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Chapter: Embedded Systems Design : Memory systems

Cache size and organization

There are several criteria associated with cache design which affect its performance. The most obvious is cache size — the larger the cache, the more entries that are stored and the higher the hit rate.

Cache size and organization


There are several criteria associated with cache design which affect its performance. The most obvious is cache size — the larger the cache, the more entries that are stored and the higher the hit rate. However, as the cache size increases, the return gets smaller and smaller. In practice, the cache costs and complexity place an economic limit on most designs. As the size of programs increase, larger caches are needed to maintain the same hit rate and hence the ‘ideal cache size is always twice that available’ comment. In reality, it is the combination of size, organization and cost that really determines the size and its efficiency.


Consider a basic cache operation. The processor generates an address which is fed into the cache memory system. The cache stores its data in an array with an address tag. Each tag is com-pared in turn with the incoming address. If they do not match, the next tag is compared. If they do match, a cache hit occurs, the corresponding data within the array is passed on the data bus to the processor and no further comparisons are made. If no match is found (a cache miss), the data is fetched from external memory and a new entry is created in the array. This is simple to imple-ment, needing only a memory array and a single comparator and counter. Unfortunately, the efficiency is not very good due to the serial interrogation of the tags.

A better solution is to have a comparator for each entry, so all entries can be tested simultaneously. This is the organization used in a fully associative cache. In the example, a valid bit is added to each entry in the cache array, so that invalid or unused entries can be easily identified. The system is very efficient from a software perspective — any entry can be used to store data from any address. A software loop using only 20 bytes (10 off 16 bit instructions) but scattered over a 1,024 byte range would run as efficiently as another loop of the same size but occupying consecu-tive locations.


The disadvantage of this approach is the amount of hard-ware needed to perform the comparisons. This increases in pro-portion to the cache size and therefore limits these fully associative caches to about 10 entries. The fully associative cache locates its data by effectively asking  nquestions where n is the number of entries within it. An alternative organization is to assume certain facts derived from the data address so that only one location can possibly have the data and only one comparator is needed, irre-spective of the cache size. This is the idea behind the direct map cache.

The address is presented as normal but part of it is used to index into the tag array. The corresponding tag is compared and, if there is a match, the data is supplied. If there is a cache miss, the data is fetched from external memory as normal and the cache updated as necessary. The example shows how the lower address bits can be used to locate a byte, word or long word within the memory block stored within the array. This organization is simple from the hardware design perspective but can be inefficient from a software viewpoint.

The index mechanism effectively splits external memory space into a series of consecutive memory pages, with each page the same size as the cache. Each page is mapped to resemble the cache and therefore each location in the external memory page can only correspond with its own location in the cache. Data that is offset by the cache size thus occupies the same location within the cache, albeit with different tag values. This can cause bus thrash-ing. Consider a case where words A and B are offset by the cache size. Here, every time word A is accessed, word B is discarded from the cache. Every time word B is accessed, word A is lost. The cache starts thrashing and the overall performance is degraded. The MC68020 is a typical direct mapped cache.


A way to solve this is to split the cache so there are two or four possible entries available for use. This increases the compara-tor count but provides alternative locations and prevents bus thrashing. Such designs are described as ‘n way set associative’, where n is the number of possible locations. Values of 2, 4, 8 are quite typical of such designs.

Many RISC-based caches are organized as a four way set associative cache where a particular address will have four possi-ble locations in the cache memory. This has advantages for the software environment in that context switching code with the same address will not necessarily overwrite each other and keep destroying the contents of the cache memories.


The advantage of a set associative cache is its ability to prevent thrashing at the expense of extra hardware. However, all the caches so far described can be improved by further reorganiz-ing so that each tag is associated with a line of long words which can be burst filled using a page memory interface.

The logic behind this idea is based on the sequential nature of instruction execution and data access. Instruction fetches and execution simply involve accesses to sequential memory locations until a program flow change happens due to the execution of a branch or jump instruction. Data accesses often follow this pattern during stack and data structure manipulation.


It follows that if a cache is organized with, say, four long words within each tag line, a hit in the first long word would usually result in hits in the rest of the line, unless a flow change took place. If a cache miss was experienced, it would be beneficial to bring in the whole line, providing this could be achieved in less time than to bring in the four long words individually. This is exactly what happens in a page mode interface. By combining these, a more efficient cache can be designed which even benefits in line code. This is exactly how the MC68030 cache works.


Address bits 2 and 3 select which long word is required from the four stored in the 16 byte wide line. The remaining higher address bits and function codes are the tag which can differentiate between supervisor or user accesses etc. If there is a cache miss, the processor uses its synchronous bus with burst fill to load up the complete line.

With a complete line updated in the cache, the next three instructions result in a hit, providing there is no preceding flow change. These benefit from being cached, even though it is their first execution. This is a great improvement over previous designs, where the software had to loop before any benefit could be gained. The table above shows the estimated improvements that can be obtained.


The effect is similar to increasing the cache size. The largest effect being with instruction fetches which show the greatest degree of locality. Data reads are second, but with less impact due to isolated byte and word accesses. Data read and write operations are further reduced, caused by the cache’s write-through policy. This forces all read-modify-write and write operations to main memory. In some designs, data accesses are not sequential, in which case, system performance actually degrades when the data cache is enabled — burst filling the next three long words is simply a waste of time, bus bandwidth and performance. The solution is simple — switch off the cache! This design is used in most high performance cache designs.


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