In computer science, channel I/O is a high-performance input/output (I/O) architecture that is implemented in various forms on a number of computer architectures, especially on mainframe computers. In the past they were generally implemented with a custom processor, variously named channel, peripheral processor, I/O processor, I/O controller, or DMA controller.
Many I/O tasks can be complex and require logic to be applied to the data to convert formats and other similar duties. In these situations, the simplest solution is to ask the CPU to handle the logic, but because I/O devices are relatively slow, a CPU could waste time (in computer perspective) waiting for the data from the device. This situation is called 'I/O bound'.
Channel architecture avoids this problem by using a separate, independent, low-cost processor. Channel processors are simple, but self-contained, with minimal logic and sufficient on-board scratchpad memory (working storage) to handle I/O tasks. They are typically not powerful or flexible enough to be used as a computer on their own and can be construed as a form of coprocessor.
A CPU sends relatively small channel programs to the controller via the channel to handle I/O tasks, which the channel and controller can, in many cases, complete without further intervention from the CPU (exception: those channel programs which utilize 'program controlled interrupts', PCIs, to facilitate program loading, demand paging and other essential system tasks).
When I/O transfer is complete or an error is detected, the controller communicates with the CPU through the channel using an interrupt. Since the channel has direct access to the main memory, it is also often referred to as DMA controller (where DMA stands for direct memory access), although that term is looser in definition and is often applied to non-programmable devices as well.
The first use of channel I/O was with the IBM 709 vacuum tube mainframe, whose Model 766 Data Synchronizer was the first channel controller, in 1957. Its transistorized successor, the IBM 7090, had two or more channels (the 7607) and a channel multiplexor (the 7606) which could control up to eight channels.
Later, for larger IBM System/360 computers, and even for early System/370 models, the selector channels and the multiplexor channels still were bulky and expensive separate processors, such as the IBM 2860 'selector channel', the IBM 2870 'multiplexor channel' and the IBM 2880 'block multiplexor channel'. For the smaller System/360 computers, channels were implemented in CPU's microcode, and the CPU itself operated in two modes, "CPU Mode" or "Channel Mode". Much later, the channels were implemented in onboard processors residing in the same box as the CPU.
Amdahl Corporation's approach to System/370 channels was quite different. A single internal unit, called the "C-Unit", supported up to sixteen channels using the very same hardware for all supported channels. Two internal "C-Units" were possible, supporting up to 32 total channels. Each "C-Unit" independently performed a process generally called a "shifting channel state processor" (a type of "barrel processor"), which implemented a specialized type of finite state machine (FSM). Each CPU cycle, every 32 nanoseconds in the 470/V6 and /V5 and every 26 nanoseconds in the 470/V7 and /V8, the "C-unit" read the complete status of next channel in priority sequence and its I/O Channel in-tags. The necessary actions defined by that channel's last state and its in-tags were performed: data was read from or written to main storage, the operating system program was interrupted if such interruption was specified by the channel program's Program Control Interrupt flag, and the "C-Unit" finally stored that channel's next state and set its I/O Channel out-tags, and then went on to the next lower priority channel. Preemption was possible, in some instances. Sufficient FIFO storage was provided within the "C-Unit" for all channels which were emulated by this FSM. Channels could be easily reconfigured to the customer's choice of IBM 2860 emulation, IBM 2870 emulation or IBM 2880 emulation without any significant restrictions by using maintenance console commands. "Two-byte interface" was also supported as was "Data-In/Data-Out" and other high-performance IBM channel options. Built-in channel-to-channel adapters were also offered, called CCAs in Amdahl-speak, but called CTCs in IBM-speak. A real game-changer, and this forced IBM to redesign its mainframes to provide similar channel capability and flexibility. IBM's initial response was to include stripped-down Model 158s, operating in "Channel Mode", only, as the Model 303x channel units.
