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Home > Tutorial > Cache Mapping and Associativity
 
Cache Mapping and Associativity
 
Cache Mapping and Associativity

A very important factor in determining the effectiveness of the level 2 cache relates to how the cache is mapped to the system memory. What this means in brief is that there are many different ways to allocate the storage in our cache to the memory addresses it serves. Let's take as an example a system with 512 KB of L2 cache and 64 MB of main memory. The burning question is: how do we decide how to divvy up the 16,384 address lines in our cache amongst the "huge" 64 MB of memory?

There are three different ways that this mapping can generally be done. The choice of mapping technique is so critical to the design that the cache is often named after this choice:

Direct Mapped Cache:
The simplest way to allocate the cache to the system memory is to determine how many cache lines there are (16,384 in our example) and just chop the system memory into the same number of chunks. Then each chunk gets the use of one cache line. This is called direct mapping. So if we have 64 MB of main memory addresses, each cache line would be shared by 4,096 memory addresses (64 M divided by 16 K).

Fully Associative Cache:
Instead of hard-allocating cache lines to particular memory locations, it is possible to design the cache so that any line can store the contents of any memory location. This is called fully associative mapping.

N-Way Set Associative Cache:
"N" here is a number, typically 2, 4, 8 etc. This is a compromise between the direct mapped and fully associative designs. In this case the cache is broken into sets where each set contains "N" cache lines, let's say 4. Then, each memory address is assigned a set, and can be cached in any one of those 4 locations within the set that it is assigned to. In other words, within each set the cache is associative, and thus the name.

This design means that there are "N" possible places that a given memory location may be in the cache. The tradeoff is that there are "N" times as many memory locations competing for the same "N" lines in the set. Let's suppose in our example that we are using a 4-way set associative cache. So instead of a single block of 16,384 lines, we have 4,096 sets with 4 lines in each. Each of these sets is shared by 16,384 memory addresses (64 M divided by 4 K) instead of 4,096 addresses as in the case of the direct mapped cache. So there is more to share (4 lines instead of 1) but more addresses sharing it (16,384 instead of 4,096).



Conceptually, the direct mapped and fully associative caches are just "special cases" of the N-way set associative cache. You can set "N" to 1 to make a "1-way" set associative cache. If you do this, then there is only one line per set, which is the same as a direct mapped cache because each memory address is back to pointing to only one possible cache location. On the other hand, suppose you make "N" really large; say, you set "N" to be equal to the number of lines in the cache (16,384 in our example). If you do this, then you only have one set, containing all of the cache lines, and every memory location points to that huge set. This means that any memory address can be in any line, and you are back to a fully associative cache.

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Comparison of Cache Mapping Techniques
There is a critical tradeoff in cache performance that has led to the creation of the various cache mapping techniques described in the previous section. In order for the cache to have good performance you want to maximize both of the following:

Hit Ratio: You want to increase as much as possible the likelihood of the cache containing the memory addresses that the processor wants. Otherwise, you lose much of the benefit of caching because there will be too many misses.

Search Speed: You want to be able to determine as quickly as possible if you have scored a hit in the cache. Otherwise, you lose a small amount of time on every access, hit or miss, while you search the cache.

Now let's look at the three cache types and see how they fare:
Direct Mapped Cache:
The direct mapped cache is the simplest form of cache and the easiest to check for a hit. Since there is only one possible place that any memory location can be cached, there is nothing to search; the line either contains the memory information we are looking for, or it doesn't.

Unfortunately, the direct mapped cache also has the worst performance, because again there is only one place that any address can be stored. Let's look again at our 512 KB level 2 cache and 64 MB of system memory. As you recall this cache has 16,384 lines (assuming 32-byte cache lines) and so each one is shared by 4,096 memory addresses. In the absolute worst case, imagine that the processor needs 2 different addresses (call them X and Y) that both map to the same cache line, in alternating sequence (X, Y, X, Y). This could happen in a small loop if you were unlucky. The processor will load X from memory and store it in cache. Then it will look in the cache for Y, but Y uses the same cache line as X, so it won't be there. So Y is loaded from memory, and stored in the cache for future use. But then the processor requests X, and looks in the cache only to find Y. This conflict repeats over and over. The net result is that the hit ratio here is 0%. This is a worst case scenario, but in general the performance is worst for this type of mapping.

Fully Associative Cache:

The fully associative cache has the best hit ratio because any line in the cache can hold any address that needs to be cached. This means the problem seen in the direct mapped cache disappears, because there is no dedicated single line that an address must use.

However (you knew it was coming), this cache suffers from problems involving searching the cache. If a given address can be stored in any of 16,384 lines, how do you know where it is? Even with specialized hardware to do the searching, a performance penalty is incurred. And this penalty occurs for all accesses to memory, whether a cache hit occurs or not, because it is part of searching the cache to determine a hit. In addition, more logic must be added to determine which of the various lines to use when a new entry must be added (usually some form of a "least recently used" algorithm is employed to decide which cache line to use next). All this overhead adds cost, complexity and execution time.

N-Way Set Associative Cache:
The set associative cache is a good compromise between the direct mapped and set associative caches. Let's consider the 4-way set associative cache. Here, each address can be cached in any of 4 places. This means that in the example described in the direct mapped cache description above, where we accessed alternately two addresses that map to the same cache line, they would now map to the same cache set instead. This set has 4 lines in it, so one could hold X and another could hold Y. This raises the hit ratio from 0% to near 100%! Again an extreme example, of course. As for searching, since the set only has 4 lines to examine this is not very complicated to deal with, although it does have to do this small search, and it also requires additional circuitry to decide which cache line to use when saving a fresh read from memory. Again, some form of LRU (least recently used) algorithm is typically used.

Here's a summary table of the different cache mapping techniques and their relative performance:

 
Cache Type
Hit Ratio Search Speed
Direct Mapped Good
Best
Fully Associative Best Moderate
N-Way Set Associative Very Good, Better as N Increases
Good, Worse as N Increases
 

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