Memory Management Units (MMUs)

A typical MMU operates by dividing physical memory into a number of 4-KB pages. The hardware within the processor then uses a set of page tables stored in system memory that define the mapping of virtual addresses (i.e., the memory addresses used within the application program) to the addresses emitted by the CPU to access physical memory.

While the thread executes, the page tables managed by the OS control how the memory addresses that the thread is using are "mapped" onto the physical memory attached to the processor.

Figure 1. Virtual address mapping (on an x86).

For a large address space with many processes and threads, the number of page-table entries needed to describe these mappings can be significant—more than can be stored within the processor. To maintain performance, the processor caches frequently used portions of the external page tables within a TLB (translation look-aside buffer).

The servicing of "misses" on the TLB cache is part of the overhead imposed by enabling the MMU. Our OS uses various clever page-table arrangements to minimize this overhead.

Associated with these page tables are bits that define the attributes of each page of memory. Pages can be marked as read-only, read-write, etc. Typically, the memory of an executing process would be described with read-only pages for code, and read-write pages for the data and stack.

When the OS performs a context switch (i.e., suspends the execution of one thread and resumes another), it will manipulate the MMU to use a potentially different set of page tables for the newly resumed thread. If the OS is switching between threads within a single process, no MMU manipulations are necessary.

When the new thread resumes execution, any addresses generated as the thread runs are mapped to physical memory through the assigned page tables. If the thread tries to use an address not mapped to it, or it tries to use an address in a way that violates the defined attributes (e.g., writing to a read-only page), the CPU will receive a "fault" (similar to a divide-by-zero error), typically implemented as a special type of interrupt.

By examining the instruction pointer pushed on the stack by the interrupt, the OS can determine the address of the instruction that caused the memory-access fault within the thread/process and can act accordingly.