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4. SIMD Within A Register (e.g., using MMX)

SIMD (Single Instruction stream, Multiple Data stream) Within A Register (SWAR) isn't a new idea. Given a machine with k-bit registers, data paths, and function units, it has long been known that ordinary register operations can function as SIMD parallel operations on n, k/n-bit, integer field values. However, it is only with the recent push for multimedia that the 2x to 8x speedup offered by SWAR techniques has become a concern for mainstream computing. The 1997 versions of most microprocessors incorporate hardware support for SWAR:

There are a few holes in the hardware support provided by the new microprocessors, quirks like only supporting some operations for some field sizes. It is important to remember, however, that you don't need any hardware support for many SWAR operations to be efficient. For example, bitwise operations are not affected by the logical partitioning of a register.

4.1 SWAR: What Is It Good For?

Although every modern processor is capable of executing with at least some SWAR parallelism, the sad fact is that even the best SWAR-enhanced instruction sets do not support very general-purpose parallelism. In fact, many people have noticed that the performance difference between Pentium and "Pentium with MMX technology" is often due to things like the larger L1 cache that coincided with appearance of MMX. So, realistically, what is SWAR (or MMX) good for?

These are serious restrictions, but this type of parallelism occurs in many parallel algorithms - not just multimedia applications. For the right type of algorithm, SWAR is more effective than SMP or cluster parallelism... and it doesn't cost anything to use it.

4.2 Introduction To SWAR Programming

The basic concept of SWAR, SIMD Within A Register, is that operations on word-length registers can be used to speed-up computations by performing SIMD parallel operations on n k/n-bit field values. However, making use of SWAR technology can be awkward, and some SWAR operations are actually more expensive than the corresponding sequences of serial operations because they require additional instructions to enforce the field partitioning.

To illustrate this point, let's consider a greatly simplified SWAR mechanism that manages four 8-bit fields within each 32-bit register. The values in two registers might be represented as:

         PE3     PE2     PE1     PE0
Reg0  | D 7:0 | C 7:0 | B 7:0 | A 7:0 |
Reg1  | H 7:0 | G 7:0 | F 7:0 | E 7:0 |

This simply indicates that each register is viewed as essentially a vector of four independent 8-bit integer values. Alternatively, think of A and E as values in Reg0 and Reg1 of processing element 0 (PE0), B and F as values in PE1's registers, and so forth.

The remainder of this document briefly reviews the basic classes of SIMD parallel operations on these integer vectors and how these functions can be implemented.

Polymorphic Operations

Some SWAR operations can be performed trivially using ordinary 32-bit integer operations, without concern for the fact that the operation is really intended to operate independently in parallel on these 8-bit fields. We call any such SWAR operation polymorphic, since the function is unaffected by the field types (sizes).

Testing if any field is non-zero is polymorphic, as are all bitwise logic operations. For example, an ordinary bitwise-and operation (C's & operator) performs a bitwise and no matter what the field sizes are. A simple bitwise and of the above registers yields:

          PE3       PE2       PE1       PE0
Reg2  | D&H 7:0 | C&G 7:0 | B&F 7:0 | A&E 7:0 |

Because the bitwise and operation always has the value of result bit k affected only by the values of the operand bit k values, all field sizes are supported using the same single instruction.

Partitioned Operations

Unfortunately, lots of important SWAR operations are not polymorphic. Arithmetic operations such as add, subtract, multiply, and divide are all subject to carry/borrow interactions between fields. We call such SWAR operations partitioned, because each such operation must effectively partition the operands and result to prevent interactions between fields. However, there are actually three different methods that can be used to achieve this effect.

Partitioned Instructions

Perhaps the most obvious approach to implementing partitioned operations is to provide hardware support for "partitioned parallel instructions" that cut the carry/borrow logic between fields. This approach can yield the highest performance, but it requires a change to the processor's instruction set and generally places many restrictions on field size (e.g., 8-bit fields might be supported, but not 12-bit fields).

