Writable Instruction Set Computer

In common commodity microprocessors, the instruction set is either hardwired or has a MicroCode ROM.

However, a few CPUs include a user-modifiable microcode RAM.

One such processor is the WISC Technologies' CPU/32 (ca 1987), mentioned in the JFAR (http://www.jfar.org/volume5.html). This was built from discrete TTL components, allowing considerable flexibility in system configuration.

Another variation, the RTX 32P, optimized for ForthLanguage, (see http://www.ece.cmu.edu/~koopman/stack_computers/sec5_3.html) was designed to execute two microinstructions for each main memory access, including instruction fetches. This was a single-chip CMOS microprocessor, with on-chip micro-program RAM (and 2 stacks). It ran at 8 MHz, which was relatively fast for its time.

Another processor, the Cjip (Imsys Technologies) uses (writable) 72 bit wide microcode instructions optimized for any of the following: There are others. The attractive thing about writable instruction sets is that it allows profiling techniques to not only optimize the software for a given task, but also the hardware -- if an application is more heavily weighted toward math, you would tweak the CPU in that direction -- if comms or data collection was required, that would be a different tweak.

I've worked for some companies that could have benefitted hugely from this kind of technology, but I could never sell the idea. AssemblyLanguage is cool, but MicroCode is where the RealEngineers hang out.

-- GarryHamilton


How would that work in a multi-threading OS? I imagine swapping out MicroCode is something that one wouldn't do every context-switch...

One approach is to just change an internal switch to point to a different range of microcode.

(For the same reason, many processors that change an internal switch to point to a different register bank during interrupts -- such as the PDP-11, the Z80, the ARM, ___, and ___. The Sun SPARC has "sliding register windows" that are ever so much more clever. "Interrupts on Pipelined Systems" http://www.cs.uiowa.edu/~jones/arch/notes/34int.html ).

However, since context-switch time is often terrible for other reasons, the slight improvement in overall performance usually isn't worth the cost of extra bank(s) of microstore (or the extra banks of registers).


Mountain View Press: The Forth Source http://www.TheForthSource.com/ still lists the "WISC CPU/16" in their catalog: "Writable instruction set, stack oriented computers: The WISC Concept" article by Philip Koopman Jr. 1987 http://www.ece.cmu.edu/~koopman/forth/rochester_87.pdf has nearly enough details to build one.

"The CPU/16 Writable Instruction Set Machine (WISC)" http://www.ece.cmu.edu/~koopman/stack_computers/sec4_2.html

"MVP Microcoded CPU/16 Architecture" http://www.ece.cmu.edu/~koopman/forth/rochester_86b.pdf that was built (apparently in 1986, perhaps earlier) out of less than 100 chips: 4 static RAMs ( data stack, return stack, program and data RAM, and micro-program memory), and the rest 74LS00 series MSI components.

DavidCary thinks it looks very similar to the TTL design in ComputationStructures? ISBN 0262231395 (identical ALU design, similar microcode), with this major added feature: the CPU/16 could be halted by the host, and all the RAMs (Including the micro-program memory !) and most of the registers examined and modified by the host, single-stepped or run freely (~ 3 MHz, which is pretty fast for 73LS00 discrete-logic CPUs).


I used to think writable instruction sets were really, really cool. However, now I see other solutions to the problems they solve:

If you start with WISC then TurnAllTheKnobsToSeven , you get FpgaCpus. Maybe "turn all the knobs to 10" to get MolecularNanoTechnology.

-- DavidCary


(page created 2004-12-07)

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