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Threading VU1

 Well if you've kept up with pcsx2's SVN, you'll notice we recently added a MTVU (Multi-Threaded microVU1) option, which runs VU1 on its own thread.

Getting pcsx2 to use more cores is something many people have asked for, and they wondered why we weren’t doing it. Some users would go as far as to flame us pcsx2 coders saying we didn’t have the skills to do it or would say some other nonsense.

In reality, there are plenty of reasons why it’s taken so long for us to code something like MTVU. The key reason is that emulation in general does not lend itself well to threading components. If you want to be safe and accurate at a hardware emulation level, you generally take the approach of running the core CPU of the system (the EE-core in ps2’s case), and then based off the cycles you ran the CPU for, you time the execution of all the other processing units in the system (DMAC (GIF, VIF, SIF, …), VU0/VU1, IPU, IOP, etc…).

If you try to naively thread the components in the above model, you’ll have 2 huge problems which may not be apparent to non-emu coders. One problem is that threading the components (say GIF and VU1) at the same time, will lead to very bad syncing errors if the GIF and VU1 need to communicate with each other (and they do). The other problem is that just running a component on a thread is actually going to be a slow-down unless the thread is doing a lot of work without having to sync with other components. As an example, both Jake Stine (Air) and I have in the past experimented with naively threading VU1, and in addition to getting unstable graphics and crashes, our attempts also ran slower.

So now you may be wondering, “If threading has all those problems how can you get a speedup?” Well we had to be smart about it, and figure out a way to make threading work based on the properties of the hardware. One thing we know is that for a component to even be worth-while to thread, it needs to have relatively low interaction with other components (which will limit the amount of syncing needed with other components; and therefore increase the thread throughput), and it also needs to be a component that is used frequently and is computationally expensive to emulate (or else there’s no point in threading it). Luckily the GS fit that bill very well (which gave us MTGS), and to a lesser extent VU1 does (giving us MTVU).


(Some key components in the ps2; these aren’t drawn to any relative scale)

In the above diagram, I have drawn some of the key components which must be considered when threading VU1 and the GS. The dark arrows show common data paths where data is transferred frequently between the components in games. The white arrow heads show data paths that are possible in games, but are rarely used due to various reasons. There are some more data paths and more components to the ps2, but they’re excluded for simplicity (the actual grouping of the components in the ps2 also is a bit different, but drawing them that way would complicate the diagram).

Just so you’re not left in the dark I’ll briefly explain what the above components are used for. The EE-core is the main CPU of the ps2 and mostly handles game logic; using the GIF FIFO and Path 3, games generally send image data (textures) to the GS (the gpu of the ps2). VU1 (Vector Unit 1) is used for coordinate, matrix, and vector calculations games need to do for 3d graphics; when it’s done calculating it sends the processed data over to the GS via GIF’s Path 1. The VIF1 unit is in charge of sending micro-programs to VU1, unpacking compressed data to VU1’s data memory, signaling VU1 to start executing its micro-program, and it also can send data to the GS via GIF’s Path 2. The GIF Unit is in charge of managing the Path 1/2/3 transfers that are being sent to the GS, and it does this according to path priority (Path 1 > Path 2 > Path 3) and some other specific rules.

If you notice in the diagram, the GS (Graphics Synthesizer) has data coming into it frequently, and rarely ever needs to send data back to other components. When threading the GS, what we essentially do is buffer GIF transfers that are being sent to the GS, and then once we have enough buffered data we kick-start the MTGS thread and have it start processing the GIF packets we previously buffered. While it’s processing this buffered data, the EE main thread is still running and more GIF transfers are being buffered so that MTGS can process them when it gets the chance…

The key to making something like this work from an emulation standpoint is that the main emulation thread thinks that nothing is being threaded at all; it sends data to the GIF Unit like normal, and this gets processed according to the timing information from the EE core. However that GIF transfer data is being buffered which allows the MTGS thread to process the buffered data in parallel with the main emulation thread. If you notice though this design means that the MTGS thread is actually running behind the main emulation thread in terms of the data it’s processing, because the buffered data is old data that the main emulation thread has generated. The only time this can be a problem, is if the main emulation thread ever needs to read back data from the MTGS thread. In this case what needs to happen is the main emulation thread needs to stall and wait until the MTGS thread is done processing. Once that is done, the MTGS thread should have up-to-date status information, and the main emulation thread can read back the appropriate data from the MTGS thread. This syncing is slow and if emulation needs to do it a lot it eliminates the speedup from threading (and can even be a big slowdown), however as noted in the above diagram, the GS rarely ever needs to transfer data back; so that means threading the GS is almost always a speedup for us.

