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2019.04.30: An introduction to vectorization

Your CPU has a 32-bit addition instruction that computes the sum of two 32-bit integers x and y, producing a 32-bit result. (The 33rd bit of the sum, the "carry bit", is usually thrown away.)

A 2-way-vectorized 32-bit addition instruction computes the sum of two vectors (x0,x1) and (y0,y1), where x0,x1,y0,y1 are 32-bit integers. This means that the CPU computes the sum of x0 and y0, and also computes the sum of x1 and y1.

A 4-way-vectorized 32-bit addition instruction computes the sum of two 32-bit integers x0 and y0; the sum of two 32-bit integers x1 and y1; the sum of two 32-bit integers x2 and y2; and the sum of two 32-bit integers x3 and y3.

Why should a CPU designer bother providing a vectorized addition instruction? Why doesn't the programmer simply use one 32-bit addition instruction to add x0 and y0, another 32-bit addition instruction to add x1 and y1, et cetera? To understand the answer, let's take a closer look at how the CPU handles a non-vectorized 32-bit addition instruction:

These five stages involve tremendous overhead beyond the addition. Typically there are even more stages: for example, an early stage that inserts the instruction into an array of instructions ready to be executed, and a late stage that "retires" the completed instruction, removing it from this array. It's not surprising for an Intel CPU to have 15 or more stages overall. (Readers interested in learning more about the Intel pipeline should study Agner Fog's optimization manuals.)

Students in algorithms courses are usually trained to count arithmetic operations and to ignore the cost of memory access. Does the overhead of handling an instruction really matter compared to the cost of arithmetic? To see that the answer is yes, let's scale up to a much more expensive arithmetic instruction, namely a 64-bit floating-point multiplication. An Intel presentation in 2015 reported that a 64-bit floating-point multiplication costs 6.4 picojoules (at 22nm, scaling "well with process and voltage"), that reading 64 bits from a register file costs 1.2 picojoules (scaling "less well with voltage"), that reading 64 bits from a small (8KB) cache costs 4.2 picojoules, that reading 64 bits from a large (256KB) cache costs 16.7 picojoules, and that moving 64 bits through a wire 5 millimeters long costs 11.20 picojoules ("more difficult to scale down").

Now let's look at how the CPU handles a 4-way-vectorized 32-bit addition instruction:

The extra efficiency of the vectorized instruction is already clear at the first stage. Fetching a vectorized addition instruction might be slightly more expensive than fetching a non-vectorized addition instruction if the vectorized instruction has a longer encoding, but it certainly isn't 4 times as expensive. More broadly, 4-way vectorization means that the overhead of handling each instruction (and, to some extent, the overhead of handling each input and output) is amortized across 4 arithmetic operations. Moving from 4-way vectorization to 8-way vectorization chops the overhead in half again.

Computers are constantly applying the same computations to one input after another, continuing through large volumes of data. Handling these computations with vectorized instructions, rather than with non-vectorized instructions, increases the amount of useful work that the CPU can do in any particular amount of time under any particular limits on energy, power, temperature, etc. Commonly used optimizing compilers such as gcc automatically try to figure out how they can use vectorized instructions instead of non-vectorized instructions. Often the compiler's automatic vectorization doesn't succeed, so programmers manually vectorize critical inner loops in a broad range of performance-sensitive applications.

Wikipedia's AVX page mentions Blender (movie creation), dav1d (AV1 movie player used inside Firefox), TensorFlow (machine learning), and various other popular applications that use Intel's instructions to handle 256-bit vectors. Intel's 128-bit instructions, "SSE" etc., were introduced a decade earlier and are used so pervasively that trying to keep a list of applications would be silly.

There is overwhelming evidence of the huge performance increase produced by vectorization. This performance increase is also the reason that CPU designers include vector instructions in every big enough CPU. Some CPU designers have gone far beyond 4-way vectorization: massive vector processors called GPUs (typically working with 1024-bit vectors) have set speed records for a remarkable range of computations. Current GPUs aren't designed to run full operating systems, so they can't replace current CPUs, but the performance of GPUs illustrates the fundamental efficiency of vectorization.

It's possible for a high-speed vectorized computation to generate enough heat to overwhelm the CPU's cooling, or to consume more power than is available. The CPU then reduces its clock speed somewhat to compensate. (GPUs typically run below 2GHz.) CPU designers are perfectly aware of this, and continue to include vector instructions, because vectorization is still a huge win.

Software without full vectorization

Sometimes a CPU is busy running software that makes little use of the most powerful vector instructions provided by the CPU. There are two basic reasons for this.

Reason 1: Some computations are hard to vectorize. Consider, for example, the RC4 stream cipher. This cipher was designed in the 1980s for high software speed, and for many years it was the main cipher used to encrypt HTTPS traffic. In 2001 (as part of a statement downplaying the latest attacks against RC4), RSA Laboratories described RC4 as "extremely efficient". Today the Wikipedia page on RC4 describes RC4 as "remarkable for its simplicity and speed in software". But let's look at some benchmarks comparing RC4 to my ChaCha20 stream cipher:

Behind the scenes, these ChaCha20 speeds are taking advantage of 128-bit vector instructions on the Core 2 and 256-bit vector instructions on the Skylake, while it's awfully difficult for RC4 to make any use of vector instructions. One of the recurring themes in my research is exploring ways that non-vectorizable computations can be replaced with vectorizable computations.

