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MSVC 2008 optimizer fail

Over the past two years I have become dearly intimate with Microsoft's Visual C++ 2008 compiler, and the methods it uses for optimizing code. Now generally speaking MSVC 2008 does well -- very well -- especially for everyday "not-so-clever" code. Its global optimization feature (aka Linktime Code Generation, or LTCG) is also a tremendous advantage over GCC -- though GCC is in the process of (finally!) adding LTCG to their own C/C++ compiler. MSVC does have a few very annoying failings as an optimizer, though. The most glaring of which has to do with templated code and inlined functions.

Disclaimer: This analysis is for Visual C++ 2008 only. I have not yet analyzed MSVC 2010's code generation. Some of these glitches may be improved or different (or worse even) in 2010. I'll post an update if/when I compile information it in the future.

Edit/Update: This bug only appears to manifest itself when the input parameters are 1st or 2nd generation propagated constants (which is hard to explain if you don't know what that means). So chances of hitting this bug are not actually all that common, but still plausible in many coding scenarios.

Inline Functions

Inline functions are the simpler sort, so I'll cover those first. Here's a simple example of some code that will be optimized away in certain situations.

static bool g_global = false;
__forceinline void DoSomething( void* dest, size_t size )
    if (dest && size)  memset(dest,0,size);

void main()
    [... code ...]

    // dest and size are known constants, so the compiler will inline the above
    // function and eliminate all its code -- ie, this line will be effectively ignored.
    DoSomething( NULL, 0 );

    [... code ...]

The problem is that even though the DoSomething() call is effectively ignored, Visual C++ will still generate code that assumes the function is modifying global memory. Why? Because the compiler's initial analysis of the function doesn't take into consideration the fact that it is being called/inlined with constants as parameters. That means the calling function (void main() in this case)will have to flush/reload any global variables that may have otherwise been able to remain in registers.

This problem becomes worse the longer a function grows, because every new piece of code int he function can introduce additional optimization dependencies. For example, if a function contains SSE instructions and 128-bit stack operations, it may require mandatory stack-frame alignment, even if the actual SSE code portions are optimized away.


For those who do not know, C++ (and C99) has a feature called templating; which is at its core a type-safe and debug-friendly replacement for macros. PCSX2 uses templates extensively to generate function call dispatches for various customizable features of the PS2. A common technique in templates is to use switch statements to simplify code:

template< uint value > void Dispatch()
    [.. setup code ..]

    case 1: [.. do stuff ..] break;
    case 2: [.. do stuff ..] break;
    case 3: [.. do stuff ..] break;

    [.. cleanup code..]

In the above example, we've created a function that executes one of four possible actions. The only thing that changes between each action is the interior -- all actions share the same basic setup/cleanup code. Instead of using separate functions and/or macros to do four separate instances of the setup and cleanup code, we're able to merge everything into a single template function. The compiler will automatically optimize the function to use only the selected path. If 'value' is 1, it runs switch case 1. If it is 0, the entire switch is disregarded, etc.

The problem is the same as with the inlined function above: Visual C++'s optimizer bases a lot of its optimization on the whole function anyway, so dead code that isn't even part of a particular template can adversely impact MSVC's code generation strategy. If only one of the switch cases modifies global memory, any call to any other case will still result in the compiler flushing global registers. Fortunately this particular optimization is minor, and losing it has barely any noticeable impact on performance on modern CPUs.

Sparse Switches and Binary Irony

A second and more serious optimization failure occurs in templated/inlined functions, however; if the function happens to use sparse switches. A sparse switch is one where the values are not contigious. Example:

    case 0x0: if(toggle) { code; } break;
    case 0x100: if(toggle) { code; } break;
    case 0x101: if(toggle) { code; } break;
    case 0x102: if(toggle) { code; } break;
    case 0x520: if(toggle) { code; } break;
    case 0x521: if(toggle) { code; } break;
    case 0x522: if(toggle) { code; } break;
    case 0x733: if(toggle) { code; } break;

In this example, MSVC's optimizer will employ the use of a binary search to dispatch the switch. Rather than compare each value individually (8 compares), it will divide the switch into halves or quarters. The resulting optimized code typically finds the right case in two compares, with a worst case of 3-5 compares typically (a vast improvement over an individual linear search, which has a median of 4 compares and worst case of 8 compares). This a great and wonderful optimization and is often times faster than using function lookup tables. Smile

... but it actually backfires if the toggle value is a known constant (such as a template parameter). The optimization method of the switch statement is made by MSVC 2008 before it eliminates unused code. So even if you explicitly assign a value of 0x101, MSVC 2008 will include its clever binary partition logic! The resulting pseudo-code generated by the MSVC optimizer ends up looking something like this:

if(value >= 0x520) return;
if(value < 0x100) return;

return; // which is the result of case 0x101 with toggle==false;

The explicit checks for equality are optimized out, as are all unused cases -- just the umbrella binary search logic remains, and all it does is return from the function without doing anything. So what should be a null function ends up having 2 pointless compares; ironically caused by a clever and highly effective optimization strategy in any other normal situation.

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