One common question asked at this point is, "Why not make all of the computer’s memory run at the same speed as the L1 cache, so no caching would be required?" That would work, but it would be incredibly expensive. The idea behind caching is to use a small amount of expensive memory to speed up a large amount of slower, less-expensive memory.
In designing a computer, the goal is to allow the microprocessor to run at its full speed as inexpensively as possible. A 500-MHz chip goes through 500 million cycles in one second (one cycle every two nanoseconds). Without L1 and L2 caches, an access to the main memory takes 60 nanoseconds, or about 30 wasted cycles accessing memory.
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When you think about it, it is kind of incredible that such relatively tiny amounts of memory can maximize the use of much larger amounts of memory. Think about a 256-kilobyte L2 cache that caches 64 megabytes of RAM. In this case, 256,000 bytes efficiently caches 64,000,000 bytes. Why does that work?
In computer science, we have a theoretical concept called locality of reference. It means that in a fairly large program, only small portions are ever used at any one time. As strange as it may seem, locality of reference works for the huge majority of programs. Even if the executable is 10 megabytes in size, only a handful of bytes from that program are in use at any one time, and their rate of repetition is very high. On the next page, you’ll learn more about locality of reference.