How to Define New Intrinsics in SBCL

This Stack Overflow post points out an obscure and undocumented weakness in Intel’s implementation of the POPCNT instruction: although the population count (number of bits equal to 1) is only a function of the source argument, hardware schedules it as though it also depended on the destination. GCC, clang and MSVC all fail to take this issue into account.

Until a new patched version of my favourite C compiler is released, there aren’t many tasteful workarounds for this performance bug. I’d have to switch to inline asm, and either force the compiler to allocate the same register to the input and the result, or force different registers and clear the spurious dependency with a xor. Ideally, I wouldn’t impose any additional constraint on the register allocator and only insert a xor if the destination and source registers don’t match.

SBCL easily supports this use case, without having to re-release or even recompile the implementation: VOPs (virtual operations) execute arbitrary CL code during code generation and they can be defined at runtime.

The first step is to make sure that SBCL’s assembler knows how to emit popcnt: the assembler can also be extended at runtime, but that’s more hairy and a topic for another post. Instruction encodings are defined in src/compiler/$ARCH/insts.lisp, and a quick grep reveals (define-instruction popcnt (segment dst src) ...): the x86-64 backend learned about popcnt in May 2013 (thanks to Douglas Katzman). We define VOPs via define-vop, a macro that exposes many options. Most of the time, it’s easiest to look at a pre-existing definition for an operation that’s similar to the one we want to add. Popcount looks like integer negation: it has a single (machine integer) argument and returns another integer. Integer negation is defined in src/compiler/$ARCH/arith.lisp:

The code snippet above includes a bit of boilerplate to factor out commonalities via inheritance. The first definition introduces fast-safe-arith-op, VOPs that apply in both high speed and high safety settings (the rest is copy/pasted noise from earlier ports that sport a scheduler); the second one extends fast-safe-arith-op to define fixnum-unop, a base definition for single-argument operations on fixnums, while the third one is the same, but for machine integers. The last three definitions fill in the blanks so the compiler can compile %negate of fixnum, signed and unsigned integers. The (:translate %negate) bit means that these VOPs can be emitted instead of calls to %negate. The integer after :generator defines the “cost” of each variant; the compiler will choose the (applicable) variant with the least cost and execute the code sequence that follows to convert a call to %negate into machine code.

This kind of implementation inheritance is fine for an SBCL backend, where we define many VOPs and expect developers to understand the system. I doubt it’s a didactic win. Let’s do something simpler for popcnt. In the interest of simplicity, I’ll also completely disregard powerful details in define-vop that are rarely relevant when defining intrinsics that map directly to machine instructions.

First, we need to tell the compiler that we’re about to do special things to a function named popcnt (and to blow away any pre-existing information if the defknown form is re-evaluated).

This says that popcnt accepts a 64-bit unsigned integer and returns an integer between 0 and 64 (inclusively), and that the function can be constant-folded, flushed (eliminated as dead code) and moved around (it’s pure).

Now, to define a VOP that implements popcnt:

We define a new VOP named popcnt:popcnt (the name is arbitrary, as long as it doesn’t collide with another VOP) that is applicable at all optimization policies (both high speed and high debug level), and that implements popcnt:popcnt. Its first and only argument, x, is an unsigned-num, an unsigned machine integer, that can only be stored in a register. Moreover, if possible, we’d like x to be allocated the same register as the result, r. There’s only one result (r) and it’s an unsigned machine integer in a register, just like x. The generator, of cost 3 (a common default for arithmetic operations), breaks any dependency chain in r if necessary, and stores the population count of x in r.

At first sight, the defknown form seems to conflict with the VOP. We declare that the return value of popcnt is a small integer, clearly a fixnum, and then define a VOP that returns a machine integer. The subtlety is that defknown is concerned with IR1, the higher level intermediate representation, which works on CL types (i.e, types as sets) and abstract values. VOPs, on the other hand, are defined for the lower level IR2, where types describe concrete representations (like C). It is perfectly meaningful to say that a small integer will be represented as an untagged machine integer.

