The Art of
ASSEMBLY LANGUAGE PROGRAMMING

Chapter Twenty Four

Table of Content

Chapter Twenty Five (Part 2)

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE:
OPTIMIZING YOUR PROGRAMM (Part 1)
25.1 - When to Optimize When Not to Optimize
25.2 - How Do You Find the Slow Code in Your Programs?
25.3 - Is Optimization Necessary?
25.4 - The Three Types of Optimization
25.5 - Improving the Implementation of an Algorithm
Copyright 1996 by Randall Hyde All rights reserved.

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Since program optimization is generally one of the last steps in software development it is only fitting to discuss program optimization in the last chapter of this text. Scanning through other texts that cover this subject you will find a wide variety of opinions on this subject. Some texts and articles ignore instruction sets altogether and concentrate on finding a better algorithm. Other documents assume you've already found the best algorithm and discuss ways to select the "best" sequence of instructions to accomplish the job. Others consider the CPU architecture and describe how to "count cycles" and pair instructions (especially on superscalar processors or processes with pipelines) to produce faster running code. Others still consider the system architecture not just the CPU architecture when attempting to decide how to optimize your program. Some authors spend a lot of time explaining that their method is the "one true way" to faster programs. Others still get off on a software engineering tangent and start talking about how time spent optmizing a program isn't worthwhile for a variety of reasons. Well this chapter is not going to present the "one true way " nor is it going to spend a lot of time bickering about certain optimization techniques. It will simply present you with some examples options and suggestions. Since you're on your own after this chapter it's time for you to start making some of your own decisions. Hopefully this chapter can provide suitable information so you can make correct decisions.

25.1 When to Optimize When Not to Optimize

The optimization process is not cheap. If you develop a program and then determine that it is too slow you may have to redesign and rewrite major portions of that program to get acceptable performance. Based on this point alone the world often divides itself into two camps - those who optimize early and those who optimize late. Both groups have good arguements; both groups have some bad arguements. Let's take a look at both sides of this arguement.

The "optimize late" (OL) crowd uses the 90/10 arguement: 90% of a program's execution time is spent in 10% of the code. If you try to optimize every piece of code you write (that is optimize the code before you know that it needs to be optimized) 90% of your effort will go to waste. On the other hand if you write the code in a normal fashion first and then go in an optimize you can improve your program's performance with less work. After all if you completely removed the 90% portion of your program your code would only run about 10% faster. On the other hand if you completely remove that 10% portion your program will run about 10 times faster. The math is obviously in favor of attacking the 10%. The OL crowd claims that you should write your code with only the normal attention to performance (i.e. given a choice between an O(n2) and an O(n lg n) algorithm you should choose the latter). Once the program is working correctly you can go back and concentrate your efforts on that 10% of the code that takes all the time.

The OL arguements are persuasive. Optimization is a laborious and difficult process. More often that not there is no clear-cut way to speed up a section of code. The only way to determine which of several different options is better is to actually code them all up and compare them. Attempting to do this on the entire program is impractical. However if you can find that 10% of the code and optimize that you've reduced your workload by 90% very inviting indeed. Another good arguement the OL group uses is that few programmers are capable of anticipating where the time will be spent in a program. Therefore the only real way to determine where a program spends its time is to instrument it and measure which functions consume the most time. Obviously you must have a working program before you can do this. Once again they argue that any time spent optimizing the code beforehand is bound to be wasted since you will probably wind up optimizing that 90% that doesn't need it.

There are however some very good counter arguments to the above. First when most OL types start talking about the 90/10 rule there is this implicit suggestion that this 10% of the code appears as one big chunk in the middle of the program. A good programmer like a good surgeon can locate this malignant mass cut it out and replace with with something much faster thus boosting the speed of your program with only a little effort. Unfortunately this is not often the case in the real world. In real programs that 10% of the code that takes up 90% of the execution time is often spread all over your program. You'll get 1% here 0.5% over there a "gigantic" 2.5% in one function and so on. Worse still optimizing 1% of the code within one function often requires that you modify some of the other code as well. For example rewriting a function (the 1%) to speed it up quite a bit may require changing the way you pass parameters to that function. This may require rewriting several sections of code outside that slow 10%. So often you wind up rewriting much more than 10% of the code in order to speed up that 10% that takes 90% of the time.

