Sam Williams from UCB has come up with a very nice method to illustrate optimization potential for loop kernels on a known architecture. Everyone who knows about things like code and machine balance can estimate the expected fraction of “light speed” for some loop kernel. However, depending on your knowledge (or your assumptions) about the architecture under consideration, machine balance can be a moving target: Do you consider SIMD instructions to be applicable? Does the data set fit into some cache? Can the arithmetic pipelines be used to their full capacity? Are MULTs and ADDs balanced in the code? Is prefetching possible? Can non-temporal stores be used? Usually, we compute different machine balance numbers for all those cases to get our estimates.
Williams has found a very nice way to incorporate all this information into a graphical representation, the roofline diagram. With it, one can illustrate not only the architectural limits for kernel performance, but also the optimization potential of some (given) implementation. Read the full presentation: The Roofline Model: A pedagogical tool for program analysis and optimization. There is also a nice poster.