Georg Hager's Blog

Random thoughts on High Performance Computing


A riddle in D/A conversion – and its solution

This post is not about high performance computing, for a change; it does, however, have a distinct performance-related vibe, so I think it qualifies for this blog. Besides, I had so much fun solving this riddle that I just cannot keep it to myself, so here goes.

D/A conversion with Arduino and ZN426

I was always interested in digital signal processing, and recently I decided to look into an old drawer and found a couple of ZN426E8 8-bit D/A converters that I had bought in the 80s. I asked myself whether a standard Arduino Uno with its measly 16 MHz ATmega 328 processor would be able to muster enough performance to produce waveforms in the audio range (up to at least a couple of kHz) by copying bytes from a pre-computed array to the D/A converter. The ZN426 itself wouldn’t be a bottleneck in this because it’s just an R-2R ladder with a worst-case settling time of 2 µs, which leads to a Nyquist frequency of 250 kHz. Ample headroom for audio. At 16 MHz, 2 µs means 32 clock cycles, so it shouldn’t really be a problem for the Arduino as well even with compiled code. Or so I thought.


Fig. 1: The input lines of the D/A converter are numbered with bit 8 being the LSB (image cut from the Plessey data sheet for the ZN426E8)

So I hooked up the digital output lines of port D on the Uno to the input lines of the D/A converter and added the other necessary components according to the minimal example in the data sheet (basically a resistor and a capacitor needed by the internal 2.55 V reference). Unfortunately, the ZN426 data sheet uses an unusual numbering of the bits: bit 1 is the MSB, and bit 8 is the LSB. I missed that and inadvertently mirrored the bits, which led to an “interesting” waveform the first time I fired up the program. Now instead of fixing the circuit, I thought I could do that in software; just mirror the bits before writing them out to PORTD:

// output bytes in out[]
for(int i=0; i<N; i++) {
  unsigned char d=0;
  // mirror the bits in out[i], result in d
  for(int j=0; j<=7; ++j){
    unsigned char lmask = 1 << j, rmask = 128 >> j;
    if(out[i] & lmask) d |= rmask;
  PORTD = out[i];

I knew that this was just a quick hack and that one could do it faster, but I just wanted the waveform to look right, and then care for performance. By the way, shift and mask operations should be fast, right? As a first test I wanted to approximate a square wave using Fourier synthesis:

f(t)=\sin t +\frac{1}{3}\sin 3t+\frac{1}{5}\sin 5t+\ldots

Fourier-synthesized square wave (first 20 harmonics) with wrong duty cylcle

Fig. 2: Fourier-synthesized square wave (first 20 harmonics) with wrong duty cycle

The problem

Of course, the resulting function was then shifted and scaled appropriately to map to the range {0,…,255} of the D/A input. As a test, I used 200 data points per period and stopped at 20 harmonics (10 of which were nonzero). On first sight, the resulting waveform looked OK on the scope (see Fig. 2): the usual Gibbs phenomenon near the discontinuities, the correct number of oscillations. However, the duty cycle was not the expected 1:1 but more like 1.3:1. I first assumed some odd programming error, so I simplified the problem by using a single Fourier component, a simple sine wave. Figure 3 shows the result: It was obviously not a correct sine function, since the “arc” at the top is clearly blunter than that at the bottom. So it wasn’t some bug in the Fourier synthesis but already present in the fundamental harmonic.

This sine function is not quite a sine function

Fig. 3: This sine function is not quite a sine function

Bug hunting

In order to track the bug I made some experiments. First I compiled an adapted version of the code on my PC so I could easily inspect and plot the data in the program. It turned out that the math was correct – when plotting the out[] array, I got exactly what was expected, without distortions. Although this was reassuring, it left basically two options: Either it was an “analog” problem, i.e., something was wrong with the linearity of the D/A converter or with its voltage reference, or the timing was somehow off so that data points with high voltages took longer to output.

To check the voltage reference, I tried to spot fluctuations with the scope hooked up to it, but there was nothing – the voltage was at a solid 2.5 V (ish), and there was no discernible AC component visible within the limitations of my scope (a Hameg HM 208, by the way); a noise component of 20 mVpp would have been easily in range. The next test involved the timing: I inserted a significant delay (about 200 µs) after writing the byte to PORTD. This reduced the output frequency quite a bit since the original code spat out one byte about every 20 µs. Lo and behold – the asymmetries were gone. At this point it should have dawned on me, but I still thought it was an analog problem, somehow connected to the speed at which the D/A converter settles to the correct output voltage. However, the specs say that this should take at most 2 µs, so with one new value every 20 µs I should have been fine.

