Whatever machine you’re reading this on, it’s highly likely that not all of the CPUs shown by the OS are actually physical processors. That’s because most modern processors use simultaneous multithreading (SMT) to improve performance by executing tasks in parallel.
Intel’s implementation of SMT is known as hyperthreading, and it was originally introduced in 2002 as a way to improve the performance of Pentium 4 and Xeon CPUs that didn’t require increasing the clock frequency. Most Intel CPUs supported the HyperThread Technology (HTT) apart from the Core line of products until the Nehalem microarchitecture which was introduced in 2008. Recently, Intel have announced that they’re moving away from hyperthreading again with their Core product line.
AMD too have dabbled with SMT, and the diagram below shows how SMT works in the Zen microarchitecture.
As the diagram above illustrates, some components are dedicated to each thread and some are shared. Which pieces are shared? That depends on the implementation and can potentially vary with the microarchitecture. But it’s usually some part of the execution unit.
SMT threads usually come in pairs for x86 architecture, and those threads contend with their siblings for access to shared processor hardware. By using SMT you are effectively trying to exploit the natural gaps in a thread’s hardware use. Or as Pekka Enberg eloquently put it:
Simultaneous multithreading (SMT) is all about keeping superscalar CPU units busy by converting thread-level parallelism (TLP) to instruction-level parallelism (ILP). For applications with high TLP and low ILP, SMT makes sense as a performance optimization.— Pekka Enberg (@penberg) November 6, 2019
There are both good and bad reasons to use SMT.
Why is SMT good?
SMT implementations can be very efficient in terms of die size and power consumption, at least when compared with fully duplicating processor resources.
With less than a 5% increase in die size, Intel claims that you can get a 30% performance boost by using SMT for multithreaded workloads.
What you’re likely to see in the real world depends very much on your workload, and like all things performance-related, the only way to know for sure is to benchmark it yourself.
Another reason to favour SMT is that it’s now ubiquitous in modern x86 CPUs. So it’s an easy, achievable way to increase performance. You just need to make sure it’s turned on in your BIOS configuration.
Why is SMT bad?
One of the best and also worst things about SMT is that the operating system doesn’t make it obvious when SMT is enabled. Most of the time, that’s good because it’s an unnecessary distraction. But when it comes to things like capacity planning, or tuning your system for real-time workloads, you really need to know if SMT is enabled.
Take assigning physical CPUs to virtual machines, for example. If you’re not aware that SMT is turned on, it’s easy to think that doubling the number of CPUs will double the performance, but that’s almost certainly not going to be the case if those CPUs are actually SMT siblings because they will be contending for processor resources.
Modern x86 processors come with so many cores (the new AMD Rome CPUs processors have 64 and top-line Intel Core i9 CPUs now have 18) that there’s plenty of performance to be had without enabling SMT.
OpenBSD was the first operating system to recommend disabling SMT altogether in August 2018 because they feared that more vulnerabilities would be discovered in this area. They were right.
Greg Kroah Hartman gave a shout out to OpenBSD’s forward thinking in his Open Source Summit talk last month where he said that he had “huge respect” for the project because they made a tough call and chose security over performance.
How to disable SMT
Many users are also now considering disabling SMT all together. Whether or not you’re willing to do that depends on your individual circumstances.
But if you are thinking about it, you’ll need to run benchmarks to understand the performance impact. Which means you’ll need a handy way to run with SMT on and off.
This is usually done in the BIOS setup but if you can’t access it – and
if you’re running Linux – you can disable it by writing “off” to the
/sys/devices/system/cpu/smt/control file, e.g.
To re-enable SMT you just need to write “on” to the same file.
So does SMT still make sense? There’s no reason to think that we’ve seen the last of chip-level security vulns, so if you’re at all concerned about security then the safest best is to run with SMT disabled. If you’re concerned about losing performance, you need to get to running those benchmarks.