Max Kopinsky

Functional Programming, Formal Methods, Computer Architecture, and Math!


Continuing with the computer architecture posts, this time we’re going to explore superscaling.

Before we start, my goal here is to eventually describe in detail the various components of a modern CPU architecture and how they work (and how they work together). I find that it’s quite difficult to find resources online about how such things actually work, and I think I can fill that gap. Therefore, this exploration is mostly setting the stage - exploring what those components are, but not how they work.

There are some other great sources that cover modern architecture principles at a high level. This one is pretty good, for example. It’s not a prerequisite though. This series is self-contained.

The Goal - Go Fast

The driving goal of most computer architecture innovations is to go fast1. In the last post, we saw how pipelining lets us speed up the processor by separating out the steps of an instruction, and executing one instruction in each step on every cycle. In contrast, a simple computer model executes one instruction every cycle. With pipelining, every cycle we make a little bit of progress on several different instructions. These different instructions are independent2 and so we can make these little bits of progress (almost) completely in parallel. As a result, we need less time per cycle to make progress. So we still finish one instruction per cycle, but the cycles are a lot shorter.

So why not just make our pipeline extremely deep? For example, if we put a pipeline fence after every logic gate, we could run our clock extremely fast. However, above, we assumed that each instruction in the pipe was independent. In the last post, we saw that small pipelines can sometimes even justify that assumption. But if we make the pipeline very deep, that assumption is pretty much guaranteed to break. So our clock will be very fast, but we won’t be able to keep the pipeline saturated with instructions. Then we wouldn’t be finishing one instruction per cycle, and we wouldn’t be going fast.

We want to go fast.

There’s another problem too, which is that there’s some overhead for each pipeline stage. The stages have to be separated by pipeline registers, which are their own bit of circuitry and add some more propagation delay to the overall design. If we put too many of them, the overhead from the pipeline registers starts slowing us down more than splitting the stages can speed us up.

So making the pipeline as deep as physically possible is not the answer. What are some other potential answers?

  1. Make the circuit smaller. Smaller physical distance for signals to travel means they will not have to travel as long.
  2. Try very hard to find parallelism in the program and exploit it.
  3. Demand that users write better programs.

Idea #1 is just a plain win - if we can make the circuit smaller, we should. One of the first microprocessors, the Intel 4004, had transistors about 10 μm across. Recently, mass-production of designs using transistors about 20 nm across has begun.3 We’re starting to run up against the physical limit of how small something can be, but until then, we can keep trying to eek out more speed by getting smaller.

Idea #2 is what we were getting at with pipelining. As long as that independence assumption holds, we can find instruction-level parallelism in the program and execute several instructions in parallel.

Idea #3 sounds stupid, but in fact, is a very good idea. We shouldn’t let the idea that we have to be fast in every possible situation prevent us from doing something that is fast only for programs that know how to take advantage.

There’s a balance that we can achieve between #2 and #3, where we try to be fast in general, but what we choose to do works best for programs that are written to work with what we’re doing. And this actually works in practice, because it’s not people writing the programs! Compilers write the programs, and compilers are very good at emitting assembly that can work well with whatever constraints we put on “good programs.”

But even in the best case, there will be lots of opportunities for instruction-level parallelization that are only apaprent at runtime. For example, across iterations of a loop. Even the smartest compiler can’t help with that.

So idea #3 can get us surprisingly far, but it has to go together with idea #2 if we really want improvements. Trying harder to find parallelism results in hardware that has to work very hard, which has colloquially become known as the “brainiac” paradigm: going faster by making processors smarter.

So with that long introduction out of the way, let’s look at another way to exploit the parallelism we find.


Ah, the title of the post!

Superscaling is a technique to execute multiple instructions at a time, in a different way from pipelining.

Remember that basic pipelining lets us complete at most 1 instruction per cycle. That still puts quite a limit on our speed. We’re executing multiple instructions at once, by separating them into stages.

What if we could straight-up have multiple instructions in the same stage at the same time? Enter superscaling.

So-called “superscalar architectures” are architectures that can have multiple instructions in the same pipeline stage at the same time. As long as the instructions are independent, everything still works great! We do, however, consume a lot more space, after all, we need circuitry for multiple instructions now.