The AMD/Cyrix/Intel MMX, Digital MAX, HP MAX, and Sun VIS all implement restricted versions of partitioned instructions. Unfortunately, these different instruction set extensions have significantly different restrictions, making algorithms somewhat non-portable between them. For example, consider the following sampling of partitioned operations:

  Instruction           AMD/Cyrix/Intel MMX   DEC MAX   HP MAX   Sun VIS
| Absolute Difference |                     |       8 |        |       8 |
| Merge Maximum       |                     |   8, 16 |        |         |
| Compare             |           8, 16, 32 |         |        |  16, 32 |
| Multiply            |                  16 |         |        |    8x16 |
| Add                 |           8, 16, 32 |         |     16 |  16, 32 |

In the table, the numbers indicate the field sizes, in bits, for which each operation is supported. Even though the table omits many instructions including all the more exotic ones, it is clear that there are many differences. The direct result is that high-level languages (HLLs) really are not very effective as programming models, and portability is generally poor.

Unpartitioned Operations With Correction Code

Implementing partitioned operations using partitioned instructions can certainly be efficient, but what do you do if the partitioned operation you need is not supported by the hardware? The answer is that you use a series of ordinary instructions to perform the operation with carry/borrow across fields, and then correct for the undesired field interactions.

This is a purely software approach, and the corrections do introduce overhead, but it works with fully general field partitioning. This approach is also fully general in that it can be used either to fill gaps in the hardware support for partitioned instructions, or it can be used to provide full functionality for target machines that have no hardware support at all. In fact, by expressing the code sequences in a language like C, this approach allows SWAR programs to be fully portable.

The question immediately arises: precisely how inefficient is it to simulate SWAR partitioned operations using unpartitioned operations with correction code? Well, that is certainly the $64k question... but many operations are not as difficult as one might expect.

Consider implementing a four-element 8-bit integer vector add of two source vectors, x+y, using ordinary 32-bit operations.

An ordinary 32-bit add might actually yield the correct result, but not if any 8-bit field carries into the next field. Thus, our goal is simply to ensure that such a carry does not occur. Because adding two k-bit fields generates an at most k+1 bit result, we can ensure that no carry occurs by simply "masking out" the most significant bit of each field. This is done by bitwise anding each operand with 0x7f7f7f7f and then performing an ordinary 32-bit add.

t = ((x & 0x7f7f7f7f) + (y & 0x7f7f7f7f));

That result is correct... except for the most significant bit within each field. Computing the correct value for each field is simply a matter of doing two 1-bit partitioned adds of the most significant bits from x and y to the 7-bit carry result which was computed for t. Fortunately, a 1-bit partitioned add is implemented by an ordinary exclusive or operation. Thus, the result is simply:

(t ^ ((x ^ y) & 0x80808080))

Ok, well, maybe that isn't so simple. After all, it is six operations to do just four adds. However, notice that the number of operations is not a function of how many fields there are... so, with more fields, we get speedup. In fact, we may get speedup anyway simply because the fields were loaded and stored in a single (integer vector) operation, register availability may be improved, and there are fewer dynamic code scheduling dependencies (because partial word references are avoided).

Controlling Field Values

While the other two approaches to partitioned operation implementation both center on getting the maximum space utilization for the registers, it can be computationally more efficient to instead control the field values so that inter-field carry/borrow events should never occur. For example, if we know that all the field values being added are such that no field overflow will occur, a partitioned add operation can be implemented using an ordinary add instruction; in fact, given this constraint, an ordinary add instruction appears polymorphic, and is usable for any field sizes without correction code. The question thus becomes how to ensure that field values will not cause carry/borrow events.

One way to ensure this property is to implement partitioned instructions that can restrict the range of field values. The Digital MAX vector minimum and maximum instructions can be viewed as hardware support for clipping field values to avoid inter-field carry/borrow.

However, suppose that we do not have partitioned instructions that can efficiently restrict the range of field values... is there a sufficient condition that can be cheaply imposed to ensure carry/borrow events will not interfere with adjacent fields? The answer lies in analysis of the arithmetic properties. Adding two k-bit numbers generates a result with at most k+1 bits; thus, a field of k+1 bits can safely contain such an operation despite using ordinary instructions.

