ARM: Efficient C for ARM: Sentinels

by David Thomas on


When searching through a list we normally do two comparisons:

  1. Compare loop index against maximum.
  2. Compare current key against desired key.

That’s two flow conditions inside a tight loop, which is bad on modern pipelined CPUs.


  • Augment the array with the desired value at the end.
    • This allows both comparisons to be merged.
    • But it requires one extra element.


The original code:

int search1(int *list, int N, int want)
  int i;

  for (i = 0; i < N; i++)
    if (list[i] == want)
      return i;

  return -1;

Compiles to:

     MOV   r3,#0     ; i = 0
     B     loop
test LDR   r12,[r0,r3,LSL #2]
     CMP   r12,r2    ; key
     ADDNE r3,r3,#1  ; i++
     BNE   loop
     MOV   r0,r3     ; i
     MOV   pc,lr
loop CMP   r3,r1     ; i < N
     BLT   test
     MVN   r0,#0     ; -1
     MOV   pc,lr

If we rewrite it as follows:

int search2(int *list, int N, int want)
  int i;

  list[N] = want;

  i = 0;
  while (list[i] != want)

  if (i == N)
    return -1;

  return i;

It compiles to:

     STR   r2,[r0,r1,LSL #2]
     MOV   r3,#0     ; i = 0
loop LDR   r12,[r0,r3,LSL #2]
     CMP   r12,r2
     ADDNE r3,r3,#1  ; i++
     BNE   loop
     CMP   r3,r1     ; i == N
     MOVNE r0,r3
     MVNEQ r0,#0     ; -1
     MOV   pc,lr


Sentinel: Computers. a symbol, mark, or other labelling device indicating the beginning or end of a unit of information.

This is from

Obviously you need to ensure that list[N] is both available and writable.

This can be improved further by replacing array indexing with pointers.