TCG Instruction Counting

TCG has long supported a feature known as icount which allows for instruction counting during execution. This should not be confused with cycle accurate emulation - QEMU does not attempt to emulate how long an instruction would take on real hardware. That is a job for other more detailed (and slower) tools that simulate the rest of a micro-architecture.

This feature is only available for system emulation and is incompatible with multi-threaded TCG. It can be used to better align execution time with wall-clock time so a “slow” device doesn’t run too fast on modern hardware. It can also provides for a degree of deterministic execution and is an essential part of the record/replay support in QEMU.

Core Concepts

At its heart icount is simply a count of executed instructions which is stored in the TimersState of QEMU’s timer sub-system. The number of executed instructions can then be used to calculate QEMU_CLOCK_VIRTUAL which represents the amount of elapsed time in the system since execution started. Depending on the icount mode this may either be a fixed number of ns per instruction or adjusted as execution continues to keep wall clock time and virtual time in sync.

To be able to calculate the number of executed instructions the translator starts by allocating a budget of instructions to be executed. The budget of instructions is limited by how long it will be until the next timer will expire. We store this budget as part of a vCPU icount_decr field which shared with the machinery for handling cpu_exit(). The whole field is checked at the start of every translated block and will cause a return to the outer loop to deal with whatever caused the exit.

In the case of icount, before the flag is checked we subtract the number of instructions the translation block would execute. If this would cause the instruction budget to go negative we exit the main loop and regenerate a new translation block with exactly the right number of instructions to take the budget to 0 meaning whatever timer was due to expire will expire exactly when we exit the main run loop.

Dealing with MMIO

While we can adjust the instruction budget for known events like timer expiry we cannot do the same for MMIO. Every load/store we execute might potentially trigger an I/O event, at which point we will need an up to date and accurate reading of the icount number.

To deal with this case, when an I/O access is made we:

  • restore un-executed instructions to the icount budget
  • re-compile a single [1] instruction block for the current PC
  • exit the cpu loop and execute the re-compiled block

The new block is created with the CF_LAST_IO compile flag which ensures the final instruction translation starts with a call to gen_io_start() so we don’t enter a perpetual loop constantly recompiling a single instruction block. For translators using the common translator_loop this is done automatically.

[1]sometimes two instructions if dealing with delay slots

Other I/O operations

MMIO isn’t the only type of operation for which we might need a correct and accurate clock. IO port instructions and accesses to system registers are the common examples here. These instructions have to be handled by the individual translators which have the knowledge of which operations are I/O operations.

When the translator is handling an instruction of this kind:

  • it must call gen_io_start() if icount is enabled, at some
    point before the generation of the code which actually does the I/O, using a code fragment similar to:
if (tb_cflags(s->base.tb) & CF_USE_ICOUNT) {
  • it must end the TB immediately after this instruction

Note that some older front-ends call a “gen_io_end()” function: this is obsolete and should not be used.