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Chapter 1. Introduction

ARMv8-A is the latest generation of the ARM architecture that is targeted at the Applications Profile. In this book, the name ARMv8 is used to describe the overall architecture, which now includes both 32-bit execution and 64-bit execution states. ARMv8 introduces the ability to perform execution with 64-bit wide registers, but provides mechanisms for backwards compatibility to enable existing ARMv7 software to be executed.

AArch64 is the name used to describe the 64-bit execution state of the ARMv8 architecture. AArch32 describes the 32-bit execution state of the ARMv8 architecture, which is almost identical to ARMv7. GNU and Linux documentation (except for Redhat and Fedora distributions) sometimes refers to AArch64 as ARM64.

Because many of the concepts of the ARMv8-A architecture are shared with the ARMv7-A architecture, the details of all those concepts are not covered here. As a general introduction to the ARMv7-A architecture, refer to the ARM® Cortex®-A Series Programmer’s Guide. This guide can also help you to familiarize yourself with some of the concepts discussed in this volume. However, the ARMv8-A architecture profile is backwards compatible with earlier iterations, like most versions of the ARM architecture. Therefore, there is a certain amount of overlap between the way the ARMv8 architecture and previous architectures function. The general principles of the ARMv7 architecture are only covered to explain the differences between the ARMv8 and earlier ARMv7 architectures.

Cortex-A series processors now include both ARMv8-A and ARMv7-A implementations:

  • The Cortex-A5, Cortex-A7, Cortex-A8, Cortex-A9, Cortex-A15, and Cortex-A17 processors all implement the ARMv7-A architecture.

  • The Cortex-A53 and Cortex-A57 processors implement the ARMv8-A architecture.

ARMv8 processors still support software (with some exceptions) written for the ARMv7-A processors. This means, for example, that 32-bit code written for the ARMv7 Cortex-A series processors also runs on ARMv8 processors such as the Cortex-A57. However, the code will only run when the ARMv8 processor is in the AArch32 execution state. The A64 64-bit instruction set, however, does not run on ARMv7 processors, and only runs on the ARMv8 processors.

Some knowledge of the C programming language and microprocessors is assumed of the readers of this book. There are pointers to further reading, referring to books and websites that can give you a deeper level of background to the subject matter.

The change from 32-bit to 64-bit

There are several performance gains derived from moving to a 64-bit processor.

  • The A64 instruction set provides some significant performance benefits, including a larger register pool. The additional registers and the ARM Architecture Procedure Call Standard (AAPCS) provide a performance boost when you must pass more than four registers in a function call. On ARMv7, this would require using the stack, whereas in AArch64 up to eight parameters can be passed in registers.

  • Wider integer registers enable code that operates on 64-bit data to work more efficiently. A 32-bit processor might require several operations to perform an arithmetic operation on 64-bit data. A 64-bit processor might be able to perform the same task in a single operation, typically at the same speed required by the same processor to perform a 32-bit operation. Therefore, code that performs many 64-bit sized operations is significantly faster.

  • 64-bit operation enables applications to use a larger virtual address space. While the Large Physical Address Extension (LPAE) extends the physical address space of a 32-bit processor to 40-bit, it does not extend the virtual address space. This means that even with LPAE, a single application is limited to a 32-bit (4GB) address space. This is because some of this address space is reserved for the operating system.

  • Software running on a 32-bit architecture might need to map some data in or out of memory while executing. Having a larger address space, with 64-bit pointers, avoids this problem. However, using 64-bit pointers does incur some cost. The same piece of code typically uses more memory when running with 64-pointers than with 32-bit pointers. Each pointer is stored in memory and requires eight bytes instead of four. This might sound trivial, but can add up to a significant penalty. Furthermore, the increased usage of memory space associated with a move to 64-bits can cause a drop in the number of accesses that hit in the cache. This in turn can reduce performance.

    The larger virtual address space also enables memory-mapping larger files. This is the mapping of the file contents into the memory map of a thread. This can occur even though the physical RAM might not be large enough to contain the whole file.

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