[llvm-dev] RFC: Supporting the RISC-V vector extension in LLVM
Robin Kruppe via llvm-dev
llvm-dev at lists.llvm.org
Wed Apr 11 02:44:52 PDT 2018
RISC-V is an open and free instruction set architecture (ISA) used in
numerous domains in industry and research. The vector extension (short:
'V') supplements the basic ISA with support for data parallel computations.
This RFC sketches a strategy for targeting this instruction set extension
Some but not all of what is proposed here has already been implemented out
of tree. It is explicitly not proposed to upstream any of this yet: the
vector extension is still evolving (though the core concepts are reasonably
stable), and the implementation is currently very much prototype quality.
Nevertheless, I want to kick off a discussion about this with the LLVM
community now to make sure I'm on the right track and to make the eventual
upstreaming go more smoothly. In particular, a large and potentially
controversial part of the strategy is a proposal for extending LLVM IR with
a new vector type.
There is also much to be said about how to structure the code generation
for this ISA. However, since that aspect somewhat simpler, largely
orthogonal and affects a smaller subset of the community, the details will
be left to a future RFC.
This RFC is intended to be self-contained, but interested readers can learn
more about the vector extension from Roger Espasa's talk at the 7th RISC-V
workshop (slides , recording ). The draft specification is also
available as part of the RISC-V Instruction Set Manual , but right now
it is unfortunately incomplete and in the process of being updated.
I will also be at EuroLLVM with a lightning talk and poster on this
subject, so if you're there as well, we can discuss in person.
First-class support for the RISC-V vector ISA requires representing a
hardware vector length that is not just unknown at compile time, but also
changes during execution. This in turn places some restrictions on code
motion: the vector length must not change while any vector values are live.
This RFC proposes to add a new vector type to LLVM IR for this purpose.
Simply put, its length is tied to the surrounding function and the existing
`token` type is leveraged to tell optimization passes that certain vector
operations must remain together (i.e., in the same function).
The RISC-V vector extension has many interesting properties. This RFC is
not the right place to talk about it in detail, but this section will
briefly introduce the aspect that is most difficult to support in LLVM IR,
and which is consequently the focus of this RFC: the runtime-variable
The number of elements in a vector register is determined by the
microarchitecture. Software uses strip-mined loops to transparently process
as many elements per iteration as the hardware can support. But even beyond
that, the vector length can vary during the execution of a program:
different kernels may *configure* the vector unit differently depending on
their needs, leading to different parts of the program having
differently-sized vector registers.
The vector length being determined by the microarchitecture is similar to
Arm's Scalable Vector Extension (SVE), for which support is being
upstreamed at the moment. However, in SVE the vector length is fixed once a
program starts running, while full use of the RISC-V vector extension will
lead to the vector length changing regularly during execution. It's
possible to maintain the same configuration -- and therefore the same
vector length -- throughout the entire program, but this will often perform
worse than a tailored configuration.
## Maximum vs active vs application vector length
The V ISA has two notions of vector length: the *maximum* vector length
(called MVL), which describes the number of elements in each vector
register, and the *active* vector length (called vl), which limits how many
of those elements are actually processed by each vector instruction.
The latter is used to express loops of any application-specified length
with a single copy of the loop body. Instead of handling the tail
iterations not divisible by MVL separately with scalar code, the active
length length is set up so that the last few iterations process as many
elements as are left to process.
The effect of the active vector length is similar to a mask of the form
`<true, ..., true, false, ..., false>`, aside from the scalar control logic
that sets and maintains the active vector length. Thus it can be modeled in
IR with judicious use of intrinsics and masking. This still allows also
having a single loop body in IR, without introducing new IR concepts in
addition to those already needed for the variable MVL.
Thus, the rest of this RFC focuses on handling the MVL: all references to
"vector length" from this point on should be taken to refer to the MVL, not
the active vector length.
# Scope of the support
To preempt misunderstandings, this section outlines what is meant and not
meant by "support for the vector extension".