As we’ll see in future posts, some of that growth is non-linear. Some techniques need to analyze every pair of instructions that passes through a stage, every cycle. This means that we need quadratic circuit size in the number of instructions we can handle at once (the “width” of the architecture). As a result, modern processors are typically between 4 to 6-wide superscalar architectures.

Let’s look into how this works in more detail, using an example based on the Intel P5 microarchitecture.

Two Separate Pipelines

The P5 microarchitecture has two separate pipelines called the U pipe and the V pipe. Here’s a high-level block diagram of the integer datapath:4

In a sequential view, the instruction in the U pipe is the first instruction, and the instruction in the V pipe is the second instruction.

If these instructions could have complicated interactions with each other, we would have to build complicated hardware to resolve those interactions. That could be bad - it could be slow or just too power-hungry. To save on complexity, there are a whole host of restrictions on “pairing.”

The first decoding stage has to decode enough of two instructions at a time to figure out if pairing is possible. If it is, then the two instructions are paired and sent to the corresponding pipes at the same time.

The U pipe can execute any instruction, so when pairing is not possible, the first instruction is sent to the U pipe and the other instruction has to wait.

These restrictions come back to our idea #3 above. It’s on the user to write a program such that adjacent instructions are pairable. The processor will still work if they aren’t - but it will work up to twice as fast if they are.

New Perspectives

Even with pipelining, it’s been relatively easy to view out processor as executing the code in exactly the order specified. As we explore more techniques, this will become more and more difficult.

Already, it can be tricky. When two instructions execute at once, we have to think about new kinds of issues that simply cannot happen in a scalar5 architecture, even a pipelined one.

I suggest keeping this in mind. Even when it seems obvious that something “should work,” question it. Very strange things can go wrong if we’re not careful!

Hazards Revisited

In the last post, we looked at how RAW hazards, or Read After Write hazards, can complicate the implementation of a pipeline and require forwarding.

Now that we can execute more than one instruction at the same time, some new types of hazards are possible.

I’ll demonstrate by using some actual x86 code here, but no worries. We can demonstrate all of these new issues with simple instructions:

RAW Hazards

First, let’s consider the same RAW hazard as with basic pipelining, using a chain of mov instructions:

  mov bx, ax
  mov cx, bx

There’s a RAW hazard between these instructions, since the second one Reads bx After the first one Writes bx (caps for emphasis).

In the simple pipeline, this wasn’t a huge deal; we could easily forward the new value of bx from the writeback stage to the execute stage by the time it was needed.

Here we have a new kind of problem - the V pipe needs bx at the same time that the U pipe produces it. In theory, this could force the V pipe to stall while the U pipe proceeds, which would cause our pairings to get desynchronized.

We have no choice but to prevent this from happening entirely. If two instructions have a RAW hazard, they can’t be paired.

If they aren’t paired, then we can use the same forwarding techniques as the simple pipeline.

But wait - question everything! Can we really?

WAW Hazards

Consider this sequence:

  mov cx, ax
  mov cx, bx
  mov dx, cx

The first two mov instructions have no RAW hazard, so we can pair them. But they both write cx, so what happens when it’s time to writeback?

Our writeback stage now needs to be able to detect these conflicts and resolve them. The resolution is simple - the instruction in the V pipe, which is logically6 second, wins.

Our forwarding datapath also needs to be able to detect such conflicts and determine not just if any value should be forwarded, but which value.

This is one of those quadratic scaling issues I mentioned earlier, because any pair of instructions might have a WAW hazard.

Theoretically, this isn’t a huge deal. However, the P5 chose to resolve this issue by pre-empting it - WAW Hazards also prevent pairing.

WAR Hazards

The last type of data hazard is called a WAR Hazard, or write-after-read. These are also known as “false hazards,” because they don’t matter unless we start doing some pretty wacky things.

The things we’re doing here aren’t wacky enough.

Yay for us, that means we don’t have to worry about these ones. We’ll revist WAR Hazards in the next post on the scoreboard technique.

Control Hazards

In simple pipelining, we saw control hazards when instructions are able to enter the pipeline after a branch, but before that branch completes execution.

