CUDA atomics: a practical analysis

NVIDIA has been coy with details about how they implement certain features, but the right benchmarks can help uncover their approach, helping developers write better code the first time.

NVIDIA’s chips can have huge numbers of threads in-flight at a time; on my GTX 275, nearly 30,000 threads can be in the midst of executing. There is limited thread synchronization between threads on the same processor, and no inherent synchronization between other processors. Any coordination between threads must be achieved by writing to global memory, an activity with a large latency penalty.

As such, the atomic operations in the CUDA ISA are critical to some algorithms. In typical fashion, NVIDIA provides little guidance as to the performance of these operations, or as to the manner in which they are implemented. On a traditional CPU with a reasonable number of cores, one might simply suggest a few benchmarks, and indeed some benchmarks have been done on GPUs. The issue is that those benchmarks reveal that, for an operation as simple as an addition of a single variable, performance of atomic operations can be thousands of times slower than a traditional read-modify-write cycle. Under the right circumstances, they can also perform faster than non-atomic instructions.

For those crafting algorithms which use a number of atomic operations, understanding what causes the enormous difference in performance operations makes it easier to create optimized implementations. Along with a few others, I’m working on one such algorithm. This article will attempt to use benchmarks to help uncover the architecture used for memory operations in CUDA, in order to make writing such algorithms less of a trial and error affair.

I’m aiming to build an understanding of the architecture by asking a testable question, benchmarking, crafting a testable hypothesis as to why the results are the way they are, and then repeating the cycle until we’re out of surprises. It’s possible that this will lead to bad predictions (in fact, it already has); for the sake of conciseness, I’ll edit the incorrect conclusions out (and possibly place them in a scrap-heap article so that everyone who wishes to can still mock me for being so very wrong) rather than describe my backtracking.

Hardware and assumptions

These benchmarks are being done on an NVIDIA GTX 275 GPU, running at standard clocks, plugged into a Intel G965 motherboard, driven by a Core 2 Duo 6400 with 6GB RAM. The fact that my motherboard only supports PCIe 1.0 shouldn’t cause a difference with any of these benchmarks, as they exclude any host-to-device latencies.

My understanding of NVIDIA’s GT200 architecture comes largely from NVIDIA’s own documentation and the analyses done by Real World Tech and Beyond3D. I suggest the latter two if you’re not familiar with the architecture.

It should also be noted that my background is in audio and video, not in 3D, so this will be focused exclusively on general-purpose computation. While certain tricks may exist that use dedicated hardware for better performance, if you can’t do it from CUDA, I don’t consider it here. That might be a stupid move, but we’ll see.

These benchmarks are being conducted using PyCUDA, with data processing handled by numpy and scipy. They’re all written in PTX, NVIDIA’s own assembly language1. Output is rendered by matplotlib. The source (caution: ugly) is available here.

Precision and accuracy

Oh, and before we get started: you should probably know that my last attempt contained flagrantly incorrect results. So maybe don’t trust these so much until the article is done, okay?

For the curious, or those prone to schadenfreude: the benchmarks previously presented here were entirely correct; they accurately reported the number of clocks it took to run the given kernel. They seemed exceptionally strange, and they were—how many architectures do you know of where an atomic operation beats an unsynchronized one?—but I verified all the data being written by the kernels, ran the tests dozens of times, reread the statistics and graph code to make sure that everything was right. It all checked out. In fact, it checked out exceptionally well; most runs ended up with averages that stayed within one cycle of each other, and several would produce exactly identical results across each warp in each SM.

I figured that with so much consistency on my side, I had to be right. I even came up with an explanation which was consistent with all public information about the chip, one that seemed to satisfy myself and others working on the same project. Sure, the numbers implied a sustained write performance of 7 TB/s to global memory, but that’s not unreasonable for a large, wide cache.

Ultimately, I uncovered my error when testing my explanation. The test kernel used a single 32-thread warp to probe memory locations in a pattern designed to uncover the total cache size and cache line size of the supposed writeback cache. The results were fantastical, absurd; either NVIDIA hid more than a billion extra transistors on the die for a 32 MB SRAM cache, or something was wrong with my technique.

