Selecting The Best Compiler Options
Posted by JanWan
Last Updated: July 05, 2012

Selecting The Best Compiler Options

This article suggests how to get the best performance from an UltraSPARC or x86/EMT64 (x64) processor running on the latest Solaris platforms by compiling with the best set of compiler options and the latest compilers. These are suggestions of things you should try, but before you release the final version of your program, you should understand exactly what you have asked the compiler to do.

The fundamental questions

There are two questions that you need to ask when compiling your program:

  1. What do I know about the platforms that this program will run on?
  2. What do I know about the assumptions that are made in the code?

The answers to these two questions determine what compiler options you should use.

The target platform

What platforms do you expect your code to run on? The choice of platform determines:

  1. 32-bit or 64-bit instruction set
  2. Instruction set extensions the compiler can use
  3. Instruction scheduling depending on instruction execution times
  4. Cache configuration

The first three are often the ones that will have the greatest impact on the performance of the application.

32-bit versus 64-bit code

The UltraSPARC and x64 families of processors can run both 32-bit and 64-bit code. The critical advantage of 64-bit code is that the application can handle a larger data set than 32-bit code, which has a size limit of 4GB for the application and data. However, the cost of this larger address space is a larger memory footprint for the application; long variable types and pointers increase in size from 4 bytes to 8 bytes. The increase in footprint will cause the 64-bit application to run more slowly than the 32-bit version.

However, the x86/x64 platform has some architectural advantages when running 64-bit code compared to running 32-bit code. In particular, the application can use more registers, and can use a better calling convention. On an x86 processor, these advantages will typically enable a 64-bit version of an application to run faster than a 32-bit version of the same code, unless the memory footprint of the application has significantly increased.

The UltraSPARC line of processors was architected to enable the 32-bit version of the application to already use the architectural features of the 64-bit instruction set. So there is no architectural performance gain going from 32-bit to 64-bit code. Consequently the UltraSPARC processors will only see the additional cost of the increase in memory footprint.

Hence best performance is likely to be attained if SPARC binaries are compiled as 32-bit, and x86 binaries are compiled as 64-bit. The compiler flags that determine whether a 32-bit or 64-bit binary is generated are the flags -m32 and -m64.

For additional details about migrating from 32-bit to 64-bit code, refer to Converting 32-bit Applications Into 64-bit Applications: Things to Consider and 64-bit x86 Migration, Debugging, and Tuning, With the Sun Studio 10 Toolset

Specifying an appropriate target processor

The default for the compiler is to produce a 'generic' binary; a binary that will work well on all platforms. In many situations this will be the best choice. However, there are some situations where it is appropriate to select a different target.

  • To override a previous target setting. The compiler evaluates options from left to right, if the flag -fast has been specified on the compile line, then it may be appropriate to override the implicit setting of -xtarget=native with a different choice.

  • To take advantage of features of a particular processor. For example, newer processors tend to have more features, the compiler can use these features at the expense of producing a binary that does not run on the older processors that do not have these features.

The -xtarget flag actually sets three flags:

  • The -xarch flag which specifies the architecture of the machine. This is basically the instruction set that the compiler can use. If the processor that runs the application does not support the appropriate architecture then the application may not run.

  • The -xchip flag which tells the compiler which processor to assume is running the code. This tells the compiler which patterns of instructions to favour when it has a choice between multiple ways of coding the same operation, it also tells the compiler the instruction latency to use for scheduling instructions to minimise stalls.

  • The -xcache flag tells the compiler the cache hierarchy to assume. This can have a significant impact on floating point codes where the compiler is able to make a choice about how to arrange loops so that the data being manipulated fits into the caches.

The impact of the these three performance settings will depend on the characteristics of the application. Codes that spend time in floating point computation tend to be those that show most sensitivity to the settings used for the target.

Target architectures for SPARC processors

The default -xtarget=generic option should be appropriate for most situations. The compiler will generate a 32-bit binary that uses the SPARC V8 instruction set, or a 64-bit binary that uses the SPARC V9 instruction set. The most common situation where a different setting might be required would be with a code doing a significant number of floating point computations. Here, use of the hardware floating point multiply-accumulate (FMA or FMAC) instructions would be effective.

The SPARC64 line of processors supports FMA instructions. These instructions combine a floating point multiply and a floating point addition (or subtraction) into a single operation. A FMA typically takes the same number of cycles to complete as either a floating point addition or a floating point multiplication, so the performance gain from using these instructions can be significant. However, it is possible that the results from an application compiled to use FMA instructions may be different than the same application compiled to not use these instructions.