Another problem with the 90/10 rule is that it works on percentages and the percentages change during optimization. For example suppose you located a single function that was consuming 90% of the execution time. Let's suppose you're Mr. Super Programmer and you managed to speed this routine up by a factor of two. Your program will now take about 55% of the time to run before it was optimized. If you triple the speed of this routine your program takes a total of 40% of the original time to execution. If you are really great and you manage to get that function running nine times faster your program now runs in 20% of the original time i.e. five times faster.

Suppose you could get that function running nine times faster. Notice that the 90/10 rule no longer applies to your program. 50% of the execution time is spent in 10% of your code 50% is spent in the other 90% of your code. And if you've managed to speed up that one function by 900% it is very unlikely you're going to squeeze much more out of it (unless it was really bad to begin with). Is it worthwhile messing around with that other 90% of your code? You bet it is. After all you can improve the performance of your program by 25% if you double the speed of that other code. Note however that you only get a 25% performance boost after you optimized the 10% as best you could. Had you optimized the 90% of your program first you would only have gotten a 5% performance improvement; hardly something you'd write home about. Nonetheless you can see some situations where the 90/10 rule obviously doesn't apply and you can see some cases where optimizing that 90% can produce a good boost in performance. The OL group will smile and say "see that's the benefit of optimizing late you can optimize in stages and get just the right amount of optimization you need."

The optimize early (OE) group uses the flaw in percentage arithmetic to point out that you will probably wind up optimizing a large portion of your program anyway. So why not work all this into your design in the first place? A big problem with the OL strategy is that you often wind up designing and writing the program twice - once just to get it functional the second time to make it practical. After all if you're going to have to rewrite that 90% anyway why not write it fast in the first place? The OE people also point out that although programmers are notoriously bad at determining where a program spends most of its time there are some obvious places where they know there will be performance problems. Why wait to discover the obvious? Why not handle such problem areas early on so there is less time spent measuring and optimizing that code?

Like so many other arguements in Software Engineering the two camps become quite polarized and swear by a totally pure approach in either direction (either all OE or all OL). Like so many other arguements in Computer Science the truth actually lies somewhere between these two extremes. Any project where the programmer set out to design the perfect program without worry about performance until the end is doomed. Most programmers in this scenario write terribly slow code. Why? Because it's easier to do so and they can always "solve the performance problem during the optimization phase." As a result the 90% portion of the program is often so slow that even if the time of the other 10% were reduced to zero the program would still be way too slow. On the other hand the OE crowd gets so caught up in writing the best possible code that they miss deadlines and the product may never ship.

There is one undeniable fact that favors the OL arguement - optimized code is difficult to understand and maintain. Furthermore it often contains bugs that are not present in the unoptimized code. Since incorrect code is unacceptable even if it does run faster one very good arguement against optimizing early is the fact that testing debugging and quality assurance represent a large portion of the program development cycle. Optimizing early may create so many additional program errors that you lose any time saved by not having to optimize the program later in the development cycle.

The correct time to optimize a program is well at the correct time. Unfortunately the "correct time" varies with the program. However the first step is to develop program performance requirements along with the other program specifications. The system analyst should develop target response times for all user interactions and computations. During development and testing programmers have a target to shoot for so they can't get lazy and wait for the optimization phase before writing code that performs reasonably well. On the other hand they also have a target to shoot for and once the code is running fast enough they don't have to waste time or make their code less maintainable; they can go on and work on the rest of the program. Of course the system analyst could misjudge performance requirements but this won't happen often with a good system design.

Another consideration is when to perform what. There are several types of optimizations you can perform. For example you can rearrange instructions to avoid hazards to double the speed of a piece of code. Or you could choose a different algorithm that could run twice as fast. One big problem with optimization is that it is not a single process and many types of optimizations are best done later rather than earlier or vice versa. For example choosing a good algorithm is something you should do early on. If you decide to use a better algorithm after implementing a poor one most of the work on the code implementing the old algorithm is lost. Likewise instruction scheduling is one of the last optimizations you should do. Any changes to the code after rearranging instructions for performance may force you to spend time rearranging them again later. Clearly the lower level the optimization (i.e. relying upon CPU or system parameters) the later the optimization should be. Conversely the higher level the optimization (e.g. choice of algorithm) the sooner should be the optimization. In all cases though you should have target performance values in mind while developing code.

25.2 How Do You Find the Slow Code in Your Programs?

Although there are problems with the 90/10 rule the concept behind it is basically solid - programs tend to spend a large amount of their time executing only a small percentage of the code. Clearly you should optimize the slowest portion of your code first. The only problem is how does one find the slowest code in a program?

There are four common techniques programmers use to find the "hot spots" (the places where programs spend most of their time). The first is by trial and error. The second is to optimize everything. The third is to analyze the program. The fourth is to use a profiler or other software monitoring tool to measure the performance of various parts of a program. After locating a hot spot the programmer can attempt to analyze that section of the program.

The trial and error technique is unfortunately the most common strategy. A programmer will speed up various parts of the program by making educated guesses about where it is spending most of its time. If the programmer guesses right the program will run much faster after optimization. Experienced programmers often use this technique successfully to quickly locate and optimize a program. When the programmer guesses correctly this technique minimizes the amount of time spent looking for hot spots in a program. Unfortunately most programmers make fairly poor guesses and wind up optimizing the wrong sections of code. Such effort often goes to waste since optimizing the wrong 10% will not improve performance significantly. One of the prime reasons this technique fails so often is that it is often the first choice of inexperienced programmers who cannot easily recognize slow code. Unfotunately they are probably unaware of other techniques so rather than try a structured approach they start making (often) uneducated guesses.

Another way to locate and optimize the slow portion of a program is to optimize everything. Obviously this technique does not work well for large programs but for short sections of code it works reasonably well. Later this text will provide a short example of an optimization problem and will use this technique to optimize the program. Of course for large programs or routines this may not be a cost effective approach. However where appropriate it can save you time while optimizing your program (or at least a portion of your program) since you will not need to carefully analyze and measure the performance of your code. By optimizing everything you are sure to optimize the slow code.

The analysis method is the most difficult of the four. With this method you study your code and determine where it will spend most of its time based on the data you expect it to process. In theory this is the best technique. In practice human beings generally demonstrate a distaste for such analysis work. As such the analysis is often incorrect or takes too long to complete. Furthermore few programmers have much experience studying their code to determine where it is spending most of its time so they are often quite poor at locating hot spots by studying their listings when the need arises.

Despite the problems with program analysis this is the first technique you should always use when attempting to optimize a program. Almost all programs spend most of their time executing the body of a loop or recursive function calls. Therefore you should try to locate all recursive function calls and loop bodies (especially nested loops) in your program. Chances are very good that a program will be spending most of its time in one of these two areas of your program. Such spots are the first to consider when optimizing your programs.

Although the analytical method provides a good way to locate the slow code in a program analyzing program is a slow tedious and boring process. It is very easy to completely miss the most time consuming portion of a program especially in the presence of indirectly recursive function calls. Even locating time consuming nested loops is often difficult. For example you might not realize when looking at a loop within a procedure that it is a nested loop by virtue of the fact that the calling code executes a loop when calling the procedure. In theory the analytical method should always work. In practice it is only marginally successful given that fallible humans are doing the analysis. Nevertheless some hot spots are easy to find through program analysis so your first step when optimizing a program should be analysis.

Since programmers are notoriously bad at analyzing programs to find their hot spots it would make since to try an automate this process. This is precisely what a profiler can do for you. A profiler is a small program that measures how long your code spends in any one portion of the program. A profiler typically works by interrupting your code periodically and noting the return address. The profiler builds a histogram of interrupt return addresses (generally rounded to some user specified value). By studying this histogram you can determine where the program spends most of its time. This tells you which sections of the code you need to optimize. Of course to use this technique you will need a profiler program. Borland Microsoft and several other vendors provide profilers and other optimization tools.

25.3 Is Optimization Necessary?

Except for fun and education you should never approach a project with the attitude that you are going to get maximal performance out of your code. Years ago this was an important attitude because that's what it took to get anything decent running on the slow machines of that era. Reducing the run time of a program from ten minutes to ten seconds made many programs commercially viable. On the other hand speeding up a program that takes 0.1 seconds to the point where it runs in a millisecond is often pointless. You will waste a lot of effort improving the performance yet few people will notice the difference.

This is not to say that speeding up programs from 0.1 seconds to 0.001 seconds is never worthwhile. If you are writing a data capture program that requires you to take a reading every millisecond and it can only handle ten readings per second as currently written you've got your work cut out for you. Furthermore even if your program runs fast enough already there are reasons why you would want to make it run twice as fast. For example suppose someone can use your program in a multitasking environment. If you modify your program to run twice as fast the user will be able to run another program along side yours and not notice the performance degradation.

