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Cores don’t like to share

January 31, 2013

This post is part of a series – go here for the index.

Two posts ago, I explained write combining and used a real-world example to show how badly it can go wrong if you’re not careful. The last part was an out-of-turn rant about some string and memory management insanity that was severely hurting the loading times of that same program. That program was Intel’s Software Occlusion Culling sample, which I’ve been playing around with for the last two weekends.

Well, it turns out that there’s even more common performance problems where those two came from. Now, please don’t walk away with the impression that I’m doing this to pick on either Intel or the authors of that sample. What I’m really trying to do here is talk about common performance problems you might find in a typical game code base. Now, I’ve worked on (and in) several such projects before, and every one of them had its share of skeletons in the closet. But this time, the problems happen to be in an open-source example with a permissive license, written by a third party. Which means I can post the code and my modifications freely, a big plus if I’m going to blog about it – real code is a lot more interesting than straw man examples. And to be honest, I’m a lot more comfortable with publicly talking about performance problems in “abstract code I found on the internet” than I would be doing the same with code that I know a friend hammered out quickly two days before trying to get a milestone out.

What I’m trying to say here is, don’t let this discourage you from looking at the actual occlusion culling code that is, after all, the point of the whole example. And no hard feelings to the guys at Intel who went through the trouble of writing and releasing it in the first place!

Our problem of the day

That said, we’re still not going to see any actual occlusion culling performance problems or optimizations today. Because before we get there, it turns out we have some more low-hanging fruit to pick. As usual, here’s a profile – of the rendering this time.

Another profiling run

All the functions with SSE in their names relate to the actual depth buffer rasterizer that’s at the core of the demo (as said, we’re gonna see it eventually). XdxInitXopAdapterServices is actually the user-mode graphics driver, the tbb_graphics_samples thing is the TBB scheduler waiting for worker threads to finish (this sample uses Intel’s TBB to dispatch jobs to multiple worker threads), dxgmms1.sys is the video memory manager / GPU scheduler, and atikmdag.sys is the kernel-mode graphics driver. In short, the top 10 list is full of the kinds of things you would expect in an example that renders lots of small models with software occlusion culling.

Except for that spot up at #2, that is. This function – CPUTFrustum::IsVisible – simply checks whether an axis-aligned bounding box intersects the view frustum, and is used for coarse frustum culling before occlusion is even considered. And it’s a major time sink.

Now, instead of the hierarchical callstack profiling I used last time to look at the loading, this profile was made using hardware event counters, same as in the write combining article. I’ve taken the liberty of spoiling the initial investigation and going straight to the counters that matter: see that blue bar in the “Machine Clears” column? That bar is telling us that the IsVisible function apparently spends 23.6% of its total running time performing machine clears! Yikes, but what does that mean?

Understanding machine clears

What Intel calls a “machine clear” on its current architectures is basically a panic mode: the CPU core takes all currently pending operations (i.e. anything that hasn’t completed yet), cancels them, and then starts over. It needs to do this whenever some implicit assumption that those pending instructions were making turns out to be wrong.

On the Sandy Bridge i7 I’m running this example on, there’s event counters for three kinds of machine clears. Two of them we can safely ignore in this article – one of them deals with self-modifying code (which we don’t have) and one can occur during execution of AVX masked load operations (which we don’t use). The third, however, bears closer scrutiny: its official name is MACHINE_CLEAR.MEMORY_ORDERING, and it’s the event that ends up consuming 23.6% of all CPU cycles during IsVisible.

A memory ordering machine clear gets triggered whenever the CPU core detects a “memory ordering conflict”. Basically, this means that some of the currently pending instructions tried to access memory that we just found out some other CPU core wrote to in the meantime. Since these instructions are still flagged as pending while the “this memory just got written” event means some other core successfully finished a write, the pending instructions – and everything that depends on their results – are, retroactively, incorrect: when we started executing these instructions, we were using a version of the memory contents that is now out of date. So we need to throw all that work out and do it over. That’s the machine clear.

Now, I’m not going to go into the details of how exactly a core knows when other cores are writing to memory, or how the cores make sure that whenever multiple cores try to write to a memory locations, there’s always one (and only one) winner. Nor will I explain how the cores make sure that they learn these things in time to cancel all operations that might depend on them. All these are deep and fascinating questions, but the details are unbelievably gnarly (once you get down to the bottom of how it all works within a core), and they’re well outside the scope of this post. What I will say here is that cores track memory “ownership” on cache line granularity. So when a memory ordering conflict happens, that means something in a cache line that we just accessed changed in the mean time. Might be some data we actually looked at, might be something else – the core doesn’t know. Ownership is tracked at the cache line level, not the byte level.

