Friday, November 29, 2019

Zynq Ultrascale+ FatFs and Direct Speed Tests with Bare Metal NVMe via AXI-PCIe Bridge

Blue wire PCIe REFCLK still hanging in there...
It's time to return to the problem of sinking 1GB/s of data onto an NVMe drive from a Zynq Ultrascale+ SoC. Last time, I benchmarked the Xilinx Linux drivers and found that they were fast, but not quite fast enough. In the comments of that post, there were many good suggestions for how to make up the difference without having to resort to a hardware accelerator. The consensus is that the hardware, namely the stock AXI-PCIe bridge, should be fast enough.

While a lot of the suggestions were ways to speed up the data transfer in Linux, and I have no doubt those would work, I also just don't want or need to run Linux in this application. The sensor input and wavelet compression modules are entirely built in Programmable Logic (PL), with only a minimal interface to the Processing System (PS) for configuration and control. So, I'm able to keep my entire application in the 256KB On-Chip Memory (OCM), leaving the external DDR4 RAM bandwidth free for data transfer.

After compression, the data is already in the DDR4 RAM where it should be visible to whatever DMA mechanism is responsible for transferring data to an NVMe drive. As Ambivalent Engineer points out in the comments:
It should be possible to issue commands directly to the NVMe from software by creating a command and completion queue pair and writing directly to the command queue.
In other words, write a bare metal NVMe driver to interface with the AXI-PCIe bridge directly for initiating and controlling data transfers. This seems like a good fit, both to this specific application and to my general proclivity, for better or worse, to move to lower-level code when I get stuck. A good place to start is by exploring the functionality of the AXI-PCIe bridge itself.

AXI-PCIe Bridge

Part of the reason it took me a while to understand the AXI-PCIe bridge is that it has many names. The version for Zynq-7000 is called AXI Memory Mapped to PCI Express (PCIe) Gen2, and is covered in PG055. The version for Zynq Ultrascale is called AXI PCI Express (PCIe) Gen 3 Subsystem, and is covered in PG194. And the version for Zynq Ultrascale+ is called DMA for PCI Express (PCIe) Subsystem, and is nominally covered in PG195. But, when operated in bridge mode, as it will be here, it's actually still documented in PG194. I'll be focusing on this version. 

Whatever the name, the block diagram looks like this:

AXI-PCIe Bridge Root Port block diagram, adapted from PG194 Figure 1.
The AXI-Lite Slave Interface is straightforward, allowing access to the bridge control and configuration registers. For example, the PHY Status/Control Register (offset 0x144) has information on the PCIe link, such as speed and width, that can be useful for debugging. When the bridge is configured as a Root Port, as it must be to host an NVMe drive, this address space also provides access to the PCIe Configuration Space of both the Root Port itself, at offset 0x0, and the enumerated Endpoint devices, at other offsets.
PCIe Confinguration Space layout, adapted from PG213 Table 2-35.
If the NVMe drive has successfully enumerated, its Endpoint PCIe Configuration Space will be mapped to some offset in the AXI-Lite Slave register space. In my case, with no switch involved, it shows up as Bus 1, Device 0, Function 0 at offset 0x1000. Here, it's possible to check the Device ID, Vendor ID, and Class Codes. Most importantly, the BAR0 register holds the PCIe memory address assigned to the device. The AXI address assigned to BAR0 in the Address Editor in Vivado is mapped to this PCIe address by the bridge.

Reads from and writes to the AXI BAR0 address are done through the AXI Slave Interface. This is a full AXI interface supporting burst transactions and a wide data bus. In another class of PCIe device, it might be responsible for transferring large amounts of data to the device through the BAR0 address range. But for an NVMe drive, BAR0 just provides access to the NVMe Controller Registers, which are used to set up the drive and inform it of pending data transfers.

The AXI Master Interface is where all NVMe data transfer occurs, for both reads and writes. One way to look at it is that the drive itself contains the DMA engine, which issues memory reads and writes to the system (AXI) memory space through the bridge. The host requests that the drive perform these data transfers by submitting them to a queue, which is also contained in system memory and accessed through this interface.

Bare Metal NVMe

Fortunately, NVMe is an open standard. The specification is about 400 pages, but it's fairly easy to follow, especially with help from this tutorial. The NVMe Controller, which is implemented on the drive itself, does most of the heavy lifting. The host only has to do some initialization and then maintain the queues and lists that control data transfers. It's worth looking at a high-level diagram of what should be happening before diving in to the details of how to do it:

System-level look at NVMe data flow, with primary data streaming from a source to the drive.
After BAR0 is set, the host has access to the NVMe drive's Controller Registers through the bridge's AXI Slave Interface. They are just like any other device/peripheral control registers, used for low-level configuration, status, and control of the drive. The register map is defined in the NVMe Specification, Section 2.

