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Chapter 13. Processors

Linux runs on a number of processors; this chapter gives a brief outline of each of them.

13.1  X86


13.2  ARM

The ARM processor implements a low power, high performance 32 bit RISC architecture. It is being widely used in embedded devices such as mobile phones and PDAs (Personal Data Assistants). It has 31 32 bit registers with 16 visible in any mode. Its instructions are simple load and store instructions (load a value from memory, perform an operation and store the result back into memory). One interesting feature it has is that every instruction is conditional. For example, you can test the value of a register and, until you next test for the same condition, you can conditionally execute instructions as and when you like. Another interesting feature is that you can perform arithmetic and shift operations on values as you load them. It operates in several modes, including a system mode that can be entered from user mode via a SWI (software interrupt).

It is a synthasisable core and ARM (the company) does not itself manufacture processors. Instead the ARM partners (companies such as Intel or LSI for example) implement the ARM architecture in silicon. It allows other processors to be tightly coupled via a co-processor interface and it has several memory management unit variations. These range from simple memory protection schemes to complex page hierarchies.

13.3  Alpha AXP Processor

The Alpha AXP architecture is a 64-bit load/store RISC architecture designed with speed in mind. All registers are 64 bits in length; 32 integer registers and 32 floating point registers. Integer register 31 and floating point register 31 are used for null operations. A read from them generates a zero value and a write to them has no effect. All instructions are 32 bits long and memory operations are either reads or writes. The architecture allows different implementations so long as the implementations follow the architecture.

There are no instructions that operate directly on values stored in memory; all data manipulation is done between registers. So, if you want to increment a counter in memory, you first read it into a register, then modify it and write it out. The instructions only interact with each other by one instruction writing to a register or memory location and another register reading that register or memory location. One interesting feature of Alpha AXP is that there are instructions that can generate flags, such as testing if two registers are equal, the result is not stored in a processor status register, but is instead stored in a third register. This may seem strange at first, but removing this dependency from a status register means that it is much easier to build a CPU which can issue multiple instructions every cycle. Instructions on unrelated registers do not have to wait for each other to execute as they would if there were a single status register. The lack of direct operations on memory and the large number of registers also help issue multiple instructions.

The Alpha AXP architecture uses a set of subroutines, called privileged architecture library code (PALcode). PALcode is specific to the operating system, the CPU implementation of the Alpha AXP architecture and to the system hardware. These subroutines provide operating system primitives for context switching, interrupts, exceptions and memory management. These subroutines can be invoked by hardware or by CALL_PAL instructions. PALcode is written in standard Alpha AXP assembler with some implementation specific extensions to provide direct access to low level hardware functions, for example internal processor registers. PALcode is executed in PALmode, a privileged mode that stops some system events happening and allows the PALcode complete control of the physical system hardware.

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