Thus, suppose that the 8-bit fields in our earlier example are now 7-bit fields with 1-bit "carry/borrow spacers":

              PE3          PE2          PE1          PE0
Reg0  | D' | D 6:0 | C' | C 6:0 | B' | B 6:0 | A' | A 6:0 |

A vector of 7-bit adds is performed as follows. Let us assume that, prior to the start of any partitioned operation, all the carry spacer bits (A', B', C', and D') have the value 0. By simply executing an ordinary add operation, all the fields obtain the correct 7-bit values; however, some spacer bit values might now be 1. We can correct this by just one more conventional operation, masking-out the spacer bits. Our 7-bit integer vector add, x+y, is thus:

((x + y) & 0x7f7f7f7f)

This is just two instructions for four adds, clearly yielding good speedup.

The sharp reader may have noticed that setting the spacer bits to 0 does not work for subtract operations. The correction is, however, remarkably simple. To compute x-y, we simply ensure the initial condition that the spacers in x are all 1, while the spacers in y are all 0. In the worst case, we would thus get:

(((x | 0x80808080) - y) & 0x7f7f7f7f)

However, the additional bitwise or operation can often be optimized out by ensuring that the operation generating the value for x used | 0x80808080 rather than & 0x7f7f7f7f as the last step.

Which method should be used for SWAR partitioned operations? The answer is simply "whichever yields the best speedup." Interestingly, the ideal method to use may be different for different field sizes within the same program running on the same machine.

Communication & Type Conversion Operations

Although some parallel computations, including many operations on image pixels, have the property that the ith value in a vector is a function only of values that appear in the ith position of the operand vectors, this is generally not the case. For example, even pixel operations such as smoothing require values from adjacent pixels as operands, and transformations like FFTs require more complex (less localized) communication patterns.

It is not difficult to efficiently implement 1-dimensional nearest neighbor communication for SWAR using unpartitioned shift operations. For example, to move a value from PEi to PE(i+1), a simple shift operation suffices. If the fields are 8-bits in length, we would use:

(x << 8)

Still, it isn't always quite that simple. For example, to move a value from PEi to PE(i-1), a simple shift operation might suffice... but the C language does not specify if shifts right preserve the sign bit, and some machines only provide signed shift right. Thus, in the general case, we must explicitly zero the potentially replicated sign bits:

((x >> 8) & 0x00ffffff)

Adding "wrap-around connections" is also reasonably efficient using unpartitioned shifts. For example, to move a value from PEi to PE(i+1) with wraparound:

((x << 8) | ((x >> 24) & 0x000000ff))

The real problem comes when more general communication patterns must be implemented. Only the HP MAX instruction set supports arbitrary rearrangement of fields with a single instruction, which is called Permute. This Permute instruction is really misnamed; not only can it perform an arbitrary permutation of the fields, but it also allows repetition. In short, it implements an arbitrary x[y] operation.

Unfortunately, x[y] is very difficult to implement without such an instruction. The code sequence is generally both long and inefficient; in fact, it is sequential code. This is very disappointing. The relatively high speed of x[y] operations in the MasPar MP1/MP2 and Thinking Machines CM1/CM2/CM200 SIMD supercomputers was one of the key reasons these machines performed well. However, x[y] has always been slower than nearest neighbor communication, even on those supercomputers, so many algorithms have been designed to minimize the need for x[y] operations. In short, without hardware support, it is probably best to develop SWAR algorithms as though x[y] wasn't legal... or at least isn't cheap.

Recurrence Operations (Reductions, Scans, etc.)

A recurrence is a computation in which there is an apparently sequential relationship between values being computed. However, if these recurrences involve associative operations, it may be possible to recode the computation using a tree-structured parallel algorithm.