One of the earliest non-IBM channel systems was hosted in the CDC 6600 supercomputer in 1965. The CDC utilized 10 logically independent computers called peripheral processors, or PPs for this role. PPs were powerful, a modern version of CDC's first 'personal computer', the CDC 160A. The operating system resided and executed in the primary processor, PP0. Since then, channel controllers have been a standard part of most mainframe designs and a primary advantage mainframes have over smaller, faster, personal computers and network computing.
Channel controllers have also been made as small as single-chip designs with multiple channels on them, used in the NeXT computers for instance. However with the rapid speed increases in computers today, combined with operating systems that don't 'block' when waiting for data, channel controllers have become correspondingly less effective and are not commonly found on small machines.
Channel controllers are making a comeback in the form of bus mastering peripheral devices, such as PCI direct memory access (DMA) devices. The rationale for these devices is the same as for the original channel controllers, namely off-loading transfer, interrupts, and context switching from the main CPU.
The reference implementation of channel I/O is that of the IBM System/360 family of mainframes and its successors, but similar implementations have been adopted by other mainframe vendors, such as Control Data, Bull (General Electric/Honeywell) and Unisys.
Computer systems that use channel I/O have special hardware components that handle all input/output operations in their entirety independently of the systems' CPU(s). The CPU of a system that uses channel I/O typically has only one machine instruction in its repertoire for input and output; this instruction is used to pass input/output commands to the specialized I/O hardware in the form of channel programs. I/O thereafter proceeds without intervention from the CPU until an event requiring notification of the operating system occurs, at which point the I/O hardware signals an interrupt to the CPU.
A channel is an independent hardware component that coordinates all I/O to a set of controllers or devices. It is not merely a medium of communication, despite the name; it is a programmable device that handles all details of I/O after being given a list of I/O operations to carry out (the channel program).
Each channel may support one or more controllers and/or devices, but each channel program may only be directed at one of those connected devices. A channel program contain lists of commands to the channel itself and to the controller and device to which it is directed. Once the operating system has prepared a complete list of channel commands, it executes a single I/O machine instruction to initiate the channel program; the channel thereafter assumes control of the I/O operations until they are completed.
It is possible to develop very complex channel programs, including testing of data and conditional branching within that channel program. This flexibility frees the CPU from the overhead of starting, monitoring, and managing individual I/O operations. The specialized channel hardware, in turn, is dedicated to I/O and can carry it out more efficiently than the CPU (and entirely in parallel with the CPU). Channel I/O is not unlike the Direct Memory Access (DMA) of microcomputers, only more complex and advanced. Most mainframe operating systems do not fully exploit all the features of channel I/O.
On large mainframe computer systems, CPUs are only one of several powerful hardware components that work in parallel. Special input/output controllers (the exact names of which vary from one manufacturer to another) handle I/O exclusively, and these in turn are connected to hardware channels that also are dedicated to input and output. There may be several CPUs and several I/O processors. The overall architecture optimizes input/output performance without degrading pure CPU performance. Since most real-world applications of mainframe systems are heavily I/O-intensive business applications, this architecture helps provide the very high levels of throughput that distinguish mainframes from other types of computer.
In IBM ESA/390 terminology, a channel is a parallel data connection inside the tree-like or hierarchically organized I/O subsystem. In System/390 I/O cages, channels either directly connect to devices which are installed inside the cage (communication adapter such as ESCON, FICON, Open Systems Adapter) or they run outside of the cage, below the raised floor as cables of the thickness of a thumb and directly connect to channel interfaces on bigger devices like tape subsystems, direct access storage devices (DASDs), terminal concentrators and other ESA/390 systems.
A channel program is a sequence of channel command words (CCWs) which are executed by the I/O channel subsystem in the IBM System/360 and subsequent architectures. A channel program consists of one or more channel command words. The operating system signals the I/O channel subsystem to begin executing the channel program with a SSCH (start sub-channel) instruction. The central processor is then free to proceed with non-I/O instructions until interrupted. When the channel operations are complete, the channel interrupts the central processor with an I/O interruption. In earlier models of the IBM mainframe line, the channel unit was an identifiable component, one for each channel. In modern mainframes, the channels are implemented using an independent RISC processor, the channel processor, one for all channels. The earlier SIO (start I/O) and SIOF (start I/O fast release) assembler instructions (System/360 and early System/370) were, therefore, replaced by the SSCH (start sub-channel) instruction (late System/370 and successors).
