New Ways To Scale Performance

What vector processing has to do with big data and why it’s so important.


Immense amounts of data are being collected today in areas such as meteorology, geology, astronomy, quantum physics, fluid dynamics, and pharmaceutical research. Exascale computing (the execution of a billion billion floating point operations, or exaFLOPs, per second) is the target that many HPC systems aspire to over the next 5 to 10 years. In addition, advances in data analytics and areas such as computer vision and machine learning are already increasing the demands for increased parallelization of program execution today and into the future.

Over the years, considerable research has gone into determining how best to extract more data level parallelism from general-purpose programming languages such as C, C++ and Fortran. This has resulted in the inclusion of vectorization features such as gather load & scatter store, per-lane predication, and of course longer vectors.

A key choice to make is the most appropriate vector length, where many factors may influence the decision:

• Current implementation technology and associated power, performance and area tradeoffs.
• The specific application program characteristics.
• The market, which is HPC today; in common with general trends in computer architecture evolution, a growing need for longer vectors is expected in other markets in the future.

Rather than specifying a specific vector length, ARM’s Scalable Vector Extension, the latest update to our ARMv8-A architecture, allows CPU designers to choose the most appropriate vector length for their application and market, from 128 bits up to 2048 bits per vector register. SVE also supports a vector-length agnostic (VLA) programming model that can adapt to the available vector length.  Adoption of the VLA paradigm allows you to compile or hand-code your program for SVE once, and then run it at different implementation performance points, while avoiding the need to recompile or rewrite it when longer vectors appear in the future.  This reduces deployment costs over the lifetime of the architecture; a program just works and executes wider and faster.

Scientific workloads, mentioned earlier, have traditionally been carefully written to exploit as much data-level parallelism as possible with careful use of OpenMP pragmas and other source code annotations.  It’s therefore relatively straightforward for a compiler to vectorize such code and make good use of a wider vector unit. Supercomputers are also built with the wide, high-bandwidth memory systems necessary to feed a longer vector unit.

However, while HPC is a natural fit for SVE’s longer vectors, it offers an opportunity to improve vectorizing compilers that will be of general benefit over the longer term as other systems scale to support increased data level parallelism.

It is worth noting at this point that Amdahl’s law tells us the theoretical limit of a task’s speedup is governed by the amount of unparallelizable code. If you succeed in vectorizing 10% of your execution and make that code run 4 times faster (e.g. a 256-bit vector allows 4x64b parallel operations), then you’ve reduced 1,000 cycles down to 925 cycles, providing a limited speedup for the power and area cost of the extra gates. Even if you could vectorize 50% of your execution infinitely (unlikely!) you’ve still only doubled the overall performance. You need to be able to vectorize much more of your program to realize the potential gains from longer vectors.

So SVE also introduces novel features that begin to tackle some of the barriers to compiler vectorization. The general philosophy of SVE is to make it easier for a compiler to opportunistically vectorize code where it would not normally be possible or cost effective to do so.

SVE is targeted at the A64 instruction set only, as a performance enhancement associated with 64-bit computing (known as AArch64 execution in the ARM architecture). A64 is a fixed-length instruction set, where all instructions are encoded in 32 bits. Currently 75% of the A64 encoding space is already allocated, making it a precious resource.  SVE occupies just a quarter of the remaining 25%, in other words one sixteenth of the A64 encoding space, as follows:

The variable length aspect of SVE is managed through predication, meaning that it does not require any encoding space. Care was taken with respect to predicated execution to constrain that aspect of the encoding space.  Load and store instructions are assigned half of the allocated SVE instruction space, limited by careful consideration of addressing modes. Nearly a quarter of this space remains unallocated and available for future expansion.

In summary, SVE opens a new chapter for the ARM architecture in terms of the scale and opportunity for increasing levels of vector processing on ARM processor cores. It is early days for SVE tools and software, and it will take time for SVE compilers and the rest of the SVE software ecosystem to mature. HPC is the current focus and catalyst for this compiler work, and creates development momentum in areas such as Linux distributions and optimized libraries for SVE, as well as in ARM and third party tools and software.

We are already engaging with key members of the ARM partnership, and will now broaden that engagement across the open-source community and wider ARM ecosystem to support development of SVE and the HPC market, enabling a path to efficient Exascale computing.