So the core issues a machine clear whenever something in a cache line we just looked at changed. It might be due to actual shared data, or it might be two unrelated data items that just happen to land in the same cache line in memory – this latter case is normally referred to as “false sharing”. And to clear up something that a lot of people get wrong, let me point out that “false sharing” is purely a software concept. CPUs really only track ownership on a cache line level, and a cache line is either shared or it’s not, it’s never “falsely shared”. So “false sharing” is purely a property of your data’s layout in memory; it’s not something the CPU knows (or can do anything) about.

Anyway, I digress. Evidently, we’re sharing something, intentionally or not, and that something is causing a lot of instructions to get cancelled and re-executed. The question is: what is it?

Finding the culprit

And this is where it gets icky. With a lot of things like cache misses or slow instructions, a profiler can tell us exactly which instruction is causing the problem. Memory ordering problems are much harder to trace, for two reasons: First, they necessarily involve multiple cores (which tends to make it much harder to find the corresponding causal chain of events), and second, because of the cache line granularity, even when they show up as events in one thread, they do so on an arbitrary instruction that happens to access memory near the actual shared data. Might be the data that is actually being modified elsewhere, or it might be something else. There’s no easy way to find out. Looking at these events in a source-level profile is almost completely useless – in optimized code, a completely unrelated instruction that logically belongs to another source line might cause a spike. In an assembly-level profile, you at least get to see the actual instruction that triggers the event, but for the reasons stated above that’s not necessarily very helpful either.

So it boils down to this: a profiler will tell you where to look, and it will usually point you to some code near the code that’s actually causing the problem, and some data near the data that is being shared. That’s a good starting point, but from there on it’s manual detective work – staring at the code, staring at the data structures, and trying to figure out what case is causing the problem. It’s annoying work, but you get better at it over time, and there’s some common mistakes – one of which we’re going to see in a minute.

But first, some context. IsVisible is called in parallel on multiple threads (via TBB) in a global, initial frustum-cull pass. This is where we’re seeing the slowdown. Evidently, those threads are writing to shared data somewhere: it must be writes – as long as the memory doesn’t change, you can’t get any memory ordering conflicts.

Here’s the declaration of the CPUTFrustum class (several methods omitted for brevity):

class CPUTFrustum
    float3 mpPosition[8];
    float3 mpNormal[6];

    UINT mNumFrustumVisibleModels;
    UINT mNumFrustumCulledModels;

    void InitializeFrustum( CPUTCamera *pCamera );

    bool IsVisible(
        const float3 &center,
        const float3 &half

And here’s the full code for IsVisible, with some minor formatting changes to make it fit inside the layout (excerpting it would spoil the reveal):

bool CPUTFrustum::IsVisible(
    const float3 &center,
    const float3 &half
    // TODO:  There are MUCH more efficient ways to do this.
    float3 pBBoxPosition[8];
    pBBoxPosition[0] = center + float3(  half.x,  half.y,  half.z );
    pBBoxPosition[1] = center + float3(  half.x,  half.y, -half.z );
    pBBoxPosition[2] = center + float3(  half.x, -half.y,  half.z );
    pBBoxPosition[3] = center + float3(  half.x, -half.y, -half.z );
    pBBoxPosition[4] = center + float3( -half.x,  half.y,  half.z );
    pBBoxPosition[5] = center + float3( -half.x,  half.y, -half.z );
    pBBoxPosition[6] = center + float3( -half.x, -half.y,  half.z );
    pBBoxPosition[7] = center + float3( -half.x, -half.y, -half.z );

    // Test each bounding box point against each of the six frustum
    // planes.
    // Note: we need a point on the plane to compute the distance
    // to the plane. We only need two of our frustum's points to do
    // this. A corner vertex is on three of the six planes.  We
    // need two of these corners to have a point on all six planes.
    UINT pPointIndex[6] = {0,0,0,6,6,6};
    UINT ii;
    for( ii=0; ii<6; ii++ )
        bool allEightPointsOutsidePlane = true;
        float3 *pNormal = &mpNormal[ii];
        float3 *pPlanePoint = &mpPosition[pPointIndex[ii]];
        float3 planeToPoint;
        float distanceToPlane;
        UINT jj;
        for( jj=0; jj<8; jj++ )
            planeToPoint = pBBoxPosition[jj] - *pPlanePoint;
            distanceToPlane = dot3( *pNormal, planeToPoint );
            if( distanceToPlane < 0.0f )
                allEightPointsOutsidePlane = false;
                break; // from for.  No point testing any
                // more points against this plane.
        if( allEightPointsOutsidePlane )
            return false;

    // Tested all eight points against all six planes and
    // none of the planes had all eight points outside.
    return true;

Can you see what’s going wrong? Try to figure it out yourself. It’s a far more powerful lesson if you discover it yourself. Scroll down if you think you have the answer (or if you give up).


