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Set-Bit Sort in MIPS Assembly & C/C++


In this project we will dig deep into the MIPS64 architecture innards to make sense of CPU pipelining. We'll be using the free & open source emulator EduMIPS64 which is written in Java. The emulator supports a subset (indeed the majority) of the MIPS64 architecture's instruction set repertoire. We will attempt to optimize and thus minimize the execution time of the program.

To test drive it, we will put together a program which processes an unsorted table of 120 signed integer numbers xi and performs the following computation:

  • counts the number of ones in the binary representation of each number and sorts them in increasing order of their number of one-bits. In case there are numbers with equal set-bits sort them in increasing order of their arithmetic value.

We won't be using console input for the numbers, they will reside in a file.

The following table sums up our findings:

Clock pulses Instruction Count CPI (3 dec.) Execution time (msec)
Measurements 99,550 93,872 1.060 1m:30s:370ms = 90,370ms

(The execution time has been found with (my own) manual precision given a stopwatch program.)

Thus to find the clock cycles per instruction we follow the fundamental equation:

seconds for a program to complete equation

I realized that to synthesize a fast and functional program I had to establish a sufficiently efficient algorithm, but at the same time not an overly complex one. Its linear complexity in C/C++ would equate to polynomial complexity in MIPS Assembly.

An algorithm goes hand in hand with its data structure. So I had to pick the ideal one to “welcome” our data. Initially I was wavering between arrays and structs. It was a critical choice to make, because I had to sort the elements inside 2 arrays by only considering the elements of 1 of them!

I decided to use 2 arrays. I named them:

  1. ints : will be used to place the integers
  2. counts : to count their set-bits

This shouldn't be too hard I thought (in hindsight I was right). The algorithm I came up with is described below:

  1. Generate 120 random integers and store them in an array ints
    • loop for each element i of ints : ints[i] = rand()
  2. find the amount of ones for each number in ints : counts[i] = countOnes( ints[i] )
  3. sort numbers using insertion sort
  4. for each i = [0, 120) print( ints[i], ' ', counts[i])

Step 3 contains the major part of the work. I will not explain the insertion sort algorithm. The hard part here is that we must sort two arrays simultaneously, firstly based on the values of counts[i] - I will name this Higher-priority sort - and secondly based on the values of ints[i] for every unique value in counts[i] - Lower-priority sort.

I began the implementation in the C language (it would be foolish of me to start it in Assembly firsthand; always start high level!). You can find this code in “printSorted1sMIPS.c”. Its output I stored in “printSorted1sMIPS_c.output”.

Later I ported the code to assembly. I have to point that EDUMIPS64 assembly has plenty of syntactical differences to regular MIPS64 assembly. I had to first become more familiar with the language. Thankfully there were a few examples that eased the process. An important EDUMIPS64 difference is that the return value of a function doesn't go to register $a0, $a1, $a*. I often found - by trial and error - that it was in $v0 or $v1. So I decided to put the entire code in the main function. I made sure the code is fully documented though and every logical section conceptually separated, so it shouldn't be too hard to follow along. You can find the Assembly code in M1485Erg1MIPS.asm.

I have further included my rough and dirty (but correct) notes while implementing the program in “drafts.7z”; who knows you might get something from them too.

I will list below all the registers I used and the role they play. I have used almost the entire set or registers but I tried to be as consistent as possible with their usage.

Register Functionality
$s2 = $18 ints base address
$s3 = $19 counts base address
$s4 = $20                         array index i
$s5 = $21 array sizes (in bytes) = amount of elements * 4
$s6 = $22 index Mr. j indexes stuff inside nested loops
$s1 = $17 full address of element i in table ints (i.e. &ints[i] in C)
$s0 = $16 full address of element i in table counts
$a1 = $5 value of elements i in array ints (i.e. ints[i])
$a0 = $4 value of elements i in array counts (i.e. counts[i])
$t6 = $14 exclusive use for syscall 5 and terminal output
$at = $1 return value from system routines (not used)
$t5 = $13 address of element j in counts (&counts[j])
$t7 = $15 address of element j in ints (&ints[j])
$t8 = $16 address of element j+1 in counts
$t9 = $17 address of element j+1 in ints
$a2 = $6 value of element j in array counts
$a3 = $7 value of element j in array ints
$s7 = $23 value of elements j+1 in array counts

I have placed the numbers I got from the C program output into the .data section of the program.

I should clarify how we get the address of an array element in order to store data inside it in Assembly:

  1. get array base address. for example in ints: daddi $s2, $zero, ints where $s2 contains ints's base address
  2. calculate offset from base address that the element we need lies. We can find that by the element's index i multiplied by the number of Bytes that each array element takes up. For an integer array for instance that would be 4 Bytes. Thus 4 * i to get the offset. Indicatively daddi $s4, $s4, 4
  3. add base address with the offset address to get &ints[i]. eg. dadd $s1, $s4, $s2 so we store the resultant address in $s1.
  4. load, or store a value to that address. Following with our example: lw $a1, ($s1) or sw $a1, ($t9)

As far as optimization goes, I took the following precautions:

  • array indices i, j, k etc. were increased each iteration by 4, not by 1 (as we would be doing in a higher level language - C). Doing this we bypass the stage of multiplying it with some value to go to another element of the array (which C/C++ performs automatically).
  • register initialization occurred right before they were used
  • As we know insertion sort complexity is O( n2 ) in the average case. Comparing to other algorithms such as selection or bubble sort that always require O( n2 ) I found it was a decent middle ground while still being easy to reason with as opposed to a faster algorithm like quick sort which is more complicated.

The picture below shows a screenshot from executing the program. I used the statistics laid out here to complete the initial table properties. In EDUMIPS64 I had enabled forwarding and disabled the display of clock cycles since the program lagged unnaturally with this option on - there was no way around it. I even contacted EDUMIPS's lead developer and even when I increased Java's heap memory during initialization of the program there was nothing that could help it.

EDUMIPS64 results window

Last but not least, a recurrent problem was the many read delays immediately after register writes - Read After Write (RAW) Hazards. Initially the program contained more than 1,000 of them. To decrease this delay I placed nop instructions around these problematic-cases to minimize those hazards from the application.


Github repository link.