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Intel Core microarchitecture Intel Core2 arch.svg
Intel Core microarchitecture

In computer engineering, microarchitecture, also called computer organization and sometimes abbreviated as µarch or uarch, is the way a given instruction set architecture (ISA) is implemented in a particular processor. [1] A given ISA may be implemented with different microarchitectures; [2] [3] implementations may vary due to different goals of a given design or due to shifts in technology. [4]


Computer architecture is the combination of microarchitecture and instruction set architecture.

Relation to instruction set architecture

A microarchitecture organized around a single bus Single bus organization.jpg
A microarchitecture organized around a single bus

The ISA is roughly the same as the programming model of a processor as seen by an assembly language programmer or compiler writer. The ISA includes the execution model, processor registers, address and data formats among other things. The microarchitecture includes the constituent parts of the processor and how these interconnect and interoperate to implement the ISA.

The microarchitecture of a machine is usually represented as (more or less detailed) diagrams that describe the interconnections of the various microarchitectural elements of the machine, which may be anything from single gates and registers, to complete arithmetic logic units (ALUs) and even larger elements. These diagrams generally separate the datapath (where data is placed) and the control path (which can be said to steer the data). [5]

The person designing a system usually draws the specific microarchitecture as a kind of data flow diagram. Like a block diagram, the microarchitecture diagram shows microarchitectural elements such as the arithmetic and logic unit and the register file as a single schematic symbol. Typically, the diagram connects those elements with arrows, thick lines and thin lines to distinguish between three-state buses (which require a three-state buffer for each device that drives the bus), unidirectional buses (always driven by a single source, such as the way the address bus on simpler computers is always driven by the memory address register), and individual control lines. Very simple computers have a single data bus organization   they have a single three-state bus. The diagram of more complex computers usually shows multiple three-state buses, which help the machine do more operations simultaneously.

Each microarchitectural element is in turn represented by a schematic describing the interconnections of logic gates used to implement it. Each logic gate is in turn represented by a circuit diagram describing the connections of the transistors used to implement it in some particular logic family. Machines with different microarchitectures may have the same instruction set architecture, and thus be capable of executing the same programs. New microarchitectures and/or circuitry solutions, along with advances in semiconductor manufacturing, are what allows newer generations of processors to achieve higher performance while using the same ISA.

In principle, a single microarchitecture could execute several different ISAs with only minor changes to the microcode.


Intel 80286 microarchitecture Intel i80286 arch.svg
Intel 80286 microarchitecture

The pipelined datapath is the most commonly used datapath design in microarchitecture today. This technique is used in most modern microprocessors, microcontrollers, and DSPs. The pipelined architecture allows multiple instructions to overlap in execution, much like an assembly line. The pipeline includes several different stages which are fundamental in microarchitecture designs. [5] Some of these stages include instruction fetch, instruction decode, execute, and write back. Some architectures include other stages such as memory access. The design of pipelines is one of the central microarchitectural tasks.

Execution units are also essential to microarchitecture. Execution units include arithmetic logic units (ALU), floating point units (FPU), load/store units, branch prediction, and SIMD. These units perform the operations or calculations of the processor. The choice of the number of execution units, their latency and throughput is a central microarchitectural design task. The size, latency, throughput and connectivity of memories within the system are also microarchitectural decisions.

System-level design decisions such as whether or not to include peripherals, such as memory controllers, can be considered part of the microarchitectural design process. This includes decisions on the performance-level and connectivity of these peripherals.

Unlike architectural design, where achieving a specific performance level is the main goal, microarchitectural design pays closer attention to other constraints. Since microarchitecture design decisions directly affect what goes into a system, attention must be paid to issues such as chip area/cost, power consumption, logic complexity, ease of connectivity, manufacturability, ease of debugging, and testability.

