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Superoptimizers are back in vogue

November 6th, 2012 No comments

There has always been the need for a few developer with in-depth knowledge of a particular cpu architecture to sit down and think very hard about how best to implement a snippet of code performing some operation in assembly language, e.g., library implementors wanting the tightest code for a critical inner loop or compiler writers who need to map from intermediate code to machine code.

In 1987 Massalin published his now famous paper that introduced the term Superoptimizer; a program that enumerates all possible combinations of instruction sequences until the shortest/fastest one producing the desired output from the given input is found (various heuristics were used to prune the search space e.g., only considering 15 or so opcodes, and the longest sequence it ever generated contained 12 instructions).

While the idea was widely talked about it never caught on in practice (a special purpose branch eliminator was produced for GCC; Hacker’s Delight also includes a stand alone system). Perhaps the guild of mindbogglingly-obtuse-but-fast-instruction-sequences black-balled it (apprentices have to spend several years doing nothing but writing assembly code for their chosen architecture, thinking about how to make it go faster and/or be shorter and only talk to other apprentices/members and communicate with non-converts exclusively about their latest neat sequence), or perhaps it was just a case of not invented here (writing machine code used to be something that even run of the mill developers got to do every now and again), or perhaps it was not considered cost effective to build a superoptimizer for a given project (I don’t know of anyone offering a generic tool that could be tailored for specific cases) or perhaps developers were happy to just ride the wave of continually faster processors.

It was not until 2008 with Bansal’s thesis that superoptimizer research started to take off (as in paper publication rate increased from once every five years to more than one a year). Bansal found a new market, binary translation i.e., translating the binary of a program built to run on one kind of cpu to run on a different kind of cpu, for instance the Mac 68K emulator.

Bansal and other researchers’ work was oriented towards relatively short instruction sequences. To be really useful some way of handling longer sequences was needed.

A few days ago Stochastic Superoptimization arrived on the scene (or rather a paper describing it became available for download). Schkufza, Sharma and Aiken use Markov chain Monte Carlo methods to sample the possible instruction sequences rather than generating all of them. The paper gives a 116 instruction example from which the author’s tool removed 16 lines to produce code that went 1.6 times faster (only 30 ‘core’ instructions were given in paper); what is also very interesting is that the tool operates on compiler generated output (gcc/llvm), suggesting the usage build program, profile it and then stochastic superoptimize the hot spots.

Markov chains and Monte Carlo methods are trendy topics that researchers like to write about, so we will certainly see more papers in this area.

These days few developers have had hands on experience with machine code, so the depth of expertise that was once easy to find is now rare, processors have many more weird and wonderful instructions often interacting with older instructions in obscure ways and the cpu architecture landscape continues to change regularly. The time may have arrived for Superoptimizers to be widely used by industry.

Of course superoptimizers can work at any level of abstraction, including expression trees built directly from some complicated floating-point calculation that needs to be optimized for accuracy or speed.