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Compiling to reduce the impact of soft errors on program output

November 7th, 2011 No comments

Optimizing compilers have traditionally made code faster and smaller (sometimes a choice has to be made between faster/larger and slower/smaller). The huge growth in the use of battery power devices has created a new attribute for writers of optimizers to target, finding code sequences that minimise power consumption (I previously listed this as a major growth area in the next decade). Radiation (e.g., from cosmic rays) can cause a memory or processor bit to flip, known as a soft error, and I have recently been reading about how code can be optimized to reduce the probability that soft errors will alter the external behavior of a running program.

The soft error rate is usually quoted in FITs (Failure in Time), with 1 FIT corresponding to 1 error per 10^9 hours per megabit, or 10^-15 errors per bit-hour. A PC with 4 GB of DRAM (say 1000 FIT/Mb which increases with altitude and is 10 times greater in Denver Colorado) has a MTBF (mean time between failure) of 1000 * 10^-15 * 4.096 * 10^9 * 8 = 3.2 10^-2 hours, around once every 33 hours. Calculating the FIT for processors is complicated.

Uncorrected soft errors place a limit on the maximum number of computing nodes that can be usefully used by one application. At around 50,000 nodes a system will be spending half its time saving checkpoints and restarting from previous checkpoints after an error occurs.

Why not rely on error correcting memory? Super computers containing terrabytes are built containing error correcting memory, but this does not make the problem go away, it ‘only’ reduces it by around two orders of magnitude. Builders of commodity processors don’t use much error correction circuitry because it would increase costs/power consumption/etc for an increased level of reliability that the commodity market is not interested in; vendors of high-end processors add significant amounts of error correction circuitry.

Most of the compiler research I am aware of involves soft errors occurring on the processor and this topic is discussed below; there has been some work on assigning variables deemed to be critical to a subset of memory that is protected with error correcting hardware. Pointers to other compiler research involving memory soft errors welcome.

A commonly used technique for handling hardware faults is redundancy, usually redundant hardware (e.g., three processors performing the same calculating and a majority vote used to decide which of the outputs to accept). Software only approaches include the compiler generating two or more independent machine code sequences for each source code sequence whose computed values are compared at various check points and running multiple copies of a program in different threads and comparing outputs. The
Shoestring compiler (based on llvm) takes a lightweight approach to redundancy by not duplicating those code sequences that are less affected by register bit flips (e.g., the value obtained from a bitwise AND that extracts 8 bits from a 32-bit register is 75% less likely to deliver an incorrect result than an operation that depends on all 32 bits).

The reliability of single ‘thread’ generated code can be improved by optimizing register lifetimes for this purpose. A value is loaded into a register and sometime later it is used one or more times. A soft error corrupting register contents after the last use of the value it contains has no impact on program execution, the soft error has to occur between the load and last use of the value for it to possibly influence program output. One group of researchers modified a compiler (Trimaran) to order register usage such that the average interval between load and last usage was reduced by 10%, compared to the default behavior.

Developers don’t have to wait for compiler or hardware support, they can improve reliability by using algorithms that are robust in the presence of ‘faulty’ hardware. For instance, the traditional algorithms for two-process mutual exclusion are not fault tolerant; a fault tolerant mutual exclusion algorithm using 2f+1 variables, where a single fault may occur in up to f variables is available.