Microarchitectural concepts

Instruction cycles

In general, all CPUs, single-chip microprocessors or multi-chip implementations run programs by performing the following steps:

  1. Read an instruction and decode it
  2. Find any associated data that is needed to process the instruction
  3. Process the instruction
  4. Write the results out

The instruction cycle is repeated continuously until the power is turned off.

Multicycle microarchitecture

Historically, the earliest computers were multicycle designs. The smallest, least-expensive computers often still use this technique. Multicycle architectures often use the least total number of logic elements and reasonable amounts of power. They can be designed to have deterministic timing and high reliability. In particular, they have no pipeline to stall when taking conditional branches or interrupts. However, other microarchitectures often perform more instructions per unit time, using the same logic family. When discussing "improved performance," an improvement is often relative to a multicycle design.

In a multicycle computer, the computer does the four steps in sequence, over several cycles of the clock. Some designs can perform the sequence in two clock cycles by completing successive stages on alternate clock edges, possibly with longer operations occurring outside the main cycle. For example, stage one on the rising edge of the first cycle, stage two on the falling edge of the first cycle, etc.

In the control logic, the combination of cycle counter, cycle state (high or low) and the bits of the instruction decode register determine exactly what each part of the computer should be doing. To design the control logic, one can create a table of bits describing the control signals to each part of the computer in each cycle of each instruction. Then, this logic table can be tested in a software simulation running test code. If the logic table is placed in a memory and used to actually run a real computer, it is called a microprogram. In some computer designs, the logic table is optimized into the form of combinational logic made from logic gates, usually using a computer program that optimizes logic. Early computers used ad-hoc logic design for control until Maurice Wilkes invented this tabular approach and called it microprogramming. [6]

Increasing execution speed

Complicating this simple-looking series of steps is the fact that the memory hierarchy, which includes caching, main memory and non-volatile storage like hard disks (where the program instructions and data reside), has always been slower than the processor itself. Step (2) often introduces a lengthy (in CPU terms) delay while the data arrives over the computer bus. A considerable amount of research has been put into designs that avoid these delays as much as possible. Over the years, a central goal was to execute more instructions in parallel, thus increasing the effective execution speed of a program. These efforts introduced complicated logic and circuit structures. Initially, these techniques could only be implemented on expensive mainframes or supercomputers due to the amount of circuitry needed for these techniques. As semiconductor manufacturing progressed, more and more of these techniques could be implemented on a single semiconductor chip. See Moore's law.

Instruction set choice

Instruction sets have shifted over the years, from originally very simple to sometimes very complex (in various respects). In recent years, load-store architectures, VLIW and EPIC types have been in fashion. Architectures that are dealing with data parallelism include SIMD and Vectors. Some labels used to denote classes of CPU architectures are not particularly descriptive, especially so the CISC label; many early designs retroactively denoted "CISC" are in fact significantly simpler than modern RISC processors (in several respects).

However, the choice of instruction set architecture may greatly affect the complexity of implementing high-performance devices. The prominent strategy, used to develop the first RISC processors, was to simplify instructions to a minimum of individual semantic complexity combined with high encoding regularity and simplicity. Such uniform instructions were easily fetched, decoded and executed in a pipelined fashion and a simple strategy to reduce the number of logic levels in order to reach high operating frequencies; instruction cache-memories compensated for the higher operating frequency and inherently low code density while large register sets were used to factor out as much of the (slow) memory accesses as possible.

Instruction pipelining

One of the first, and most powerful, techniques to improve performance is the use of instruction pipelining. Early processor designs would carry out all of the steps above for one instruction before moving onto the next. Large portions of the circuitry were left idle at any one step; for instance, the instruction decoding circuitry would be idle during execution and so on.

Pipelining improves performance by allowing a number of instructions to work their way through the processor at the same time. In the same basic example, the processor would start to decode (step 1) a new instruction while the last one was waiting for results. This would allow up to four instructions to be "in flight" at one time, making the processor look four times as fast. Although any one instruction takes just as long to complete (there are still four steps) the CPU as a whole "retires" instructions much faster.

