Testing write bandwidth to regular, write-combined and uncached memory

Write combining is a technique where writes may get buffered into a temporary buffer, and then written to memory in a single largish transaction. This can apparently give a nice boost to write bandwidth. Write-combined memory is not cached so reads from write-combined memory are still very slow. I came upon the concept of write-combining while looking at data transfer from CPU to GPU on AMD’s APUs. It  turns out that  if you use the appropriate OpenCL flags (CL_MEM_ALLOC_HOST_PTR | CL_MEM_READ_ONLY) while creating a GPU buffer on an AMD APU,  then AMD’s driver exposes these buffers as write-combined memory on the CPU. AMD claims that you can write to these buffers at pretty high speeds and thus this can act as a fast-path for CPU to GPU data copies.  In addition to regular and write-combined memory, there is also a third type: uncached memory without write-combining.

I wanted to understand the characteristics of write-combined memory as well as uncached memory compared with “regular” memory allocated using, say, the default “new” operator. On Windows, we can allocate write-combined memory or uncached memory using VirtualAlloc function by passing the flags PAGE_WRITECOMBINE and PAGE_NOCACHE respectively. So I wrote a simple test. The code is open-source and can be found here.

For each memory type (regular, write-combined and uncached), we run the following test. The test allocates a buffer and then we copy the data from a regular CPU array to the buffer and measure the time. We do the copy (to the same buffer) multiple times and measure the time of each copy and report the timing and bandwidth of first run as well as the average of subsequent runs. The first run timings give us an idea of the overhead of first use, which can be substantial. For bandwidth, if I am copying N bytes of data, then I report bandwidth computed as N/(time taken). Some people prefer to report bandwidth as 2*N/(time taken) because they count both the read and the write so that’s something to keep in mind.

I ran the test on a laptop running AMD A10-5750M (Richland), 8GB 1600MHz DDR3, WIndows 8.1 x64, VS 2013 x64. 

The average bandwidth result for “double” datatype arrays (size ~32MB) was average bandwidth of 3.8GB/s for regular memory, 5.7 GB/s for write-combined and 0.33GB/s for uncached memory.  The bandwidth reported here is for average runs not including the first run. The first use penalty was found to be substantial. The first run of regular memory took about 22ms while write-combined took 81ms for first run and uncached memory took 164ms. Clearly if you are only transferring it once, then write-combined memory is not the best solution. In this case, you need around 20 runs for the write-combined memory to break even in terms of total data copy times. But if you are going to be reusing the buffer many times, then write-combined memory is a definite win.

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