Pointers are Easy, Optimization is Complicated


Correct no longer too long ago got right here across Ralf Jung’s 2018 put up titled Pointers are Complex. The central thesis is that the mannequin that most C (and
assembly language) programmers possess that a pointer is radiant an integer that happens to be a machine
tackle is injurious, really the author flat out states: “Pointers are positively no longer integers.”

That is a exact statement. I look after exact statements, on story of they scheme a dialogue that that you simply would possibly most likely most likely also imagine. So
let’s reply in style: the claim that pointers are positively no longer integers is injurious.

The instance

The instance the author uses to impart that pointers are positively no longer integers is the following:

int test() {
    auto x = unusual int[8];
    auto y = unusual int[8];
    y[0] = 42;
    int i = /some aspect-gain-free computation */;
    auto x_ptr = &x[i];
    *x_ptr = 23;
    return y[0];

And right here is the crux of the reasoning:

It could perchance most likely be priceless so as to optimize the perfect read of y[0] to radiant return 42. The justification for this optimization is that writing to x_ptr, which factors into x, can not change y.

So pointers are “laborious” and “no longer integers” on story of they war with this optimization that “would be

I uncover this engaging: a “fine to possess” optimzation is so clearly more well-known than a straightforward
and apparent pointer mannequin that it would no longer even resolve on to be defined as a that that you simply would possibly most likely most likely also imagine tradeoff, never
thoughts justified as to why the tradeoff is resolved in resolve on of the good-to-possess optimization.

I take hang of the uncomplicated and apparent pointer mannequin. Vastly.

This way of putting the optimizer’s concerns far before the programmer’s is no longer outlandish, if
you test up on Chris Lattner’s What Every C Programmer Ought to Know About Undefined Behavior, you are going to point out
the frequent incidence of the phrase “enables … optimizations”. Or no longer it is moderately well-known the top
justification ever given.

I call this now industry-dominating vogue of programming Compiler Optimizer Creator Oriented
(COCOP). It used to be thoroughly critiqued in What every compiler author have to restful know about programmers or “Optimization” in accordance to undefined behaviour hurts efficiency (pdf).

Pointers as Integers

There are completely machines where pointers are no longer integers, basically the most popular being 8086/80286 16 bit
segmented mode, where a (far) pointer contains a section and an offset. On 8086, the section
is merely shifted left 4 bits and added to the offset, on 80286 the section can even be positioned wherever
in reminiscence or no longer be resident, enforcing a segmented virtual reminiscence. AFAIK, these modes are
simplified variants of the iAPX 432 object reminiscence mannequin.

What’s well-known to point on this context is that the iAPX 432 and its reminiscence mannequin failed horribly,
and industry actively and happily moved away from the x86 segmented mannequin to what in most cases known as a
“flat tackle role”, long-established on other architectures and sooner or later furthermore adopted by Intel with the

The salient feature of a “flat tackle role” is that a pointer is an integer, and really this
eqivalence is furthermore moderately influential on CPU architecture, with tackle-role nearly universally
tied to the CPU’s integer size. So even supposing the 68K used to be billed as a 16 bit CPU (or 16/32), its
registers were basically 32 bits, and IIRC its tackle ALUs were fully 32 bit, so if you happen to wished
to attain some styles of 32 bit aritmetic, the LEA (Load Fantastic Contend with) instruction used to be your
just correct friend. The motive within the befriend of the segmented architecturee on the 8086 used to be that it used to be a staunch 16 bit
machine, with 16 bit registers, but Intel wished to possess a 20 bit tackle role.

So no longer most efficient used to be and is there an equivalence of pointers and integers, this grief
used to be one which used to be actively sought and joyously got after we executed it again. Giving
it up for fine-to-possess optimizations seems at easiest arguable, but on the very
least it is far something that needs to be discussed/debated, moderately than merely assumed away.

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