In the most simple computer system architecture, all control lies with the CPU (Central Processing Unit). This means not only the execution of commands that affect the CPU’s internal register or cache state, but also the transferring of any bytes from memory to to devices, such as storage and interfaces like serial, USB or Ethernet ports. This approach is called ‘Programmed Input/Output’, or PIO, and was used extensively into the early 1990s for for example PATA storage devices, including ATA-1, ATA-2 and CompactFlash.
Obviously, if the CPU has to handle each memory transfer, this begins to impact system performance significantly. For each memory transfer request, the CPU has to interrupt other work it was doing, set up the transfer and execute it, and restore its previous state before it can continue. As storage and external interfaces began to get faster and faster, this became less acceptable. Instead of PIO taking up a few percent of the CPU’s cycles, a big transfer could take up most cycles, making the system grind to a halt until the transfer completed.
DMA (Direct Memory Access) frees the CPU from these menial tasks. With DMA, peripheral devices do not have to ask the CPU to fetch some data for them, but can do it themselves. Unfortunately, this means multiple systems vying for the same memory pool’s content, which can cause problems. So let’s look at how DMA works, with an eye to figuring out how it can work for us.
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