RISC makes pipelines smaller and much easier to construct by cleanly separating each stage of the instruction process and making them take the same amount of time—one cycle. The processor as a whole operates in an assembly line fashion, with instructions coming in one side and results out the other. Due to the reduced complexity of the classic RISC pipeline, the pipelined core and an instruction cache could be placed on the same size die that would otherwise fit the core alone on a CISC design. This was the real reason that RISC was faster. Early designs like the SPARC and MIPS often ran over 10 times as fast as Intel and Motorola CISC solutions at the same clock speed and price.

Pipelines are by no means limited to RISC designs. By 1986 the top-of-the-line VAX implementation (VAX 8800) was a heavily pipelined design, slightly predating the first commercial MIPS and SPARC designs. Most modern CPUs (even embedded CPUs) are now pipelined, and microcoded CPUs with no pipelining are seen only in the most area-constrained embedded processors.[ examples needed ] Large CISC machines, from the VAX 8800 to the modern Pentium 4 and Athlon, are implemented with both microcode and pipelines. Improvements in pipelining and caching are the two major microarchitectural advances that have enabled processor performance to keep pace with the circuit technology on which they are based.


It was not long before improvements in chip manufacturing allowed for even more circuitry to be placed on the die, and designers started looking for ways to use it. One of the most common was to add an ever-increasing amount of cache memory on-die. Cache is simply very fast memory. It can be accessed in a few cycles as opposed to many needed to "talk" to main memory. The CPU includes a cache controller which automates reading and writing from the cache. If the data is already in the cache it simply "appears", whereas if it is not the processor is "stalled" while the cache controller reads it in.

RISC designs started adding cache in the mid-to-late 1980s, often only 4 KB in total. This number grew over time, and typical CPUs now have at least 512 KB, while more powerful CPUs come with 1 or 2 or even 4, 6, 8 or 12 MB, organized in multiple levels of a memory hierarchy. Generally speaking, more cache means more performance, due to reduced stalling.

Caches and pipelines were a perfect match for each other. Previously, it didn't make much sense to build a pipeline that could run faster than the access latency of off-chip memory. Using on-chip cache memory instead, meant that a pipeline could run at the speed of the cache access latency, a much smaller length of time. This allowed the operating frequencies of processors to increase at a much faster rate than that of off-chip memory.

Branch prediction

One barrier to achieving higher performance through instruction-level parallelism stems from pipeline stalls and flushes due to branches. Normally, whether a conditional branch will be taken isn't known until late in the pipeline as conditional branches depend on results coming from a register. From the time that the processor's instruction decoder has figured out that it has encountered a conditional branch instruction to the time that the deciding register value can be read out, the pipeline needs to be stalled for several cycles, or if it's not and the branch is taken, the pipeline needs to be flushed. As clock speeds increase the depth of the pipeline increases with it, and some modern processors may have 20 stages or more. On average, every fifth instruction executed is a branch, so without any intervention, that's a high amount of stalling.

Techniques such as branch prediction and speculative execution are used to lessen these branch penalties. Branch prediction is where the hardware makes educated guesses on whether a particular branch will be taken. In reality one side or the other of the branch will be called much more often than the other. Modern designs have rather complex statistical prediction systems, which watch the results of past branches to predict the future with greater accuracy. The guess allows the hardware to prefetch instructions without waiting for the register read. Speculative execution is a further enhancement in which the code along the predicted path is not just prefetched but also executed before it is known whether the branch should be taken or not. This can yield better performance when the guess is good, with the risk of a huge penalty when the guess is bad because instructions need to be undone.


Even with all of the added complexity and gates needed to support the concepts outlined above, improvements in semiconductor manufacturing soon allowed even more logic gates to be used.

In the outline above the processor processes parts of a single instruction at a time. Computer programs could be executed faster if multiple instructions were processed simultaneously. This is what superscalar processors achieve, by replicating functional units such as ALUs. The replication of functional units was only made possible when the die area of a single-issue processor no longer stretched the limits of what could be reliably manufactured. By the late 1980s, superscalar designs started to enter the market place.

