The Common System Interface: Intel’s Future Interconnect

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Link Layer

The CSI link layer is concerned with reliably sending data between two directly connected ports, and virtualizing the physical layer. Protocol packets from the higher layers of CSI are transmitted as a series of 80 bit flow control units (flits) [25]. Depending on the width of a physical link, transmitting each flit takes either 4, 8 or 16 cycles. A single flit can contain up to 64 bits of data payload, the remaining 16 bits in the header are used for flow control, packet interleave, virtual networks and channels, error detection and other purposes [20] [22]. A higher level protocol packet can consist of as little as a single flit, for control messages, power management and the like, but could include a whole cache line – which is currently 64B for x86 MPUs and 128B for IPF.

Flow control and error detection/correction are part of the CSI link layer, and operate between each transmitter and receiver pair. CSI uses a credit based flow control system to detect errors and avoid collisions or other quality-of-service issues [22] [34]. CSI links have a number of virtual channels, which can form different virtual networks [8]. These virtual channels are used to ensure deadlock free routing, and to group traffic according to various characteristics, such as transaction size or type, coherency, ordering rules and other information [23]. These particular details are intertwined with other aspects of CSI-based systems and are discussed later. To reduce the storage requirements for the different virtual channels, CSI uses two level adaptive buffering. Each virtual channel has a small dedicated buffer, and all channels share a larger buffer pool [8].

Under ordinary conditions, the transmitter will first acquire enough credits to send an entire packet – as previously noted this could be anywhere from 1-18+ flits. The flits will be transmitted to the receiver, and also copied into a retry buffer. Every flit is protected by an 8 bit CRC (or 16 bits in some cases), which will alert the receiver to corruption or transmission errors. When the receiver gets the flits, it will compute the CRC to check that the data is correct. If everything is clear, the receiver will send an acknowledgement (and credits) with the next flit that goes from the receiver-side to the transmitter-side (remember, there are two uni-directional links). Then the transmitter will clear the flits out of the retry buffer window. If the CRC indicates an error, the receiver-side will send a link layer retry request to the transmitter-side. The transmitter then begins resending the contents of the retry buffer until the flits have been correctly received and acknowledged. Figure 2 below shows an example of several transactions occurring across a CSI link using the flow control counters.


Figure 2 – Flow Control Example, [34]

While CSI’s flow control mechanisms will prevent serious contention, they do not necessarily guarantee low latency. To ensure that high priority control packets are not blocked by longer latency data packets, CSI incorporates packet interleaving in the link layer [21]. A bit in the flit header indicates whether the flit belongs to a normal or interleaved packet. For example, if a CSI agent is sending a 64B cache line (8+ flits) and it must send out a cache coherency snoop, rather than delaying the snoop by 8 or more cycles, it could interleave the snoop. This would significantly improve the latency of the snoop, while barely slowing down the data transmission. Similarly, this technique could be used to interleave multiple data streams so that they arrive in a synchronized fashion, or simply to reduce the variance in packet latency.

The link layer can also virtualize the underlying physical bit lanes. This is done by turning off some of the physical transmitter lanes, and assigning these bit lanes either a static logical value, or a value based on the remaining bits in each phit [24]. For example, a failed data lane could be removed, and replaced by one of the lanes which sends CRC, thus avoiding any data pollution or power consumption as a result. The link would then continue to function with reduced CRC protection, similar to the failover mechanisms for FB-DIMMs.

Once the physical layer has been calibrated and trained, as discussed previously, the link layer goes through an initialization process [31]. The link layer is configured to auto-negotiate and exchange various parameters, which are needed for operation [20]. Table 2 below is a list of some (but not necessarily all) of the parameters that each link will negotiate. The process starts with each side of the link assuming the default values, and then negotiating which values to actually use during normal operation. The link layer can also issue an in-band reset command, which stops the clock forwarding, and forces the link to recalibrate the physical layer and then re-initialize the link layer.


Table 2 – CSI Link Layer Parameters and Values, [20]

Most of these parameters are fairly straight forward. The only one that has not been discussed is the agent profile. This field characterizes the role of the device and contains other link level information, which is used to optimize for specific roles. For example, a ”mobile” profile agent would likely have much more aggressive power saving features, than a desktop part. Similarly, a server agent might disable some prefetch techniques that are effectively for multi-media workloads but tend to reduce performance for more typical server applications. Additionally, the two CSI agents will communicate what ‘type’ each one belongs to. Some different types would include caching agents, memory agents, I/O agents, and other agents that are defined by the CSI specification.

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