Emulation is a fascinating area of software engineering, being able to bring to life a 30+ year old arcade machine on a modern computer is an incredibly satisfying accomplishment. Unfortunately I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the lack of ambition shown by those in the emulation community. Whilst the rest of world moves onto cloud first, massively distributed architectures, emulation is still stuck firmly in the 20th century writing single threaded C++ of all things.

This project was born out of a desire to bring the best of modern design back to the the future of ancient computing history.

Space Invaders Arcade Cabinet

So what can the best of modern architecture bring to the emulation scene?

  • Hot swappable code paths allowing for in game debugging
  • Different languages for different components
  • Secure by default (mTLS on all function calls)
  • Scalability
  • Fault tolerance
  • Cloud native design

This culminated in the implementation of an 8080 microprocessor utilising a modern, containerised, microservices based architecture running on kubernetes with frontends for a CP/M test harness and a full implementation of the original Space Invaders arcade machine.

The full project can be found as a github organisation https://github.com/21st-century-emulation which contains ~60 individual repositories each implementing an individual microservice or providing the infrastructure. This article goes into details on the technical architecture and issues I ran into with the project.

Key starting points to learn more are:

  1. A react based 8080 disassembler running on github pages - https://github.com/21st-century-emulation/disassembler-8080
  2. The CP/M test harness used to validate the processor - https://github.com/21st-century-emulation/cpm-test-harness
    1. Just use docker-compose up --build in this repo to run the application
  3. Space Invaders UI - https://github.com/21st-century-emulation/space-invaders-ui
    1. Run locally with docker-compose up --build or use the following project to deploy into kubernetes
  4. Kubernetes Configuration & Deploying - https://github.com/21st-century-emulation/space-invaders-kubernetes-infrastructure
    1. Note that this presupposes that you have access to a kubernetes cluster which can handle ~200 new pods

Finally, a screenshot of the emulator in action can be seen here:

Space Invaders UI

Architectural Overview

The following image describes the full archictectural model as applied to a space invaders arcade machine, the key components are then drawn out in the following sections

Space Invaders UI

Central Fetch Execute Loop

All old school emulators fall into one of two camps, either they step the CPU one instruction at a time and then catch up other components or they step each component (including the CPU) one cycle at a time. The 8080 as played in a space invaders cabinet gains nothing from being emulated with cycle level accuracy so this emulator adheres to the former design. The Fetch Execute Loop service is the service which then performs that core loop and is broadly shaped as follows

while true:
  Call microservice to check if interrupts should occur
    If so then run RST x instruction
  Get next instruction from memory bus microservice

  Call corresponding opcode microservice

That’s it. In order to actually drive this microservice we also provide /api/v1/start and /api/v1/state endpoints which correspondingly trigger a new instance of the CPU to run and get the status of the currently running CPU.

Opcode microservices

Every opcode corresponds to a microservice which must provide a POST api at /api/v1/execute taking a JSON body shaped as follows:

  "id": "uuid",
  "opcode": 123, // Current opcode used to disambiguate calls to e.g. MOV (MOV B,C or MOV B,D)
  "state": {
    "a": 0,
    "b": 0,
    "c": 0,
    "d": 0,
    "e": 0,
    "h": 0,
    "l": 0,
    "flags": {
      "sign": false,
      "zero": false,
      "auxCarry": false,
      "parity": false,
      "carry": false,
    "programCounter": 100,
    "stackPointer": 1000,
    "cyclesTaken": 2000,
    "interruptsEnabled": false,

Memory bus

The memory bus serves to provide the stateful storage for the service and must expose 4 routes to the other services:

  1. /api/v1/readByte?id=${cpuId}&address=${u16} - Read a single byte from the address passed in
  2. /api/v1/writeByte?id=${cpuId}&address=${u16}&value=${u8} - Write a single byte to the address passed in
  3. /api/v1/readRange?id=${cpuId}&address=${u16}&length=${u16} - Read at most length bytes starting at address (to get e.g. the 3 bytes that correspond to an instruction)
  4. /api/v1/initialise?id=${cpuId} - POST takes a base64 encoded string as body and uses that to initialise the memory bus for the cpu id passed in

There’s a simple & fast implementation written in rust with a high tech in memory database provided at https://github.com/21st-century-emulation/memory-bus-8080. Alternative implementations utilising persistent storage are left as an exercise for the reader. A blockchain based backend is probably the best solution to this problem.

Interrupt service

When running the fetch execute loop service you can optionally provide (via an environment variable) the url to an interrupt check service which will be called before every opcode is executed. This API must take the same JSON body as the opcode microservices and will return an optional value which indicates which RST opcode is to be taken (or none if no interrupt is to be fired).