In modern designs it is common to find two load units, one store (many instructions have no results to store), two or more integer math units, two or more floating point units, and often a SIMD unit of some sort. The instruction issue logic grows in complexity by reading in a huge list of instructions from memory and handing them off to the different execution units that are idle at that point. The results are then collected and re-ordered at the end.

Out-of-order execution

The addition of caches reduces the frequency or duration of stalls due to waiting for data to be fetched from the memory hierarchy, but does not get rid of these stalls entirely. In early designs a cache miss would force the cache controller to stall the processor and wait. Of course there may be some other instruction in the program whose data is available in the cache at that point. Out-of-order execution allows that ready instruction to be processed while an older instruction waits on the cache, then re-orders the results to make it appear that everything happened in the programmed order. This technique is also used to avoid other operand dependency stalls, such as an instruction awaiting a result from a long latency floating-point operation or other multi-cycle operations.

Register renaming

Register renaming refers to a technique used to avoid unnecessary serialized execution of program instructions because of the reuse of the same registers by those instructions. Suppose we have two groups of instruction that will use the same register. One set of instructions is executed first to leave the register to the other set, but if the other set is assigned to a different similar register, both sets of instructions can be executed in parallel (or) in series.

Multiprocessing and multithreading

Computer architects have become stymied by the growing mismatch in CPU operating frequencies and DRAM access times. None of the techniques that exploited instruction-level parallelism (ILP) within one program could make up for the long stalls that occurred when data had to be fetched from main memory. Additionally, the large transistor counts and high operating frequencies needed for the more advanced ILP techniques required power dissipation levels that could no longer be cheaply cooled. For these reasons, newer generations of computers have started to exploit higher levels of parallelism that exist outside of a single program or program thread.

This trend is sometimes known as throughput computing. This idea originated in the mainframe market where online transaction processing emphasized not just the execution speed of one transaction, but the capacity to deal with massive numbers of transactions. With transaction-based applications such as network routing and web-site serving greatly increasing in the last decade, the computer industry has re-emphasized capacity and throughput issues.

One technique of how this parallelism is achieved is through multiprocessing systems, computer systems with multiple CPUs. Once reserved for high-end mainframes and supercomputers, small-scale (2–8) multiprocessors servers have become commonplace for the small business market. For large corporations, large scale (16–256) multiprocessors are common. Even personal computers with multiple CPUs have appeared since the 1990s.

With further transistor size reductions made available with semiconductor technology advances, multi-core CPUs have appeared where multiple CPUs are implemented on the same silicon chip. Initially used in chips targeting embedded markets, where simpler and smaller CPUs would allow multiple instantiations to fit on one piece of silicon. By 2005, semiconductor technology allowed dual high-end desktop CPUs CMP chips to be manufactured in volume. Some designs, such as Sun Microsystems' UltraSPARC T1 have reverted to simpler (scalar, in-order) designs in order to fit more processors on one piece of silicon.

Another technique that has become more popular recently is multithreading. In multithreading, when the processor has to fetch data from slow system memory, instead of stalling for the data to arrive, the processor switches to another program or program thread which is ready to execute. Though this does not speed up a particular program/thread, it increases the overall system throughput by reducing the time the CPU is idle.

Conceptually, multithreading is equivalent to a context switch at the operating system level. The difference is that a multithreaded CPU can do a thread switch in one CPU cycle instead of the hundreds or thousands of CPU cycles a context switch normally requires. This is achieved by replicating the state hardware (such as the register file and program counter) for each active thread.

A further enhancement is simultaneous multithreading. This technique allows superscalar CPUs to execute instructions from different programs/threads simultaneously in the same cycle.