One of the first things the host has to do is allocate some memory for the Admin Submission Queue and Admin Completion Queue. A Submission Queue (SQ) is a circular buffer of commands submitted to the drive by the host. It's written by the host and read by the drive (via the bridge AXI Master Interface). A Completion Queue (CQ) is a circular buffer of notifications of completed commands from the drive. It's written by the drive (via the bridge AXI Master Interface) and read by the host. 

The Admin SQ/CQ are used to submit and complete commands relating to drive identification, setup, and control. They can be located anywhere in system memory, as long as the bridge has access to them, but in the diagram above they're shown in the external DDR4. The host software notifies the drive of their address and size by setting the relevant Controller Registers (via the bridge AXI Slave Interface). After that, the host can start to submit and complete admin commands:
  1. The host software writes one or more commands to the Admin SQ.
  2. The host software notifies the drive of the new command(s) by updating the Admin SQ doorbell in the Controller Registers through the bridge AXI Slave Interface.
  3. The drive reads the command(s) from the Admin SQ through the bridge AXI Master Interface.
  4. The drive completes the command(s) and writes an entry to the Admin CQ for each, through the bridge AXI Master Interface. Optionally, an interrupt is triggered.
  5. The host reads the completion(s) and updates the Admin CQ doorbell in the Controller Registers, through the AXI Slave Interface, to tell the drive where to place the next completion.
In some cases, an admin command may request identification or capability data from the drive. If the data is too large to fit in the Admin CQ entry, the command will also specify an address to which to write the requested data. For example, during initialization, the host software requests the Controller Identification and Namespace Identification structures, described in the NVMe Specification, Section 5.15.2. These contain information about the capabilities, size, and low-level format (below the level of file systems or even partitions) of the drive. The space for these IDs must also be allocated in system memory before they're requested.

Within the IDs is information that indicates the Logical Block (LB) size, which is the minimum addressable memory unit in the non-volatile memory. 512B is typical, although some drives can also be formatted for 4KiB LBs. Many other variables are given in units of LBs, so it's important for the host to grab this value. There's also a maximum and minimum page size, defined in the Controller Registers themselves, which applies to system memory. It's up to the host software to configure the actual system memory page size in the Controller Registers, but it has to be between these two values. 4KiB is both the absolute minimum and the typical value. It's still possible to address system memory in smaller increments (down to 32-bit alignment); this value just affects how much can be read/written per page entry in an I/O command or PRP List (see below).

Once all identification and configuration tasks are complete, the host software can then set up one or more I/O queue pairs. In my case, I just want one I/O SQ and one I/O CQ. These are allocated in system memory, then the drive is notified of their address and size via admin commands. The I/O CQ must be created first, since the I/O SQ creation references it. Once created, the host can start to submit and complete I/O commands, using a similar process as for admin commands.

I/O commands perform general purpose writes (from system memory to non-volatile memory) or reads (from non-volatile memory to system memory) over the bridge's AXI Master Interface. If the data to be transferred spans more than two memory pages (typically 4KiB each), then a Physical Region Page (PRP) List is created along with the command. For example, a write of 24 512B LBs starting in the middle of a 4KiB page might reference the data like this:

A PRP List is required for data transfers spanning more than two memory pages.
The first PRP Address in the I/O command can have any 32-bit-aligned offset within a page, but subsequent addresses must be page-aligned. The drive knows whether to expect a PRP Address or PRP List Pointer in the second PRP field of the I/O command based on the amount of data being transferred. It will also only pull as much data as is needed from the last page on the list to reach the final LB count. There is no requirement that the pages in the PRP list be contiguous, so it can also be used as a scatter-gather with 4KiB granularity. The PRP List for a particular command must be kept in memory until it's completed, so some kind of PRP Heap is necessary if multiple commands can be in flight.

Some (most?) drives also have a Volatile Write Cache (VWC) that buffers write data. In this case, an I/O write completion may not indicate that the data has been written to non-volatile memory. An I/O flush command forces this data to be written to non-volatile memory before a completion entry is written to the I/O CQ for that flush command.

That's about it for things that are described explicitly in the specification. Everything past this point is implementation detail that is much more application-specific.

