Category Archives: PCI

Why PCI latency timers matter..

My latest "are you serious?" moment recently was trying to figure out the root cause of this performance issue with the AR5416 cardbus NIC on some of my test laptops.

Now, the AR5416 is Atheros' first 802.11n NIC, so it has some rough edges. But I was seeing some ridiculously bad transmission failures and I couldn't pinpoint them.

Not only that, I was seeing great performance (~ 130mbit TCP) on a specific laptop (Lenovo T41p) but the Lenovo T60 and T400 both performed extremely poorly.

To make matters weirder - the NIC performed great when speaking to another NIC in the same laptop. Just not to another physically separate device.

So, after much digging, here's what I discovered.

Firstly - I used my athalq packet descriptor logging and inspection tool (that's in FreeBSD-HEAD - no custom closed source code here!) to investigate the TX frames being sent to the hardware. What I found was troubling - large numbers of frames had TX data and TX delimiter underruns.

I then discovered that my code for counting TX data / delimiter underruns was totally incorrect - it's possible to see both a data/delimiter underrun error _with_ a valid transmitting frame. What was going on was cute - the hardware would start transmitting an aggregate frame but the DMA wouldn't keep up during said transmission and half way through the frame it would underrun. This only happened at higher MCS rates.

So making shorter aggregate frames fixed it, as well as increasing the delimiter count between frames. Both had the effect of reducing the likelihood of the NIC failing to transmit a longer aggregate. But they weren't solutions.

So I went digging. What I found was pretty simple in theory: the PCI latency timer on the NIC was being set to something appropriate (0xa8) but the PCI latency timer on the cardbus PCI bridge itself was not (0x20.) So any other bus activity would cause the NIC to not get the bus and it'd miss its DMA window.

Once I manually fixed the PCI bridge latency timer to be 0xa8, everything returned to normal.

However - there's only one thing on this PCI bridge - the cardbus interface itself. That's why it's so kooky. I would've thought that I'd have to up the value on the rest of the PCI bridges up to the root complex. There's no latency timer for PCIe, so it's not a problem there. So there's likely some very subtle timing involved that's just plain broken by default on how the BIOS initialises this cardbus slot and FreeBSD is not overriding it.

Now, if you see crappy performance on the PCI/cardbus 802.11n NICs in FreeBSD, you can check the output of 'athstats' to see if you do see TX underruns of any sort. If you are, the hardware isn't meeting the DMA deadlines it needs to DMA out frames and you need to do some further digging into your system to see why.