However the thing to always keep in mind is that you need to write software that is fast enough. Once a program produces results instantaneously (or so close to instantaneous that the user can't tell) there is little need to make it run any faster. Since optimization is an expensive and error prone process you want to avoid it as much as possible. Writing programs that run faster than fast enough is a waste of time. However as is obvious from the set of bloated application programs you'll find today this really isn't a problem most programming produce code that is way too slow not way too fast.

A common reason stated for not producing optimal code is advancing hardware design. Many programmers and managers feel that the high-end machines they develop software on today will be the mid-range machines two years from now when they finally release their software. So if they design their software to run on today's very high-end machines it will perform okay on midrange machines when they release their software.

There are two problems with the approach above. First the operating system running on those machines two years from now will gobble a large part of the machine's resources (including CPU cycles). It is interesting to note that today's machines are hundreds of times faster than the original 8088 based PCs yet many applications actually run slower than those that ran on the original PC. True today's software provides many more features beyond what the original PC provided but that's the whole point of this arguement - customers will demand features like multiple windows GUI pull-down menus etc. that all consume CPU cycles. You cannot assume that newer machines will provide extra clock cycles so your slow code will run faster. The OS or user interface to your program will wind up eating those extra available clock cycles.

So the first step is to realistically determine the performance requirements of your software. Then write your software to meet that performance goal. If you fail to meet the performance requirements then it is time to optimize your program. However you shouldn't waste additional time optimizing your code once your program meets or exceed the performance specifications.

25.4 The Three Types of Optimization

There are three forms of optimization you can use when improving the performance of a program. They are choosing a better algorithm (high level optimization) implementing the algorithm better (a medium level optmization) and "counting cycles" (a low level optimization). Each technique has its place and generally you apply them at different points in the development process.

Choosing a better algorithm is the most highly touted optimization technique. Alas it is the technique used least often. It is easy for someone to announce that you should always find a better algorithm if you need more speed; but finding that algorithm is a little more difficult. First let us define an algorithm change as using a fundamentally different technique to solve the problem. For example switching from a "bubble sort" algorithm to a "quick sort" algorithm is a good example of an algorithm change. Generally though certainly not always changing algorithms means you use a program with a better Big-Oh function. For example when switching from the bubble sort to the quick sort you are swapping an algorithm with an O(n2) running time for one with an O(n lg n) expected running time.

You must remember the restrictions on Big-Oh functions when comparing algorithms. The value for n must be sufficiently large to mask the effect of hidden constant. Furthermore Big-Oh analysis is usually worst-case and may not apply to your program. For example if you wish to sort an array that is "nearly" sorted to begin with the bubble sort algorithm is usually much faster than the quicksort algorithm regardless of the value for n. For data that is almost sorted the bubble sort runs in almost O(n) time whereas the quicksort algorithm runs in O(n2) time.

The second thing to keep in mind is the constant itself. If two algorithms have the same Big-Oh function you cannot determine any difference between the two based on the Big-Oh analysis. This does not mean that they will take the same amount of time to run. Don't forget in Big-Oh analysis we throw out all the low order terms and multiplicative constants. The asymptotic notation is of little help in this case.

To get truly phenomenal performance improvements requires an algorithmic change to your program. However discovering an O(n lg n) algorithm to replace your O(n2) algorithm is often difficult if a published solution does not already exist. Presumably a well-designed program is not going to contain many obvious algorithms you can dramatically improve (if they did they wouldn't be well-designed now would they?). Therefore attempting to find a better algorithm may not prove successful. Nevertheless it is always the first step you should take because the following steps operate on the algorithm you have. If you perform the other steps on a bad algorithm and then discover a better algorithm later you will have to repeat these time-consumings steps all over again on the new algorithm.

There are two steps to discovering a new algorithms: research and development. The first step is to see if you can find a better solution in the existing literature. Failing that the second step is to see if you can develop a better algorithm on your own. The key thing is to budget an appropriate amount of time to these two activities. Research is an open-ended process. You can always read one more book or article. So you've got to decide how much time you're going to spend looking for an existing solution. This might be a few hours days weeks or months. Whatever you feel is cost-effective. You then head to the library (or your bookshelf) and begin looking for a better solution. Once your time expires it is time to abandon the research approach unless you are sure you are on the right track in the material you are studying. If so budget a little more time and see how it goes. At some point though you've got to decide that you probably won't be able to find a better solution and it is time to try to develop a new one on your own.

