction has to hide), as well as raising total transistor cost.


Note that classic-RISC pipelines do address-generation in the EX stage, using the ALU there to calculate register + immediate, the only addressing mode supported by most RISC ISAs build around such a pipeline. So load-use latency is effectively 2 cycles for pointer-chasing, due to the load delay for forwarding back to EX.)


On a cache missthe entire pipeline would just stall: those early pipelines lacked scoreboarding of loads to allow hit-under-miss or miss-under-miss for loads from L1d cache.

MIPS R2000 did have a 4-entry store buffer to decouple execution from cache-miss stores. (Apparently built from 4 separate R2020 write-buffer chips, according to wikipedia.) The LSI datasheet says the write-buffer chips were optional, but with write-through caches, every store has to go to DRAM and would create a stall without write buffering. Most modern CPUs use write-back caches, allowing multiple writes of the same line without creating DRAM traffic.

Also remember that CPU speed wasn’t as high relative to memory for early CPUs like MIPS R2000, and single-core machines didn’t need an interconnection between cores and memory controllers. (Although they maybe did have a frontside bus to a memory controller on a separate chip, a “northbridge”.) But anyway, back then a cache miss to DRAM cost a lot fewer core clock cycles. It sucks to fully stall on every miss, but it wasn’t like modern CPUs where it can be in the 150 to 350 cycles range (70 ns * 5 GHz). DRAM latency hasn’t improved nearly as much as bandwidth and CPU clocks. See also http://www.lighterra.com/papers/modernmicroprocessors/ which has a “memory wall” section, and Why is the size of L1 cache smaller than that of the L2 cache in most of the processors? re: why modern CPUs need multi-level caches as the mismatch between CPU speed and memory latency has grown.

Later CPUs allowed progressively more memory-level parallelism by doing things like allowing execution to continue after a non-faulting load (successful TLB lookup), only stalling when you actually read a register that was last written by a load, if the load result isn’t ready yet. This allows hiding load latency on a still-short and fairly simple in-order pipeline, with some number of load buffers to track outstanding loads. And with register renaming + OoO exec, the ROB size is basically the “window” over which you can hide cache-miss latency: https://blog.stuffedcow.net/2013/05/measuring-rob-capacity/

Modern x86 CPUs even have buffers between pipelines in the front-end to hide or partially absorb fetch bubbles (caused by L1i misses, decode stalls, low-density code, eg a jump to another jump, or even just fail to predict a simple always-taken branch. ie only detecting it when it’s eventually decoded, after fetching something other than the correct path. jmp foo need some prediction for the fetch stage.)

https://www.realworldtech.com/haswell-cpu/2/ has some good diagrams. Of course, Intel SnB-family and AMD Zen-family use a decoded-uop cache because x86 machine code is hard to decode in parallel, so often they can bypass some of that front-end complexity, effectively shortening the pipeline. (wikichip has block diagrams and microarchitecture details for Zen 2.)

See also Modern Microprocessors A 90-Minute Guide! re: modern CPUs and the “memory wall”: the increasing mismatch between DRAM latency and core clock cycle time. DRAM latency has only dropped a little bit (in absolute nanoseconds) as bandwidth has continued to climb tremendously in recent years.

Footnote 1: MIPS R2000 cache details:

An R2000 datasheet shows the D-cache was write-through, and various other interesting things.

According to a 1992 usenet message from an SGI engineer, the control logic just sends 18 index bits, receiving a word of data + 8 tags bits to determine hit or not. The CPU is oblivious to the cache size; you connect up the right number of index lines to SRAM address lines. (So ​​I guess a line-size of one 4-byte word?)

You have to use at least 10 index bits because the tag is only 20 bits wide, and you need tag+index+2(byte-in-word) to be 32, the physical address-space size. That sets a minimum cache size of 4K.

20 bits of tag for every 32 bits of data is very inefficient. With a larger cache, fewer tag bits are actually needed, since more of the address is used up as part of the index. But Paul Ries posted that R2000/R3000 does not support comparing fewer tag bits. IDK if you could wire up some of the address output lines to the tag input lines, to generate matching bits instead of storing them in SRAMs.

A 32-byte cache line would still only need 20-bit tags (at most), but would have one tag per 8 words, a factor of 8 improvement in tag overhead. CPUs with larger caches, especially L2 caches, would definitely want to use larger line sizes.

But you’re probably more likely to get conflict misses with fewer larger lines, especially with a direct-mapped cache. And the memory bus can still be busy filling a previous line when you encounter another miss, even if you have critical-word-first / early-restart so the miss latency wasn’t worse if the memory bus was idle to start with.

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