The most common type of parallelizable recurrence is probably the class known as associative reductions. For example, to compute the sum of a vector's values, one commonly writes purely sequential C code like:

t = 0;
for (i=0; i<MAX; ++i) t += x[i];

However, the order of the additions is rarely important. Floating point and saturation math can yield different answers if the order of additions is changed, but ordinary wrap-around integer additions will yield the same results independent of addition order. Thus, we can re-write this sequence into a tree-structured parallel summation in which we first add pairs of values, then pairs of those partial sums, and so forth, until a single final sum results. For a vector of four 8-bit values, just two addition steps are needed; the first step does two 8-bit adds, yielding two 16-bit result fields (each containing a 9-bit result):

t = ((x & 0x00ff00ff) + ((x >> 8) & 0x00ff00ff));

The second step adds these two 9-bit values in 16-bit fields to produce a single 10-bit result:

((t + (t >> 16)) & 0x000003ff)

Actually, the second step performs two 16-bit field adds... but the top 16-bit add is meaningless, which is why the result is masked to a single 10-bit result value.

Scans, also known as "parallel prefix" operations, are somewhat harder to implement efficiently. This is because, unlike reductions, scans produce partitioned results. For this reason, scans can be implemented using a fairly obvious sequence of partitioned operations.

4.3 MMX SWAR Under Linux

For Linux, IA32 processors are our primary concern. The good news is that AMD, Cyrix, and Intel all implement the same MMX instructions. However, MMX performance varies; for example, the K6 has only one MMX pipeline - the Pentium with MMX has two. The only really bad news is that Intel is still running those stupid MMX commercials.... ;-)

There are really three approaches to using MMX for SWAR:

  1. Use routines from an MMX library. In particular, Intel has developed several "performance libraries,", that offer a variety of hand-optimized routines for common multimedia tasks. With a little effort, many non-multimedia algorithms can be reworked to enable some of the most compute-intensive portions to be implemented using one or more of these library routines. These libraries are not currently available for Linux, but could be ported.
  2. Use MMX instructions directly. This is somewhat complicated by two facts. The first problem is that MMX might not be available on the processor, so an alternative implementation must also be provided. The second problem is that the IA32 assembler generally used under Linux does not currently recognize MMX instructions.
  3. Use a high-level language or module compiler that can directly generate appropriate MMX instructions. Such tools are currently under development, but none is yet fully functional under Linux. For example, at Purdue University ( we are currently developing a compiler that will take functions written in an explicitly parallel C dialect and will generate SWAR modules that are callable as C functions, yet make use of whatever SWAR support is available, including MMX. The first prototype module compilers were built in Fall 1996, however, bringing this technology to a usable state is taking much longer than was originally expected.

In summary, MMX SWAR is still awkward to use. However, with a little extra effort, the second approach given above can be used now. Here are the basics:

  1. You cannot use MMX if your processor does not support it. The following GCC code can be used to test if MMX is supported on your processor. It returns 0 if not, non-zero if it is supported.
    inline extern
    int mmx_init(void)
            int mmx_available;
            __asm__ __volatile__ (
                    /* Get CPU version information */
                    "movl $1, %%eax\n\t"
                    "andl $0x800000, %%edx\n\t"
                    "movl %%edx, %0"
                    : "=q" (mmx_available)
                    : /* no input */
            return mmx_available;

  2. An MMX register essentially holds one of what GCC would call an unsigned long long. Thus, memory-based variables of this type become the communication mechanism between your MMX modules and the C programs that call them. Alternatively, you can declare your MMX data as any 64-bit aligned data structure (it is convenient to ensure 64-bit alignment by declaring your data type as a union with an unsigned long long field).
  3. If MMX is available, you can write your MMX code using the .byte assembler directive to encode each instruction. This is painful stuff to do by hand, but not difficult for a compiler to generate. For example, the MMX instruction PADDB MM0,MM1 could be encoded as the GCC in-line assembly code:
    __asm__ __volatile__ (".byte 0x0f, 0xfc, 0xc1\n\t");

    Remember that MMX uses some of the same hardware that is used for floating point operations, so code intermixed with MMX code must not invoke any floating point operations. The floating point stack also should be empty before executing any MMX code; the floating point stack is normally empty at the beginning of a C function that does not use floating point.
  4. Exit your MMX code by executing the EMMS instruction, which can be encoded as:
    __asm__ __volatile__ (".byte 0x0f, 0x77\n\t");

If the above looks very awkward and crude, it is. However, MMX is still quite young.... future versions of this document will offer better ways to program MMX SWAR.

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