The next step isn’t strictly necessary, but helps people who like their REPL. The compiler knows how to compile calls to popcnt, so we can define popcnt… as a call to popcnt. Our new function is now a first-class value that can be called from interpreted code and passed to higher-order functions, like the compiler’s constant-folding pass.

CL-USER> (disassemble 'popcnt:popcnt)
; disassembly for POPCNT:POPCNT
; Size: 25 bytes
; 07FCDB6E:       4831D2           XOR RDX, RDX               ; no-arg-parsing entry point
;       71:       F3480FB8D1       POPCNT RDX,RCX
;       76:       48D1E2           SHL RDX, 1
;       79:       488BE5           MOV RSP, RBP
;       7C:       F8               CLC
;       7D:       5D               POP RBP
;       7E:       C3               RET
[ error trap noise ]
CL-USER> (popcnt:popcnt 42)
3


The disassembly shows that we get the code that we expect, including the dependency-breaking workaround, and the smoke test passes. There’s one interesting detail: we only defined a VOP that returns a machine integer. However, popcnt returns a tagged value (a fixnum), and does so with an efficient shift. IR2 takes care of inserting any coercion needed between VOPs (e.g., between popcnt and the VOP used to return boxed values from functions), and the IR1 defknown guarantees that the result of popcnt, despite being represented in an unsigned machine integer, is small enough for a fixnum.

Let’s see what happens when we feed arithmetic into popcnt, e.g.:

CL-USER> (disassemble (lambda (x y)
(declare (type (unsigned-byte 32) x y))
(popcnt:popcnt (+ x y))))
; disassembly for (LAMBDA (X Y))
; Size: 55 bytes
; 0752BD59:       4801FA           ADD RDX, RDI               ; no-arg-parsing entry point
;       5C:       48D1FA           SAR RDX, 1
;       5F:       F3480FB8D2       POPCNT RDX,RDX
;       64:       48D1E2           SHL RDX, 1
;       67:       488BE5           MOV RSP, RBP
;       6A:       F8               CLC
;       6B:       5D               POP RBP
;       6C:       C3               RET


After adding two fixnums, an automatic coercion unboxes the resulting fixnum into a machine integer which is then passed to popcnt (note the lack of dependency-breaking xor now that the source and destination are the same register).

That’s pretty good code, but we can do better: fixnums are tagged with 0, so we can simply pass fixnums to popcnt without untagging.

This is where the cost parameter to :generator comes in: we can define another VOP for popcnt of fixnums and bias the compiler to prefer the fixnum VOP.

CL-USER> (disassemble (lambda (x y)
(declare (type (unsigned-byte 32) x y))
(popcnt:popcnt (+ x y))))
; disassembly for (LAMBDA (X Y))
; Size: 47 bytes
; 07BEABE9:       4801FA           ADD RDX, RDI               ; no-arg-parsing entry point
;      BEC:       F3480FB8D2       POPCNT RDX,RDX
;      BF1:       48D1E2           SHL RDX, 1
;      BF4:       488BE5           MOV RSP, RBP
;      BF7:       F8               CLC
;      BF8:       5D               POP RBP
;      BF9:       C3               RET


Unlike many low-level languages, CL includes a standard function for population count, logcount. SBCL includes a VOP for logcount (with a cost of 14), which we can supersede with our own popcnt-based VOPs: we only have to replace (:translate popcnt:popcnt) with (:translate logcount). That’s an easy improvement but isn’t in trunk because popcnt is a recent x86 extension.

Adding VOPs for (ad-hoc) polymorphic or otherwise generic functions can be surprising: a VOP will only be considered if the arguments and the return values are known to have CL types that are compatible with the VOP’s representation specification. For popcnt, we guarantee that the return value is a positive integer between 0 and 64; for cl:logcount, the defknown guarantees that the return value is a positive fixnum. In both cases, the return values can always be represented as an unsigned machine integer, so our new VOPs will always match if the argument fits in positive fixnums or unsigned machine integers (and will have priority over the generic x86-64 VOP because their cost is lower). More complex cases depend on derive-type optimizers, but that’s rarely necessary when defining instrinsics for low-level code.