The reveal

As I mentioned, what it takes for memory ordering conflicts to occur is writes. The function arguments are const, and mpPosition and mpNormal aren’t modified either. Local variables are either in registers or on the stack; either way, they’re far enough away between different threads not to conflict. Which only leaves two variables: mNumFrustumCulledModels and mNumFrustumVisibleModels. And indeed, both of these global (debugging) counters get stored per instance. All threads happen to use the same instance of CPUTFrustum, so the write locations are shared, and we have our culprit. Now, in a multithreaded scenario, these counters aren’t going to produce the right values anyway, because the normal C++ increments aren’t an atomic operation. As I mentioned before, these counters are only there for debugging (or at least nothing else in the code looks at them), so we might as well just remove the two increments altogether.

So how much does it help to get rid of two meager increments?

Frustum culling, conflict-free

Again, the two runs have somewhat different lengths (because I manually start/stop them after loading is over), so we can’t compare the cycle counts directly, but we can compare the ratios. CPUTFrustum::IsVisible used to take about 60% as much time as our #1 function, and was in the #2 spot. Now it’s at position 5 in the top ten and takes about 32% as much time as our main workhorse function. In other words, removing these two increments just about doubled our performance – and that’s in a function that does a fair amount of other work. It can be even more drastic in shorter functions.

Just like we saw with write combining, this kind of mistake is easy to make, hard to track down and can cause serious performance and scalability issues. Everyone I know that has seriously used threads has fallen into this trap at least once – take it as a rite of passage.

Anyway, the function is now running smoothly, not hitting any major stalls and in fact completely bound by backend execution time – that is, the expensive part of that function is now the actual computational work. As the TODO comment mentions, there’s better ways to solve this problem. I’m not gonna go into it here, because as it turns out, I already wrote a post about efficient ways to solve this problem using SIMD instructions a bit more than two years ago – using Cell SPE intrinsics, not SSE intrinsics, but the idea remains the same.

I won’t bother walking through the code here – it’s all on GitHub if you want to check it out. But suffice to say that, with the sharing bottleneck gone, IsVisible can be made much faster indeed. In the final profile I took (using the SSE), it shows up at spot number 19 in the top twenty.

Two steps forward, one step back

All is not well however, because the method AABBoxRasterizerSSEMT::IsInsideViewFrustum, which you can (barely) see in some of the earlier profiles, suddenly got a lot slower in relation:

And the bottleneck has moved

Again, I’m not going to dig into it here now deeply, but it turns out that the this is the function that calls IsVisible. No, it’s not what you might be thinking – IsVisible didn’t get inlined or anything like that. In fact, its code looks exactly like it did before. And more to the point, the problem actually isn’t in AABBoxRasterizerSSEMT::IsInsideViewFrustum, it’s inside the function TransformedAABBoxSSE::IsInsideViewFrustum, which it calls, and which does get inlined into AABBoxRasterizerSSEMT::IsInsideViewFrustum:

void TransformedAABBoxSSE::IsInsideViewFrustum(CPUTCamera *pCamera)
    float3 mBBCenterWS;
    float3 mBBHalfWS;
    mpCPUTModel->GetBoundsWorldSpace(&mBBCenterWS, &mBBHalfWS);
    mInsideViewFrustum = pCamera->mFrustum.IsVisible(mBBCenterWS,

No smoking guns here either – a getter call to retrieve the bounding box center and half-extents, followed by the call to IsVisible. And no, none of the involved code changed substantially, and there’s nothing weird going on in GetBoundsWorldSpace. It’s not a virtual call, and it gets properly inlined. All it does is copy the 6 floats from mpCPUTModel to the stack.

What we do have in this method, however, is lots of L3 cache misses (or Last-Level Cache misses / LLC misses, as Intel likes to call them) during this copying. Now, the code doesn’t have any more cache misses now than it did before I added some SSE code to IsVisible. But it generates them a lot faster than it used to. Before, some of the long-taking memory fetches overlapped with the slower execution of the visibility test for an earlier box. Now, we’re going through instructions fast enough for the code to starve waiting for the bounding boxes to arrive.

That’s how it is dealing with Out-of-Order cores: They’re really quite good at making the best of a bad situation. Which also means that often, fixing a performance problem just immediately moves the bottleneck somewhere else, without any substantial speed-up. It often takes several attempts to tackle the various bottlenecks one by one until, finally, you get to cut the Gordian Knot. And to get this one faster, we’ll have to improve our cache usage. Which is a topic for another post. Until next time!

From → Coding

  1. Interesting read, multi-threading is such a pain to debug and especially optimize. Can I ask what profiler you are using. My tool set for MT is quite week.

  2. If IsVisible is called in parallel doesn’t it also mean those counters were not very reliable in the first place?

    • Correct. Not that it matters, because they were also write-only variables – nobody ever looked at them. :)

  3. Jim Meier permalink

    You seem to have an infinitely deep knowledge of processor-level details. How did/do you acquire it all without running into fundamental limitations on the number of hours in a day?

    • In bits and pieces, over a period of more than 15 years. You do this kind of work for a while, you’re bound to learn something :)

      • db312 permalink

        LOL, congrats, now you are being compared to God :). I won’t say you are infinitely wise, but will say I very much enjoy your blog!

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