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Why does Intel sell compilers?

January 5th, 2010 No comments

Intel is a commercial company and the obvious answer to the question of why it sells compilers is: to make money. Does a company that makes billions of dollars in profits really have any interest in making a few million, I’m guessing, from selling compilers? Of course not, Intel’s interest in compilers is as a means of helping them sell more hardware.

How can a compiler be used to increase computer hardware sales? One possibility is improved performance and another is customer perception of improved performance. My company’s first product was a code optimizer and I was always surprised by the number of customers who bought the product without ever performing any before/after timing benchmarks; I learned that engineers are seduced by the image of performance and only a few are ever forced to get involved in measuring it (having been backed into a corner because what they currently have is not good enough).

Intel are not the only company selling x86 chips, AMD and VIA have their own Intel compatible x86 chips. Intel compatible? Doesn’t that mean that programs compiled using the Intel compiler will execute just as quickly on the equivalent chip sold by competitors? Technically the answer is no, but the performance differences are likely to be small in most cases. However, I’m sure there are many developers who have been seduced by Intel’s marketing machine into believing that they need to purchase x86 chips from Intel to make sure they receive this ‘worthwhile’ benefit.

Where do manufacturer performance differences, for the same sequence of instructions, come from? They are caused by the often substantial internal architectural difference between the processors sold by different manufacturers, also Intel and its competitors are continually introducing new processor architectures and processors from the same company will have differences performance characteristics. It is possible for an optimizer to make use of information on different processor characteristics to tune the machine code generated for a particular high-level language construct, with the developer selecting the desired optimization target processor via compiler switches.

Optimizing code for one particular processor architecture is a specialist market. But let’s not forget all those customers who will be seduced by the image of performance and ignore details such as their programs being executed on a wide variety of architectures.

The quality of a compiler’s runtime library can have a significant impact on a program’s performance. The x86 instruction set has grown over time and large performance gains can be had by a library function that adapts to the instructions available on the processor it is currently executing on. The CPUID instruction provides all of the necessary information.

As well as providing information on the kind of processor and its architectural features the CPUID instruction can return information about the claimed manufacturer of the chip (some manufacturers provide a mechanism that allows users to change the character sequence returned by this instruction).

The behavior of some of the functions in Intel’s runtime library depends on the
character sequence returned by the CPUID instruction, producing better performance for the sequence “GenuineIntel”. The US Federal Trade Commission have filed a complaint alleging that this is anti-competitive (more details) and requested that this manufacturer dependency be removed.

I think that removing this manufacturer dependency will have little impact on sales. Any Intel compiler user who is not targeting Intel chips and who is has a real interest in performance can patch the runtime library, the Supercomputer crowd will want to talk to the kind of sophisticated processor/compiler engineers that Intel makes available and for everybody else it is about the perception of performance. In fact Intel ought to agree to a ‘manufacturer free’ runtime library pronto before too many developers have their delusions shattered.