Deployment architecture

Whilst the application can be run locally using docker-compose, no self-respecting cloud solutions architect would be satisfied with the risks inherent in having everything pinned to a single machine. Consequently this project also delivers a helm chart which can be found here.

Given that repository and a suitably large kubernetes cluster (note: we strongly recommend choosing a top tier cloud provider like IBM for this), all components can be installed by simply running ./install.sh.

The kubernetes architecture is outlined in https://github.com/21st-century-emulation/space-invaders-kubernetes-infrastructure/blob/main/README.md but a diagram is provided here for brevity:

Space Invaders Kubernetes Architecture


As with all modern design it’s crucial to adhere to the model of “make it work then make it fast” and that’s something that this project really takes to heart. In 1974 when the 8080 was released it achieved a staggering 2MHz. Our new modern, containerised, cloud first design doesn’t quite achieve that in it’s initial iteration. As can be seen from the screenshot above, space invaders as deployed onto an AKS cluster runs at ~1KHz which gives us ample time for debugging but does make actually playing it slightly difficult.

However, now that the application works we can look at optimising it, the following are clear future directions for it to go in:

  1. Rewrite more things in rust. As we can see in the image below, a significant portion of the total CPU time was spent running LXI & POP opcodes. This is quite understandable because LXI is written in Java/Spring and POP is written in Scala/Play. Both are clearly orders of magnitude slower than all the other languages in play here.

    Space Invaders Pod Metrics

  2. JSON -> Avro/Protobuf. JSON serialisation/deserialisation is known to be too slow for modern applications, using a better binary packed format will obviously increase performance
  3. Pipelining & speculative execution.
    1. A minor speed boost can be achieved by simply pipelining up to the next N instructions and invalidating the pipeline on any instruction which changes the program counter. This is particularly excellent because it brings modern CPU design back to the 8080!
    2. Since all operations internally are async and wait on IO we can trivially execute multiple instructions in parallel, a further enhancement would therefore be to speculatively execute instructions and rollback if the execution of a previous one would have affected the result.
  4. Memory caches
    1. Having to access the memory bus each time is slow, by noting which instructions can affect memory we are able to act like a modern VM and cache memory until a write happens at which point we invalidate the cache and continue. See the below image showcasing the amount of requests made to /api/v1/readRange form the fetch execute loop (which uses that API to get the next instruction).

      Space Invaders API Calls

Implementation Details

One of the many beautiful things about a microservice architecture is that, because function calls are now HTTP over TCP, we’re no longer limited to a single language in our environment. That allows us to really leverage the best that modern http api design has to offer.

The following table outlines the language choice for each opcode, as you can see, this allows to gain the benefits of Rusts safe integer arithmetic operations whilst falling back to the security of Deno for important operations like CALL & RET.

