Limiting Factors in a Dot Product Calculation

The dot product is ubiquitous in computing. The simple calculation is used heavily in neural networks for perceptron activation and again in gradient descent algorithms for error backpropagation. It is one of the building blocks of linear regression. Cosine similarity in document search is yet another dot product.

These use cases are more often implemented in C/C++ than in JVM languages, for reasons of efficiency, but what are the constraints on its computational performance? The combination of the computational simplicity and its streaming nature means the limiting factor in efficient code should be memory bandwidth. This is a good opportunity to look at the raw performance that will be made available with the vector API when it’s released.

Written in Java code since Java 9, the code to calculate a dot product is easy, using the Math.fma intrinsic.

  public float vanilla() {
    float sum = 0f;
    for (int i = 0; i < size; ++i) {
      sum = Math.fma(left[i], right[i], sum);
    return sum;

Despite its simplicity, this code is incredibly inefficient precisely because it’s written in Java. Java is a language which prizes portability, and this sometimes comes at the cost of performance. The only way to make this routine produce the same number given the same input, no matter what operating system or instruction sets are available, is to do the operations in the same order, which means no unrolling or vectorisation. For a web application, this a good trade off, but for data analytics it is not.

An estimate of intensity, assuming a constant processor frequency, and two floating point operations (flops) per FMA, shows that the intensity is constant but very low at 0.67 flops/cycle. There being constant intensity as a function of array size is interesting because it indicates that the performance is insensitive to cache hierarchy, that the the limit is the CPU. Daniel Lemire made this observation with a benchmark written in C, disabling fastmath compiler optimisations, recently.

The JLS’s view on floating point arithmetic is the true limiting factor here. Assuming you really care about dot product performance, the best you can do to opt out is to unroll the loop and get slightly higher throughput.

  public float unrolled() {
    float s0 = 0f;
    float s1 = 0f;
    float s2 = 0f;
    float s3 = 0f;
    float s4 = 0f;
    float s5 = 0f;
    float s6 = 0f;
    float s7 = 0f;
    for (int i = 0; i < size; i += 8) {
      s0 = Math.fma(left[i + 0],  right[i + 0], s0);
      s1 = Math.fma(left[i + 1],  right[i + 1], s1);
      s2 = Math.fma(left[i + 2],  right[i + 2], s2);
      s3 = Math.fma(left[i + 3],  right[i + 3], s3);
      s4 = Math.fma(left[i + 4],  right[i + 4], s4);
      s5 = Math.fma(left[i + 5],  right[i + 5], s5);
      s6 = Math.fma(left[i + 6],  right[i + 6], s6);
      s7 = Math.fma(left[i + 7],  right[i + 7], s7);
    return s0 + s1 + s2 + s3 + s4 + s5 + s6 + s7;

The intensity is about 4x better, but still constant. My Intel Skylake processor is capable of 32 flops/cycle, so this code is clearly still not very efficient, but it’s actually the best you can do with any released version of OpenJDK at the time of writing.

The Vector API

I have been keeping an eye on the Vector API incubating in Project Panama for some time, and have only recently got round to kicking the tires. I wrote some benchmarks earlier in the year but ran into, as one should expect of a project in active development, bugs in FMA and vector box elimination. This limited the value I would get from writing about the benchmarks. These bugs have been fixed for a long time now, and you can start to see the how good this API is going to be.

Here’s a simple implementation which wouldn’t be legal for C2 (or Graal for that matter) to generate from the dot product loop. It relies on an accumulator vector, into which a vector dot product of the next eight elements is FMA’d for each step of the loop.

  public float vector() {
    var sum =;
    for (int i = 0; i < size; i += YMM_FLOAT.length()) {
      var l = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(left, i);
      var r = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, i);
      sum = l.fma(r, sum);
    return sum.addAll();

This loop can be unrolled, but it seems that this must be done manually for the sake of stability. The unroll below uses four accumulators and results in a huge boost in throughput.