A key question the host software NVMe driver needs to answer is whether or not to wait for a particular completion before issuing another command. For admin commands that run once during initialization and are often dependent on data from previous commands, it's fine to always wait. For I/O commands, though, it really depends. I'll be using write commands as an example, since that's my primary data direction, but there's a symmetric case for reads.

If the host software issues a write command referencing a range of data in system memory and then immediately changes the data, without waiting for the write command to be completed, then the write may be corrupted. To prevent this, the software could:
  1. Wait for completion before allowing the original data to be modified. (Maybe there are other tasks that can be done in parallel.)
  2. Copy the data to an intermediate buffer and issue the write command referencing that buffer instead. The original data can then be modified without waiting for completion.
Both could have significant speed penalties. The copy option is pretty much out of the question for me. But usually I can satisfy the first constraint: If the data is from a stream that's being buffered in memory, the host software can issue NVMe write commands that consume one end of the stream while the data source is feeding in new data at the other end. With appropriate flow control, these write commands don't have to wait for completion.

My "solution" is just to push the decision up one layer: the driver never blocks on I/O commands, but it can inform the application of the I/O queue backlog as the slip between the queues, derived from sequentially-assigned command IDs. If a particular process thinks it can get away without waiting for completions, it can put more commands in flight (up to some slip threshold).
An example showing the driver ready to submit Command ID 72, with the latest completion being Command ID 67. The doorbells always point to the next free slot in the circular buffer, so the entry there has the oldest ID.
I'm also totally fine with polling for completions, rather than waiting for interrupts. Having a general-purpose completion polling function that takes as an argument a maximum number of completions to process in one call seems like the way to go. NVMeDirectSPDK, and depthcharge all take this approach. (All three are good open-source reference for light and fast NVMe drivers.)

With this set up, I am able to run a speed test by issuing read/write commands for blocks of data as fast as possible by trying to keep the I/O slip at a constant value:

Speed test for raw NVMe write/read on a 1TB Samsung 970 Evo Plus.
For smaller block transfers, the bottleneck is on my side, either in the driver itself or by hitting a limit on the throughput of bus transactions somewhere in the system. But for larger block transfers (32KiB and above) the read and write speeds split, suggesting that the drive becomes the bottleneck. And that's totally fine with me, since it's hitting 64% (write) and 80% (read) of the maximum theoretical PCIe Gen3 x4 bandwidth.

Sustained write speeds begin to drop off after about 32GiB. The Samsung Evo SSDs have a feature called TurboWrite that uses some fraction of the non-volatile memory array as fast Single-Level Cell (SLC) memory to buffer writes. Unlike the VWC, this is still non-volatile memory, but it gets transferred to more compact Multi-Level Cell (MLC) memory later since it's slower to write multi-level cells. The 1TB drive that I'm using has around 42GB of TurboWrite capacity according to this review, so a drop off in sustained write speeds after 32GiB makes sense. Even the sustained write speed is 1.7GB/s, though, which is more than fast enough for my application.

A bigger issue with sustained writes might be getting rid of heat. This drive draws about 7W during max speed writing, which nearly doubles the total dissipated power of the whole system, probably making a fan necessary. Then again, at these write speeds a 0.2kg chunk of aluminum would only heat up about 25ÂșC before the drive is full... In any case, the drive will also need a good conduction path to the rear enclosure, which will act as the heat sink.


I am more than content with just dumping data to the SSD directly as described above and leaving the task of organizing it to some later, non-time-critical process. But, if I can have it arranged neatly into files on the way in, all the better. I don't have much overhead to spare for the file system operations, though. Luckily, ChaN gifted the world FatFs, an ultralight FAT file system module written in C. It's both tiny and fast, since it's designed to run on small microcontrollers. An ARM Cortex-A53 running at 1.2GHz is certainly not the target hardware for it. But, I think it's still a good fit for a very fast bare metal application.

FatFs supports exFAT, but using exFAT still requires a license from Microsoft. I think I can instead operate right on the limits of what FAT32 is capable of:
  • A maximum of 2^32 LBs. For 512B LBs, this supports up to a 2TiB drive. This is fine for now.
  • A maximum cluster size (unit of file memory allocation and read/write operations) of 128 LBs. For 512B LBs, this means 64KiB clusters. This is right at the point where I hit maximum (drive-limited) write speeds, so that's a good value to use.
  • A maximum file size of 4GiB. This is the limit of my RAM buffer size anyway. I can break up clips into as many files as I want. One file per frame would be convenient, but not efficient.
Linking FatFs to NVMe couldn't really get much simpler: FatFs's diskio.c device interface functions already request reads and writes in units of LBs, a.k.a. sectors. There's also a sync function that matches up nicely to the NVMe flush command. The only potential issue is that FatFs can ask for byte-aligned transfers, whereas NVMe only allows 32-bit alignment. My tentative understanding is that this can only happen via calls to f_read() or f_write(), so the application can guard against it.

