PC memory architecture overview

The topics of DMA protection and a new Intel/AMD feature called an IOMMU (or VT-d) are becoming more prevalent. I believe this is due to two trends: increased use of virtualization and hardware protection for DRM. It’s important to first understand how memory works in a traditional PC before discussing the benefits and issues with using an IOMMU.

DMA (direct memory access) is a general term for architectures where devices can talk directly to RAM, without the CPU being involved. In PCs, the CPU is not even notified when DMA is in progress, although some chipsets do report a little information (i.e., bus mastering status bit or BM_STS). DMA was conceived to provide higher performance than the alternative, which is for the CPU to copy each byte of data from the device to memory (aka programmed IO). To write data to a hard drive controller via DMA, the driver running on the CPU writes the memory address of the data to the hardware and then goes on to doing other tasks. The drive controller finishes reading the data via DMA and generates an interrupt to notify the CPU that the write is complete.

DMA can actually be slower than programmed IO if the overhead in talking to the DMA controller to initiate the transaction takes longer than the transaction itself. This may be true for very short data. That’s why the original PC parallel port (LPT) doesn’t support DMA. When there are only 8 bits of data per transaction, it doesn’t make sense to spend time telling the hardware where to put the data, just read it yourself.

Behind this concept of DMA, common to nearly all modern architectures, the PC has a particular breakdown of responsibilities between the various chips. The CPU executes code and talks to the northbridge (Intel MCH). Integrated devices like USB and Ethernet are all located in the southbridge (Intel ICH), with the exception of on-board video, which is located in the northbridge. Between each of these chips is an Intel or AMD proprietary bus, which is why your Intel CPU won’t work with your AMD chipset, even if you were to rework the socket to fit it. Your RAM is accessed only via the northbridge (Intel) or via a bus shared with the northbridge (AMD).

Interfacing with the CPU is very simple. All complexities (privilege level, paging, task management, segmentation, MSRs) are handled completely internally. On the external bus shared with the northbridge, a CPU has a set of address and data lines and a few control/status lines. Besides power supply, the address and data pins are the most numerous. In the Intel quad-core spec, there are only about 60 types of pins. Only three pins (LINT[0:1], SMI#) are used to signal all interrupts, even on systems with dozens of devices.

Remember, these addresses are purely physical addresses as all virtual memory translation is internal to the CPU. There are two types of addresses known to the northbridge: memory and IO space. The latter are generated by the in/out asm instructions and merely result in a special value being written to the address lines on the next clock cycle after the address is sent. IO space addresses are typically used for device configuration or legacy devices.

The northbridge is relatively dumb compared to the CPU. It is like a traffic cop, directing the CPU’s accesses to devices or RAM. Likewise, when a device on the southbridge wants to access RAM via DMA, the northbridge merely routes the request to the correct location. It maintains a map, set during PCI configuration, which says something like “these address ranges go to the southbridge, these others go to the integrated video”.

With integrated peripherals, PCI is no longer a bus, it’s merely a protocol. There is no set of PCI bus lines within your southbridge that are hooked to the USB and Ethernet components of the chip. Instead, only PCI configuration remains in common with external devices on a PCI bus. PCI configuration is merely a set of IO port reads/writes to walk the logical device hierarchy, programming the northbridge with which regions it decodes to which device. It’s setting up the table for the traffic cop.

Next time, we’ll examine the advent of IOMMUs and DEVs/NoDMA tables.