Understanding your Compiler

I just came across this set of slides on source code optimisation and I have to agree with the lesson to take away – that is to understand how your compiler works. I do this very often as I have to work with really low-level code at the microprocessor level. So, I need to understand how the compiler works in order to generate the correct sequence of codes.

I thought that I should share this piece of gem here.

The key thing to remember is that the compiler will always generate code depending on what it thinks you are trying to do. While early optimisation is the root of all evil, coders need to help the compiler along by writing code in such a way as to make it easy for the compiler to figure out what it is that we want it to do. If we left everything to be decided by the compiler, we would ultimately end up with code that works, but not optimally.

This is a particularly big problem in the embedded world.

The only way to learn how the compiler works is to decompile and disassemble code – not by reading the above slides only. I primarily work with GCC compilers and I always compile it with the -g flag turned on to generate debugging symbols. This makes it much easier for objdump -dSC to give me human read-able assembly output. Do this for different code paths and we will soon begin to understand how the compiler interprets our code.

Then, the only issue that matters is the purpose for optimisation – size, speed or power.


Published by

Shawn Tan

Chip Doctor, Chartered/Professional Engineer, Entrepreneur, Law Graduate.

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