See also

Related Research Articles

Central processing unit Central component of any computer system which executes input/output, arithmetical, and logical operations

A central processing unit (CPU), also called a central processor or main processor, is the electronic circuitry within a computer that executes instructions that make up a computer program. The CPU performs basic arithmetic, logic, controlling, and input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions. The computer industry used the term "central processing unit" as early as 1955. Traditionally, the term "CPU" refers to a processor, more specifically to its processing unit and control unit (CU), distinguishing these core elements of a computer from external components such as main memory and I/O circuitry.

The control unit (CU) is a component of a computer's central processing unit (CPU) that directs the operation of the processor. It tells the computer's memory, arithmetic and logic unit and input and output devices how to respond to the instructions that have been sent to the processor.

Processor design is the design engineering task of creating a processor, a key component of computer hardware. It is a subfield of computer engineering and electronics engineering (fabrication). The design process involves choosing an instruction set and a certain execution paradigm and results in a microarchitecture, which might be described in e.g. VHDL or Verilog. For microprocessor design, this description is then manufactured employing some of the various semiconductor device fabrication processes, resulting in a die which is bonded onto a chip carrier. This chip carrier is then soldered onto, or inserted into a socket on, a printed circuit board (PCB).

A complex instruction set computer is a computer in which single instructions can execute several low-level operations or are capable of multi-step operations or addressing modes within single instructions. The term was retroactively coined in contrast to reduced instruction set computer (RISC) and has therefore become something of an umbrella term for everything that is not RISC, from large and complex mainframe computers to simplistic microcontrollers where memory load and store operations are not separated from arithmetic instructions. A modern RISC processor can therefore be much more complex than, say, a modern microcontroller using a CISC-labeled instruction set, especially in the complexity of its electronic circuits, but also in the number of instructions or the complexity of their encoding patterns. The only typical differentiating characteristic is that most RISC designs use uniform instruction length for almost all instructions, and employ strictly separate load/store-instructions.

Microcode is a computer hardware technique that interposes a layer of organisation between the CPU hardware and the programmer-visible instruction set architecture of the computer. As such, the microcode is a layer of hardware-level instructions that implement higher-level machine code instructions or internal state machine sequencing in many digital processing elements. Microcode is used in general-purpose central processing units, although in current desktop CPUs it is only a fallback path for cases that the faster hardwired control unit cannot handle.

Reduced instruction set computer Computer whose instruction set architecture allows it to have fewer cycles per instruction than a complex instruction set computer

A reduced instruction set computer, or RISC, is a computer instruction set that allows a computer's microprocessor to have fewer cycles per instruction (CPI) than a complex instruction set computer (CISC).

An instruction set architecture (ISA) is an abstract model of a computer. It is also referred to as architecture or computer architecture. A realization of an ISA, such as a central processing unit (CPU), is called an implementation.

Superscalar processor CPU that implements instruction-level parallelism within a single processor

A superscalar processor is a CPU that implements a form of parallelism called instruction-level parallelism within a single processor. In contrast to a scalar processor that can execute at most one single instruction per clock cycle, a superscalar processor can execute more than one instruction during a clock cycle by simultaneously dispatching multiple instructions to different execution units on the processor. It therefore allows for more throughput than would otherwise be possible at a given clock rate. Each execution unit is not a separate processor, but an execution resource within a single CPU such as an arithmetic logic unit.

Very long instruction word (VLIW) refers to instruction set architectures designed to exploit instruction level parallelism (ILP). Whereas conventional central processing units mostly allow programs to specify instructions to execute in sequence only, a VLIW processor allows programs to explicitly specify instructions to execute in parallel. This design is intended to allow higher performance without the complexity inherent in some other designs.

IA-64 Intel Architecture, 64-bit

IA-64 is the instruction set architecture (ISA) of the Itanium family of 64-bit Intel microprocessors. The basic ISA specification originated at Hewlett-Packard (HP), and was evolved and then implemented in a new processor microarchitecture by Intel with HP's continued partnership and expertise on the underlying EPIC design concepts. In order to establish what was their first new ISA in 20 years and bring an entirely new product line to market, Intel made a massive investment in product definition, design, software development tools, OS, software industry partnerships, and marketing. To support this effort Intel created the largest design team in their history and a new marketing and industry enabling team completely separate from x86. The first Itanium processor, codenamed Merced, was released in 2001.

