Optimizing for the CPU / compiler

It is well known that standard C language features map horribly on to the architecture of many processors. While the mapping is obvious and appalling for some processors (low end PICs, 8051 spring to mind), it’s still not necessarily great at the 32 bit end of the spectrum where processors without floating point units can be hit hard with C’s floating point promotion rules. While this is all obvious stuff, it’s essentially about what those CPUs are lacking. Where it gets really interesting in the embedded space is when you have a processor that has all sorts of specialized features that are great for embedded systems – but which simply do not map on to the C language view of the world. Some examples will illustrate my point.

Arithmetic vs. Logical shifting

The C language does of course have support for performing shift operations. However, these are strictly arithmetic shifts. That is when bits get shifted off the end of an integer type, they are simply lost. Logical shifting, sometimes known as rotation, is different in that bits simply get rotated back around (often through the carry bit but not always). Now while arithmetic shifting is great for, well arithmetic operations, there are plenty of occasions in which I find myself wanting to perform a rotation. Now can I write a rotation function in C – sure – but it’s a real pain in the tuches.

Saturated addition

If you have ever had to design and implement an integer digital filter, I am sure you found yourself yearning for an addition operator that will saturate rather than overflow. [In this form of arithmetic, if the integral type would overflow as the result of an operation, then the processor simply returns the minimum or maximum value as appropriate].  Processors that the designers think might be required to perform digital filtering will have this feature built directly into their instruction sets.  By contrast the C language has zero direct support for such operations, which must be coded using nasty checks and masks.

Nibble swapping

Swapping the upper and lower nibbles of a byte is a common operation in cryptography and related fields. As a result many processors include this ever so useful instruction in their instruction sets. While you can of course write C code to do it, it’s horrible looking and grossly inefficient when compared to the built in instruction.


If you look over the examples quoted I’m sure you noticed a theme:

  1. Yes I can write C code to achieve the desired functionality.
  2. The resultant C code is usually ugly and horribly inefficient when compared to the intrinsic function of the processor.

Now in many cases, C compilers simply don’t give you access to these intrinsic functions, other than resorting to the inline assembler. Unfortunately, using the inline assembler causes a lot of problems. For example:

  1. It will often force the compiler to not optimize the enclosing function.
  2. It’s really easy to screw it up.
  3. It’s banned by most coding standards.

As a result, the intrinsic features can’t be used anyway. However, there are embedded compilers out there that support intrinsic functions. For example here’s how to swap nibbles using IAR’s AVR compiler:

foo = __swap_nibbles(bar);

There are several things to note about this:

  1. Because it’s a compiler intrinsic function, there are no issues with optimization.
  2. Similarly because one works with standard variable names, there is no particular likelihood of getting this wrong.
  3. Because it looks like a function call, there isn’t normally a problem with coding standards.

This then leads to one of the essential quandaries of embedded systems. Is it better to write completely standard (and hence presumably portable) C code, or should one take every advantage of neat features that are offered by your CPU (and if it is any good), your compiler?

I made my peace with this decision many years ago and fall firmly into the camp of take advantage of every neat feature offered by the CPU / compiler – even if it is non-standard. My rationale for doing so is as follows:

  1. Porting code from one CPU to another happens rarely. Thus to burden the bulk of systems with this mythical possibility seems weird to me.
  2. End users do not care. When was the last time you heard someone extoll the use of standard code in the latest widget? Instead end users care about speed, power and battery life. All things that can come about by having the most efficient code possible.
  3. It seems downright rude not to use those features that the CPU designer built in to the CPU just because some purist says I should not.

Having said this, I do of course understand completely if you are in the business of selling software components (e.g. an AES library), where using intrinsic / specialized instructions could be a veritable pain. However for the rest of the industry I say use those intrinsic functions! As always, let the debate begin.

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