Branchless Code Sequences

by David Thomas on


Sometimes when low-level programming we need to tune a small code sequence which is critical to an implementation. For example, an inner loop in a graphics routine may involve a pixel-bashing operation that dominates the program’s overall performance. If this operation uses a comparison that results in the compiled code branching it may hurt performance on pipelined CPUs. It might offer higher performance to replace the sequence with a branch-free alternative, even if it makes the code more complicated.

But how do we find these branch-free alternatives? Sufficiently small sequences can be discovered with a superoptimiser program. Superoptimisers are not as clever as the name might suggest: they are typically an exhaustive search through an (often virtual) instruction set. The superoptimiser will try every conceivable permutation of instructions from its instruction set until it finds a sequence which works for the values under test.

Two examples of this are GNU superopt (1995) and Aha! - A Hacker’s Assistant (2008). In this article I’ll discuss Aha.

A Hacker’s Assistant

Aha was written by Henry S. Warren, Jr. author of the indispensable book on bit twiddling: Hacker’s Delight.

Aha exhaustively tries all reasonable combinations of instructions from a customisable set. The instruction set corresponds to no real CPU but is sufficiently general and RISC-like to be applicable to most CPUs. It simulates 32-bit calculations only and knows nothing about processor flags.

I maintain a version of Aha on Github which includes a couple of straightforward tweaks to make it more interesting for 32-bit mode ARM CPUs. Additions I’ve made to its repertoire include adding an equivalent of ARM’s bitwise clear BIC instruction (equivalent to AND NOT) and reverse subtract RSB.

An example

First, clone and enter the Aha repo:

$ git clone
$ cd Aha

 Let’s cook up an illustrative although perhaps useless operation to be built into Aha for testing. The operation must be ‘pure’: having no side effects or reliance on global state.

Our test operation will return one if x is zero. If x is one, it will return two. Otherwise it will return zero.

/* test.frag.c */

#include "aha.h"

int userfun(int x)
  if (x == 0)      return 1;
  else if (x == 1) return 2;
  else             return 0;

We’ll build the Aha binary, linking in our user function by specifying EXAMPLE=test. With only a few source files it’s quick to build:

$ make EXAMPLE=test aha
gcc -c -O2 -Wall -Wno-unused-variable -MMD -I. -DINC=\"test.frag.c\" -DOFILE=\"test.out\" -o aha.o aha.c
gcc -c -O2 -Wall -Wno-unused-variable -MMD -I. -DINC=\"test.frag.c\" -DOFILE=\"test.out\" -o simulator.o simulator.c
gcc -O2 -Wall -Wno-unused-variable -MMD -I. -DINC=\"test.frag.c\" -DOFILE=\"test.out\" -o aha aha.o simulator.o

We invoke Aha with the length of instruction sequence to trial. For our first attempt let’s see if there are any programs which can calculate our illustrative operation in three Aha operations:

$ ./aha 3
Searching for programs with 3 operations.
Found 0 solutions.
Counters = 372751, 382255, 952561, total = 1707567
Process time = 0.029 secs

Nope… Okay, let’s try four instructions:

$ ./aha 4
Searching for programs with 4 operations.

Found a 4-operation program:
   add   r1,rx,-2
   bic   r2,r1,rx
   shr   r3,r2,31
   shl   r4,r3,rx
   Expr: ((((x + -2) & ~x) >>u 31) << x)

Found a 4-operation program:
   sub   r1,rx,2
   bic   r2,r1,rx
   shr   r3,r2,31
   shl   r4,r3,rx
   Expr: ((((x - 2) & ~x) >>u 31) << x)

Found a 4-operation program:
   shr   r1,rx,1
   sub   r2,r1,1
   shr   r3,r2,31
   shl   r4,r3,rx
   Expr: ((((x >>u 1) - 1) >>u 31) << x)

Found a 4-operation program:
   shr   r1,rx,1
   sub   r2,0x80000000,r1
   shr   r3,r2,31
   shl   r4,r3,rx
   Expr: (((0x80000000 - (x >>u 1)) >>u 31) << x)
Found 4 solutions.
Counters = 71688592, 71698096, 73956616, 196050676, total = 413393980
Process time = 6.240 secs

Great! This run has given us four suggested solutions:

Observe that Aha’s notation uses >>u to denote unsigned right shifts. It will also emit >>s for signed right shifts.