Correct duty cycle after rewiring the D/A input lines

Fig. 4: Correct duty cycle after rewiring the D/A input lines

The solution

In the end, out of sheer desperation I decided to take out the last bit of complexity and rewired the D/A input bits so that the byte-mirror code became obsolete. Figure 4 shows the resulting output voltage for the square wave experiment. There are two major observations here: (1) The duty cycle was now correct at 1:1, and (2) the performance of the code was greatly improved. Instead of one value every 20 µs it now wrote one value every 550 ns (about 9 clock cycles). Problem solved – but why?

The observation that the nonlinearity disappeared when I inserted a delay was the key. In the byte-mirror code above, the more bits in the input byte out[i] are set to one, the more often the if() condition is true and the or-masking of the output byte d takes place. In other words, the larger the number of one-bits, the longer it takes to put together the output byte. And since voltages near the maximum are generated by numbers close to 255 (i.e., with lots of set bits), a phase in the output waveform with a large average voltage used a longer time step than one with a low average voltage. In other words, the time step had a component that was linear in the Hamming weight (or popcount) of the binary output value.

Of course I did some checks to confirm this hypothesis. Rewriting the byte-mirror code without an if condition (instead of rewiring the data lines) fixed the problem as well:

for(int i=0; i<N; i++) {
  unsigned char d=0,lmask=1,rmask=128,v;
  for(unsigned char j=0; j<=7; ++j){
    v = out[i] & lmask;
    d |= (v<<(7-j))>>j;
  PORTD = d;

There are many ways to do this, but all resulted in (1) correct output and (2) slow code, more than an order of magnitude slower than the “plain” code with correctly wired data lines. Whatever I tried to mirror the bits, it always took a couple hundred cycles.

In summary, a problem which looked like a nonlinearity in a D/A converter output was actually caused by my code taking longer when more bits were set in the output, resulting in a larger time step for higher voltages.

Odds and ends
At a time step of roughly half a microsecond, the behavior of the D/A converter and the Arduino become visible

Fig. 5: At a time step of roughly half a microsecond, the behavior of the D/A converter and the Arduino become visible

Without mirroring, the time step between successive updates is much smaller than the worst-case settling time of the D/A converter. Figure 5 shows a pure sine function again. One can clearly discern spikes at the points where lots of input bits change concurrently, e.g., at half of the maximum voltage. I don’t know if this is caused by the outputs of the Arduino port being not perfectly synchronous, or if it is an inherent property of the converter. In practice it probably should not matter since there will be some kind of buffer/amplifier/offset compensation circuit that acts as a low-pass filter.

Figure 5 shows yet another oddity: From time to time, the Arduino seems to take a break (there is a plateau at about 75% of the width). This first showed up on the scope as a “ghost image,” i.e., there was a second, shifted version of the waveform on the screen. Fortunately, my Hameg scope has a builtin digital storage option, and after a couple of tries I could capture what is seen in Fig. 5. These plateaus are roughly 6-7 µs in length and turn up regularly every 1.1 ms or so. I checked that this is not something that occurs in between calls to the loop() function; it is really regular, and asynchronous to whatever else happens on the Arduino. I don’t know exactly what it is, but the frequency of these plateaus is suspiciously close to the frequency of the PWM outputs on pins 5 and 6 of the Uno (960 Hz), so it might have something to do with that.

You can download the code of the sketch here: dftsynth.c Remember that this is just a little test code. It only implements  a pure sine transform. I am aware that the Arduino Uno with its limited RAM is not the ideal platform for actually producing audio output.

Please drop me a note if you have any comments or questions.

ISC High Performance 2022 deadlines extended!

Get into gear! The research paper and workshop deadlines of ISC High Performance 2022 have just been updated:

  • Research papers: November 29 (abstracts) / December 6 (papers)
  • Workshops: November 30 (with proceedings) / January 27 (without proceedings)

ISC 2022 takes place from May 29 to June 2 at Messe Hamburg. Ana Lucia Varbanescu (University of Amsterdam) and Abhinav Bhatele (University of Maryland) are in charge of the paper track. Keren Bergman from Columbia University is the 2022 Program Chair.

Write-allocate evasion has finally arrived at Intel – or has it?