I had fallen into a trap which has ensnared scientists and engineers for centuries: assuming that accuracy meant precision. When an experiment contains a systematic error, sometimes the data is kind enough to be inexplicable, at which point most rational people will go back and recheck their experimental design. Unfortunately, humans are very good at explaining things. Given data which is remarkably consistent, we excel at conjuring a mechanism which explains it.

I suppose the moral of this story is that you should never use a black box to explain the behavior of a system unless you can set up an experiment to isolate and characterize the black box directly2.

As for the bug, it was pretty trivial: I was repeating a short benchmark many times, and I assumed that the precision of the results indicated that they were an accurate representation of longer kernels. I also did not depend on the return value of the atomic operations. The out-of-order capabilities of the compiler and/or chip were allowing all timing code to execute before any results were returned. The rest of the article will take this into account, and (upon completion) will also explore these capabilities directly.

What does clocks() return?

This one has nothing to do with atomics, but a good understanding is necessary for benchmarking. It seems like it could be a stupid question, as the documentation says it quite clearly:

When executed in device code, returns the value of a per-multiprocessor counter that is incremented every clock cycle.

Okay, neat. Except, wait, which clock? One would assume that this refers to the frontend clock, which ticks twice for each warp, but does that leave the two half-warps with different clocks? Or does it refer to the clock on the backend, which ticks four times per warp, leaving us with up to four different values per warp?

The heart of this experiment is in these three lines:

mov.u32     clka,   %clock;
mov.u32     clkb,   %clock;
sub.u32     clka,   clka,   clkb;

Register clka ends up holding the difference between two samples of the clock. Running the kernel in a single thread per SM and dumping the results to memory, we get to see this value. Turns out it’s exactly 28 clocks, without deviation.

Running it at 32 threads per SM, the results stay steady at 28 clocks, and all results in a warp are equal, indicating that this is the frontend clock latched at the start of a two-clock warp. Setting up a tight 256-round loop and storing the sum of differences to memory, we find this result:


The uncanny exactness of 28 clocks per round disappears when you have more than more than 2 warps per SM. This makes a lot of sense; at 4 warps, with two cycles per warp instruction and two instructions per clock, a round-robin scheduler would take 32 cycles to come back to the first warp, giving enough room to hide whatever caused the 28-clock minimum latency. Adding a few instructions in between those operations suggests that each SM is pipelined to give that massive register file time to breathe (obvious), that the exactness of the 28 clocks may be related to accessing special registers like %clock (less obvious), and that register dependencies are caught and handled by the instruction scheduler (obvious in hindsight).

The tightness of the error bars, even as the card climbs past full occupancy, is misleading, as this is the mean of 256 runs per thread. Cutting down the number of runs per thread to 8 shows much less determinism in saturated SM scheduling, although it’s comforting to note that the algorithm in use tends to keep threads at approximately the same instruction count (in the absence of memory operations) without the explicit use of thread synchronization over longer runs.


Conclusion: clocks() returns the frontend clock at the start of a warp’s execution. On an underutilized SM which can’t hide instruction latency, the comparison adds 28 cycles of latency on top of whatever was between the calls; this drops to 2 cycles on a fully utilized SM. It should be safe to use clocks() for benchmarking.

How long does an atomic operation stall a thread?


For this question, we’ll consider five types of operations: load and store, neither of which is sufficient to compare to an atomic operation like add but are included for reference; load_store, the traditional read-modify-write approach to addition; red, which performs an atomic reduction—that is, it computes and stores to global memory, but does not use the value returned from the memory controller in subsequent operations3; and atomic, which explicitly uses the result.

These global memory operations will be run in a tight loop with code that times each operation. For load, load_store, and atomic, an explicit register dependency is created on the return value of the global memory operation by xor’ing it with clka in the example above before reading in clkb. This trick seems to prevent an SM from reordering the clock sampling to improve accuracy. It does not affect store or red operations, so the reported numbers there may be incorrect or at least misrepresentative. More on this later.

Three memory access patterns will be tested. The first goes straight for the jugular: all writes across an SM go to the same address, ensuring that all atomic operations cause a conflict. Each SM gets its own address, though, because having all processors write to the same location caused several system crashes during testing. This is expected to be nearly the worst case for atomic operations, and the results do not disappoint:


Ick. Let’s not do that again.

