The Memory Management Unit (MMU)

The Memory Management Unit (MMU) performs translations.

The MMU contains the following:

  • The table walk unit, which contains logic that reads the translation tables from memory.
  • Translation Lookaside Buffers (TLBs), which cache recently used translations.

All memory addresses that are issued by software are virtual. These memory addresses are passed to the MMU, which checks the TLBs for a recently used cached translation. If the MMU does not find a recently cached translation, the table walk unit reads the appropriate table entry, or entries, from memory, as shown here:

A diagram showing The MMU.

A virtual address must be translated to a physical address before a memory access can take place (because we must know which physical memory location we are accessing). This need for translation also applies to cached data, because on Armv6 and later processors, the data caches store data using the physical address (addresses that are physically tagged). Therefore, the address must be translated before a cache lookup can complete.

Note: Architecture is a behavioural specification. The caches must behave as if they are physically tagged. An implementation might do something different, as long as this is not software-visible. 

Table entry

The translation tables work by dividing the virtual address space into equal-sized blocks and by providing one entry in the table per block.

Entry 0 in the table provides the mapping for block 0, entry 1 provides the mapping for block 1, and so on. Each entry contains the address of a corresponding block of physical memory and the attributes to use when accessing the physical address.

A diagram showing table entry.

Table lookup

A table lookup occurs when a translation takes place. When a translation happens, the virtual address that is issued by the software is split in two, as shown in this diagram:

A diagram showing table look-up.

This diagram shows a single-level lookup.

The upper-order bits, which are labelled 'Which entry' in the diagram, tell you which block entry to look in and they are used as an index into the table. This entry block contains the physical address for the virtual address.

The lower-order bits, which are labelled 'Offset in block' in the diagram, are an offset within that block and are not changed by the translation.

Multilevel translation

In a single-level lookup, the virtual address space is split into equal-sized blocks. In practice, a hierarchy of tables is used.

The first table (Level 1 table) divides the virtual address space into large blocks. Each entry in this table can point to an equal-sized block of physical memory or it can point to another table which subdivides the block into smaller blocks. We call this type of table a 'multilevel table'. Here we can see an example of a multilevel table that has three levels:

A diagram showing multi-level translation. 

In Armv8-A, the maximum number of levels is four, and the levels are numbered 0 to 3. This multilevel approach allows both larger blocks and smaller blocks to be described. The characteristics of large and small blocks are as follows:

  • Large blocks require fewer levels of reads to translate than small blocks. Plus, large blocks are more efficient to cache in the TLBs.
  • Small blocks give software fine-grain control over memory allocation. However, small blocks are less efficient to cache in the TLBs. Caching is less efficient because small blocks require multiple reads through the levels to translate.

To manage this trade-off, an OS must balance the efficiency of using large mappings against the flexibility of using smaller mappings for optimum performance.

Note: The processor does not know the size of the translation when it starts the table lookup. The processor works out the size of the block that is being translated by performing the table walk.

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