An FMAC instruction performs the following operation, called a “fused multipy-accumulate”:

Result = ROUND( (value1 * value2) + value3)

Here ROUND indicates that the value is rounded to the nearest representable floating point number when it is stored into the result. This single FMAC instruction replaces the following two instructions

    tmp = ROUND(value1 * value2)
    Result = ROUND(tmp + value3)

Notice that the two instruction version has two round operations, and this difference can result in a difference in the least significant bits of the calculated result.

To generate FMA instructions, the binary needs to be compiled with two flags: one to specify an architecture that supports the FMA instructions, and another to tell the compiler that it is acceptable to use these instructions:

-xarch=sparcfmaf -fma=fused

Alternatively the flags -xtarget=sparc64vi -fma=fused will enable the generation of the FMA instruction and will also tell the compiler to assume the characteristics of the SPARC64 VI processor when compiling the code. This will produce optimal code for the SPARC64 VI platform. Code compiled to contain FMA instructions will not run on platforms that do not support the instructions.

Specifying the target processor for the x86/x64 processor family

By default the compiler targets a 32-bit generic x86 based processor, so the code will run on any x86 processor from a Pentium Pro up to an AMD Opteron architecture. Whilst this produces code that can run over the widest range of processors, this does not take advantage of the extensions offered by the latest processors. Most currently available x86 processors have the SSE2 instruction set extensions. To take advantage of these instructions the flag -xarch=sse2 should be used. However, the compiler may not recognise all opportunities to use these instructions unless the vectorisation flag -xvector=simd is also used.

So for x86/x64 processors, compile with at least:

-xarch=sse2 -xvector=simd

Summary of target settings for various address spaces and architectures

The following table summarizes the options to use for various processors and architectures.

Command Name Translation

The names of the compilers are different, as shown in the table below:

-xtarget=generic -m32
-xtarget=sparc64vi -m32 -fma=fused
-xtarget=generic -m32
-xtarget=generic -xarch=sse2 -m32 -xvector=simd
-xtarget=generic -m64
-xtarget=sparc64vi -m64 -fma=fused
-xtarget=generic -xarch=sse2 -m64 -xvector=simd

Optimization and debug

Compiling with an optimization flag alters three important characteristics: the runtime of the compiled application, the length of time that the compilation takes, and the amount of debug that is possible with the final binary. In general the higher the level of optimization the faster the application runs (and the longer it takes to compile), but the less debug information made available; but the particular impact of optimization levels will vary from application to application.

The easiest way of thinking about this is to consider three degrees of optimization, as outlined in the following table.

Full debug
[no optimization flags] -g
The application will have full debug capabilities, but almost no compiler optimizations will be performed, leading to lower performance.
-g -O
[-g0 for C++]
The application will have good debug capabilities, and a reasonable set of optimizations will be performed, typically leading to significantly better performance.
High optimization
-g -fast
The application will have good debug capabilities, and a full set of compiler optimizations, typically leading to higher performance.

Note: For C++ at optimisation levels of -O and lower, the debug flag -g will inhibit some of the inlining of methods. This can have a significant performance impact on the binary. The flag -g0 will provide debug information without inhibiting the inlining of these methods. Consequently it can be useful to use the flag -g0 with -O if it is important to have the same level of performance as the non-debug version. The behaviour of -g for C++ was changed to this in Sun Studio 12 Update 1; prior releases of the C++ compiler always disabled front-end inling when the flag -g was used.

Suggestion: In general an optimization level of at least -O is suggested, however the two situations where lower levels might be considered are (1) where more detailed debug information is required and (2) the semantics of the program require that variables are treated as volatile, in which case the optimization level should be lowered to -xO2.

More details on debug information

The compiler will generate information for the debugger if the -g flag is present. For lower levels of optimization, the -g flag disables some minor optimizations to make the generated code easier to debug. At higher levels of optimization, the presence of the flag does not alter the code generated (or its performance) -- but be aware that at high levels of optimization it is not always possible for the debugger to relate the disassembled code to the exact line of source, or to determine the value of local variables held in registers rather than stored to memory.

As discussed earlier, at low levels of optimisation the C++ compiler will disable some of the inlining performed by the compiler when the -g compiler flag is used. However, the flag -g0 will tell the compiler to do all the inlining that it would normally do as well generating the debug information.