The first two suggestions are (((x + -2) & ~x) >>u 31) << x and (((x - 2) & ~x) >>u 31) << x which only differ by the subexpressions (x + -2) and (x - 2). These are of course the same thing, but since instruction-wise they’re different operations to Aha it outputs them both. (You might discard these variations immediately when approaching from an optimisation perspective but they were actually valuable to me when I was generating random equivalent instruction sequences for anti-tamper software in a former role.)

It’s not exhaustively exhaustive

To verify that a sequence works Aha runs it against a limited set of constants. The define TRIAL in Aha’s config.h enumerates them:

#define TRIAL {1, 0, -1, \
               MAXNEG, MAXPOS, MAXNEG + 1, MAXPOS - 1, \
               0x01234567, 0x89ABCDEF, -2, 2, -3, 3, -64, 64, -5, -31415, \
               0x0000FFFF, 0xFFFF0000, \
               0x000000FF, 0x0000FF00, 0x00FF0000, 0xFF000000, \
               0x0000000F, 0x000000F0, 0x00000F00, 0x0000F000, \
               0x000F0000, 0x00F00000, 0x0F000000, 0xF0000000}

You could make Aha more accurate by adding to this list, but extending it too much will slow things down. Conversely you could remove some trial values from here if you only care about your solution working for a subset of integers, such as bytes.

While Aha performs an exhaustive search for answers it does not perform an exhaustive test of its suggestions. If you want a generated program to be proven working for all possible input values (e.g. all 32-bit integers, or the subset of integer values that matter to you) then you’ll need to write a small test program yourself.

So let’s build that small test program in C and verify that each of the suggested programs works for every possible 32-bit integer:

/* test.c -- test shell for Aha! suggested solutions */

#include <limits.h>
#include <stdio.h>

/* ----------------------------------------------------------------------- */

typedef unsigned int T;
typedef T (testfn_t)(T);

/* ----------------------------------------------------------------------- */

/* reference version of our original operation */ 
static T reference(T x)
    if (x == 0)
        return 1;
    else if (x == 1)
        return 2;
        return 0;

static T branchless1(T x)
    return (((x + -2) & ~x) >> 31) << x;

static T branchless2(T x)
    return (((x - 2) & ~x) >> 31) << x;

static T branchless3(T x)
    return (((x >> 1) - 1) >> 31) << x;

static T branchless4(T x)
    return ((0x80000000 - (x >> 1)) >> 31) << x;

/* ----------------------------------------------------------------------- */

static const struct
    testfn_t *branchless, *reference;
tests[] =
    { &branchless1, &reference },
    { &branchless2, &reference },
    { &branchless3, &reference },
    { &branchless4, &reference },

/* ----------------------------------------------------------------------- */

#define NELEMS(a) (int)(sizeof(a) / sizeof(a[0]))

int main(void)
    int          j;
    unsigned int i;

    for (j = 0; j < NELEMS(tests); j++)
        testfn_t *fn, *ref;
        int       nfailures;

        printf("starting test %d\n", j);

        fn  = tests[j].branchless;
        ref = tests[j].reference;

        nfailures = 0;

        /* test all values from zero to UINT_MAX */
        for (i = 0; ; i++)
            if (fn(i) != ref(i))
                if (++nfailures < 20) /* report first twenty failures only */
                    printf("failure at %d\n", i);

            if ((i & 0x03ffffff) == 0) /* draw 64 dots */
                putc('.', stdout);

            if (i == UINT_MAX) /* test here to prevent infinite loop */

        if (nfailures == 0)
            printf("all ok!\n");
            printf("saw %d failures\n", nfailures);

    return 0;

Build and run it:

$ gcc -Wall -O3 test.c -o test
$ ./test
starting test 0
all ok!
starting test 1
all ok!
starting test 2
all ok!
starting test 3
all ok!

Everything works. Cool! Now you get to plug it into your code to see if it speeds things up.

Some useful sequences I’ve found using Aha

Absolute value

To calculate x >= 0 ? x : -x, try:

Of course we can pull the constant term s (x >>s 31) out from these and have:

See this article from Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger for similar.

Coerce to boolean

To calculate !!x (which coerces a variable to a bool), try:

I researched this case, and the following ones, after discovering that a large game vendor’s compiler was inserting a needless branch when a cast to bool was added. Replacing the cast with one of these solved the issue. Sometimes even inbuilt operators can result in unexpected, redundant branches.

Coerce to inverted boolean

To calculate !x, try:

Coerce to boolean where true is negative one

To calculate x ? -1 : 0, try: