Maximizing USB Bulk Transfer Throughput

February 6, 2012

Ever get so stuck on a problem that web searches only lead back to your own forum post with the original question? This post is hopefully an end to that for some people.

A few months ago, I ran into a performance problem with USB bulk transfers on the chipKIT, an Arduino-compatible PIC32 microcontroller. I posed this question to the chipKIT and Microchip communities:

I’m just getting started with USB programming using the recently released Microchip library on the chipKIT with the network shield. I’ve tried to learn as much as I can about proper USB programming and it’s been good for the most part - however, I’m stuck at a ~75KB/s bulk transfer speed.

At Ford, we created a device for the OpenXC project that spits out discrete messages to a host PC over USB as fast as possible. The current strategy is to use JSON delimited by newlines sent via a bulk transfer endpoint. I trimmed down the GenericUSB example to test the maximum transfer rate of such a device, and created a Python receiver for the host (it uses libusb as the underlying USB library). The benchmarking code is available at GitHub.

On the chipKIT side, the main loop is pretty simple: it continuously writes a 45 byte JSON message to the USB endpoint:

while(true) {
    handleInput = usb.GenWrite(DATA_ENDPOINT, messageBuffer, messageSize);

In Python it’s a similar loop that requests a read of some size until it hits 10MB transferred. This is the actual PyUSB read function that gets called:, self.message_size)

The original question continues:

If you download the benchmarkUSB.pde sketch to the chipKIT, then run “python” it will read 10MB from the device with various “read request” sizes ranging from 64 bytes (one packet) to 1KB.

It’s my understanding that requesting more data from the host at a time will increase throughput as messaging overhead drops - for some reason, this isn’t the case for my code. You’ll see as the request size increases the throughput actually drops from 75KB/s to even lower numbers.

Potential Solutions

The most common answer I found to throughput issues was to increase the amount of data requested by the host. This seems like sound advice, but it just wasn’t fixing the problem for me.

Another bit of advice (from Professor Ed Olson at the University of Michigan) was to use asynchronous requests so that multiple USB request blocks (URB) were always in flight. I found this enhancement mentioned elsewhere, and it is in line with the other potential fix - making sure the USB device is always busy sending data.

Unfortunately, switching to asynchronous requests had no effect either - the benchmark still showed abysmal throughput on the order of 50 - 70KB/s.

The Fix

The problem ended up being much simpler and had more to do with one of the core design principles of USB. After shelving this issue for a few months, I revisited the problem and something caught my eye.

No matter how many bytes were requested on the host, from 64 to 4096, the read operation only every returned 45 bytes - one message. USB uses 64 byte packets, and it uses a less than 64 byte packet (traditionally but not limited to a zero length packet) to indicate the end of a transfer. Were we causing a lot of extra overhead by ending every transfer after 45 byets?

I padded out the 45 byte test message I was using to 64 bytes, and now it is much faster (70KB/s from Python to 650+ KB/s). Previously, we requested 1024 bytes but got 45, which is less than a full 64 byte packet so of course, the transfer was closed.

In hindsight this seems like a pretty important thing to know about USB, but being new to driver development, it wasn’t obvious and I couldn’t find any references to how the less-than-max length packet can effect performance elsewhere.

The complete fix for OpenXC’s use case will be to make sure every message is padded out to 64 bytes and to request bulk transfer sizes that are big enough to get good throughput but small enough to not be too delayed. I have yet to confirm, but my understanding is that if we request a 4KB read and don’t mark the end of the transfer with a less-than-max length packet, the host device will block waiting for the rest of the requested data.