ISE 599: High Performance Optimization

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Course Description

This course will cover various areas of computer engineering whose understanding is required to tune performance-critical kernels in the real world. It is a hands-on course; the majority of student effort and grade will be determined by programming. As such, it should solidify the application of information gained in previous course work, in particular, understanding how computer architecture affects program efficiency on actual machines. It should be particularly useful for students who plan to work in areas where program efficiency is of key importance, including high performance computing, embedded systems, visualization/graphics, and compilers.

Topics of interest include (but are not limited to) the following:

  1. Complexities of getting reliable and context-sensitive timings on actual hardware in the real world.
  2. Overviews of several architecture areas critical to optimization, including memory hierarchy, pipelining, superscalar exploitation, etc.
  3. Application of traditional optimizations (as used in compilers, but here performed by hand), on various architectures including: software pipelining, superscalar scheduling, scalar expansion, blocking/tiling, and various array optimizations (contiguous vs. strided vs. pointer to pointer access, TLB issues, etc).
  4. Basics of assembly programming (particularly x86) -- necessary to do extremely low-level optimization, including SSE.
  5. Exploiting low-level architectural features, including SSE and prefetch.

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We will be learning and programming in several assembly languages, as well doing some limited programming in ANSI C. Assembly is used to exploit architectural features for performance. Therefore, a background that includes basic computer architecture and low level programming (i.e. usually non-OOP and definitely non-garbage collected language such as C, Fortran, or assembly) is extremely helpful. We will be programming in a unix environment, using make. Send me e-mail if you lack these prerequisites or feel you are weak in these areas, but would still like to take the course.

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There will be no required textbook. We will make extensive use of online resources.

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Evaluation Criteria

Since this area of study is very hands-on, I would prefer to get the overwhelming majority of the grade from programming assignments. Therefore, so long as students appear to be working independently and are motivated enough by the projects to learn the requisite material, the breakdown will be:

If I feel that students are not fully engaged by the programming projects, I will put more emphasis on written testing:

For a more complete description, consult the syllabus.

Administrative Information

Class Hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 2:30 to 3:45PM.
Location: GY 436.
Instructor : Dr. Whaley.
Office Hours: Tuesday and Thursday 3:45-4:45PM, or by appointment.

Students with disabilities:
If you have a physical, psychological, medical or learning disability that may impact on your ability to carry out assigned course work, I would urge that you contact Disability Services for Students (DSS), Herman B Wells Library, Suite W, 812-855-7578 (Voice), 812-855-7650 (Fax),, homepage. Please bring a letter to me from DSS indicating your need for academic accommodations within the first week of class. The syllabus and other class materials can be made available in alternative format upon request.

Academic Integrity:
Remember that the goal of programming or written assignments is to enhance your programming skills and understanding of the topics under discussion. Thus indulging in academic dishonesty results in poor understanding of the material as well as being unfair to other students. In case you have any questions about whether an act of collaboration may be construed as academic dishonesty, please clarify the issue with the instructor before you collaborate. Academic dishonesty can result in a grade of 'F'.

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Why should I be interested in this course?

First, let us get the mercenary reasons out of the way: I have money to support students, and all my research requires this class as background. Additionally, if this kind of work interests you, I have industry contacts that could lead to internships. Further, since this area of research is something I'm fairly well known in, I have in the past been approached by several companies to recommend people for permanent positions, and I'm limited in my recommendation to people or students that I've directly worked with. This is also the only course that I've had a former student write to tell me got him a job (at NVIDIA).

As for the topic, this course covers the the basics of high performance optimization in the real world. If you chose this computing because you love to code, if you wonder how the machine really works in practice, and how the computer architecture you have read about affects actual execution, then this is the course for you. An interest in low-level computing and programming is required for success.

The programming assignments are designed to help you understand how to achieve high performance in the real world. You will be able to see the effects of optimization immediately, and will find that formerly abstract concepts come into much greater focus (and are a good deal more enjoyable in implementation) when their application results in noticable speedups on real-world kernels. This more concrete understanding should allow you to more fully grasp principles of critical importance in architecture, compilers, and high performance computing.

We will also learn applied assembly in this course. While the days of wholesale assembly coding are mostly over, embedded systems and tight kernel loops must often still be programmed in assembly for decent performance, as we will see. More generally, knowing assembly allows a compiler writer to better tune the compilation framework, the embedded coder to fit tight machine constraints, and the systems programmer to diagnose performance (or indeed fatal) bugs caused by compilers.

Finally, there is quite a bit of fun in just making things run fast. This is the modern day equivalent of learning how to soup up your family sedan so that it can run at 350 MPH: only a very few people actually need to do it, but it sure is neat. If you've ever wanted to sneer at the local gentoo linux user as "doing the best an uninformed noob can hope for, I guess", then this is certainly the class for you.

Useful Links:

Basics of basics:
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