Channel I/O provides considerable economies in input/output. For example, on IBM's Linux/390, the formatting of an entire track of a DASD requires only one channel program (and thus only one I/O instruction), but multiple channel command words (one per block). The program is executed by the dedicated I/O processor, while the application processor (the CPU) is free for other work.
Channel command words
A channel command word (CCW) is an instruction to a specialized I/O channel processor which is, in fact, a finite state machine. It is used to initiate an I/O operation, such as "read", "write" or "sense", on a channel-attached device. On system architectures which implement channel I/O, typically all devices are connected by channels, and so all I/O requires the use of CCWs.
CCWs are organized into channel programs by the operating system, an I/O subroutine, a utility program, or by standalone software (such as test and diagnostic programs). A limited "branching" capability, hence a dynamically programmable capability, is available within such channel programs, by use of the "status modifier" channel flag and the "transfer-in-channel" CCW.
IBM CCWs are chained to form the channel program. Bits in the CCW indicates that the following location in storage contains a CCW that is part of the same channel program. The channel program normally executes sequential CCWs until an exception occurs, a branch CCW is executed, or a CCW is executed without chaining indicated. Command chaining tells the channel that the next CCW contains a new command. Data chaining indicates that the next CCW contains the address of additional data for the same command, allowing, for example, one record to be written from multiple data areas in storage.
Self-modifying channel programs
Channel program example
The following example reads a disk record identified by a recorded key. The track containing the record and the desired value of the key is known. The device control unit will search the track to find the requested record.
SEEK <cylinder/head number> SEARCH KEY EQUAL <key value> TIC *-8 READ DATA <address of record>
The TIC (transfer in channel) will cause the channel program to branch to the SEARCH command until a record with a matching key (or the end of the track) is encountered. When a record with a matching key is found the channel program will not branch, and the channel will execute the READ command.
Channel programs in virtual storage systems
On most systems channels operate using real (or physical) addresses, while the channel programs are built using virtual addresses. The operating system is responsible for translating these channel programs before executing them. Pages containing data to be used by the I/O operation are locked into real memory, or page fixed. The channel program is copied and all virtual addresses are replaced by real addresses before the I/O operation is started. After the operation completes, the pages are unfixed.
As page fixing and unfixing is a CPU-expensive process long-term page fixing is sometimes used to reduce the CPU cost. Here the virtual memory is page-fixed for the life of the application, rather than fixing and freeing around each I/O operation. An example of a program that can use long-term page fixing is DB2.
Booting with channel I/O
Even bootstrapping of the system, or Initial Program Load (IPL) in IBM nomenclature, is carried out by channels: to load the system, a very small, simple channel program is loaded into memory and initiated, and this program causes the first portion of the system loading software to be loaded. The software is then executed once the I/O is completed, and an interrupt is signaled to the CPU.
- GEC 4000 series
- Initial program load
- IBM System z9
- IBM System z10
- UNIVAC 1110
- IBM Corporation (1968). Student Text: Introduction to IBM System/360 Architecture. IBM Corporation. p. 22.
- Attanasio, C.R.; Markstein, P.W. and Phillips, R.J. (1976). "Penetrating an Operating System: a Study of VM/370 Integrity". IBM Systems Journal 15 (1): 102–116. doi:10.1147/sj.151.0102.
- IBM Corporation (1969). IBM System/360 Component Descriptions: 2314 Direct Access Storage Facility and 2844 Auxiliary Storage Control. IBM Corporation. p. 50.2.
- IBM Corporation (1978). OS/VS2 MVS Overview. pp. 8–12.