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Archive for November, 2012

Some comments on the Xeon Phi coprocessor

Posted by John D. McCalpin, Ph.D. on 17th November 2012

As many of you know, the Texas Advanced Computing Center is in the midst of installing “Stampede” — a large supercomputer using both Intel Xeon E5 (“Sandy Bridge”) and Intel Xeon Phi (aka “MIC”, aka “Knights Corner”) processors.

In his blog “The Perils of Parallel”, Greg Pfister commented on the Xeon Phi announcement and raised a few questions that I thought I should address here.

I am not in a position to comment on Greg’s first question about pricing, but “Dr. Bandwidth” is happy to address Greg’s second question on memory bandwidth!
This has two pieces — local memory bandwidth and PCIe bandwidth to the host. Greg also raised some issues regarding ECC and regarding performance relative to the Xeon E5 processors that I will address below. Although Greg did not directly raise issues of comparisons with GPUs, several of the topics below seemed to call for comments on similarities and differences between Xeon Phi and GPUs as coprocessors, so I have included some thoughts there as well.

Local Memory Bandwidth

The Intel Xeon Phi 5110P is reported to have 8 GB of local memory supporting 320 GB/s of peak bandwidth. The TACC Stampede system employs a slightly different model Xeon Phi, referred to as the Xeon Phi SE10P — this is the model used in the benchmark results reported in the footnotes of the announcement of the Xeon Phi 5110P. The Xeon Phi SE10P runs its memory slightly faster than the Xeon Phi 5110P, but memory performance is primarily limited by available concurrency (more on that later), so the sustained bandwidth is expected to be essentially the same.

Background: Memory Balance

Since 1991, I have been tracking (via the STREAM benchmark) the “balance” between sustainable memory bandwidth and peak double-precision floating-point performance. This is often expressed in “Bytes/FLOP” (or more correctly “Bytes/second per FP Op/second”), but these numbers have been getting too small (<< 1), so for the STREAM benchmark I use "FLOPS/Word" instead (again, more correctly "FLOPs/second per Word/second", where "Word" is whatever size was used in the FP operation). The design target for the traditional "vector" systems was about 1 FLOP/Word, while cache-based systems have been characterized by ratios anywhere between 10 FLOPS/Word and 200 FLOPS/Word. Systems delivering the high sustained memory bandwidth of 10 FLOPS/Word are typically expensive and applications are often compute-limited, while systems delivering the low sustained memory bandwidth of 200 FLOPS/Word are typically strongly memory bandwidth-limited, with throughput scaling poorly as processors are added.

Some real-world examples from TACC's systems:

  • TACC’s Ranger system (4-socket quad-core Opteron Family 10h “Barcelona” processors) sustains about 17.5 GB/s (2.19 GW/s for 8-Byte Words) per node, and have a peak FP rate of 2.3 GHz * 4 FP Ops/Hz/core * 4 cores/socket * 4 sockets = 147.2 GFLOPS per node. The ratio is therefore about 67 FLOPS/Word.
  • TACC’s Lonestar system (2-socket 6-core Xeon 5600 “Westmere” processors) sustains about 41 GB/s (5.125 GW/s) per node, and have a peak FP rate of 3.33 GHz * 4 Ops/Hz/core * 6 cores/socket * 2 sockets = 160 GFLOPS per node. The ratio is therefore about 31 FLOPS/Word.
  • TACC’s forthcoming Stampede system (2-socket 8-core Xeon E5 “Sandy Bridge” processors) sustains about 78 GB/s (9.75 GW/s) per node, and have a peak FP rate of 2.7 GHz * 8 FP Ops/Hz * 8 cores/socket * 2 sockets = 345.6 GFLOPS per ndoe. The ratio is therefore a bit over 35 FLOPS/Word.

Again, the Xeon Phi SE10P coprocessors being installed at TACC are not identical to the announced product version, but the differences are not particularly large. According to footnote 7 of Intel’s announcement web page, the Xeon Phi SE10P has a peak performance of about 1.06 TFLOPS, while footnote 8 reports a STREAM benchmark performance of up to 175 GB/s (21.875 GW/s). The ratio is therefore about 48 FLOPS/Word — a bit less bandwidth per FLOP than the Xeon E5 nodes in the TACC Stampede system (or the TACC Lonestar system), but a bit more bandwidth per FLOP than provided by the nodes in the TACC Ranger system. (I will have a lot more to say about sustained memory bandwidth on the Xeon Phi SE10P over the next few weeks.)