Now that we understand the basics of how the MTGS thread works, we can move onto MTVU. Since the GS was already the best candidate for threading in a ps2 emulator, it meant that threading any other component would be even more of a challenge. From analyzing pcsx2’s activity and design, the next component that made sense to thread was VU1. It is relatively isolated compared to the other components, and it takes a lot of computation power to emulate. However, there are some big problems which must be solved to get a fast and working threaded VU1.

One of the problems deals with what was talked about in the beginning of this article, how typical emulation runs the different components based off the cycles of the main CPU. With the typical emulation approach we would run the EE for say 2048 cycles, and then we would run VU1 for its equivalent amount of cycles which would be 1024 vu cycles (VU1 runs at half the clock speed of the EE). This approach would be very problematic for us with threading, because it would mean VU1 doesn’t run long enough for threading to be a speedup. However we are very fortunate because on the PS2 games can’t be as cycle-critical as they are with older systems. Any well coded ps2 game has to have thread safe code and account for possible timing inconsistencies (if the game doesn’t do this, then it likely won’t be stable on the real console, or between minor variations of the console). This means we can generally get away with running VU1 programs disregarding EE timing completely, and pcsx2 has actually been using this approach for VU1 for years now (because even in a non-threaded design its faster to emulate this way). Instead of running VU1 for X amount of cycles based off EE cycles, we have code it so that VU1 executes its complete micro-program till it’s finished.  This is great news for threading VU1 because it means that we can run VU1 on a thread regardless of any EE timing and it won’t be a problem. It also means that since VU1 has been running in its entirety this whole time, from the EE’s point of view it has always seen that VU1’s status is ‘finished’ (because it never gets a chance to read the status as ‘executing’). This means that you can actually queue multiple VU1 programs, and run them at a later time as far as the EE is concerned, because it doesn’t really care about VU1’s status. This is even more good news for threading since it means more through-put for the VU1 thread if it can be queuing and sequentially executing multiple VU1 programs (as opposed to running only one VU1 program while the EE waits on it to finish).

There is another big problem with VU1 threading however: the VU1 processor works closely with the GIF Unit, and the GIF Unit is timed and executed according to the main emulation thread. So that means sending data to the GIF Unit from the VU1 thread would be at totally incorrect times with respect to core emulation timing. Now our solution for this is a bit tricky. What we end up doing is assume every VU1 program will send data to the GIF Unit. So immediately when the main emulation thread finds out it needs to execute a VU1 program, it sends a fake GIF transfer packet to pcsx2’s GIF Unit (and immediately after starts executing the VU1 program on the MTVU thread). The GIF Unit then acts like normal on the main emulation thread with its path arbitration and eventually uploads this fake GIF packet to the MTGS thread. The MTGS thread acts like normal telling the GS plugin to process real Path 2/Path 3 GIF packets until it reaches the fake Path 1 packet. When it does this, the MTGS thread asks the MTVU thread if at least 1 VU1 program has finished since the uploading of the fake GIF packet. If it hasn’t, then the MTGS thread stalls until the MTVU thread can finish a VU1 program. If the MTVU thread has already finished a VU1 program, it signals the MTGS thread and then the MTGS thread wakes up and starts talking to pcsx2’s GIF Unit. At this point the GIF Unit should have a Path 1 packet pending which the MTGS thread can process, because while the MTGS thread was waiting, the MTVU thread had been communicating with the GIF Unit and uploading real Path 1 packet data asynchronously to a buffer. When the MTVU thread finishes the VU1 program, just before it signals the MTGS thread that it’s done, it talks to the GIF Unit and tells it that all the Path 1 data that was just transferred to it should be considered a full Path 1 packet (and if no data was written to it, consider it a full Path 1 packet with “size = 0”). So going back to the MTGS thread, at this point it requests a full Path 1 packet from the GIF Unit, and the GIF Unit gives it one of the Path 1 packets that the MTVU thread has finished. Then the MTGS thread tells the GS plugin to process this Path 1 packet, and the cycle just continues over and over every time a VU1 program is run.

The only flaw in the above solution for GIF processing is that in reality pcsx2 needs to do some additional processing of GIF packet data on the main emulation thread to check if certain privileged GS registers are being written to (SIGNAL/FINISH/LABEL). With the approach described above, we first send fake GIF packet data that the GIF Unit processes instead of the real one; but if the game was really supposed to send a GIF packet which writes to the GS’s SIGNAL/FINISH/LABEL registers, then we don’t know about it and we’re out of luck. The game in this case will likely hang. There is no 100% reliable solution to this problem that still allows a fast threaded VU1, because in order to know for sure that those privileged registers will not be written, you need to execute the VU1 program and find out that it is not sending a GIF packet which writes to them. The best you can do is predict what the VU1 program will do based off what it did last time, but this is still not fully reliable, and a lot more complicated, it also will have a lot more overhead compared to the way we’re currently threading VU1, so in my opinion it’s not worth it. The good news is that it’s very rare for a game to write to the privileged registers from VU1’s GIF Path 1 (they usually do it from Path 2/Path 3), so that means that MTVU should be very compatible, however due to this potential problem, MTVU has to remain a “speedhack” instead of adding it as a normal option.

