A superscalar CPU architecture implements a form of parallelism called Instruction-level parallelism within a single processor. It thereby allows faster CPU throughput than would otherwise be possible at the same clock rate. A superscalar processor executes more than one instruction during a clock cycle by simultaneously dispatching multiple instructions to redundant functional units on the processor. Each functional unit is not a separate CPU core but an execution resource within a single CPU such as an arithmetic logic unit, a bit shifter, or a multiplier.
While a superscalar CPU is typically also pipelined, they are two different performance enhancement techniques. It is theoretically possible to have a non-pipelined superscalar CPU or a pipelined non-superscalar CPU.
The superscalar technique is traditionally associated with several identifying characteristics. Note these are applied within a given CPU core.
Except for CPUs used in some battery-powered devices, essentially all general-purpose CPUs developed since about 1998 are superscalar. Beginning with the "P6" (Pentium Pro and Pentium II) implementation, Intel's x86 architecture microprocessors have implemented a CISC instruction set on a superscalar RISC microarchitecture. Complex instructions are internally translated to a RISC-like "micro-ops" RISC instruction set, allowing the processor to take advantage of the higher-performance underlying processor while remaining compatible with earlier Intel processors.
Superscalar CPU design emphasizes improving the instruction dispatcher accuracy, and allowing it to keep the multiple functional units in use at all times. This has become increasingly important when the number of units increased. While early superscalar CPUs would have two ALUs and a single FPU, a modern design such as the PowerPC 970 includes four ALUs, two FPUs, and two SIMD units. If the dispatcher is ineffective at keeping all of these units fed with instructions, the performance of the system will suffer.
A superscalar processor usually sustains an execution rate in excess of one instruction per machine cycle. But merely processing multiple instructions concurrently does not make an architecture superscalar, since pipelined, multiprocessor or multi-core architectures also achieve that, but with different methods.
In a superscalar CPU the dispatcher reads instructions from memory and decides which ones can be run in parallel, dispatching them to redundant functional units contained inside a single CPU. Therefore a superscalar processor can be envisioned having multiple parallel pipelines, each of which is processing instructions simultaneously from a single instruction thread.
Existing binary executable programs have varying degrees of intrinsic parallelism. In some cases instructions are not dependent on each other and can be executed simultaneously. In other cases they are inter-dependent: one instruction impacts either resources or results of the other. The instructions
a = b + c; d = e + f can be run in parallel because none of the results depend on other calculations. However, the instructions
a = b + c; d = a + f might not be runnable in parallel, depending on the order in which the instructions complete while they move through the units.
When the number of simultaneously issued instructions increases, the cost of dependency checking increases extremely rapidly. This is exacerbated by the need to check dependencies at run time and at the CPU's clock rate. This cost includes additional logic gates required to implement the checks, and time delays through those gates. Research shows the gate cost in some cases may be gates, and the delay cost , where is the number of instructions in the processor's instruction set, and is the number of simultaneously dispatched instructions. In mathematics, this is called a combinatoric problem involving permutations.
Even though the instruction stream may contain no inter-instruction dependencies, a superscalar CPU must nonetheless check for that possibility, since there is no assurance otherwise and failure to detect a dependency would produce incorrect results.
No matter how advanced the semiconductor process or how fast the switching speed, this places a practical limit on how many instructions can be simultaneously dispatched. While process advances will allow ever greater numbers of functional units (e.g, ALUs), the burden of checking instruction dependencies grows so rapidly that the achievable superscalar dispatch limit is fairly small. -- likely on the order of five to six simultaneously dispatched instructions.
However even given infinitely fast dependency checking logic on an otherwise conventional superscalar CPU, if the instruction stream itself has many dependencies, this would also limit the possible speedup. Thus the degree of intrinsic parallelism in the code stream forms a second limitation.
With VLIW, the burdensome task of dependency checking by hardware logic at run time is removed and delegated to the compiler. Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) is like VLIW, with extra cache prefetching instructions.
Simultaneous multithreading, often abbreviated as SMT, is a technique for improving the overall efficiency of superscalar CPUs. SMT permits multiple independent threads of execution to better utilize the resources provided by modern processor architectures.
Superscalar processors differ from multi-core processors in that the redundant functional units are not entire processors. A single processor is composed of finer-grained functional units such as the ALU, integer multiplier, integer shifter, floating point unit, etc. There may be multiple versions of each functional unit to enable execution of many instructions in parallel. This differs from a multicore CPU that concurrently processes instructions from multiple threads, one thread per core. It also differs from a pipelined CPU, where the multiple instructions can concurrently be in various stages of execution, assembly-line fashion.
The various alternative techniques are not mutually exclusive—they can be (and frequently are) combined in a single processor. Thus a multicore CPU is possible where each core is an independent processor containing multiple parallel pipelines, each pipeline being superscalar. Some processors also include vector capability.