ARM: Efficient C for ARM: Pointer Aliasing

by David Thomas on

Pointer Aliasing

  • Pointers alias when they point to the same address.
    • Writing via one pointer will change the value read through another.
  • The compiler often doesn’t know which pointers alias.
    • The compiler must assume that any write through a pointer may affect the value read from any another pointer!
    • This can significantly reduce code efficiency.


void timers1(int *t1, int *t2, int *step)
  *t1 += *step;
  *t2 += *step;
timers1 LDR r3,[r0]   ; R3 = *t1
        LDR r12,[r2]  ; R12 = *step
        ADD r3,r3,r12 ; R3 += R12
        STR r3,[r0]   ; *t1 = R3
        LDR r0,[r1]   ; R0 = *t2
        LDR r2,[r2]   ; R2 = *step  *** step loaded again
        ADD r0,r0,r2  ; R0 += R2
        STR r0,[r1]   ; *t2 = R0
        MOV pc,r14

You’d expect *step to be pulled from memory once and used twice. That does not happen.

Once rewritten to cache *step in a local variable, the redundant load is eliminated:

void timers2(int *t1, int *t2, int *step)
  int s = *step;
  *t1 += s;
  *t2 += s;
timers2 LDR r2,[r2]  ; R2 = *step
        LDR r3,[r0]  ; R3 = *t1
        ADD r3,r3,r2 ; R3 += R2
        STR r3,[r0]  ; *t1 = R3
        LDR r0,[r1]  ; R0 = *t2
        ADD r0,r0,r2 ; R0 += R2
        STR r0,[r1]  ; *t2 = R0
        MOV pc,r14


C99’s restrict qualifier goes some way towards mitigating the effects of pointer aliasing. Understanding strict aliasing.

This is based on section 5.6 of ARM System Developer’s Guide.