A very strong reason for compiling with the -g flag is that the generated debug information lets the Sun Studio Performance Analyzer attribute time spent in the code directly to lines of source code -- making the process of finding performance bottlenecks considerably easier. Also should the application produce a core file, the debugger will usually be able to report the line of code which produced the core file.


  • Always compile with -g/-g0. It rarely makes any difference to performance, and your program will be easier to debug and analyze.

Using -fast for performance

The flag -fast is a good starting point when optimizing code. However, it may not necessarily give you the right set of optimizations you want for the finished program. The -fast flag is a macro that enables a full set of optimisations that will often lead to near optimal performance for many applications. However, some of these optimisations may not be appropriate for your particular application.

  • The -fast flag assumes that the platform doing the compiling is representative of the type of machine that will run the resulting binary (-xtarget=native). The compiler will use the instruction set extensions that are supported by the compiling platform. The application may not run if these instructions are also not available on the platform where the application is deployed. Overriding the implied -xtarget=native with an -xtarget flag to specify a more generic target might be required.

  • On x86 platforms, -xregs=frameptr allows the compiler to use the framepointer as an unallocated callee-saves register, which can result in increased run-time performance. This option is included in -fast for C. Use of this flag may mean that some tools are unable to correctly generate callstack information.

  • For the C compiler the -fast flag includes -xalias_level=basic, which declares that the application does not contain pointer aliasing between different data types. Code not complying to language standards might not run correctly when compiled with this flag. We discuss pointer aliasing later in this article.

  • The -fast flag also enables certain floating point optimisations, which we discuss in the next section in more detail.

The -fast flag is a good starting point for getting the best performance out of your application. It is recommended that the optimisations it enables are reviewed before a final set of compiler flags are decided for the production build of your application. The flags -#, -xdryrun, or -V will cause the compiler to print out the options that-fast includes, and the list can be used to select the appropriate ones for your application.

Refer to Comparing the -fast Option Expansion on x86 Platforms and SPARC Platforms for the expansion of -fast by Sun Studio 10 C, C++, and Fortran compilers, ccCC, and f95, respectively.

The implications for floating-point arithmetic when using the -fast option

One issue to be aware of is the inclusion of certain floating-point arithmetic simplifications implied with -fast. These are the options -fns and -fsimple=2, which allow the compiler to do some optimizations that do not comply with the IEEE-754 floating-point arithmetic standard, and also allow the compiler to relax language standards regarding floating point expression reordering.

With -fns, subnormal numbers (that is, very small numbers that are too small to be represented in normal form) are flushed to zero. Calculations on subnormal numbers are often done in software, which is very slow, so codes which have significant numbers of calculations on subnormal numbers will also run slow. Subnormal numbers are stored with fewer significant figures of accuracy, so codes that see large numbers of them will not only run slower, but may also be performing inaccurate calculations. Hence the presence of subnormals is not only a performance problem but a cause for further investigation of the numerics of the application.

With -fsimple=2, the compiler can treat floating-point arithmetic as you would expect to find in a mathematics textbook. For example, the order with which additions are performed doesn't matter, and it is considered safe to replace a divide operation by multiplication by the reciprocal. These transformations seem perfectly acceptable when performed on paper, and can give some performance gains, but they can result in a loss of precision when algebra becomes real numerical computation with numbers of limited precision.

Also, -fsimple=2 allows the compiler to make optimizations that assume that the data used in floating-point calculations will not be NaNs (Not a Number). Compiling with -fsimple=2 is not recommended if you expect computation with NaNs, or if your application is sensitive to the exact order that floating point computations is performed.


  • The use of the flags -fns and -fsimple can result in significant performance gains. However, they may also result in a loss of precision. Before committing to using them in production code, it is best to evaluate the performance gain you get from using the flags, and whether there is any difference in the results of the application.

  • Avoid using -fsimple=2 with applications that perform calculations on NaNs, or are known to be sensitive to the order of floating point computation.

  • For more information on floating-point computation, see the Sun Studio Numerical Computation Guide.
Crossfile optimization

The -xipo option performs interprocedural optimizations over the whole program at link time. This means that the object files are examined again at link time to see if there are any further optimization opportunities. The most common opportunity is to inline one code from one file into code from another file. The term inlining means that the compiler replaces a call to a routine with the actual code from that routine.