Intel’s Xeon Ice Lake CPU has finally caught up with AMD’s Rome in terms of full-chip peak performance and memory bandwidth. And, at long last, they have also fixed the Port 7 AGU problem I wrote about two years ago: Ice Lake now has two fully capable Store AGUs and an additional Store unit (although you can only do two stores concurrently if they go to the same cache line). There is one thing, however, that has appeared in recent years on ARM-based CPUs: automatic write-allocate elimination. We saw this for the first time on Cavium/Marvell’s ThunderX2 [1], although it was presumably present before on other ARM-based chips as well.

Basically what happens is that in situations where a write-allocate operation would be necessary, the hardware detects if the whole cache line is going to be overwritten. If it is, there’s no point in reading the cache line at all, and it can just be claimed in the cache right away. This saves 1/3 of the memory traffic on STREAM Copy, leading to a 50% performance gain if the saturated bandwidth doesn’t change. On the Fujitsu A64FX, this is not automatic but can be triggered by a special instruction, to the same effect [2]. Up to now, Intel followed a different path and supported nontemporal stores, which also avoid the write-allocate but in a different way: The cache line is stored “directly” to memory (actually through a write-combine buffer) so that it does not end up in the cache in the first place. Which strategy is better depends on the application: If the data is not needed soon, nontemporal stores may be better because the stored cache lines do not pollute the cache.

With Ice Lake, Intel provides for the first time a working mechanism for write-allocate evasion that’s similar to what the TX2 did. Intel calls it “SpecI2M,” and it’s described on slide 12 of a HotChips 2020 presentation:

SpecI2M optimization: Convert RFO to specI2M when memory subsystem is heavily loaded

  • Reduces mem bandwidth demand on streaming WLs that do full cache line writes (25% efficiency increase)

This is quite cryptic, and there’s a lot of speculation about what SpecI2M actually does, but it’s actually simple to figure out. likwid-bench is the perfect tool for that. The copy_avx512 kernel provided with it is as simple as it gets:

vmovapd    zmm1, [STR0 + GPR1 * 8]
vmovapd    zmm2, [STR0 + GPR1 * 8 + 64]
vmovapd    zmm3, [STR0 + GPR1 * 8 + 128]
vmovapd    zmm4, [STR0 + GPR1 * 8 + 192]
vmovapd    [STR1 + GPR1 * 8]     , zmm1
vmovapd    [STR1 + GPR1 * 8 + 64], zmm2
vmovapd    [STR1 + GPR1 * 8 + 128], zmm3
vmovapd    [STR1 + GPR1 * 8 + 192], zmm4

I’ve omitted the loop mechanics here (and don’t worry about the base/index registers; the likwid-bench code generator substitutes them with the real names). This is the version with normal stores (vmovapd). The copy_mem_avx512 kernel uses nontemporal stores (vmovntpd) instead.

Figure 1: STREAM copy standard stores (blue, red) vs. nontemporal stores on Xeon Platinum 8358

Figure 2: Ratio of actual vs. reported memory bandwidth

I’ve run scaling tests with these kernels using a 2 GB working set on a Xeon Platinum 8358 (Ice Lake 32 cores, 2.6 GHz base frequency, SNC off, THP=always, numa_balancing=0):

$ likwid-bench -t copy_avx512 -W S0:2GB:${NUM_THREADS}:1:2

For standard stores, Figure 1 shows the reported bandwidth in blue and the actual bus bandwidth (measured with likwid-perfctr) in red. With a few cores, the actual bandwidth is exactly 50% larger than reported, as expected. This can be seen in Figure 2 where I plotted this ratio (basically red divided by blue in Fig. 1). However, the ratio gradually goes down as the number of cores goes up. It’s as if the write-allocate is avoided, but not based on the (sole) fact that full cache lines are overwritten but based on the actual bus utilization! At 29 cores and above, the ratio is finally down at 1.0, so the write-allocate is fully gone.

I don’t like that behavior.

Figure 3: Reported bandwidth of the copy_avx512 kernel on the 38-core Ice Lake at KIT (HoreKa)

What I do like is a nice saturation curve like the one we see for NT stores (gray in Fig. 1). Not everyone can use NT stores, though; they only exist in SIMD variants (not quite, but for practical purposes they do), and you have to convince the compiler to use them unless you want to employ intrinsics or assembly. I looked for a way to switch off or alter the behavior of SpecI2M in the machine’s BIOS, but to no avail.