The earlier GPUs had relatively high ratios of bandwidth to peak double-precision FP performance, but as the double-precision FP performance was increased, the ratios have shifted to relatively low amounts of sustainable bandwidth per peak FLOP. For the NVIDIA M2070 “Fermi” GPGPU, the peak double-precision performance is reported as 515.2 GFLOPS, while I measured sustained local bandwidth of about 105 GB/s (13.125 GW/s) using a CUDA port of the STREAM benchmark (with ECC enabled). This corresponds to about 39 FLOPS/Word. I don’t have sustained local bandwidth numbers for the new “Kepler” K20X product, but the data sheet reports that the peak memory bandwidth has been increased by 1.6x (250 GB/s vs 150 GB/s) while the peak FP rate has been increased by 2.5x (1.31 TFLOPS vs 0.515 TFLOPS), so the ratio of peak FLOPS to sustained local bandwidth must be significantly higher than the 39 for the “Fermi” M2070, and is likely in the 55-60 range — slightly higher than the value for the Xeon Phi SE10P.

Although the local memory bandwidth ratios are similar between GPUs and Xeon Phi, the Xeon Phi has a lot more cache to facilitate data reuse (thereby decreasing bandwidth demand). The architectures are quite different, but the NVIDIA Kepler K20x appears to have a total of about 2MB of registers, L1 cache, and L2 cache per chip. In contrast, the Xeon Phi has a 32kB data cache and a private 512kB L2 cache per core, giving a total of more than 30 MB of cache per chip. As the community develops experience with these products, it will be interesting to see how effective the two approaches are for supporting applications.

PCIe Interface Bandwidth

There is no doubt that the PCIe interface between the host and a Xeon Phi has a lot less sustainable bandwidth than what is available for either the Xeon Phi to its local memory or for the host processor to its local memory. This will certainly limit the classes of algorithms that can map effectively to this architecture — just as it limits the classes of algorithms that can be mapped to GPU architectures.

Although many programming models are supported for the Xeon Phi, one that looks interesting (and which is not available on current GPUs) is to run MPI tasks on the Xeon Phi card as well as on the host.

  • MPI codes are typically structured to minimize external bandwidth, so the PCIe interface is used only for MPI messages and not for additional offloading traffic between the host and coprocessor.
  • If the application allows different amounts of “work” to be allocated to each MPI task, then you can use performance measurements for your application to balance the work allocated to each processing component.
  • If the application scales well with OpenMP parallelism, then placing one MPI task on each Xeon E5 chip on the host (with 8 threads per task) and one MPI task on the Xeon Phi (with anywhere from 60-240 threads per task, depending on how your particular application scales).
  • Xeon Phi supports multiple MPI tasks concurrently (with environment variables to control which cores an MPI task’s threads can run on), so applications that do not easily allow different amounts of work to be allocated to each MPI task might run multiple MPI tasks on the Xeon Phi, with the number chosen to balance performance with the performance of the host processors. For example if the Xeon Phi delivers approximately twice the performance of a Xeon E5 host chip, then one might allocate one MPI task on each Xeon E5 (with OpenMP threading internal to the task) and two MPI tasks on the Xeon Phi (again with OpenMP threading internal to the task). If the Xeon Phi delivers three times the performance of the Xeon E5, then one would allocate three MPI tasks to the Xeon Phi, etc….

Running a full operating system on the Xeon Phi allows more flexibility in code structure than is available on (current) GPU-based coprocessors. Possibilities include:

  • Run on host and offload loops/functions to the Xeon Phi.
  • Run on Xeon Phi and offload loops/functions to the host.
  • Run on Xeon Phi and host as peers, for example with MPI.
  • Run only on the host and ignore the Xeon Phi.
  • Run only on the Xeon Phi and use the host only for launching jobs and providing external network and file system access.

Lots of things to try….


Like most (all?) GPUs that support ECC, the Xeon Phi implements ECC “inline” — using a fraction of the standard memory space to hold the ECC bits. This requires memory controller support to perform the ECC checks and to hide the “holes” in memory that contain the ECC bits, but it allows the feature to be turned on and off without incurring extra hardware expense for widening the memory interface to support the ECC bits.