  private float vectorUnrolled() {
    var sum1 =;
    var sum2 =;
    var sum3 =;
    var sum4 =;
    int width = YMM_FLOAT.length();
    for (int i = 0; i < size; i += width * 4) {
      sum1 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(left, i).fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, i), sum1);
      sum2 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(left, i + width).fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, i + width), sum2);
      sum3 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(left, i + width * 2).fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, i + width * 2), sum3);
      sum4 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(left, i + width * 3).fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, i + width * 3), sum4);
    return sum1.addAll() + sum2.addAll() + sum3.addAll() + sum4.addAll();

This plot doesn’t quite do justice to how large the difference is and you could be forgiven for thinking the performance converges. In fact, presenting the data like this is a great way to mislead people! The absolute difference narrows, but the relative performance is more or less constant. Looking at intensity gives a much better picture and is size invariant (until memory bandwidth is saturated).

The first thing to notice is that the intensity gets nowhere near 32 flops/cycle, and that’s because my chip can’t load data fast enough to keep the two FMA ports busy. Skylake chips can do two loads per cycle, which is enough for one FMA between two vectors and the accumulator. Since the arrays are effectively streamed, there is no chance to reuse any loads, so the absolute maximum intensity is 50% capacity, or just 16 flops/cycle.

In the unrolled vector code, the intensity hits 12 flops/cycle just before 4096 elements. 4096 is a special number because 2 * 4096 * 4 = 32kB is the capacity of L1 cache. This peak and rapid decrease suggests that the code is fast enough to be hitting memory bandwidth: if L1 were larger or L2 were faster, the intensity could be sustained. This is great, and the performance counters available with -prof perfnorm corroborate.

In the vanilla loop and unrolled loop, the cycles per instruction (CPI) reaches a maximum long before the arrays breach L1 cache. The latency of an instruction depends on where its operands come from, increasing the further away from L1 cache the data comes from. If CPI for arrays either side of the magical 4096 element threshold is the same, then memory cannot be the limiting factor. The unrolled vector loop show a very sharp increase, suggesting a strong dependency on load speed. Similarly, L1-dcache-load-misses can be seen to increase sharply once the arrays are no longer L1 resident (predictably) correlated with a drop in intensity only in the vector unrolled implementation. It’s short lived, but the unrolled vector code, albeit with bounds checks disabled, is efficient enough for the CPU not to be the bottleneck.

Take a look at my benchmarks and raw data.. The JDK used was built from the vectorIntrinsics branch of the Project Panama OpenJDK fork, run with JMH 1.20 on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, on a 4 core i7-6700HQ processor.

Vectorised Algorithms in Java

There has been a Cambrian explosion of JVM data technologies in recent years. It’s all very exciting, but is the JVM really competitive with C in this area? I would argue that there is a reason Apache Arrow is polyglot, and it’s not just interoperability with Python. To pick on one project impressive enough to be thriving after seven years, if you’ve actually used Apache Spark you will be aware that it looks fastest next to its predecessor, MapReduce. Big data is a lot like teenage sex: everybody talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, and everyone keeps their embarrassing stories to themselves. In games of incomplete information, it’s possible to overestimate the competence of others: nobody opens up about how slow their Spark jobs really are because there’s a risk of looking stupid.

If it can be accepted that Spark is inefficient, the question becomes is Spark fundamentally inefficient? Flare provides a drop-in replacement for Spark’s backend, but replaces JIT compiled code with highly efficient native code, yielding order of magnitude improvements in job throughput. Some of Flare’s gains come from generating specialised code, but the rest comes from just generating better native code than C2 does. If Flare validates Spark’s execution model, perhaps it raises questions about the suitability of the JVM for high throughput data processing.

I think this will change radically in the coming years. I think the most important reason is the advent of explicit support for SIMD provided by the vector API, which is currently incubating in Project Panama. Once the vector API is complete, I conjecture that projects like Spark will be able to profit enormously from it. This post takes a look at the API in its current state and ignores performance.

Why Vectorisation?

Assuming a flat processor frequency, throughput is improved by a combination of executing many instructions per cycle (pipelining) and processing multiple data items per instruction (SIMD). SIMD instruction sets are provided by Intel as the various generations of SSE and AVX. If throughput is the only goal, maximising SIMD may even be worth reducing the frequency, which can happen on Intel chips when using AVX. Vectorisation allows throughput to be increased by the use of SIMD instructions.

