Situational Optimizations - Algorithmica
Situational Optimizations

Situational Optimizations

Most compiler optimizations enabled by -O2 and -O3 are guaranteed to either improve or at least not seriously hurt performance. Those that aren’t included in -O3 are either not strictly standard-compliant, or highly circumstantial and require some additional input from the programmer to help decide whether using them is beneficial.

Let’s discuss the most frequently used ones that we’ve also previously covered in this book.

#Loop Unrolling

Loop unrolling is disabled by default, unless the loop takes a small constant number of iterations known at compile time — in which case it will be replaced with a completely jump-free, repeated sequence of instructions. It can be enabled globally with the -funroll-loops flag, which will unroll all loops whose number of iterations can be determined at compile time or upon entry to the loop.

You can also use a pragma to target a specific loop:

#pragma GCC unroll 4
for (int i = 0; i < n; i++) {
    // ...

Loop unrolling makes binary larger, and may or may not make it run faster. Don’t use it fanatically.

#Function Inlining

Inlining is best left for the compiler to decide, but you can influence it with inline keyword:

inline int square(int x) {
    return x * x;

The hint may be ignored though if the compiler thinks that the potential performance gains are not worth it. You can force inlining by adding the always_inline attribute:

#define FORCE_INLINE inline __attribute__((always_inline))

There is also the -finline-limit=n option which lets you set a specific threshold on the size of inlined functions (in terms of the number of instructions). Its Clang equivalent is -inline-threshold.

#Likeliness of Branches

Likeliness of branches can be hinted by [[likely]] and [[unlikely]] attributes in if-s and switch-es:

int factorial(int n) {
    if (n > 1) [[likely]]
        return n * factorial(n - 1);
    else [[unlikely]]
        return 1;

This is a new feature that only appeared in C++20. Before that, there were compiler-specific intrinsics similarly used to wrap condition expressions. The same example in older GCC:

int factorial(int n) {
    if (__builtin_expect(n > 1, 1))
        return n * factorial(n - 1);
        return 1;

There are many other cases like this when you need to point the compiler in the right direction, but we will get to them later when they become more relevant.

#Profile-Guided Optimization

Adding all this metadata to the source code is tedious. People already hate writing C++ even without having to do it.

It is also not always obvious whether certain optimizations are beneficial or not. To make a decision about branch reordering, function inlining, or loop unrolling, we need answers to questions like these:

  • How often is this branch taken?
  • How often is this function called?
  • What is the average number of iterations in this loop?

Luckily for us, there is a way to provide this real-world information automatically.

Profile-guided optimization (PGO, also called “pogo” because it’s easier and more fun to pronounce) is a technique that uses profiling data to improve performance beyond what can be achieved with just static analysis. In a nutshell, it involves adding timers and counters to the points of interest in the program, compiling and running it on real data, and then compiling it again, but this time supplying additional information from the test run.

The whole process is automated by modern compilers. For example, the -fprofile-generate flag will let GCC instrument the program with profiling code:

g++ -fprofile-generate [other flags] -o binary

After we run the program — preferably on input that is as representative of the real use case as possible — it will create a bunch of *.gcda files that contain log data for the test run, after which we can rebuild the program, but now adding the -fprofile-use flag:

g++ -fprofile-use [other flags] -o binary

It usually improves performance by 10-20% for large codebases, and for this reason it is commonly included in the build process of performance-critical projects. This is more reason to invest in solid benchmarking code.