Reason 2: Intel keeps changing its vector instruction sets. Intel started releasing

Each new instruction-set extension is a new hassle. Someone needs to figure out how to modify software to use the new instructions, how to deploy the new software for the new CPUs, and how to avoid having software crash if it tries using the new instructions on older CPUs that do not support those instructions. Wide use of the new instructions is years away. Intel often seems to have trouble figuring out which clock speeds are going to be safe for software using the new instructions. Eventually these problems are resolved for each new instruction set, but the resolution can take years.

Some vector instruction sets, such as ARM's Scalable Vector Extension (SVE), instead allow "vector-length agnostic" software that works with many different vector sizes. To process an N-bit vector, the software tells the CPU to

These instructions don't state C explicitly. There's one initial software upgrade to use these scalable vector instructions, and then subsequent changes in the vector length C don't need further upgrades. A new CPU with a larger C will automatically run exactly the same software using its larger vector lengths.

Perhaps ARM will make further changes to the instructions, for example to correct what turn out to be design flaws in the current details. But what matters is the scalable design. The CPU designer is free to try different vector lengths, without the hassle of introducing a new instruction set. The CPU designer can use all the previous vectorized software to test the new vector lengths. The user doesn't have to wait for software modifications to take advantage of the new CPU.

Vectorization denial: the anti-vectors campaign

Out of the 69 round-1 submissions to NIST's Post-Quantum Cryptography Standardization Project, 22% already provided Haswell-optimized software at the beginning of round 1 using 256-bit AVX2 vector instructions. The fraction increased to 65% at the beginning of round 2.

Out of the 56 speakers at NIST's round-1 conference, there was one speaker making the amazing claim that vectorization is a bad thing. The slides say "We do not give a machine code implementation using SSE etc. We (and others) have found that using these extensions causes overall performance of cryptographic systems to slow down." (Emphasis in original. The speaker was Nigel Smart; the cover slide also lists Martin R. Albrecht, Yehuda Lindell, Emmanuela Orsini, Valery Osheter, Kenneth G. Paterson, and Guy Peer.)

What the anti-vectorization people have "found" is simply the well-documented fact that CPU designers sometimes have to reduce their clock speeds to handle high-speed vectorized computations. See, e.g., Intel's 2014 white paper "Optimizing Performance with Intel Advanced Vector Extensions", which discusses the big picture of interactions between clock speed and use of AVX.

Vectorized software is in heavy use in practically every smartphone CPU, laptop CPU, and server CPU. Vectorization is a huge win despite sometimes needing lower clock speeds. But these anti-vectorization people don't even want to use 128-bit vectors ("We do not give a machine code implementation using SSE etc."). They publish statements whose evident goal is to deter other people from writing and measuring vectorized code. Do they seriously believe that Intel and AMD and ARM have all screwed up by supporting vectorization?

As discussed above, Intel deployed a new instruction set starting in 2011 to handle 256-bit vectors. For some time after this, the most important computations on typical machines weren't using 256-bit vector instructions, simply because the necessary software hadn't been written yet. If a CPU needed to run at lower clock speed to handle an occasional 256-bit computation, then the most important computations would run more slowly, producing a measurable performance loss. But this was merely a temporary side effect of Intel's suboptimal management of the transition to larger vectors. Adding 256-bit support to the most important computations is a huge win—again, this is despite clock speeds sometimes being lower.

We're now seeing the same pattern repeat for Intel's new 512-bit vector instructions. Vlad Krasnov posted a measurement showing an occasional 512-bit computation producing an overall performance loss of 10% in a reasonable-sounding synthetic workload on an Intel Xeon Silver. The anti-vectors campaign views this measurement as a devastating indictment of 512-bit vectors; slides to the notion that one also shouldn't use 256-bit vectors; and slides beyond this to the notion that one shouldn't even use 128-bit vectors.

What will happen when the most important computations are upgraded to use 512-bit vectors? Unless Intel botched their hardware design, the answer will be a performance win, despite the reduction in clock speed. As this clock-speed reduction increasingly becomes the norm, the supposed harms of upgrading other computations to use 512-bit vectors will disappear, while the performance benefits will remain.

Because Intel never provided scalable vector instructions, the new ecosystem of software that can use Intel's 512-bit vectors is much smaller than the previous ecosystem of software that uses smaller vectors. Experience suggests that growth of the new ecosystem will produce a transition between two situations:

If you're a software developer, and you take the lead in adding support for 512-bit vector instructions (once you have a 512-bit CPU for testing), then you're giving extra choices to users who have 512-bit CPUs. Users then have the freedom to run your software in the mode that best supports their most important computations. Presumably this will be 512-bit mode in the not-too-distant future, and for some users it is already 512-bit mode today.

You might run into an anti-vectors campaigner who wants to take this freedom away, and who tries to make you feel guilty for clock-speed reductions. According to the campaigner, you are singlehandedly responsible for slowing down every other application on the machine! But the reality is quite different. A single change of clock speed allows larger vectors in many different computations, and if this includes the most important computations for the users then overall there's a speedup.


Version: This is version 2019.04.30 of the 20190430-vectorize.html web page.