The next access pattern is less pessimal; each memory location is separated by 128 bytes, and each thread gets its own memory location, ensuring that no conflicts occur but also preventing the chip from coalescing any memory operations.


Well, that’s… tolerable. It remains to be seen whether atomics can be used for scatters in computation threads, but this looks like it wouldn’t cause too much damage. One last access pattern: this time, all threads are neatly coalesced, each accessing a 4-byte memory location in order, such that a warp hits a single 256-byte-wide, 256-byte-aligned region of memory.


Crap. That’s quite a bit worse. Sure, the total latency for an atomic operation is better, but the ratio between an uncoalesced atomic and read-modify-write latency is much smaller than that for the coalesced pattern, so the relative cost of atomic operations in this context is much worse.


Take a look at the error bars in the above graphs. For the all conflicts access pattern, there’s an enormous variability in the time it takes to serve requests; whatever mechanism is being used to deal with conflicting atomic operations isn’t capable of FIFO scheduling all of them. In the uncoalesced access pattern, the error bars shrink substantially; the variability of the times it takes to issue the memory request is very low. Coalesced memory accesses also have very steady times for both the load and load-store operations, but have a higher variance for store, atomic, and reduction operations. Note also that coalesced reductions, which should in theory allow the scheduler more freedom to hide memory latency, take longer and have more variance than atomics which prevent a kernel from processing the next instruction.

To explain this behavior, we need a detailed model of the memory architecture of the chip. From the descriptions at Real World Tech and Beyond3D, along with a little inference and a few patent searches, we have some a priori knowledge. Stream Multiprocessors have independent computation hardware, register files, and shared memory, but they’re not entirely independent. Each SM is bundled with two others into a Thread Processing Cluster, which handles instruction fetch, scheduling, and dispatch, as well as global memory operations (including ROP and texture fetch). The TPC’s controlling logic (frontend) is in a different clock domain from the ALU, FPU, and SFU (backend), with the former at half the speed of the latter. The TPC is also connected to a crossbar bus that connects to the other TPCs and the memory controller, among other things.

US Patent Application 12/327,626 vaguely describes a GPU memory controller. Given the filing date and subject matter, it probably covers technology developed for Fermi, but Fermi and GT200 are not so dissimilar as to make the filing irrelevant. It states,

In one embodiment, memory hub bus 240 is a high-speed bus, such as a bus communicating data and memory requests in data packets (apacketized" bus). For example, high-speed I/O buses may be implemented using a low voltage differential signal technique and interface logic to support a packet protocol to transmit and receive data as data packets."

By indulging in some speculation, it is easy to envision a vague protocol for issuing memory transactions on this bus. For the sake of having something to test, even if it is later found incorrect, let us assume that each TPC has a finite queue for pending memory operations, and that the memory controller also has such a queue. A TPC issuing a memory transaction would queue it, mark some registers as dirty on the scoreboard, and post the request on the bus. Then—and this part is entirely speculation, as other mechanisms for doing QoS or rate-limiting are widely employed in buses like PCI-E and HyperTransport—the TPC waits for an acknowledgment from the memory controller indicating that the memory request was successfully queued. In the event that the memory controller’s queue is full, the controller would bounce a retry later message to the TPC. All of this is done over the packet-oriented bus described above. Atomic calculations are handled by a dedicated SIMD ALU on or near the memory controller.

This mechanism will be tested and refined as we go, but for now it does manage to account for a few of the curiosities in the first round of benchmark results. If we assume the proposed system is true, then:

  • The small but nonzero wait time of set-and-forget operations such as store and red under low-utilization conditions is the round-trip time to the controller. (When the controller’s not flooded, a red performs more or less just as fast as a store, as we’ll see later.)

  • The increasing wait time and variance of store and red as compared to their typically-slower analogs load and atomic, respectively, under conditions when the controller was starved for DRAM bandwidth—viz, coalesced, 32 warps/SM—are related to increased numbers of memory controller retry later rejection messages. In other words, the limited TPC memory transaction queue is filled by load or atomic instructions waiting to return, acting as an implicit rate-control, whereas the TPCs simply retry continuously when attempting to push a store or red at the GPU, and the loop of rejection packets floods the internal bus bandwidth (or packet rate limit) as well as the DRAM bandwidth, causing the slight penalty seen in those instructions on the latter benchmark.