Such instructions could end up modifying the state of the machine if we weren’t careful.

The solution previously was to “squash” them. Once a branch completed execution, we could squash the pipeline up to whichever stage the branch was in. This replaces all of the instructions that shouldn’t have slipped in with nops.

Now things are more complicated:

Let’s look at the first case:

  j A
  j B

If we allow these to pair, they will both enter the execute stage at the same time. Which one wins?

For WAW hazards, the answer was that the V-pipe instruction wins. But here, we need the U-pipe instruction to win! Once again, these differences can complicate hardware.

What about the second case?

  j A
  mov [ax],bx

That mov instruction is a bit different from the other ones we’ve seen. The [ax] syntax means “the value in memory at the address given by ax.”

In this case, the branch and the memory write would execute at the same time. By the time we find out that there’s a branch to take (or equivalently, that we’ve mispredicted the branch), it’s too late to stop the memory write.

This is bad.

In fact, this is so bad that the P5 architecture doesn’t allow paired branches in the U-pipe at all.

That prevents both of these weird issues. It prevents the first issue, a U-pipe branch being paired with a V-pipe branch. And it prevents the second issue, a U-pipe branch being paired with a memory write.

This means that branches can only pair in the V-pipe, which is a bit different from the typical case. Since the U-pipe can execute any instruction (including branches - they just can’t be paired) the typical case is that the V-pipe instruction prevents pairing.

Doing things this way allows instructions to pair with branches without running the risk of hitting the memory write issue. Since branches are common in practice, making them completely unpairable would be catastrophic.

Structural Hazards

This is a completely new type of hazard, which we will see a lot more of in the next post.

Various instructions need access to various hardware resources in order to do their jobs. For example, an add instruction needs access to an adder. Load and store instructions need access to the cache.

Previously, when only one instruction could be in a stage at a time, we never had to worry about resources availability. Now we do.

Designing a cache that can service multiple accesses on the same cycle is extremely difficult. It’s worth it - modern caches can typically support 2 loads and 2 stores at the same time. Cutting-edge caches can support more.

The P5 microarchitecture is older and couldn’t pay the cost of such a cache. As a result, if paired instructions both need access to the cache, it results in stalls. However, we still allow them to pair. The parts of the instructions (if any) that don’t need to access the cache can still execute in parallel, so the overall cycle count will still be lower than if we refuse to pair them.

I’d show a timing diagram here, but I haven’t been able to find a way to format a 2-pipe diagram that makes any sense. If you know of a format, let me know!

Any other kind of shared resource is also liable to cause structural hazards.

Resolving a structural hazard requires deciding which request for the resource will happen first, a process called arbitration. We then have to allow the selected request to access the resource, while stalling the other request. We have to keep track of pending requests so that we don’t forget them, which would be catastrophic.

Working Harder in Common Cases

A theme of all of the techniques we will see in the future is that there are some cases where doing better is possible, but simply too expensive. We’ve just seen a couple involving hazards!

There’s a particular very common case of RAW/WAW hazards in x86. x86 has push and pop instructions that use a dedicated stack pointer register to help the programmer manage the call stack.

A function might start with a sequence like this:

  push  bp
  mov   bp,sp
  push  ax
  push  bx

This sequence sets up the stack frame for a function. bp is used for the frame pointer. Since code like this is involved in every function call, this is an extremely common pattern.

But push both reads and writes sp, the stack pointer register. That means every single push instruction in this code causes a hazard!

This case is so common that it’s worth trying to do better. The P5 microarchitecture contains “sp predictors” that recognize push/pop/call/ret instructions (all of which use sp on x86) and compute the sp value that the V-pipe instruction should see. They can do this in a pipeline stage before the U-pipe instruction executes, so that there is no delay needed for sp! In particular, these calculations happen in the Decode/AG stage, which is responsible for all types of Address Generation.

The term “predictor” here just means that they compute something in advance. They aren’t like branch predictors, which can be wrong. The sp predictors always produce the right value.