Note that widening the memory interface from 64 bits to 72 bits is straightforward with x4 and x8 DRAM parts — just use 18 x4 chips instead of 16, or use 9 x8 chips instead of 8 — but is problematic with the x32 GDDR5 DRAMs used in GPUs and in Xeon Phi. A single x32 GDDR5 chip has a minimum burst of 32 Bytes so a cache line can be easily delivered with a single transfer from two “ganged” channels. If one wanted to “widen” the interface to hold the ECC bits, the minimum overhead is one extra 32-bit channel — a 50% overhead. This is certainly an unattractive option compared to the 12.5% overhead for the standard DDR3 ECC DIMMs. There are a variety of tricky approaches that might be used to reduce this overhead, but the inline approach seems quite sensible for early product generations.

Intel has not disclosed details about the implementation of ECC on Xeon Phi, but my current understanding of their implementation suggests that the performance penalty (in terms of bandwidth) is actually rather small. I don’t know enough to speculate on the latency penalty yet. All of TACC’s Xeon Phi’s have been running with ECC enabled, but any Xeon Phi owner should be able to reboot a node with ECC disabled to perform direct latency and bandwidth comparisons. (I have added this to my “To Do” list….)

Speedup relative to Xeon E5

Greg noted the surprisingly reasonable claims for speedup relative to Xeon E5. I agree that this is a good thing, and that it is much better to pay attention to application speedup than to the peak performance ratios. Computer performance history has shown that every approach used to double performance results in less than doubling of actual application performance.

Looking at some specific microarchitectural performance factors:

  1. Xeon Phi supports a 512-bit vector instruction set, which can be expected to be slightly less efficient than the 256-bit vector instruction set on Xeon E5.
  2. Xeon Phi has slightly lower L1 cache bandwidth (in terms of Bytes/Peak FP Op) than the Xeon E5, resulting in slightly lower efficiency for overlapping compute and data transfers to/from the L1 data cache.
  3. Xeon Phi has ~60 cores per chip, which can be expected to give less efficient throughput scaling than the 8 cores per Xeon E5 chip.
  4. Xeon Phi has slightly less bandwidth per peak FP Op than the Xeon E5, so the memory bandwidth will result in a higher overhead and a slightly lower percentage of peak FP utilization.
  5. Xeon Phi has no L3 cache, so the total cache per core (32kB L1 + 512kB L2) is lower than that provided by the Xeon E5 (32kB L1 + 256kB L2 + 2.5MB L3 (1/8 of the 20 MB shared L3).
  6. Xeon Phi has higher local memory latency than the Xeon E5, which has some impact on sustained bandwidth (already considered), and results in additional stall cycles in the occasional case of a non-prefetchable cache miss that cannot be overlapped with other memory transfers.

None of these are “problems” — they are intrinsic to the technology required to obtain higher peak performance per chip and higher peak performance per unit power. (That is not to say that the implementation cannot be improved, but it is saying that any implementation using comparable design and fabrication technology can be expected to show some level of efficiency loss due to each of these factors.)

The combined result of all these factors is that the Xeon Phi (or any processor obtaining its peak performance using much more parallelism with lower-power, less complex processors) will typically deliver a lower percentage of peak on real applications than a state-of-the-art Xeon E5 processor. Again, this is not a “problem” — it is intrinsic to the technology. Every application will show different sensitivity to each of these specific factors, but few applications will be insensitive to all of them.

Similar issues apply to comparisons between the “efficiency” of GPUs vs state-of-the-art processors like the Xeon E5. These comparisons are not as uniformly applicable because the fundamental architecture of GPUs is quite different than that of traditional CPUs. For example, we have all seen the claims of 50x and 100x speedups on GPUs. In these cases the algorithm is typically a poor match to the microarchitecture of the traditional CPU and a reasonable match to the microarchitecture of the GPU. We don’t expect to see similar speedups on Xeon Phi because it is based on a traditional microprocessor architecture and shows similar performance characteristics.

On the other hand, something that we don’t typically see is the list of 0x speedups for algorithms that do not map well enough to the GPU to make the porting effort worthwhile. Xeon Phi is not better than Xeon E5 on all workloads, but because it is based on general-purpose microprocessor cores it will run any general-purpose workload. The same cannot be said of GPU-based coprocessors.

Of course these are all general considerations. Performing careful direct comparisons of real application performance will take some time, but it should be a lot of fun!

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