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Stefan Kalkowski avatar

Micro benchmarks - what can possibly go wrong

From time to time I need to compare execution times and memory throughput in between Genode's hw-kernel and the baseline (typically using Linux) regarding one of the hardware platforms supported by Genode. Mostly this is done when the hw-kernel is ported to new hardware, or we experience unusual workloads on a platform, like recently when investigating a non-working USB driver on Raspberry Pi 1.

Before diving into implementation details of the complex driver, I first liked to exclude that the hw-kernel initializes hardware inappropriatedly, which is why the driver would not have enough CPU time or experience too high latencies.

In the past I have used a simple bogomips routine from time-to-time, which could be executed on top of Linux and Genode:

 void bogomips() __attribute__((optimize("O0")));

 void bogomips()
     for (register unsigned i = 0; i < 1000000000; i++) { ; }

When observing more-or-less the same run-time on both systems while executing the loop, I was confident that at least the CPU runs with the same frequency, and there are no big configuration issues regarding the CPU. Of course I was lazy and presumed that the Linux kernel developers have configured the hardware correctly, and the compiler would produce instructions that do not touch memory within the loop. Otherwise I would measure memory access latency instead of cpu execution times. When initially writing and compiling above simple loop, of course I've checked the resulting binary, and looked at the dissassembled code for different architectures, and it produced the assumed outcome. Which means the exit-condition value got transfered into one register, and another zero-initialized register got incremented until it reached the value of the first one.

Now, when recycling this approach with a more recent toolchain of Genode for testing the Raspberry Pi 1, I could observe that the compiler produced the following code:

 01000084 <_Z8bogomipsv>:
  1000084:       e92d0810        push    {r4, fp}
  1000088:       e28db004        add     fp, sp, #4
  100008c:       e3a04000        mov     r4, #0
  1000090:       e59f301c        ldr     r3, [pc, #28]   ; 10000b4 <_Z8bogomipsv+0x30>
  1000094:       e1540003        cmp     r4, r3
  1000098:       8a000001        bhi     10000a4 <_Z8bogomipsv+0x20>
  100009c:       e2844001        add     r4, r4, #1
  10000a0:       eafffffa        b       1000090 <_Z8bogomipsv+0xc>
  10000a4:       e320f000        nop     {0}
  10000a8:       e24bd004        sub     sp, fp, #4
  10000ac:       e8bd0810        pop     {r4, fp}
  10000b0:       e12fff1e        bx      lr
  10000b4:       3b9ac9ff        .word   0x3b9ac9ff

As one can see, the exit-condition value stored at address 0x10000b4 is loaded during every loop cycle, which would rather measure memory access times.

Therefore, I had to bite the bullet and provide an assembler routine per architecture instead of using a high-level language function for measuring. I wrote something like this:

 .global bogomips
 push { r4 }
 mov r4, #0
 cmp r4, r0
 addne r4, r4, #1
 bne 1b
 pop  { r4 }
 mov pc, lr

When called like this:


the routine executes 10 billion instructions including a branch every forth one.

When executing the same routine on Linux and Genode, I could measure that Genode needed twice as long as Linux to execute the same loop ~30 seconds.

After a short review round through the platform initialization code, I quickly found that the branch predictor on this specific CPU was never enabled since the Raspberry Pi 1 support entered Genode. Lucky about my finding, I was sure we will now behave exactly like Linux, but instead I measure we were still much slower.

Ok, my first thinking was: probably the Linux kernel changes the clock speed of the CPU. But after rounds of investigating and instrumenting the Linux kernel, I could not find something related. On this platform, you have to call the firmware running on the GPU to change CPU clock rate. But the Linux driver calling the firmware on the GPU side was not called to change it. All my attempts to raise the clock speed in Genode dynamically failed, until I learned that you have to configure the maximum and minimum clock speed values at load time in the firmware to be able to change it at run-time. Anyway, the clock speed was the same in Linux and Genode, and that excursion was a dead-end.

To find the point when Linux is toggling the right switch, I moved that "bogomips" loop at the very beginging of the Linux kernel, and behold: it was as slow as under Genode!

I moved it step-by-step to the end of the kernel initialization, but it kept slow. When executing the same assembler loop in a normal Linux user programm it took a bit more than 13 seconds, but whereever I executed it in the kernel it took a bit more than 17 seconds - the same time I measured under Genode. Even when I put that routine into a kernel module and loaded that dynamically it kept slower.

Therefore, I intensively studied how the Linux kernel uses page-table attributes for different memory areas. I thought they might use the ARM TEX remap approach on this platform (nope), or have other differentiation attributes. While doing so, I learned that Linux uses even different memory domains for IO, KERN, and USER on this platform, something somehow compareable to segmentation on x86. However, whatever I did with the paging attributes under Genode it kept as slow as before. Only after I desperately turned the paging into ARMv5 compatibility format - effectlively turning off some of the access permission flags - it became faster. This was unexpected to me. The loop above fits perfectly into the instruction cache - no need to fetch it again from memory. I also executed it inside the kernel with disabled interrupts. It never got interrupted. But nonetheless, when turning off certain permission bits relevant to MMU and TLB usage by using the ARMv5 page-table format the whole loop became about 3 seconds faster. Here the impact of the whole mostly invisible, speculative execution complex became apparent.

Finally, I threw away all my experiments (of course I kept the enabled branch predictor ;-)), and had a second look at the compilation of the Linux userland program and the Genode component. Of course, the assembler routine was identically, but ... you might guess it already ... uh no, it was linked to differently aligned addresses. On Genode it was word-aligned like it needs to be on ARM. But on Linux the routine was 256-byte aligned. When moving the Linux routine artificially by adding some "nop" instructions at the beginning of the routine, it became as slow as on Genode.

I was thumping the table with my head, and realized: micro-benchmarking for adults only!

BTW.: probably this happened because I used two different compilers (yes Sebastian you are right, never do this when benchmarking!), because I had no Genode toolchain available for ARM Linux, but used the gcc from the Raspbian package. I thought it does not matter, because the 10G instructions I measure are written by hand in assembler. Anyway, even when using the same compiler due to the different environment the assembler routine is linked to, you have to define the alignment explicitely. Otherwise, you might compare completely different hardware code-pathes inside of the blackbox mystery called modern CPU.