These predictors are able to break hazards on sp caused by those 4 instructions, which enables those 4 instructions to pair.7

The EFLAGS Register

Those of you familiar with x86 might have noticed something worrying - almost always, the instruction immediately before a branch computes a condition for the branch. x86 conditions come in several forms, and the computed conditions are stored in an implicit register called the EFLAGS register.

So, wouldn’t such patterns cause a RAW Hazard on the EFLAGS register?

Most of the reason for separating register read, execute, and register write stages in the pipeline is that we have to do complex execution with the values we read, which takes time; and we need to be able to forward results quickly, which also takes time, so it helps if the values to forward come from the start of a stage instead of the end.

However, access to EFLAGS is simple. Each instruction can only read it or write it. Since it’s not general-purpose like the other registers, it’s also less complicated to keep track of.

This means we can keep the EFLAGS register entirely in the execute stage, and resolve hazards on the register inside the stage!

As a result, EFLAGS hazards never prevent pairing. The hardware to resolve those hazards inside the stage adds some complication, but it’s not too bad, and it is absolutely worth it.

Something important to point out is that resolving those hazards can introduce delay into the system. If the U-pipe instruction can’t produce flag values for a long time, and the V-pipe instruction is a branch that needs to read them, the branch circuitry has to wait for the flag values to propagate through the stage’s circuit. The fact that this is possible at all would slow down our clock even when the instructions in the execute stage don’t care.

We have to design our pipeline carefully so that this extra delay is not a limiting factor. In the P5 microarchitecture, the pipeline stages are split up so that the execute stage instructions can produce their flag values very quickly. Most of the stage’s delay comes from the fact that it also handles memory writes. If things would take too long, the execute stage can stall. This allows us to trade extra cycles in some rare cases for clock speed in all cases. That’s a good deal!


Multi-pipe superscaling is the first technique we’ve seen that lets us execute multiple instructions per cycle. For the first time, we’ve been talking about instructions per cycle instead of cycles per instruction.

We’re still limited by slow instructions. Multiplication typically takes several cycles, for example, which will stall both pipes until its done.

We saw a new type of hazard that was not a problem before. We also saw how it can be worth it to try extra hard in a common case, even when it’s too expensive to resolve a complication in general. This phenomenon will continue through every other technique we see.

The P5 microarchitecture was far from the first superscalar architecture, but it was the first superscalar architecture for x86. Due to x86’s complexity, such a thing was previously thought to be impossible. In fact, even just being able to effectively pipeline an x86 architecture was thought to be impossible!

I chose to use the P5 architecture as an example here because an overview at this level doesn’t care so much about the specific machine language. But the P5 microarchitecture tells a compelling story in the history of computer architecture.

No matter how complicated the domain gets, no matter what issues and hazards arise, nothing will stop us in our pursuit of Going Fast.

Up until this point, we’ve been constrained by the simple notion that we read instructions in some order and they should execute in that order.

In the next post, we’re going to start to see how even something as powerful as ordering constraints is unable to stop us from Going Fast.

See you then!

  1. The rest are inspired by trying to reduce power consumption. Going fast has historically been the driving factor; reducing power consumption of a technique for going fast comes after inventing the technique in the first place. 

  2. When they aren’t independent, we start running into data hazards, described in the last post

  3. You may have seen reference to the “3 nm process.” This is a misnomer - it’s just a marketing term. The transistors produced by the 3 nm process are not 3 nm across. That said, they are still really small. 

  4. I do mean high-level - these are the components of the pipeline, but not arranged how they are actually laid out on the chip. Also, the P5 microarchitecture has an on-chip floating point unit which is not shown here. Due to how x87 floating point works, that unit has its own registers and pipeline. There’s also a lot of additional complexity for virtual addressing and cache management, which we aren’t worried about here. 

  5. “Scalar” in this context means “one instruction per cycle.” 

  6. “Logically” means that it came second in the input program. This is in constrast to architecturally, where it is simultaneous with the first mov instead of after it. 

  7. Actually (because of course there’s an “actually”), x86’s ret instruction can optionally take an integer operand. When it does, instead of only popping a return address off the stack, it will pop the given amount of extra space before popping the return address. This is not common and would make sp prediction harder. The P5 doesn’t do it. Such ret instructions remain unpairable if they are involved in hazards on sp

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