Direct memory access

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Direct memory access (DMA) is a feature of modern computers and microprocessors that allows certain hardware subsystems within the computer to access system memory for reading and/or writing independently of the central processing unit. Many hardware systems use DMA including disk drive controllers, graphics cards, network cards and sound cards. DMA is also used for intra-chip data transfer in multi-core processors, especially in multiprocessor system-on-chips, where its processing element is equipped with a local memory (often called scratchpad memory) and DMA is used for transferring data between the local memory and the main memory. Computers that have DMA channels can transfer data to and from devices with much less CPU overhead than computers without a DMA channel. Similarly a processing element inside a multi-core processor can transfer data to and from its local memory without occupying its processor time and allowing computation and data transfer concurrency.

Without DMA, using programmed input/output (PIO) mode for communication with peripheral devices, or load/store instructions in the case of multicore chips, the CPU is typically fully occupied for the entire duration of the read or write operation, and is thus unavailable to perform other work. With DMA, the CPU would initiate the transfer, do other operations while the transfer is in progress, and receive an interrupt from the DMA controller once the operation has been done. This is especially useful in real-time computing applications where not stalling behind concurrent operations is critical. Another and related application area is various forms of stream processing where it is essential to have data processing and transfer in parallel, in order to achieve sufficient throughput.

Contents

Principle

DMA is an essential feature of all modern computers, as it allows devices to transfer data without subjecting the CPU to a heavy overhead. Otherwise, the CPU would have to copy each piece of data from the source to the destination, making itself unavailable for other tasks. This situation is aggravated because access to I/O devices over a peripheral bus is generally slower than normal system RAM. With DMA, the CPU gets freed from this overhead and can do useful tasks during data transfer (though the CPU bus would be partly blocked by DMA). In the same way, a DMA engine in an embedded processor allows its processing element to issue a data transfer and carries on its own task while the data transfer is being performed.

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