  • The limiting factor causing the decrease in the ratio load_store/’atomic’ in the coalesced case is the memory controller’s ALU.

However, the explanation is not perfect, or at least not complete; it doesn’t seem to explain why uncoalesced operations have such a tight variance, nor does it answer any questions about how conflicts are handled. It also doesn’t include hard numbers, such as the width of the SIMD ALU at the memory controller or the depth of the transaction queues. But there are plenty of benchmarks left to run which could help clear up these matters.

Memory access patterns with delays between accesses


The same three benchmarks as above, but with 50 32-bit multiply-adds thrown in. Remember, on GT200, a multiply-add is implemented as four separate instructions, so this is actually 200 instructions or 400 front-end cycles of computation added in addition to the memory operation and loop construct.


Yes, atomic collisions suck. But we knew that.


Note the performance of memory operations when the memory core is underutilized. Promising.


That’s right: free atomics.


If you have the luxury of using coalesced memory operations, the performance cost of atomic operations which use the result are essentially identical to that of a read-modify-write cycle. The performance cost of a coalesced red operation actually beats load_store handily. If your kernel has enough number-crunching instructions between memory accesses, then the performance difference between any of these is insignificant, as long as the memory controller is not flooded4.

The particular conditions determining when atomic operations are free depend on a number of factors, including kernel length, SM occupancy, register dependencies, and memory access patterns. For example, the test kernel’s filler instructions all depend on the result of the previous instruction, so it takes an occupancy of 8 warps/SM to hide register file latency and fully utilize the ALU. A different kernel might be able to swap threads more frequently, meaning that 1/8 occupancy might fully load the ALU. Of course, such a kernel might also issue more memory transactions as a result of its faster rate of execution, which could lead to the bandwidth constraints that result in higher penalties for memory operations. In other words, if you absolutely need atomics to be free, benchmark your particular code!

On the other hand, these results also show that it’s not hard to get free or at least cheap atomics. I had prepared a complex workaround for the flame algorithm to avoid using these slow operations, and the flam4 implementation just gives the finger to atomicity and doesn’t attempt to avoid collisions (granted, they shouldn’t be that common, but still). Both of these tradeoffs were intended to avoid the high perceived cost of atomic operations; neither, as it turns out, were necessary.

These results are consistent with the proposed model for operation of the memory controller, but do not provide significant refinements to that model. The delays in the uncoalesced access pattern provides a bit more support for the theory that atomic operations are handled on-chip by a SIMD ALU; presumably, the flood of single-location uncoalesced memory requests were causing the ALU to be saturated with 1-vector operations.

Do adjacent memory operations cause atomic collisions?


Each CTA is given its own 32K region of global memory. The first eight lanes of each warp in a 32×8 CTA choose a memory address, so that each is offset from a 4K boundary by the distance under test. The result is that each warp places 8 memory accesses per iteration, each exactly 4K apart, and each offset from a 4K boundary by the same distance per warp, but a linearly varying distance across the CTA. It’s easier to understand with an equation:

address = 32768*ctaid.x + 4096*ctaid.x + OFFSET*ctaid.y;

Note that x and y are in the opposite order from what you might expect, to prevent memory accesses from being coalesced. A concern with this method is the potential to exhaust the number of queued memory operations per local TPC scheduler; this motivated the choice to limit to 8 memory operations per warp, which may help to avoid that condition, but will be investigated again after the queue depth tests.

We expect to see a penalty for atomic operations with a very high peak at low offsets, which drops off sharply to draw nearly even with a load/store operation at higher offsets. We are not disappointed:



CUDA is geared towards parallel computation, and the memory architecture benefits from coalescing memory operations. Given the bias towards implementing memory operations with large widths, regardless of the actual amount of data requested, it seems likely that the mechanism which prevents atomic transactions from interfering with each other also operates on something more than a byte at a time. This, really, is the ultimate purpose of asking this question; it can be imagined that if you’re relying on atomic scatters to make your algorithm feasible, you’re not likely to implement a complicated mechanism for preventing adjacent writes, so the information gathered here is simply being used to test and expand the model for GT200b’s operation.