## Variable vector length
There *is* an option to entirely avoid the concept of the vector length
changing during execution. Keeping the same vector unit configuration
throughout the entire program execution also leads to the vector length
being fixed once the program starts executing. In this case, compiler
support works out rather rather similar to support for Arm SVE, with the
biggest difference being that vectors lengths are not multiples of 128 bit
(which legalization can paper over). Indeed, no IR changes beyond those
proposed for SVE support appear to be necessary to implement this approach
to RISC-V vector extension support.
However, this approach is wasteful, as a tailored configuration can improve
performance and energy efficiency significantly. As one data point, the
Hwacha project reported  up to 9.5% fewer cycles taken and up to 11%
less energy consumed on a microarchitecture built to exploit narrower bit
widths of vector elements (comparing "mvp, packed: yes" to "mvp, packed:
no"). Besides such microarchitectural optimizations, enabling fewer
registers can improve context switch times because fewer registers need to
be saved, and being more flexible in how registers can be used (in
particular, how many are reserved for scalar values) aids register
Thus, restricting programs to a single configuration may be a good first
step to get things up and running, but ultimately support for
runtime-varying vector lengths is desired to make the most of hardware
 "A Case for MVPs: Mixed-Precision Vector Processors", Albert Ou, Quan
Nguyen, Yunsup Lee, Krste Asanović,
## Producing vector code
It is intended that vector code is primarily produced via loop
vectorization and other IR-level auto-vectorizers (e.g., the region
vectorizer), not written by hand. Supporting loop vectorization is of
highest priority. The groundwork for loop vectorization should be useful
for other kinds of automatic vectorization as well, but loop vectorization
will be implemented first.
It's not required or expected that the stock loop vectorizer can generate
RISC-V vector code from the start. Considering the many significant
differences to the packed-SIMD architectures the loop vectorizer is
tailored to, it's quite likely that some experimentation in this space is
required (e.g., building on VPlan and writing custom recipes). Of course,
in the long term there should be as much code sharing as possible.
Support for hand-written vector code va source-language-level intrinsics
(as opposed to inline assembly) would be nice to have and probably falls
out for free, but is rather low priority.
## No vector unit configuration in IR
While configuring the vector unit is an essential part of compiling for the
V ISA, it has no place in LLVM IR. Vectors should be regular SSA values
that don't reference any extra state other than (by necessity) the vector
length. Deciding how to configure the vector unit for a given piece of code
is target-dependent and intertwined with register allocation, and will
therefore be left to the backend.
# Challenge: Code motion around vector length changes
When the vector length can change during execution, there are implicit
dependencies between vector operations and points in the program where the
vector length may change. These dependencies must be taken into account
somehow, or else code motion passes could move vector operations across
vector length changes, effectively changing program semantics. For example,
it's nonsensical to compute a vector value `%v1` with one vector length,
change the vector length, and then compute another vector `%v2` with the
new vector length and add it to `%v1`. This makes no more sense than adding
`<4 x i32>` to `<8 x i32>`, yet it could happen if an input program has a
vector length change *after* these vector calculations and optimization
passes are not aware of the impact of the vector length change on those
Crucially, the vector length changes when calling and returning from
functions in most calling conventions. Functions that don't specifically
use a vectorcall ABI configure the vector unit for their own use when
called, rather than using configuration set up by the caller. Therefore,
caller and callee will generally have different vector lengths, and moving
vector operations from the caller into the callee or vice versa tends to
However, note that the precise value of the vector length doesn't really
matter -- software is supposed to be *vector length agnostic*. Completely
inlining a function is perfectly fine, for example. What matters is that
the vector length doesn't change *during* vector computations, i.e., while
any vector values are live (either as SSA values, or in memory!). Thus,
there is no need to support and track vector length changes at instruction
granularity. It's enough to coarsely enforce that the vector length remain
constant throughout a larger code region (say, a loop nest, or a function).