The third big problem with VU1 emulation is the communication with VIF1. The VIF1 if you remember is in charge of sending new micro-programs to VU1 and decompressing data onto VU1 memory. In addition to this it has commands to tell VU1 to start executing, and it has commands to wait on VU1 to finish executing. All this VIF1 - VU communication screams problems for a threaded VU1 design. However we have a clever solution for this too. What we essentially do is duplicate VIF1, we have one instance on the main emulation thread, and we have another instance on the MTVU thread. Whenever VIF1 is told to do something on the main emulation thread, it runs like normal until it reaches a command which interacts with VU1. If the command is to wait on VU1, it just ignores it, because remember pcsx2 already has been used to VU1 running in its entirety, so VU1 is always complete when VIF1 has a command to wait on it; so there’s no need to wait on VU1. If the command is to transfer data to VU1’s memory, things get a tad more complex. What we do is write the command in the MTVU thread’s internal ring buffer. The MTVU thread is essentially just a ring buffer with queued commands which get processed in-order. The VIF1 writes a command in MTVU’s ring buffer to say “upload 1024 bytes of data to VU1 micro-memory”, and then the 1024 bytes of data is also written to the ring buffer. Next VIF1 can send a command that says “execute VU1 with PC address = 0x1000”, and this command gets written to MTVU’s ring buffer as well. Finally MTVU decides it’s time to start executing commands in its ring buffer, and it sees the VIF1 command that writes 1024 bytes to VU1 micro-memory, and it executes this command on the MTVU thread. Then it sees the command to start VU1 executing at address 0x1000, and it starts executing the microVU1 recompiler with PC = 0x1000. This is the basics of how it works, the reason I said we have to duplicate VIF1 between the main emulation thread, and the MTVU thread, is that some VIF1 commands like VIF Unpack rely on status information from VIF1’s registers. To get this working on the MTVU thread we need a separate state of VIF1 registers and status information, because the VIF1’s status on the main emulation thread would be different by the time the commands are executed on the MTVU thread. Essentially from this description, you can see that the MTVU thread not only threads VU1, but also threads VIF1 command too. This is another speedup since VIF1 Unpacks are very computationally expensive (and that’s why we even have a VIF Unpack recompiler).

The remaining problems of VU1 threading are handling the cases where the EE or other processors like VU0 ever need to read back from VU1. This happens very rarely, but in this situation all we need to do is call a “Wait on VU1 Thread” function immediately before trying to read from VU1 memory. If it happened often it would ruin any chance of speedups threading VU1 had, but luckily it rarely happens. The EE actually works very closely with VU0 as opposed to VU1, and so threading VU0 would not be a speedup because the EE would end up reading back from it too much. The good thing is that VU0 is rarely a bottleneck in games; this is evident because you can usually run VU0 interpreters and get a minimal speed-hit (if you try to run vu1 interpreters on the other hand, your speed will usually crawl to ~2fps).

By now you should hopefully have a better understanding of how pcsx2’s VU1 and GS threading basically works, but you may still have questions on why it’s taken so long for us to do it. Well as shown above there were a lot of problems with threading VU1 which needed to be solved, and we weren’t sure about the best ways to handle them. Another huge reason is pcsx2 was not in a good state to make VU1 threading a reality until recently. We didn’t have a centralized GIF Unit like the ps2 does; instead we had code that was all over the place and running the GIF paths without proper scheduling.  The new GIF Unit rewrite solved this problem for us. Another problem was that Super VU1, the old VU1 recompiler, was not thread safe (it combines stuff for VU0 and VU1 emulation together), so a new thread safe recompiler was needed, which was one of the goals for the microVU recompiler I wrote. Another problem was the sloppiness of a lot of old pcsx2 code which had needless inter dependencies between various other code modules; we needed to isolate the related code with code refactoring and rewrites to clearly separate the code and make it thread safe. We also needed a thread-safe code emitter which allowed us to run multiple dynamic-recompilers in parallel; we solved this by a code emitter rewrite and using thread local storage for the emitter’s global data. Lastly we needed someone who knew about all these various components and was bored enough to try making something like this work  Very Happy

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