Unfortunately, the data isn’t as much of a slam dunk as would be desired for further asserting the nature of the underlying architecture. The chip was running a 30-block grid, which should allocate one 256-thread warp per SM, and yet the lowest time to complete an iteration is much higher for this benchmark than for previous benchmarks at this occupancy. Perhaps this discrepancy will be explained by later benchmarks, but for now have caution in interpreting these results.

While the scale may be different than what was expected, however, the relative sizes of the results are right in line with expectations. This benchmark is somewhat more probabilistic in nature than the previous benchmarks: not only is the thread execution order nondeterministic (as far as we know), the results of a collision can only be seen when that collision actually happens, which requires both memory transactions to be in the collision detection mechanism at the same time. For the all-conflicts case, assuming that both the memory controller and TPC have queues of sufficient depth to dispatch more than one warp’s worth of transactions at a time (8 transactions, in this case), a collision should happen for every thread iteration; as this is a deterministic result, we can arrive at conclusions by comparing the other results with the 0-byte offset case.

The results for a 4-byte offset are clearly very similar to those obtained for a 0-byte offset. With 8 different warps each writing 4 bytes of data with a 4-byte offset, every write happens within a 32-byte range per lane. Since the results are so closely to the collision-guaranteed 0-byte case, the data suggests that atomic writes within 32 bytes of one another are considered conflicting by the memory controller; in other words, we can say with confidence that the atomic lock width is at least 32 bytes.

At 8 bytes, corresponding to a 64-byte region of memory per lane, a run takes about 80% of the time per iteration as the baseline. Barring DDR shenanigans, we can chalk this improvement up to consecutive atomic operations that do not result in collisions. The mere presence of an improvement alone is compelling evidence which points to an atomic lock size of exactly 32 bytes, as a larger lock would have given the same performance for an 8-byte offset as for a 4-byte one. The trend continues, with a 16-byte offset having an even lower performance penalty, and the 32-byte offset having no significant performance penalty. As a whole, the evidence is strong for a 32-byte lock width.

An interesting and unexpected result came up when running this benchmark with more than one warp per SM. Take a look:


The performance boost at 64 bytes, and the further improvement at 128 bytes, points toward an increase in memory bandwidth when transactions are spread out past a certain width. Curiously, the 256-byte offsets and above aren’t quite as fast as the 128-byte case, although they’re certainly faster than the 32-byte offsets. (Again, these numbers refer to the offsets only; all of the actual write widths are 4 bytes.) These figures are probably due to the effect of the memory itself shining through the memory controller. They may be related to the way bank interleaving is done on the card, or to latency penalties for certain addressing operations. I’d have to study DDR’s operation a little more to draw conclusions from these results.

The first hints of the manner in which memory operations are scheduled and retired are also visible in these results, and once a few experiments are run which target the TPC and memory controller queue depths explicitly we can come back and validate these results, but the probabilistic nature of these results (along with the lack of nice assumptions like purely-random scheduling) makes extracting that kind of information a bit of a stretch, so I’m also setting that one aside for later.

To be continued…

This article is split into multiple parts, some of which have yet to be written. Questions that I’m working on answering include:

  • How many instructions are needed to hide atomic latency?

  • Does an atomic collision interfere with non-colliding transactions?

  • What’s the width of the memory controller SIMD ALU?

  • What is the depth of the transaction queue on a TPC? On the memory controller?

  • Does the hardware do any kind of out-of-order execution? If so, what?

  • Can instruction reordering by the programmer result in significant speedups?

Note: as of March 1, it’s looking highly unlikely that I’ll actually finish answering these questions before the release of GF100-based chips, after which interest (both yours and mine) is expected to wane considerably. Rest assured, I’m hard at work, just not on this.


My thanks go out to Sylvain Collange and Christian Buchner for valuable feedback and pointers at the CUDA forums.

  1. PTX is a rather nice assembly language, and in some ways is still rather high-level. After trying both CUDA and PTX, I find that PTX allows me to write optimized code more easily, and involves fewer guesses about what’s going on than CUDA’s C compiler.

  2. It is a very particular moral.

  3. In C/C++, the compiler should emit a red automatically when you ignore the return value of AtomicAdd() and friends.

  4. Coalescing uses the memory controller more efficiently, so it reduces the load, but the same effect can be achieved for uncoalesced memory writes if your kernels perform more computations between writes, as we’ll see in later benchmarks.


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