Memory Hierarchy Design - Part 1. Basics of Memory Hierarchies

John L. Hennessy, Stanford University, and David A. Patterson, University of California, Berkeley -September 25, 2012

Editor's Note: Demand for increasing functionality and performance in systems designs continues to drive the need for more memory even as hardware engineers balance the dynamics of system capability, power, and cost against the growing performance gap between processor and memory. Architectures based on memory hierarchy address these issues, and what better source for the details of this approach than an excerpt on the subject from the seminal book on Computer Architecture by John Hennessy and David Patterson. Part 1 looks at the key issues surrounding memory hierarchies and sets the stage for subsequent installments addressing cache design, memory optimization, and design approaches. Part 2, Ten advanced optimizations of cache performance, reviews advanced optimizations of cache performance.
Adapted from "Computer Architecture, Fifth Edition: A Quantitative Approach" by John Hennessy and David Patterson (Morgan Kaufmann)
Ideally one would desire an indefinitely large memory capacity such that any particular … word would be immediately available. … We are … forced to recognize the possibility of constructing a hierarchy of memories, each of which has greater capacity than the preceding but which is less quickly accessible.
A. W. Burks, H. H. Goldstine, and J. von Neumann
Preliminary Discussion of the
Logical Design of an
Electronic Computing Instrument (1946)

Computer pioneers correctly predicted that programmers would want unlimited amounts of fast memory. An economical solution to that desire is a memory hierarchy, which takes advantage of locality and trade-offs in the cost-performance of memory technologies. The principle of locality, presented in the first chapter, says that most programs do not access all code or data uniformly. Locality occurs in time (temporal locality) and in space (spatial locality). This principle, plus the guideline that for a given implementation technology and power budget smaller hardware can be made faster, led to hierarchies based on memories of different speeds and sizes. Figure 2.1 shows a multilevel memory hierarchy, including typical sizes and speeds of access.

Figure 2.1. The levels in a typical memory hierarchy in a server computer shown on top (a) and in a personal mobile device (PMD) on the bottom (b). As we move farther away from the processor, the memory in the level below becomes slower and larger. Note that the time units change by a factor of 109 - from picoseconds to milliseconds - and that the size units change by a factor of 1012 - from bytes to terabytes. The PMD has a slower clock rate and smaller caches and main memory. A key difference is that servers and desktops use disk storage as the lowest level in the hierarchy while PMDs use Flash, which is built from EEPROM technology.

Since fast memory is expensive, a memory hierarchy is organized into several levels - each smaller, faster, and more expensive per byte than the next lower level, which is farther from the processor. The goal is to provide a memory system with cost per byte almost as low as the cheapest level of memory and speed almost as fast as the fastest level. In most cases (but not all), the data contained in a lower level are a superset of the next higher level. This property, called the inclusion property, is always required for the lowest level of the hierarchy, which consists of main memory in the case of caches and disk memory in the case of virtual memory.

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