Analytical workloads are particularly suitable for vectorisation, especially over columnar data, because they typically involve operations consuming the entire range of a few numerical attributes of a data set. Vectorised analytical processing with filters is explicitly supported by vector masks, and vectorisation is also profitable for operations on indices typically performed for filtering prior to calculations. I don’t actually need to make a strong case for the impact of vectorisation on analytical workloads: just read the work of top researchers like Daniel Abadi and Daniel Lemire.

Vectorisation in the JVM

C2 provides quite a lot of autovectorisation, which works very well sometimes, but the support is limited and brittle. I have written about this several times. Because AVX can reduce the processor frequency, it’s not always profitable to vectorise, so compilers employ cost models to decide when they should do so. Such cost models require platform specific calibration, and sometimes C2 can get it wrong. Sometimes, specifically in the case of floating point operations, using SIMD conflicts with the JLS, and the code C2 generates can be quite inefficient. In general, data parallel code can be better optimised by C compilers, such as GCC, than C2 because there are fewer constraints, and there is a larger budget for analysis at compile time. This all makes having intrinsics very appealing, and as a user I would like to be able to:

  1. Bypass JLS floating point constraints.
  2. Bypass cost model based decisions.
  3. Avoid JNI at all costs.
  4. Use a modern “object-functional” style. SIMD intrinsics in C are painful.

There is another attempt to provide SIMD intrinsics to JVM users via LMS, a framework for writing programs which write programs, designed by Tiark Rompf (who is also behind Flare). This work is very promising (I have written about it before), but it uses JNI. It’s only at the prototype stage, but currently the intrinsics are auto-generated from XML definitions, which leads to a one-to-one mapping to the intrinsics in immintrin.h, yielding a similar programming experience. This could likely be improved a lot, but the reliance on JNI is fundamental, albeit with minimal boundary crossing.

I am quite excited by the vector API in Project Panama because it looks like it will meet all of these requirements, at least to some extent. It remains to be seen quite how far the implementors will go in the direction of associative floating point arithmetic, but it has to opt out of JLS floating point semantics to some extent, which I think is progressive.

The Vector API

Disclaimer: Everything below is based on my experience with a recent build of the experimental code in the Project Panama fork of OpenJDK. I am not affiliated with the design or implementation of this API, may not be using it properly, and it may change according to its designers’ will before it is released!

To understand the vector API you need to know that there are different register widths and different SIMD instruction sets. Because of my area of work, and 99% of the server market is Intel, I am only interested in AVX, but ARM have their own implementations with different maximum register sizes, which presumably need to be handled by a JVM vector API. On Intel CPUs, SSE instruction sets use up to 128 bit registers (xmm, four ints), AVX and AVX2 use up to 256 bit registers (ymm, eight ints), and AVX512 use up to 512 bit registers (zmm, sixteen ints).

The instruction sets are typed, and instructions designed to operate on packed doubles can’t operate on packed ints without explicit casting. This is modeled by the interface Vector<Shape>, parametrised by the Shape interface which models the register width.

The types of the vector elements is modeled by abstract element type specific classes such as IntVector. At the leaves of the hierarchy are the concrete classes specialised both to element type and register width, such as IntVector256 which extends IntVector<Shapes.S256Bit>.

Since EJB, the word factory has been a dirty word, which might be why the word species is used in this API. To create a IntVector<Shapes.S256Bit>, you can create the factory/species as follows:

public static final IntVector.IntSpecies<Shapes.S256Bit> YMM_INT = 
          (IntVector.IntSpecies<Shapes.S256Bit>) Vector.species(int.class, Shapes.S_256_BIT);

There are now various ways to create a vector from the species, which all have their use cases. First, you can load vectors from arrays: imagine you want to calculate the bitwise intersection of two int[]s. This can be written quite cleanly, without any shape/register information.

public static int[] intersect(int[] left, int[] right) {
    assert left.length == right.length;
    int[] result = new int[left.length];
    for (int i = 0; i < left.length; i += YMM_INT.length()) {
      YMM_INT.fromArray(left, i)
             .and(YMM_INT.fromArray(right, i))
             .intoArray(result, i);

A common pattern in vectorised code is to broadcast a variable into a vector, for instance, to facilitate the multiplication of a vector by a scalar.