Even worse, there are machines on which SpecI2M acts even more weirdly. The HoreKa cluster at KIT has 38-core Ice Lake Xeon Platinum 8368 CPUs. Figure 3 shows the reported bandwidth of the copy_avx512 loop vs. cores.  Here, the write-allocate evasion mechanism seems to kick in only beyond 30 cores, when the memory bandwidth is already very close to saturation (and it has been this way at 20 cores already). This means that in order to get the full socket performance, I have to use (almost) all cores although I could get away with much fewer if only the SpecI2M were more aggressive. I wonder what speaks against letting it fire already from core 1. What harm could it do? And why can I not just turn it off?

To make sure that this is not just a property of the specific benchmark setup, here are some additional observations:

  • The working set has no influence on the behavior. 10 GB instead of 2 GB make no difference whatsoever.
  • It’s not specific to STREAM Copy but it shows with all streaming loops that have store misses (STREAM Triad, Schönauer Triad, etc.). Of course, the higher the load/store ratio, the smaller the effect.
  • Turbo mode was switched off in these experiments, but it makes no difference if it’s on (apart from the higher single-core bandwidth, obviously).
  • It’s not a specific quirk of likwid-bench; the same behavior can be observed with code that was compiled from a high-level language, such as Jan Eitzinger’s TheBandwidthBenchmark or the original McCalpin STREAM.

Although it makes teaching people about memory traffic harder, I still see SpecI2M as a step in the right direction. We certainly have to ask additional questions: At which cache level is the cache line claimed? Does the write-allocate evasion also work with more realistic code such as a stencil smoother? Great questions. Stay tuned.


[1] J. Hofmann, C. L. Alappat, G. Hager, D. Fey, and G. Wellein: Bridging the Architecture Gap: Abstracting Performance-Relevant Properties of Modern Server Processors. Supercomputing Frontiers and Innovations 7(2), 54-78, July 2020. Available with Open Access. DOI: 10.14529/jsfi200204.

[2] C. L. Alappat, N. Meyer, J. Laukemann, T. Gruber, G. Hager, G. Wellein, and T. Wettig: ECM modeling and performance tuning of SpMV and Lattice QCD on A64FX. Concurrency and Computation: Practice and Experience, e6512 (2021). Available with Open Access. DOI: 10.1002/cpe.6512.

IACS Stony Brook seminar talk available

On October 14, 2021 I gave an invited online talk at Stony Brook University‘s Institute for Advanced Computational Science (IACS). I talked about white/gray-box approaches to performance modeling and how they can fail in interesting ways on highly parallel systems because of desynchronization effects. The slides and a video recording are now available:

Title: From numbers to insight via performance models

Abstract: High-performance parallel computers are complex systems. There seems to be a general consensus among developers that the performance of application programs is to be taken for granted, and that it cannot really be understood in terms of simple rules and models. This talk is about using analytic performance models to make sense of performance numbers. By means of examples from computational science, I will motivate that it makes a lot of sense to try and set up performance models even if their accuracy is sometimes limited. In fact, it is when a model yields false predictions that we learn more about the problem because our assumptions are challenged. I will start with a general categorization of performance models and then turn to ECM and Roofline models for loop-based code on multicore CPUs. Going beyond the compute node level and adding communication models to the mix, I will show how stacking models on top of each other may not work as intended but instead open new insights and a fresh view on how massively parallel code is executed.


Upcoming: 38th VI-HPS Online Tuning Workshop, March 1-3, 2021

It is our pleasure to announce the 38th VI-HPS Tuning Workshop, organized by NHR@FAU. FAU is a member of VI-HPS, the “Virtual Institute – High Productivity Supercomputing.” The mission of VI-HPS is to to improve the quality and accelerate the development process of complex simulation programs in science and engineering that are being designed for the most advanced parallel computer systems.

To this end, VI-HPS organizes a series of tuning workshops that introduce advanced performance analysis tools. This workshop will:

  • give an overview of the VI-HPS programming tools suite,
  • explain the functionality of individual tools, and how to use them effectively,
  • offer hands-on experience and expert assistance using the tools.

In this particular event, we will cover the tools TAU , MAQAO, Score-P, Paraver/Extrae/Dimemas, and Extra-P. On completion participants will be familiar with common performance analysis and diagnosis techniques and how they can be employed in practice. Those who prepared their own application test cases will have been coached in the tuning of their measurement and analysis, and provided optimization suggestions.

Important: Note that this workshop is aimed at HPC developers. Participants must be familiar with handling a Linux environment over an SSH connection, basic parallel programming, and working with a batch system. There will be no time to teach these topics during the workshop.

Workshop dates: March 1-3, 2021, 9:00-17:00

More information (agenda, registration) is available on the workshop page. You can register directly by sending an e-mail to with the following information:

  • Your full name
  • Your affiliation
  • Your country of residence

Participation is free of charge. Please register only if you are really planning to attend. No-shows will be blacklisted and excluded from future events.