# Runtime-varying vector length in the IR
This is achieved by simply declaring "by fiat" that the vector length is
determined on function entry and remain constant for the rest of the
function execution. Other functions and other calls to the same function
may observe a different vector length, but within one call to a given
function, the vector length is fixed. That is not precisely how the
hardware works, but it is a contract the backend can uphold easily (more on
this later) and it allows piggy-backing on existing IR constructs (the
`token` type) to communicate restrictions to optimization passes.
Nevertheless, some additions to IR are required: a new first class type, a
new instruction, and a new operand for some existing instructions.
## IR semantics
Every time a function is called, a positive integer called the *dynamic
vector length* is determined in an unspecified way. The dynamic vector
length can differ not only between different functions, but also between
different calls to the same function. The exception is that functions with
the `inherits_vlen` attribute get the same dynamic vector length as their
caller (Note: this attribute is a straw man, target-specific calling
conventions may work better for this purpose).
A new instruction `vlentoken` is added, which has no operands and is of
type `token`. This token represents the dynamic vector length of the
function execution it is in. There can only be one such instruction per
function (this is inconsequential to the operational semantics, but it
simplifies IR passes).
A new kind of type is added, the *dynamic-length vector*, written `< vlen x
<element type> >`. It represents a vector with a number of elements equal
to the dynamic vector length. Like fixed-length and scalable vectors, these
vectors can only contain integer, float and pointer elements.
A use of a `vlentoken` (representing a dynamic vector length) is attached
to all operations that care for the dynamic vector length. That is, *every*
instruction that handles dynamic-length vectors or is impacted by their
length receives the respective function's `vlentoken` as extra operand, and
operates on a number of elements equal to the corresponding dynamic vector
`< vlen x <element type> >` is a first-class type and supports most common
instructions (details below), but cannot be used as function argument or
function return type unless the `inherits_vlen` attribute is applied to the
## Rationale / "why this works"
Although the vector length is a property of vector *values*, tracking the
dynamic vector length at the type level would require a "separate type" for
each call to any function. It's much more feasible to attach the vector
length to the *operations* instead. This works out because SSA values are
function-local (so all operation on them agree on the vector length by
definition) with the exception of function arguments and return values.
Consequently, dynamic-length vectors in function signatures are disallowed
unless the `inherits_vlen` attribute ensured caller and callee have the
same dynamic vector length.
The `vlentoken` token ensures that all operations that start out in the
same function must remain in the same function while the code is
transformed (recall that tokens cannot be passed to or returned from
non-intrinsic functions). That's why it is important that `vlentoken` is a
token, not simply an integer as one might expect. In other words,
`vlentoken` does not give the program access to the dynamic vector length,
it communicates a restriction to the optimizer.
## More details
The `< vlen x <element type> >` type is separate from the existing vector
types. Instructions for fixed-length vectors (elementwise arithmetic,
`insertelement`, `select` with a vector of `i1`s, etc.) are not extended to
this new type, at least not in this RFC. It's a possible future extension,
but for now, target-specific intrinsics work fine for those operations.
The following operations on dynamic-length vectors *are* supported:
- `load` and `store`
- `alloca` (at least of a single vector; the `alloca <ty>, <ty>
<NumElements>` form ties into the open question about aggregates and GEPs
- `select` (with `i1` condition)
- Argument passing and return values (`call`, `invoke`, `ret`) for
functions with `inherits_vlen`
All of these instructions (including phi) have an additional operand of
type `token` if and only if they operate on a vector of dynamic length. In
textual IR, one appends `, vlen <the token>` to the instruction, for
%0 = vlentoken
%ptr = alloca <vlen x i32>, vlen %0
%v = call <vlen x i32> @foo(), vlen %0
store <vlen x i32> %v, <vlen x i32>* %ptr, vlen %0
Open question: should GEPs and aggregates involving dynamic-length vectors
work? This RFC errs on the side of simplicity and excludes them (they're
non-trivial to implement and not needed for strip-mined loops) but if
desired, they could be supported.
