A Tour of the Pentium Pro Processor Microarchitecture

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A Tour of the Pentium Pro Processor Microarchitecture

Introduction

One of the Pentium Pro processor's primary goals was to significannot ly exceed the
performance of the 100MHz Pentium processor while being manufactured on the same semiconductor process. Using the same process as a volume production processor practically assured that the Pentium Pro processor would be manufacturable, but it meant that Intel had to focus on an improved microarchitecture for ALL of the performance gains. This guided tour describes how multiple architectural techniques - some proven in mainframe computers, some proposed in academia and some we innovated ourselves - were carefully interwoven, modified, enhanced, tuned and implemented to produce the Pentium Pro microprocessor. This unique combination of architectural features, which Intel describes as Dynamic Execution, enabled the first Pentium Pro processor silicon to exceed the original performance goal.

Building from an already high platform

The Pentium processor set an impressive performance standard with its pipelined, superscalar microarchitecture. The Pentium processor's pipelined implementation uses five stages to extract high throughput from the silicon - the Pentium Pro processor moves to a decoupled, 12-stage, superpipelined implementation, trading less work per pipestage for more stages. The Pentium Pro processor reduced its pipestage time by 33 percent, compared with a Pentium processor, which means the Pentium Pro processor can have a 33% higher clock speed than a Pentium processor and still be equally easy to produce from a semiconductor manufacturing process (i.e., transistor speed) perspective.

The Pentium processor's superscalar microarchitecture, with its ability to execute two instructions per clock, would be difficult to exceed without a new approach. The new approach used by the Pentium Pro processor removes the constraint of linear instruction sequencing between the traditional "fetch" and "execute" phases, and opens up a wide instruction window using an instruction pool. This approach allows the "execute" phase of the Pentium Pro processor to have much more visibility into the program's instruction stream so that better scheduling may take place. It requires the instruction "fetch/decode" phase of the Pentium Pro processor to be much more intelligent in terms of predicting program flow. Optimized scheduling requires the fundamental "execute" phase to be replaced by decoupled "dispatch/execute" and "retire" phases. This allows instructions to be started in any order but always be completed in the original program order. The Pentium Pro processor is implemented as three independent engines coupled with an instruction pool as shown in Figure 1 below.

What is the fundamental problem to solve?

Before starting our tour on how the Pentium Pro processor achieves its high performance it is important to note why this three- independent-engine approach was taken. A fundamental fact of today's microprocessor implementations must be appreciated: most CPU cores are not fully utilized. Consider the code fragment in Figure 2 below:

The first instruction in this example is a load of r1 that, at run time, causes a cache miss. A traditional CPU core must wait for its bus interface unit to read this data from main memory and return it before moving on to instruction 2. This CPU stalls while waiting for this data and is thus being under-utilized.

While CPU speeds have increased 10-fold over the past 10 years, the speed of main memory devices has only increased by 60 percent. This increasing memory latency, relative to the CPU core speed, is a fundamental problem that the Pentium Pro processor set out to solve. One approach would be to place the burden of this problem onto the chipset but a high-performance CPU that needs very high speed, specialized, support components is not a good solution for a volume production system.

A brute-force approach to this problem...
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