Tutorial: Empirical Roofline model with LIKWID

Thomas Gruber (a.k.a. TomTheBear), the main developer of the LIKWID tool suite, has published a short tutorial about constructing empirical Roofline models with likwid-perfctr.  An empirical Roofline model uses measurements of computational intensity and performance to compare the resource utilization of running code with the limits set by the hardware.

Tutorial: Empirical Roofline Model

This is something that often comes up as a question in our node-level or tools courses. Keep in mind that the computational intensity can also be predicted analytically if you know enough about the loop(s) in your application and the properties of the hardware. Comparing the analytical prediction with the measurement and the machine limits is a powerful way to analyze the performance of code. You can learn more about this, and more, in one of our Node-Level Performance Engineering tutorials.

LIKWID 5.1 released

We are happy to announce a new major release 5.1.0 of LIKWID. This release adds support for the latest and upcoming architectures. Besides numerous bug fixes, these are the major new features:

  • Support for Intel Icelake desktop (Core + Uncore)
  • Support for Intel Icelake server (Core only)
  • Support for Intel Tigerlake desktop (Core only)
  • Support for Intel Cannon Lake (Core only)
  • Support for Nvidia GPUs with compute capability >= 7.0 (CUpti Profiling API)
  • Initial support for Fujitsu A64FX (Core) including SVE assembly benchmarks
  • Support for ARM Neoverse N1 (AWS Graviton 2)
  • Support for AMD Zen3 (Core + Uncore but without any events)
  • Fortran 90 interface for NvMarkerAPI (update)

We want to thank Intel, AMD, AWS and the University of Regensburg for their support.

EoCoE webinar on A64FX

Our friends from the “EoCoE-II” project have invited us to share our results about the new A64FX processor. Attendance is free and open to everyone. Please register using the link given below.

Title: The A64FX processor: Understanding streaming kernels and sparse matrix-vector multiplication

Date: November 18, 2020, 10:00 a.m. CET

Speakers: Christie L. Alappat and Georg Hager (RRZE)

Registration URL:

Abstract:  The A64FX CPU powers the current #1 supercomputer on the Top500 list. Although it is a traditional cache-based multicore processor, its peak performance and memory bandwidth rival accelerator devices. Generating efficient code for such a new architecture requires a good understanding of its performance features. Using these features, the Erlangen Regional Computing Center (RRZE) team will detail how they construct the Execution-Cache-Memory (ECM) performance model for the A64FX processor in the FX700 supercomputer and validate it using streaming loops. They will describe how the machine model points to peculiarities in the microarchitecture to keep in mind when optimizing applications, and how, applying the ECM model to sparse matrix-vector multiplication (SpMV), they motivate why the CRS matrix storage format is inappropriate and how the SELL-C-sigma format can achieve bandwidth saturation for SpMV. In this context, they will also look into some code optimization strategies that are relevant for A64FX and compare SpMV performance with AMD Rome, Intel Cascade Lake and NVIDIA V100.

This webinar is organized by the European Energy-Oriented Center of Excellence (EoCoE). A video recording is now available on the EoCoE YouTube channel:

LIKWID 5.0.2 released

We are happy to announce a new release 5.0.2 of LIKWID. It is mainly a bugfix release, but it also has some important updates for modern architectures (IBM Power9, AMD Zen[2]). If you want to use LIKWID on AMD Zen/Zen2 systems, we highly recommend updating. Thanks to HLRS and LANL for valuable input.

Here is the full Changelog:

  • Fix memory leak in calc_metric()
  • New peakflops benchmarks in likwid-bench
  • Fix for NUMA domain handling
  • Improvements for perf_event backend
  • Fix for perfctr and powermeter with perf_event backend
  • Fix for likwid-mpirun for SLURM with cpusets
  • Fix for likwid-setFrequencies in cpusets
  • Update for POWER9 event list
  • Updates for AMD Zen, Zen+ and Zen2 (events, groups)
  • Fix for Intel Uncore events with same name for different devices
  • Fix for file descriptor handling
  • Fix for compilation with GCC10
  • Remove sleep timer warning
  • Update examples C-markerAPI and C-internalMarkerAPI

Get the download from our FTP server:

Problems with GPU measurements on recent Nvidia GPUs are not addressed with this release. The fixes will be part of the 5.1.0 release (including support for Fujitsu A64FX and ARM Neoverse N1).