IntVector<Shapes.S256Bit> multiplier = YMM_INT.broadcast(x);

Or to create a vector from some scalars, for instance in a lookup table.

IntVector<Shapes.S256Bit> vector = YMM_INT.scalars(0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7);

A zero vector can be created from a species:

IntVector<Shapes.S256Bit> zero =;

The big split in the class hierarchy is between integral and floating point types. Integral types have meaningful bitwise operations (I am looking forward to trying to write a vectorised population count algorithm), which are absent from FloatVector and DoubleVector, and there is no concept of fused-multiply-add for integral types, so there is obviously no IntVector.fma. The common subset of operations is arithmetic, casting and loading/storing operations.

I generally like the API a lot: it feels familiar to programming with streams, but on the other hand, it isn’t too far removed from traditional intrinsics. Below is an implementation of a fast matrix multiplication written in C, and below it is the same code written with the vector API:

static void mmul_tiled_avx_unrolled(const int n, const float *left, const float *right, float *result) {
    const int block_width = n >= 256 ? 512 : 256;
    const int block_height = n >= 512 ? 8 : n >= 256 ? 16 : 32;
    for (int column_offset = 0; column_offset < n; column_offset += block_width) {
        for (int row_offset = 0; row_offset < n; row_offset += block_height) {
            for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i) {
                for (int j = column_offset; j < column_offset + block_width && j < n; j += 64) {
                    __m256 sum1 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j);
                    __m256 sum2 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j + 8);
                    __m256 sum3 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j + 16);
                    __m256 sum4 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j + 24);
                    __m256 sum5 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j + 32);
                    __m256 sum6 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j + 40);
                    __m256 sum7 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j + 48);
                    __m256 sum8 = _mm256_load_ps(result + i * n + j + 56);
                    for (int k = row_offset; k < row_offset + block_height && k < n; ++k) {
                        __m256 multiplier = _mm256_set1_ps(left[i * n + k]);
                        sum1 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j), sum1);
                        sum2 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j + 8), sum2);
                        sum3 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j + 16), sum3);
                        sum4 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j + 24), sum4);
                        sum5 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j + 32), sum5);
                        sum6 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j + 40), sum6);
                        sum7 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j + 48), sum7);
                        sum8 = _mm256_fmadd_ps(multiplier, _mm256_load_ps(right + k * n + j + 56), sum8);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j, sum1);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j + 8, sum2);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j + 16, sum3);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j + 24, sum4);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j + 32, sum5);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j + 40, sum6);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j + 48, sum7);
                    _mm256_store_ps(result + i * n + j + 56, sum8);

  private static void mmul(int n, float[] left, float[] right, float[] result) {
    int blockWidth = n >= 256 ? 512 : 256;
    int blockHeight = n >= 512 ? 8 : n >= 256 ? 16 : 32;
    for (int columnOffset = 0; columnOffset < n; columnOffset += blockWidth) {
      for (int rowOffset = 0; rowOffset < n; rowOffset += blockHeight) {
        for (int i = 0; i < n; ++i) {
          for (int j = columnOffset; j < columnOffset + blockWidth && j < n; j += 64) {
            var sum1 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j);
            var sum2 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j + 8);
            var sum3 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j + 16);
            var sum4 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j + 24);
            var sum5 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j + 32);
            var sum6 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j + 40);
            var sum7 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j + 48);
            var sum8 = YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(result, i * n + j + 56);
            for (int k = rowOffset; k < rowOffset + blockHeight && k < n; ++k) {
              var multiplier = YMM_FLOAT.broadcast(left[i * n + k]);
              sum1 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j), sum1);
              sum2 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j + 8), sum2);
              sum3 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j + 16), sum3);
              sum4 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j + 24), sum4);
              sum5 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j + 32), sum5);
              sum6 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j + 40), sum6);
              sum7 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j + 48), sum7);
              sum8 = multiplier.fma(YMM_FLOAT.fromArray(right, k * n + j + 56), sum8);
            sum1.intoArray(result, i * n + j);
            sum2.intoArray(result, i * n + j + 8);
            sum3.intoArray(result, i * n + j + 16);
            sum4.intoArray(result, i * n + j + 24);
            sum5.intoArray(result, i * n + j + 32);
            sum6.intoArray(result, i * n + j + 40);
            sum7.intoArray(result, i * n + j + 48);
            sum8.intoArray(result, i * n + j + 56);

