Even from highly experienced technologists I often hear talk about how certain operations cause a CPU cache to "flush". This seems to be illustrating a very common fallacy about how CPU caches work, and how the cache sub-system interacts with the execution cores. In this article I will attempt to explain the function CPU caches fulfil, and how the cores, which execute our programs of instructions, interact with them. For a concrete example I will dive into one of the latest Intel x86 server CPUs. Other CPUs use similar techniques to achieve the same ends.
Most modern systems that execute our programs are shared-memory multi-processor systems in design. A shared-memory system has a single memory resource that is accessed by 2 or more independent CPU cores. Latency to main memory is highly variable from 10s to 100s of nanoseconds. Within 100ns it is possible for a 3.0GHz CPU to process up to 1200 instructions. Each Sandy Bridge core is capable of retiring up to 4 instructions-per-cycle (IPC) in parallel. CPUs employ cache sub-systems to hide this latency and allow them to exercise their huge capacity to process instructions. Some of these caches are small, very fast, and local to each core; others are slower, larger, and shared across cores. Together with registers and main-memory, these caches make up our non-persistent memory hierarchy.