The Pentium Pro is a sixth-generation x86 microprocessor developed and manufactured by Intel introduced in November 1, 1995. It introduced the P6 microarchitecture and was originally intended to replace the original Pentium in a full range of applications. While the Pentium and Pentium MMX had 3.1 and 4.5 million transistors, respectively, the Pentium Pro contained 5.5 million transistors. Later, it was reduced to a more narrow role as a server and high-end desktop processor and was used in supercomputers like ASCI Red, the first computer to reach the teraFLOPS performance mark. The Pentium Pro was capable of both dual- and quad-processor configurations. It only came in one form factor, the relatively large rectangular Socket 8. The Pentium Pro was succeeded by the Pentium II Xeon in 1998.

In computer science, instruction pipelining is a technique for implementing instruction-level parallelism within a single processor. Pipelining attempts to keep every part of the processor busy with some instruction by dividing incoming instructions into a series of sequential steps performed by different processor units with different parts of instructions processed in parallel.

In the history of computer hardware, some early reduced instruction set computer central processing units used a very similar architectural solution, now called a classic RISC pipeline. Those CPUs were: MIPS, SPARC, Motorola 88000, and later the notional CPU DLX invented for education.

The POWER1 is a multi-chip CPU developed and fabricated by IBM that implemented the POWER instruction set architecture (ISA). It was originally known as the RISC System/6000 CPU or, when in an abbreviated form, the RS/6000 CPU, before introduction of successors required the original name to be replaced with one that used the same naming scheme (POWERn) as its successors in order to differentiate it from the newer designs.

RISC Single Chip

The RISC Single Chip, or RSC, is a single-chip microprocessor developed and fabricated by International Business Machines (IBM). The RSC was a feature-reduced single-chip implementation of the POWER1, a multi-chip central processing unit (CPU) which implemented the POWER instruction set architecture (ISA). It was used in entry-level workstation models of the IBM RS/6000 family, such as the Model 220 and 230.

The history of general-purpose CPUs is a continuation of the earlier history of computing hardware.

Explicit data graph execution, or EDGE, is a type of instruction set architecture (ISA) which intends to improve computing performance compared to common processors like the Intel x86 line. EDGE combines many individual instructions into a larger group known as a "hyperblock". Hyperblocks are designed to be able to easily run in parallel.

PA-8000 microprocessor

The PA-8000 (PCX-U), code-named Onyx, is a microprocessor developed and fabricated by Hewlett-Packard (HP) that implemented the PA-RISC 2.0 instruction set architecture (ISA). It was a completely new design with no circuitry derived from previous PA-RISC microprocessors. The PA-8000 was introduced on 2 November 1995 when shipments began to members of the Precision RISC Organization (PRO). It was used exclusively by PRO members and was not sold on the merchant market. All follow-on PA-8x00 processors are based on the basic PA-8000 processor core.

The IBM POWER ISA is a reduced instruction set computer (RISC) instruction set architecture (ISA) developed by IBM. The name is an acronym for Performance Optimization With Enhanced RISC.

Latency oriented processor architecture is the microarchitecture of a microprocessor designed to serve a serial computing thread with a low latency. This is typical of most Central Processing Units (CPU) being developed since the 1970s. These architectures, in general, aim to execute as many instructions as possible belonging to a single serial thread, in a given window of time; however, the time to execute a single instruction completely from fetch to retire stages may vary from a few cycles to even a few hundred cycles in some cases. Latency oriented processor architectures are the opposite of throughput-oriented processors which concern themselves more with the total throughput of the system, rather than the service latencies for all individual threads that they work on.


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Further reading