Do not help the compiler at the expense of readability Unless you read the assembly code emitted at the bottleneck and did benchmarks

Compilers has gotten smarter and smarter nowadays that they’d be able to analyze our code for common patterns (or logically deduce away steps that doesn’t have to performed at runtime).

Matt Godbolt gave a nice presentation at CppCon 2017 named “What Has My Compiler Done for Me Lately?”. Through observing the emitted assembly code at different optimization levels, he showed that the compiler doesn’t need to be micromanaged (through performance hacks in our code) anymore, as it will emit instructions as the performance-hacked code intended when it is better to do so.

It means the compiler writers already know our bag of performance hack tricks way much better than we do. Their efforts spare us from premature optimization and leave us more time to find a better data structure or algorithm to solve the problem.

What I got from the lecture is NOT that we are free to write clumsy code and let the compiler sort it out (though it occasionally can, like factoring a loop doing simple arithmetic series into a one line closed form solution), but we don’t have to make difficult coding choices to accommodate performance anymore.

The most striking facts I learned from his lecture are

  • The compiler can emit a one-line CPU instruction that does not have a corresponding native operation C/C++ if your hardware architecture supports it. (e.g. clang can convert a whole loop that counts the number of set bits into just ‘popcnt eax, edi‘)
  • Through Link-Time Optimization (LTO), we don’t have to pay the performance penalty for language features that are ultimately necessary for the current compilation (e.g. virtuals are automatically dropped if the linker finds that nowhere in the output currently needs it)

With such LTO,  why not do away the virtual specifier and make everything unspecified virtual by default anyway (like Java)? For decades, we’ve been making up stories that some classes are not meant to be derived (like STL containers), but the underlying motive is that we don’t want to pay for vtable if we don’t have to.

Instead of confusing new programmers about when should they make a method virtual (plenty of rule-of-thumbs became dogma), focus on telling them whenever they (choose to upcast a reference/pointer to the parent anywhere in their code and) invoke the destructor through the parent reference/pointer, they will pay a ‘hefty’ price of vtable and vptr.

I don’t think anybody (old codebase) will get harmed by turning on virtuals by default and let the linker decide if those virtuals can be dropped. If it changes anything, it might turn buggy code with the wrong destructor called into correct code which runs slower and takes up more space. In terms of correctness, this change might break low-level hacks that expects the objects to be of certain size (e.g. alignment) without vptr.

Even better, add a class specifier that mandates that all uses of its child must not invoke vtable (have the compiler catch that) unless explicitly overridden (the users decide to pay for the vtable). This way the compiler can warn about performance and space issues for the migration.

The old C++’s ideal was “you only pay for the language features you used (written)”, but as compilers gets better, we might be able change it to “you pay extra only for the language features that are actually used (in the finally generated executable) with your permission”.


I’d also like to add Return Value Optimization (RVO) into my list of compiler advances that changes the way we code. C++11 added move semantics, but I think it’s something that the compiler in the future could be able to manage themselves. Even with an old C++ compiler like the one shipped with VisualDSP 5.0, the copy constructor was not called (yes, skipping it is legal even if the copy constructor has side effects) when I do this:

Matrix operator+(const Matrix& a, const Matrix& b)
{
  Matrix c(a.dim);
  // ... for all element i, c.raw[i] = a.raw[i]+b.raw[i]
  return c;
}
Matrix c = a + b;

Actually, the compiler at that time was not that smart about RVO, the actual code I wrote originally had two return branches, which defeats RVO (it’s a defined behavior by the specs):

Matrix operator+(Matrix a, Matrix b)
{
  Dims m = a.dims;
  if( m == b.dims ) // Both inputs must have same dimensions
  {
    Matrix c(m); // Construct matrix c with same dimension as a
    // ... for all i, c.raw[i] = a.raw[i] + b.raw[i]
    return c;
  } 
  else 
  {
    return Matrix::dummy; // A static member, which is a Matrix object
  }
}

To take advantage of RVO, I had to reword my code

Matrix operator+(Matrix a, Matrix b)
{
  Dims m = a.dims;
  if( m == b.dims ) // Both inputs must have same dimensions
  {
    Matrix c(m); // Construct matrix c with same dimension as a
    // ... for all i, c.raw[i] = a.raw[i] + b.raw[i]
  } 
  else 
  {
    Matrix c = Matrix::dummy; // or just "Matrix c";
  }
  return c;
}

I think days are counting before C++ compilers can do “copy-on-write” like MATLAB does if independent compilation are no longer mandatory!

Given my extensive experience with MATLAB, I’d say it took me a while to get used designing my code with “copy-on write” behavior in mind. Always start with expressive, maintainable, readable and correct code keeping in mind the performance concerns only happens under certain conditions (i.e. passed object gets modified inside the function).

If people start embracing the mentality of letting the compiler do most of the mechanical optimization, we’ll move towards a world that debugging work are gradually displaced by performance-bottleneck hunting. In my view, anything that can be done systematically by programming (like a boilerplate code or idioms) can eventually be automated by better compiler/linker/IDE and language design. It’s the high-level business logic that needs a lot of software designers/engineers to translate fuzzy requirements into concrete steps.


Matt also developed a great website (http://godbolt.org/) that compiles your code repeatedly on the fly and shows you the corresponding assembly code. Here’s an example of how I use it to answer my question of “Should I bother to use std::div() if I want both the quotient and remainder without running the division twice?”:

The website also included a feature to share the pasted code through an URL.

As seen from the emitted assembly code, the answer is NO. The compiler can figure out that I’m repeating the division twice and do only one division and use the quotient (stored in eax) and remainder (stored in edx). Trying to enforce one division through std::div() requires an extra function call, which is strictly worse.

The bottom line: don’t help the compiler! Modern compiler does context free optimizations better than we do. Use the time and energy to rethink about the architecture and data structure instead!

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