While searching for a better solution you should study the papers texts articles etc. exactly as though you were studying for an important test. While it's true that much of what you study will not apply to the problem at hand you are learning things that will be useful in future projects. Furthermore while someone may not provide the solution you need they may have done some work that is headed in the same direction that you are and could provide some good ideas if not the basis for your own solution. However you must always remember that the job of an engineer is to provide a cost-effective solution to a problem. If you waste too much time searching for a solution that may not appear anywhere in the literature you will cause a cost overrun on your project. So know when it's time to "hang it up" and get on with the rest of the project.

Developing a new algorithm on your own is also open-ended. You could literally spend the rest of your life trying to find an efficient solution to an intractible problem. So once again you need to budget some time for this process accordingly. Spend the time wisely trying to develop a better solution to your problem but once the time is exhausted it's time to try a different approach rather than waste any more time chasing a "holy grail."

Be sure to use all resources at your disposal when trying to find a better algorithm. A local university's library can be a big help. Also you should network yourself. Attend local computer club meetings discuss your problems with other engineers or talk to interested friends maybe they're read about a solution that you've missed. If you have access to the Internet BIX Compuserve or other technically oriented on-line services or computerized bulletin board systems by all means post a message asking for help. With literally millions of users out there if a better solution exists for your problem someone has probabaly solved it for you already. A few posts may turn up a solution you were unable to find or develop yourself.

At some point or another you may have to admit failure. Actually you may have to admit success - you've already found as good an algorithm as you can. If this is still too slow for your requirements it may be time to try some other technique to improve the speed of your program. The next step is to see if you can provide a better implementation for the algorithm you are using. This optimization step although independent of language is where most assembly language programmers produce dramatic performance improvements in their code. A better implementation generally involves steps like unrolling loops using table lookups rather than computations eliminating computations from a loop whose value does not change within a loop taking advantage of machine idioms (such as using a shift or shift and add rather than a multiplication) trying to keep variables in registers as long as possible and so on. It is surprising how much faster a program can run by using simple techniques like those whose descriptions appear thoughout this text.

As a last resort you can resort to cycle counting. At this level you are trying to ensure that an instruction sequence uses as few clock cycles as possible. This is a difficult optimization to perform because you have to be aware of how many clock cycles each instruction consumes and that depends on the instruction the addressing mode in use the instructions around the current instruction (i.e. pipelining and superscalar effects) the speed of the memory system (wait states and cache) and so on. Needless to say such optimizations are very tedious and require a very careful analysis of the program and the system on which it will run.

The OL crowd always claims you should put off optimization as long as possible. These people are generally talking about this last form of optimization. The reason is simple: any changes you make to your program after such optimizations may change the interaction of the instructions and therefore their execution time. If you spend considerable time scheduling a sequence of 50 instructions and then discover you will need to rewrite that code for one reason or another all the time you spent carefully scheduling those instructions to avoid hazards is lost. On the other hand if you wait until the last possible moment to make such optimizations to you code you will only optimize that code once.

Many HLL programmers will tell you that a good compiler can beat a human being at scheduling instructions and optimizing code. This isn't true. A good compiler will beat a mediocre assembly language program a good part of the time. However a good compiler won't stand a chance against a good assembly language programmer. After all the worst that could happen is that the good assembly language programmer will look at the output of the compiler and improve on that.

"Counting cycles" can improve the performance of your programs. On the average you can speed up your programs by a factor of 50% to 200% by making simple changes (like rearranging instructions). That's the difference between an 80486 and a Pentium! So you shouldn't ignore the possibility of using such optimizations in your programs. Just keep in mind you should do such optimizations last so you don't wind up redoing them as your code changes.

The rest of this chapter will concentrate on the techniques for improving the implementation of an algorithm rather than designing a better algorithm or using cycle counting techniques. Designing better algorithms is beyond the scope of this manual (see a good text on algorithm design). Cycle counting is one of those processes that differs from processor to processor. That is the optimization techniques that work well for the 80386 fail on a 486 or Pentium chip and vice versa. Since Intel is constantly producing new chips requring different optimization techniques listing those techniques here would only make that much more material in this book outdated. Intel publishes such optimization hints in their processor programmer reference manuals. Articles on optimizing assembly language programs often appear in technical magazines like Dr. Dobb's Journal you should read such articles and learn all the current optimization techniques.

Chapter Twenty Four

Table of Content

Chapter Twenty Five (Part 2)

Chapter Twenty Five: Optimizing Your Programm (Part 1)
29 SEP 1996