There are no constants of dynamic-length-vector type except
`zeroinitializer` and `undef` (resp. `poison` once that is adopted). In
particular, there is no equivalent to fixed-length vector constants (`<ty
elem1, ty elem2, ...>`). Dynamic-length vectors also cannot be stored in
## Impact on optimizations
The semantics imply several restrictions on optimizations, but these are
mostly encoded with existing IR constructs -- chiefly, the `token` type
that ties all vector operations to a `vlentoken`. For example, because
token values cannot be passed to (non-intrinsic) functions or returned from
them, no special pleading is needed to keep an outliner or partial inliner
from spreading vector operations across multiple functions -- correct
passes already don't do that when tokens are involved. Passes do, however,
need to be updated in two respects.
First, the new token operand needs to be respected when comparing two
instructions, creating new instructions, etc. -- this is an inherent
downside of adding new operands, but also rather mechanical. The rule that
there is only one `vlentoken` per function makes this even more mechanical
than usual, because all instruction within one function have the same
vector length token. This means that one does not need to consider them
when comparing instructions from the same function, and it's always clear
which token should be used when creating a new instruction.
Second, the very same rule of only one `vlentoken` per function must be
respected during interprocedural code motion. For example, inlining can't
just copy the `vlentoken` from the callee into the caller.
However, note that it's valid to *merge* the caller's and callee's
`vlentoken` instructions. Because the semantics state that each call to a
function can get a different dynamic vector length, merging `vlentoken`s
*refines* the program's behavior by picking the possible execution where
the callee "happens to" get the same vector length as the caller in the
inlined calls. So inlining can simply replace all `vlentoken` tokens in the
inlined code with the `vlentoken` token of the callee. Other passes are
likely similarly easy to update (and in the worst case, they can just bail
out when seeing dynamic-length vectors).
## Impact on backends
Unsurprisingly, the IR types `<vlen x <element type> >` come with
associated MVTs. There's also a new SelectionDAG node `VLENTOKEN` to mirror
the `vlentoken` IR instruction (and presumably `G_VLENTOKEN` in GMIR for
Backends other than RISC-V can legalize these MVTs and the `VLENTOKEN` node
very easily, even if in practice there currently aren't many useful
operations on these vectors without target-specific intrinsics.
Specifically, `< vlen x <element type> >` can be legalized as `< n x
<element type> >` or even `< scalable n x <element type> >` (the vector
type for Arm SVE) for any fixed `n`. All the complications stemming from
the runtime-varying vector length go away, and the `vlentoken` node can
simply be dropped on the floor.
That leaves targets with an actual runtime-varying vector length in
hardware, i.e., RISCV with the V feature enabled. As stated in the
introduction, this RFC does not cover the backend changes in detail, but to
give you a rough idea, here's a sketch. Keep in mind (especially if you're
familiar with V) that this is glossing over everything not directly related
to the proposed IR type (particularly the "polymorphic instruction set"
aspect of the register configuration).
As described earlier, the vector length in RISC-V is completely determined
by the vector unit configuration. Therefore, vector operations in Machine
IR have an implicit use of the configuration registers. This is the moral
equivalent of the `vlentoken` token operand, but more precise (and MIR
doesn't have an equivalent of the token type anyway). To complete the
picture, all operations that change the configuration are made explicit.
Because only virtual registers can be live across basic block boundaries
before register allocation, this may require a dummy register class with
only a single physical register, or something similarly inelegant.
With a way to precisely represent vector length changes in hand, the
backend just needs to ensure it implements the semantics of `< vlen x
<element type> >` described earlier. This is achieved by configuring the
vector unit "in the prologue", and then not doing anything that might
change the vector length inside the function. This setup is effectively in
the prologue (i.e., before any user code) but not actually inserted during
the "prologue/epilogue insertion" pass, which runs far too late for this
For scenarios like two entirely separate vectorized loops within one
function, it might be useful to drastically change the vector unit
configuration in the middle of a function. This could be implemented as an
optimization (e.g., a pre-RA machine function), but it's all hypothetical
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