vdt / minimax

Minimax: a Compressed-First, Microcoded RISC-V CPU

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Minimax: a Compressed-First, Microcoded RISC-V CPU

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RISC-V's compressed instruction (RVC) extension is intended as an add-on to the regular, 32-bit instruction set, not a replacement or competitor. Its designers designed RVC instructions to be expanded into regular 32-bit RV32I equivalents via a pre-decoder.

What happens if we explicitly architect a RISC-V CPU to execute RVC instructions, and "mop up" any RV32I instructions that aren't convenient via a microcode layer? What architectural optimizations are unlocked as a result?

"Minimax" is an experimental RISC-V implementation intended to establish if an RVC-optimized CPU is, in practice, any simpler than an ordinary RV32I core with pre-decoder. While it passes a modest test suite, you should not use it without caution. (There are a large number of excellent, open source, "little" RISC-V implementations you should probably use reach for first.)

In short:

  • RV32C (compressed) instructions are first-class and execute at 1 clock per instruction. (Exceptions: shifts and branches.)

  • SOME RV32I instructions are directly implemented in RTL and execute in 2 clocks per instruction.

  • Other RV32I instructions are emulated in microcode, using the instructions above.

This is distinct from (all?) other RV32C-capable RISC-V cores, because it really is architected for compressed first. This is not how the compressed ISA was intended to be implemented.

A compressed-first RISC-V architecture unlocks the following:

  • 1 clock per instruction (CPI) using a 2-port register file. RVC instructions have only 1 rd and 1 rs field. A 2-port register file maps cleanly into a single RAM64X1D per bit.

  • A simplified 16-bit instruction path without alignment considerations. The processor is a modified Harvard architecture, with a separate 16-bit instruction bus intended to connect to a second port of the instruction memory. On Xilinx, the asymmetric ports (16-bit instruction, 32-bit data) are reconciled using an asymmetric block RAM primitive. As a result, we don't have to worry about a 32-bit instruction split across two 32-bit words.

Native instructions are selected for a balance of:

  • Small implementation cost. We use a 2-port register file, and 3-operand instructions require more ports (or more cycles and logic to share ports)

  • A reasonable performance baseline. Microcode traps require many clock cycles, so an impoverished "direct" instruction set hurts us in two ways:

    1. by requiring more traps to microcode emulation, and
    2. by making microcode itself longer, due to an impoverished instruction set.
  • Sufficiency. Some RV32I instructions can't be emulated using just RV32C and require RTL support. (For example: word/byte stores.)

We end up with the following native instructions:

  • C.xxx (all RV32C, except shifts that aren't 0 or 1 bit)

Why is this desirable?

  • Compilers (GCC, LLVM) are learning to prefer RVC instructions when optimizing for size. This means compiled code (with appropriate optimization settings) plays to Minimax's performance sweet-spot, preferring direct instructions to microcoded instructions. (see e.g. https://muxup.com/2022q3/whats-new-for-risc-v-in-llvm-15)

  • RVC instructions nearly double code density, which pay for the cost of microcode ROM when compared against a minimalist RV32I implementation.

  • It's not quite the smallest RVC implementation (SERV is smaller), but it is likely much faster with the appropriate compiler settings, and slightly less unorthodox in implementation.

What's awkward?

  • RVC decoding is definitely uglier than regular RV32I. I expect this ugliness is better masked when RVC instructions are decoded to RV32I and executed as "regular" 32-bit instructions.

  • The logic depth in the "execute" pipeline stage is extremely long. This CPU will not reach a high FMAX even on Xilinx UltraScale/UltraScale+ FPGAs.

  • Store-word (SB) and store-byte (SB) instructions are not yet supported.

What's the design like?

  • Three-stage pipeline (fetch, fetch2, and everything-else). The fetch pipeline is 2 cycles long to allow the use of embedded block RAM registers, which frees up more clock slack for the execution stage. There is a corresponding 2-cycle penalty on taken branches.

  • Several "extension instructions" that use the non-standard extension space reserved in C.SLLI. This space allows us to add "fused" instructions accessible only in microcode, that perform the following:

    • "Thunk" from microcode back to standard code,
    • Move data from "user" registers into "microcode" registers and back again.

    Because these extension instructions reach deeply into the implementation details, they are ignored (converted to NOPs) outside emulation microcode.

Resource usage (excluding ROM and peripherals; KU060; 12-bit PC):

  • Minimax: 61 FFs, 423 CLB LUTs

Compare to:

  • PicoRV32: 483 FFs, 782 LUTs ("small", RV32I only)
  • FemtoRV32 186 FFs, 411 LUTs ("quark", RV32I only)
  • SERV: 312 FFs, 182 LUTs (no CSR or timer; RV32I only)
  • PicoBlaze: 82 FFs, 103 LUTs

Minimax is competitive, even against RV32I-only cores. When comparing against RV32IC implementations, it does better:

  • SERV: 303 FFs, 336 LUTs (no CSR or timer; RV32IC)
  • PicoRV32: 518 FFs, 1085 LUTs (RV32IC)

It is difficult to gather defensible benchmarks: please treat these as approximate, and let me know if they are inaccurate.

Comments and PRs always welcome.

Graeme Smecher gsmecher@threespeedlogic.com


Minimax: a Compressed-First, Microcoded RISC-V CPU

License:BSD 3-Clause "New" or "Revised" License


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