OpcodeLanguageDescriptionRuntime image sizePerformance (avg latency)
MOVSwiftMoves data from one register to another257MB4.68ms
MVIJavascriptPuts 8 bits into register, or memory118MB3.43ms
LDAVBPuts 8 bits at location Addr into A Register206MB4.56ms
STAC#Stores 8 bits at location Addr206MB4.61ms
LDAXTypescriptLoads A register with 8 bits from location in BC or DE365MB6.22ms
STAXPythonStores A register at location in BC or DE59MB5.24ms
LHLDRubyLoads HL register with 16 bits found at Addr and Addr+1898MB!13.63ms
SHLDPerlStores HL register contents at Addr and Addr+1930MB!12.68ms
LXIJava + SpringLoads 16 bits into B,D,H, or SP415MB6.84ms
PUSHLuaPuts 16 bits of BP onto stack SP=SP-2385MB4.42ms
POPScala + PlayTakes top of stack, puts it in RP SP=SP+2761MB13.99ms
XTHLDExchanges HL with top of stack156MB26.54ms
SPHLF#Puts contents of HL into SP (stack pointer)114MB3.25ms
PCHLKotlinPuts contents of HL into PC (program counter) [=JMP (HL)]445MB7.61ms
XCHGC++Exchanges HL and DE514MB2.16ms
ADDRustAdd accumulator and register/(HL)123MB1.95ms
ADCRustAdd accumulator and register/(HL) (with carry)123MB2.00ms
ADIRustAdd accumulator and immediate123MB2.16ms
ACIRustAdd accumulator and immediate (with carry)123MB2.22ms
SUBRustSub accumulator and register/(HL)123MB1.95ms
SBBRustSub accumulator and register/(HL) (with borrow)123MB1.70ms
SUIRustSub accumulator and immediate123MB2.15ms
SBIRustSub accumulator and immediate (with carry)123MB1.91ms
ANARustAnd accumulator and register/(HL)123MB2.68ms
ANIRustAnd accumulator and immediate123MB1.93ms
XRARustXor accumulator and register/(HL)123MB1.70ms
XRIRustXor accumulator and immediate123MB1.57ms
ORARust NimOr accumulator and register/(HL)74MB11.36ms
ORIRustOr accumulator and immediate123MB1.40ms
DAARustDecimal adjust accumulator123MB2.26ms
CMPRustCompare accumulator and register/(HL)123MB1.70ms
CPIRustCompare accumulator and immediate123MB1.90ms
DADPHPAdds contents of register RP to contents of HL register430MB17.2 ms
INRCrystalIncrements register23MB1.98ms
DCRCrystalDecrements register23MB2.06ms
INXCrystalIncrements register pair23MB2.01ms
DCXCrystalDecrements register pair23MB1.99ms
JMPPowershellUnconditional Jump to location Addr294MB6.51ms
CALLDenoUnconditional Subroutine call to location Addr154MB6.04ms
RETDenoUnconditional return from subroutine154MB6.43ms
RLCGoRotate left carry6MB2.28ms
RRCGoRotate right carry6MB2.19ms
RALGoRotate left accumulator6MB2.39ms
RARGoRotate right accumulator6MB2.29ms
INData from Port placed in A register
OUTData from A register placed in Port
CMCHaskellComplement Carry Flag90MB2.50ms
CMAHaskellComplement A register90MB2.54ms
STCHaskellSet Carry Flag = 190MB2.52ms
HLTHalt CPU and wait for interrupt
NOOPCNo operation70MB1.89ms
DIDartDisable Interrupts79MB2.37ms
EIDartEnable Interrupts79MB2.21ms
RSTDenoCall interrupt vector154MB7.34ms

Nim was a bit late to the party so only got one opcode, and it still managed to be slow anyway.

Code details

According to SCC this project cost $1M to make, which is probably several orders of magnitude less than Google will pay for it. Like any true modern application it also consists of significantly more JSON/YAML than code.

Language                 Files     Lines   Blanks  Comments     Code Complexity
YAML                       144      6873      859       396     5618          0
Dockerfile                 112      2007      505       353     1149        248
JSON                       106     15383      240         0    15143          0
Shell                       64      2448      369       195     1884        257
Plain Text                  59       404      171         0      233          0
Docker ignore               56       295        0         0      295          0
Markdown                    56       545      165         0      380          0
gitignore                   56       847      129       178      540          0
C#                          35      1803      198        10     1595         51
TypeScript                  22      1335      116        30     1189        275
Rust                        18      1825      241         7     1577         79
TOML                        18       245       20         0      225          0
Java                         7       306       66         0      240          1
Haskell                      6       207       24         0      183          0
Visual Basic                 6       119       24         0       95          0
MSBuild                      5        53       13         0       40          0
Crystal                      4       330       68         4      258          5
Go                           4       255       33         0      222          6
JavaScript                   4       147        8         1      138          5
License                      4        84       16         0       68          0
PHP                          4       147       21        43       83          2
Swift                        4       283       15         4      264          1
C++                          3        32        4         0       28          0
Emacs Lisp                   3        12        0         0       12          0
Scala                        3       112       15         0       97          6
XML                          3        97       13         1       83          0
C Header                     2        24        2         0       22          0
CSS                          2        44        6         0       38          0
Dart                         2        58        6         0       52         18
HTML                         2       361        1         0      360          0
Lua                          2        65        8         0       57         15
Properties File              2         2        1         0        1          0
C                            1        63        8         0       55         18
CMake                        1        68       10        15       43          4
D                            1        71        6         2       63         14
F#                           1        88       11         3       74          0
Gemfile                      1         9        4         0        5          0
Gradle                       1        32        4         0       28          0
Kotlin                       1        40        9         0       31          0
Makefile                     1        16        4         0       12          0
Nim                          1        82        9         0       73          2
Perl                         1        49        6         3       40          4
Powershell                   1        78        9         0       69         10
Python                       1        37        6         0       31          1
Ruby                         1        28        6         0       22          0
SVG                          1         3        0         0        3          0
TypeScript Typings           1         1        0         1        0          0
Total                      833     37413     3449      1246    32718       1022
Estimated Cost to Develop (organic) $1,052,256
Estimated Schedule Effort (organic) 14.022330 months
Estimated People Required (organic) 6.666796
Processed 1473797 bytes, 1.474 megabytes (SI)