They just aren’t that different, and it’s easy to translate between the two. I wouldn’t expect it to be fast yet though. I have no idea what the scope of work involved in implementing all of the C2 intrinsics to make this possible is, but I assume it’s vast. The class jdk.incubator.vector.VectorIntrinsics seems to contain all of the intrinsics implemented so far, and it doesn’t contain every operation used in my array multiplication code. There is also the question of value types and vector box elimination. I will probably look at this again in the future when more of the JIT compiler work has been done, but I’m starting to get very excited about the possibility of much faster JVM based data processing.

I have written various benchmarks for useful analytical subroutines using the Vector API at github.

Project Panama and Population Count

Project Panama introduces a new interface Vector, where the specialisation for long looks like a promising substrate for an explicitly vectorised bit set. Bit sets are useful for representing composable predicates over data sets. One obvious omission on this interface, required for an adequate implementation of a bit set, is a bit count, otherwise known as population count. Perhaps this is because the vector API aims to generalise across primitive types, whereas population count is only meaningful for integral types. Even so, if Vector can be interpreted as a wider integer, then it would be consistent to add this to the interface. If the method existed, what possible implementation could it have?

In x86, the population count of a 64 bit register is computed by the POPCNT instruction, which is exposed in Java as an intrinsic in Long.bitCount. There is no SIMD equivalent in any extension set until VPOPCNTD/VPOPCNTQ in AVX-512. Very few processors (at the time of writing) support AVX-512, and only the Knights Mill processor supports this extension; there are not even Intel intrinsics exposing these instructions yet.

The algorithm for vectorised population count adopted by the clang compiler is outlined in this paper, which develops on an algorithm designed for 128 bit registers and SSE instructions, presented by Wojciech Muła on his blog in 2008. This approach is shown in the paper to outperform scalar code using POPCNT and 64 bit registers, almost doubling throughput when 256 bit ymm registers are available. The core algorithm (taken from figure 10 in the paper) returns a vector of four 64 bit counts, which can then be added together in a variety of ways to form a population count, proceeds as follows:

// The Muła Function
__m256i count(__m256i v) {
    __m256i lookup = _mm256_setr_epi8(
                 0, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 3, 
                 1, 2, 2, 3, 2, 3, 3, 4,
                 0, 1, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 3,
                 1, 2, 2, 3, 2, 3, 3, 4);
    __m256i low_mask = _mm256_set1_epi8(0x0f);
    __m256i lo = _mm256_and_si256(v, low_mask);
    __m256i hi = _mm256_and_si256(_mm256_srli_epi32(v, 4), low_mask);
    __m256i popcnt1 = _mm256_shuffle_epi8(lookup, lo);
    __m256i popcnt2 = _mm256_shuffle_epi8(lookup, hi);
    __m256i total = _mm256_add_epi8(popcnt1, popcnt2);
    return _mm256_sad_epu8(total, _mm256_setzero_si256());

If you are struggling to read the code above, you are not alone. I haven’t programmed in C++ for several years – it’s amazing how nice the names in civilised languages like Java and python (and even bash) are compared to the black magic above. There is some logic to the naming though: read page 5 of the manual. You can also read an accessible description of some of the functions used in this blog post.

The basic idea starts from storing the population counts for each possible byte value in a lookup table, which can be looked up using bit level parallelism and ultimately added up. For efficiency’s sake, instead of bytes, 4 bit nibbles are used, which is why you only see numbers 0-4 in the lookup table. Various, occasionally obscure, optimisations are applied resulting in the magic numbers at the the top of the function. A large chunk of the paper is devoted to their derivation: if you are interested, go and read the paper – I could not understand the intent of the code at all until reading the paper twice, especially section 2.

The points I find interesting are:

  • This algorithm exists
  • It uses instructions all modern commodity processors have
  • It is fast
  • It is in use

Could this be implemented in the JVM as an intrinsic and exposed on Vector?