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SubjectRe: Uses for memory barriers
On Tue, Oct 17, 2006 at 11:29:42AM -0400, Alan Stern wrote:
> On Mon, 16 Oct 2006, Paul E. McKenney wrote:
> > > The reason I don't like "conditionally precedes" is because it suggests
> > > the ordering is not automatic even in the single-CPU case.
> >
> > Aside from MMIO accesses, why would you be using memory barriers in the
> > single-CPU case?
> Obviously you wouldn't. But you might be fooled into doing so if you saw
> the term "conditionally precedes" together with an explanation that the
> "condition" requires a memory barrier to be present. You might also draw
> this erroneous conclusion if you are on an SMP system but your variable is
> accessed by only one of the CPUs.

OK. My thought would be to clearly state that memory barriers are needed
only in the following two cases: (1) for MMIO and (2) for sharing memory
among multiple CPUs.

> > If you aren't using memory barriers, then just plain
> > "precedes" works fine -- "conditionally precedes" applies only to memory
> > barriers acting on normal memory (again, MMIO is handled specially).
> No, no! Taken out of context this sentence looks terribly confused.
> Read it again and you'll see what I mean. (Think about what it says for
> people who don't use memory barriers on SMP systems.) Here's a much more
> accurate statement:
> If you are in the single-CPU case then just plain "precedes"
> works fine for normal memory accesses (MMIO is handled
> specially).
> But when multiple CPUs access the same variable all ordering
> is "conditional"; each CPU must use a memory barrier to
> guarantee the desired ordering.

"There -is- no ordering!" (Or was that "There -is- no spoon"?) ;-)

You know, I am not sure we are ever going to reconcile our two

Your view (I believe) is that each execution produces some definite
order of loads and stores, with each load and store occurring at some
specific point in time. Of course, a given load or store might be visible
at different times from different CPUs, even to the point that CPUs
might disagree on the order in which given loads and stores occurred.

My view is that individual loads and stores are complex operations, each
of which takes significant time to complete. A pair of these operations
can therefore overlap in time, so that it might or might not make sense
to say that the pair occurred in any order at all -- nor to say that
any given load or store happens at a single point in time. I described
this earlier as loads and stores being "fuzzy".

The odds of you (or anyone) being able to pry me out of my viewpoint
are extremely low -- in fact, if such a thing were possible, the
odds would be represented by a negative number. The reason for this
admittedly unreasonable attitude is that every time I have strayed from
this viewpoint over the past decade or two, I have been brutally punished
by the appearance of large numbers of subtle and hard-to-find bugs.
My intuition about sequencing and ordering is so strong that if I let
it gain a foothold, it will blind me to the possibility of these bugs
occurring. I can either deny that the loads and stores happen in any
order whatsoever (which works, but is very hard to explain), or assert
that they take non-zero time to execute and can therefore overlap.

That said, I do recognize that my viewpoint is not universally applicable.

Someone using locking will probably be much more productive if they
leverage their intuition, assuming that locks are acquired and released
in a definite order and that all the memory references in the critical
sections executing in order, each at a definite point in time. After all,
the whole point of the locking primitives and their associated memory
barriers is to present exactly this illusion. It is quite possible that
it is better to use a viewpoint like yours when thinking about MMIO
accesses -- and given your work in USB and PCI, it might well be very
difficult to pry -you- out of -your- viewpoint.

But I believe that taking a viewpoint very similar to mine is critical
for getting the low-level synchronization primitives even halfway correct.
(Obscene quantities of testing are required as well.)

So, how to proceed?

One approach would be to demonstrate counter-intuitive results with a
small program (and I do have several at hand), enumerate the viewpoints,
and then use examples.

Another approach would be to use a formalism. Notations such as ">p"
(comes before) and "<p" (comes after) for program order and ">v"/"<v"
for order of values in a given variable have been used in the past.
These could be coupled with something vaguely resembling you suggestion
for loads and stores: l(v,c,l) for load from variable "v" by CPU "c"
at code line number "l" and s(v,c,l,n) for store to variable "v" by CPU
"c" at code line number "l" with new value "n". (In the examples below,
"l" can be omitted, since there is only one of each per CPU.)

If we were to take your choice for the transitivity required for locking,
we would need to also define an ">a"/"<a" or some such denoting a
chain of values where the last assignment was performed atomically
(possibly also by a particular CPU). In that case, ">v"/"<v" would
denote values separated by a single assignment. However, for simplicity
of nomenclature, I am taking my choice for this example -- if there is
at least one CPU that actually requires the atomic operation, then the
final result will need the more complex nomenclature.

Then take the usual code, with all variables initially zero:


A=1 Y=B
smp_mb() smp_mb()
B=1 X=A

Then the description of a memory barrier ends up being something like
the following:

Given the following:

l(B,1,) >p smp_mb() >p l(A,1,), and
s(A,0,,1) >p smp_mb() >p s(B,0,,1):


s(B,0,,1) >v l(B,1,) -> s(A,0,,1) >v l(A,1,).

This notation correctly distinguishes the following two cases (all
variables initially zero):


A=1 while (B==0); while (C==0);
smp_mb() C=1 smp_mb()
B=1 assert(A==1) <fails>



A=1 while (B==0); while (B<2);
smp_mb() B++ smp_mb()
B=1 assert(A==1) <succeeds>

In the first case, we don't have s(B,0,,1) >v l(C,2,). Therefore,
we cannot rely on s(A,0,,1) >v l(A,2,). In the second case, we do
have s(B,0,,1) >v l(B,2,), so s(A,0,,1) >v l(A,2,) must hold.

My guess is that this formal approach is absolutely required for the
more mathematically inclined, but that it will instead be an obstacle
to understanding (in fact, an obstacle even to reading!) for many people.

So my thought is to put the formal approach later on as reference material.
And probably to improve the notation -- the ",,"s look ugly.


Thanx, Paul

PS. One difference between our two viewpoints is that I would forbid
something like "s(A,0,,1) >v s(B,0,,1)", instead permitting ">v"/"<v"
to be used on loads and stores of a single variable, with the exception
of MMIO. My guess is that you are just fine with orderings of
assignments to different variables. ;-)

My example formalism for a memory barrier says nothing about the
actual order in which the assignments to A and B occurred, nor about
the actual order in which the loads from A and B occurred. No such
ordering is required to describe the action of the memory barrier.
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