For file system operations, FatFs reads and writes single sectors to and from a working buffer in system memory. It assumes that the read or write is complete when the disk_read() or disk_write() function returns, so the diskio.c interface layer has to wait for completion for NVMe commands issued as part of file system operations. To enforce this, but still allow high-speed sequential file writing from a data stream, I check the address of the disk_write() system memory buffer. If it's in OCM, I wait for completion. If it's in DDR4, I allow slip. For now, I wait for completion on all disk_read() calls, although a similar mechanism could work for high-speed stream reading. And of course, disk_ioctl() calls for CTRL_SYNC issue an NVMe flush command and wait for completion.

Interface between FatFs and NVMe through diskio.c, allowing stream writes from DDR4.
I also clear the queue prior to a read to avoid unnecessary read/write turnarounds in the middle of a streaming write. This logic obviously favors writes over reads. Eventually, I'd like to make a more symmetric and configurable diskio.c layer that allows fast stream reading and writing. It would be nice if the application could dynamically flag specific memory ranges as streamable for reads or writes. But for now this is good enough for some write speed testing:

Speed test for FatFs NVMe write on a 1TB Samsung 970 Evo Plus.
There's a very clear penalty for creating and closing files, since the process involves file system operations, including reads and flushes, that will have to wait for NVMe completions. But for writing sequentially to large (1GiB) files, it's still exceeding my 1GB/s requirement, even for total transfer sizes beyond the TurboWrite limit. So I think I'll give it a try, with the knowledge that I can fall back to raw writing if I really need to.

Utilization Summary

The good news is that the NVMe driver (not including the Queues, PRP Heap, and IDs) and FatFs together take up only about 27KB of system memory, so they should easily run in OCM with the rest of the application. At some point, I'll need to move the .text section to flash, but for now I can even fit that in OCM. The source is here, but be aware it is entirely a test implementation not at all intended to be a drop-in driver for any other application.

The bad news is that the XCZU4 is now pretty much completely full...

We're gonna need a bigger chip.
The AXI-PCIe bridge takes up 12960 LUTs, 17871 FFs, and 34 BRAMs. That's not even including the additional AXI Interconnects. The only real hope I can see for shrinking it would be to cut the AXI Slave Interface down to 32-bit, since it's only needed to access Controller Registers at BAR0. But I don't really want to go digging around in the bridge HDL if I can avoid it. I'd rather spend time optimizing my own cores, but I think no matter what I'll need more room for additional features, like decoding/HDMI preview and the subsampled 2048x1536 mode that might need double the number of Stage 1 Wavelet horizontal cores. 

So, I think now is the right time to switch over to the XCZU6, along with the v0.2 Carrier. It's pricey, but it's a big step up in capability, with twice the DDR4 and more than double the logic. And it's closer to impedance-matched to the cost of the sensor...if that's a thing. With the XCZU6, I think I'll have plenty of room to grow the design. It's also just generally easier to meet timing constraints with more room to move logic around, so the compile times will hopefully be lower.

Hopefully the next update will be with the whole 3.8Gpx/s continuous image capture pipeline working together for the first time!


  1. Replies
    1. I posted the NVMe driver stuff here:

      Other than that it only requires the stock ZU+ PCIe XDMA IP. But I wouldn't consider it a drop-in replacement for another driver: It's heavily optimized for this particular application (in particular, favoring writes over reads and being hard-coded to allow streaming writes only from external DDR4 addresses). Might be useful as a reference for developing a more full-featured standalone driver though.

  2. Very impressive work on this camera from your side Shane.
    I have been thinking to do something similar for our own cameras at Optomotive, but then I found your blog. I also used some TE0807 ZU7EV FPGA modules for development, but now they are accumulating dust.
    Can you please email me directly to talk?

    1. Thanks! I took a look at some of your cameras - they look awesome! You can reach me directly at colton (dot) shane (at) gmail (dot) com. I might have some questions for you about SLVS-EC and about utilizing the EV's VCU, if you're able to share that info.