avr11: profiling on the Atmega

This is a post about the performance of my avr11 simulator. Specifically about the performance improvements I’ve made since my first post, and the surprises I’ve encountered during the process.

Old school profiling

Because avr11 runs directly on the Atmega 2560 microcontroller, there is no simple way to measure the performance of various pieces of code externally.

I am aware that Atmel studio contains a fairly accurate simulator, but that package only runs on Windows. It also wasn’t clear if it can simulate the microSD card and xmem boards that avr11 requires. That left me needing to improvise some way of measuring the relative performance of avr11 while I made changes to the code.

The solution I came up with was a counter that increments every time cpu::step(), the function that processes one instruction, is called. The counter is defined as uint16_t so rolls over every 2^16 instructions. Combined with the built in millis() function, which prints the number of milliseconds since reset, I had a crude way of timing how long avr11 takes to dispatch instructions.

    if (INSTR_TIMING && (++instcounter == 0)) {

From there the process became very iterative. Each evening I would spend a few hours playing with various tweaks in the Go version of avr11, then I would transpose them over to the C++ code a piece at a time, testing as I went and watching the cycle count.

Some promising results

TL;DR – Instruction dispatch was an average of 144 microseconds with the mmu disabled1, 160 with the mmu enabled. It is now 60 microseconds with the mmu disabled, and a few microseconds more with the mmu enabled. 2.4x improvement.

The first big improvement came from switching from the Arduino SD classes to the SdFat library. SdFat gives you more control over the interactions with the card, and also lets you set the speed of the SPI bus, on 16 Mhz Atmels, to full speed, rather then the previous 1/2 speed maximum. This gave me an 8-10% improvement in memory access times to the SPI SRAM shield.

The next big improvement came from switching from the SPI SRAM shield to a Rugged Circuits’ QuadRAM board. This eliminates the SPI bus entirely by extending the address space of the Atmega 2560 to the full 64 kilobytes and adding banking to access up to 512 kilobytes. This gave another 20% improvement.

After that things got harder. The remaining 30 microsecond improvements came from careful rewriting of all the hot paths and reducing the data types involved to their smallest possible type.

A surprising discovery

The most surprising discovery of all was made as I started to comment out pieces of the code to get a baseline for the inner loop of the simulator.

After whittling it down to simply fetching the instruction at the current PC I’d arrived at a baseline of 21 microseconds. That is just under 50 kilohertz simulated performance; not great, especially considering this isn’t processing the instruction.

Digging a little further I discovered that this one shift to set the correct memory bank costs 4-5 microseconds. Out of a total time of 21 microseconds, that is close to 25% in just one line.

  if (a < 0760000 ) {     
    // a >> 15 costs nearly 5 usec !!
    uint8_t bank = a >> 15;
    xmem::setMemoryBank(bank, false);
    return intptr[(a & 0x7fff) >> 1];

In retrospect this shouldn’t have been a surprise. The Atmega processor is an 8 bit processor. It has some provisions for 16 bit quantities, but they are expensive. 32 bit quantities probably receive no hardware support, and I think in this instance avr-gcc is calling a helper function for the unaligned shift.

A quick hack using a cast and some shifts shaved 4 microseconds off the inner loop, clearly attributable to this inefficient shift. The proper fix will probably involve more radical surgery using a union datatype.


If this post has a moral, it would have to be

Don’t guess, always profile your code.

As for the performance of avr11, it stands a 16 kilohertz simulated clock speed. Possibly with some extreme C surgery this can be improved to 20 kilohertz. Past that, the possibilities running on the Atmega 2560 look grim.

I’d be interested in hearing from other Atmel users about their profiling methods.

  1. The PDP-11/40 I am simulating has an 18 bit address space. However the CPU is only 16 bit and cannot directly generate 18 bit addresses so a memory management unit is used to rewrite addresses as they leave for the UNIBUS. The MMU adds a small overhead to memory reads and writes when enabled. In the original hardware that was somewhere on the order of 90 nanoseconds. In simulation it’s probably under 5 microseconds.

3 thoughts on “avr11: profiling on the Atmega

  1. Joey Morin

    First off… well done!

    I personally have never had the pleasure of working with a PDP-11, but I have laid hands upon one of it’s contemporaries, the VAX-11/750.

    As for techniques for profiling, it of course depends on what I’m profiling. In general, I try to minimise the impact of the profiling on the thing being profiled.

    Note that your test code:

    if (INSTR_TIMING && (++instcounter == 0)) {

    … will have a non-negligible impact on the loop time being measured.

    A 16-bit counter will likely compile to a minimum of:

    lds r24, instcounter
    lds r25, instcounter+1
    adiw r24, 1
    sts instcounter+1, r25
    sts instcounter, r24
    cp r24, r1
    cpc r25, r1

    … for a total of about 13 or 14 cycles minimum.

    As it is that’s about a microsecond added to your loop time on account of the profiling code. Depending on what else the compiler is juggling, this may take quite a few more cycles, perhaps double or more.

    On top of that, the call to millis() and Serial.print() will have a much more serious impact on the loop time you’re trying to measure. Since you’re only calling them once every 65536 steps, the impact is greatly reduced, but it would be nice to eliminate it altogether

    A less intrusive approach might be simple to toggle an unused pin, say Arduino pin 25:

    PINA = (1<<PINA3);

    This compiles to a single 2-cycle SBI instruction, or 1/8 of a microsecond, and has no side-effects that would require the compiler to juggle things around.

    If you're not familiar with this form, basically it's a way to directly manipulate the I/O pins than is possible with digitalWrite().

    The above line of code will toggle Arduino pin 25. If you're already using that pin then you could just as easily toggle any otherwise unused pin, but you need to know what pins correspond to what ports, and which bits. A caveat is that not all pins are accessible by the SBI instructions. Ports A through G are. Ports H through L are not. The port mappings of the Arduino pins for the 2560 are available here: http://arduino.cc/en/Hacking/PinMapping2560

    This approach would of course require a way to monitor the rate at which this pin is toggling. Another Arduino can do the job, or a logic analyser, or an oscilloscope.

    I'd also be interested in seeing how your simulator would improve by writing it directly in C++ or even C. The Arudino IDE and build environment is fantastic in it's accessibility, but it is not known for it's performance.

    In particular some of the libraries are especially inefficient. As you have discovered, the SD libraries are big offenders. FatFS and Petit FatFS are lightweight SD libraries that would likely perform far better. Indeed, the Arduino SD libraries are based upon it (or some variation of it), but are hobbled somewhat by system calls like digitalWrite().

    I wouldn't be surprised if you were to see a 50-100 percent improvement in performance.

    Again, marvellous work! Keep it up!


  2. Joey Morin

    I forgot to mention that you’d still need to make the pin an output with:

    pinMode(25, OUTPUT);

    Looking forward to more installments!


    1. Dave Cheney Post author

      Thanks for your comment JJ. I switched from the counter to toggling PIN18 (the quadram shield consumes most of the additional pins). Sampling with my trusty bus pirate

      At bootup (MMU not running)

      AUX Frequency: autorange 14,523 Hz

      With the CPU and MMU running,

      AUX Frequency: autorange 10,289 Hz
      AUX Frequency: autorange 12,399 Hz

      The bus pirate doesn’t do continuous frequency measurements, so I’ll knock something up using an Arduino

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