Naturally I ran into a number of new issues with this approach. I’ve listed some of those below to give a flavour for the types of problems with this architecture:

  1. Github actions…
    1. Random timeouts logging in to ghcr.io, random timeouts pushing images. Generally just spontaneous errors of all sorts. This really drove home how fun it is managing the development toolchain for a microservice architecture
  2. Haskell compiler images
    1. Oh boy. Haskell won the award for my least favourite development environment solely off the back of the absurd 3.5GB SDK image! That was sufficiently large that it was impossible to build the haskell based services in CI without fine tuning the image down to < 3.4GB (github actions limits)
  3. Intermittent AKS networking errors
    1. Whilst it achieved ~4 9s availability across all microservices, there were spontaneous 504s between microservices in the AKS implementation.
    2. On the plus side, because we’re using linkerd as a service mesh to give us secure microservice TCP connections we can also just leverage it’s retry behavior and forget about the problem! Exactly like a modern architecture!
  4. DNS caching (or not)
    1. Only node.js of all the languages used had issues where it would hammer the DNS server on literally every HTTP request, eventually DNS told it to piss off and the next request broke #justnodethings
  5. Logging at scale
    1. I initially set up Loki as the logging backend because it’s new and therefore good, but found that the C# libraries for Loki would occasionally send requests out of order and that in the end Loki would just give up and stop accepting logs - fortunately fluentd is still very much in the spirit of this project and really pins the project down to kubernetes so it was obviously the best decision all along
  6. Orchestrating changes across services
    1. Strangely, having ~50 repositories to manage was marginally harder than having 1. Making a change to (for example) add an interruptsEnabled flag to the CPU needed to be orchestrated across all microservices. Fortunately I’m quite good at writing disgusting bash scripts like any self respecting devops engineer.

Is this actually possible?

Alright, if you’ve got this far I’m sure you’ve realised that the whole project is something of a joke. That said it is also an interesting intellectual exercise to consider whether it’s remotely possible to achieve >=2MHz with the architecture delivered.

The starting point is that to achieve 2MHz we must deliver 1 instruction every 2μs

2MHz = 2,000,000 cycles per second
Each instruction is at 4-17 cycles so we need to manage at worst 2,000,000 / 4 = 500,000 instructions per second. That gives 1/500,000 seconds = ~2μs per operation.

As it was written there are 3 HTTP calls per instruction, one to fetch the operation, one to execute it and one to check for interrupts.

Assuming for sake of argument that we do the following optimisations:

  • Make interrupt checks off the hot path
  • Cache all ROM in the fetch execute service and assume applications only execute from ROM (true for space invaders)
    • This takes us to ~1 instruction per operation
  • Change from JSON w/ UTF8 encoding to sending a byte packed array of values to represent the CPU
    • Drives the request size down to <256 bytes and eliminates all serialization/deserialization costs (just have a struct pointer pointing at the array)

Then we can get to a good starting point of exactly 1 round trip to/from each opcode. So what’s the minimal cost for a roundtrip across network?

This answer (https://quant.stackexchange.com/questions/17620/what-is-the-current-lowest-possible-latency-for-tcp-communication) from 2015 benchmarks loopback device latency at ~2μs if the request size can be kept down to <=256 bytes.

Assuming that person knows what they’re talking about then the immediate answer is a straight no. You’ll never achieve the required latency across a network (particularly a dodgy cloud data center network).

But let’s not give up quite yet. We’re not miles away from the performance required so we can look for 2 times speed ups.

Some thoughts on methods to get that last 2 times speed up:

  1. Fire and forget memory writes
    1. A memory write is almost never read immediately, so just chuck it at the bus and don’t bother blocking until it’s written. Maybe you’ll lose some writes? That’s fine. Very mongo. fsync is for boring c coders and modern developers aren’t supposed to need to know about nasty complex things like the CAP theorem anyway. Presumably kubernetes will solve that for us.
  2. We can execute multiple operations in parallel and only validate the correctness of their results later.
    1. This would clearly speed up operations like memset’s which are done with simple MVI (HL) d8 -> DCX HL -> JNZ type algorithms where each grouping can be executed in parallel
  3. If each opcode was capable of knowing the next instruction then we could avoid the second half of each round trip and not travel back to the fetch execute loop until the stream of instructions has run out
    1. This is basically a guaranteed 2 times speed up

Conclusion? I think it might be possible under some ideal situations assuming ~no network latency but I’ve no intention of spending any more time thinking about it!