Inlining is good for two reasons, the most obvious being that it eliminates the overhead of calling another routine. A second, less obvious reason is that inlining may expose additional optimizations that can now be performed on the object code. For example, imagine that a routine calculates the color of a particular point in an image by taking the x and y position of the point and calculating the location of the point in the block of memory containing the image (image_offset = y * row_length + x). By inlining that code in the routine that works over all the pixels in the image, the compiler is able generate code to just add one to the current offset to get to the next point instead of having to do a multiplication and an addition to calculate each address of each point, resulting in a performance gain.

The downside of using -xipo is that it can significantly increase the compile time of the application and may also increase the size of the executable.


  • Try compiling with -xipo to see if the increase in compile time is worth the gain in performance.
Profile feedback

When compiling a program, the compiler takes a best guess at how the flow of the program might go -- which branches are taken and which branches are not taken. For floating-point intensive code, this generally gives good performance. But programs with many branching operations might not obtain the best performance.

Profile feedback assists the compiler in optimizing your application by giving it real information about the paths actually taken by your program. Knowing the critical routes through the code allows the compiler to make sure these are the optimized ones.

Profile feedback requires that you first compile and execute a version of your application with -xprofile=collect and then run the application with representative input data to collect a runtime performance profile. You then recompile with -xprofile=use and use the performance profile data collected. The downside of doing this is that the compile cycle can be significantly longer (you are doing two compiles and a run of your application), but the compiler can produce much more optimal execution paths, which means a faster runtime.

A representative data set should be one that will exercise the code in ways similar to the actual data that the application will see in production; the program can be run multiple times with different workloads to build up the representative data set. Of course if the representative data manages to exercise the code in ways which are not representative of the real workloads, then performance may not be optimal. However, it is often the case that the code is always executed through similar routes, and so regardless of whether the data is representative or not, the performance will improve. For more information on determining whether a workload is representative read my article Selecting Representative Training Workloads for Profile Feedback Through Coverage and Branch Analysis.


  • Try compiling with profile feedback and see whether the performance gain is worth the additional compile time.

  • Try compiling with profile feedback and -xipo , because the profile information will also help the compiler make better choices about inlining.

Using large pages for data

If a program manipulates large data sets, it might help improve performance by using large pages to hold the data. A page is a region of contiguous physical memory; the processor works with virtual memory, which allows the processor the freedom to move the data around in physical memory, or even store it to and load it from disk. However, working with virtual memory means the processor has to look up virtual addresses in a table to find the actual physical location of that data page in real memory. This takes a small amount of time, but if it happens often the time spent in table lookups can become significant. The default size of these pages is 8KB for SPARC, 4KB for x86. However, the processor can use a range of page sizes. The advantage of using a large page size is that the processor will perform fewer lookups, but the disadvantage is that the processor may not be able to find a sufficiently large chunk of contiguous memory to allocate the large page on (in which case a set of smaller size pages will be allocated instead).

The compiler option that controls page size is -xpagesize=size. The options for the size depend on the platform. On UltraSPARC processors, allowable sizes are 4K, 8K, 64K, 512K, 2M, 4M, 32M, 256M, 2G, or 16G. For example, changing the page size from 8K (the default) to 64K will reduce the number of look ups by a factor of 8. On the x86 platform, the default page size are 4K , and the actual sizes that are available depend on the processor, often 4K, 2M, 4M, and 1G. It is possible to detect performance issues from page sizes using either trapstat, if it is available and if the processor traps into Solaris to handle Table Lookup Buffer (TLB) misses, or cpustat when the processor provides hardware performance counters that count TLB miss events.

The command the reports the page sizes available on a particular system is

pagesize -a

If the application incurs significant numbers of TLB miss events during its run then it is likely that recompiling with a setting for -xpagesize will improve performance.

Advanced compiler options: C/C++ pointer aliasing

Two pointers "alias" if they point to the same location in memory. For the compiler, aliasing means that stores to the memory addressed by one pointer may change the memory addressed by the other pointer -- this means that the compiler has to be very careful never to reorder stores and loads in expressions containing pointers, and it may also have to reload the values of memory accessed through pointers after new data is stored into memory.

There are two flags that you can use to make assertions about the use of pointers in your program. These flags will tell the compiler something that it can assume about the use of pointers in your source. It does not check to see if the assertion is ever violated, so if your code violates the assertion, then your program might not behave in the way you intended it to. Note that lint can help you do some validity checking of the code at a particular -xalias_level. (See Chapter 4, lint Source Code Checker, in Sun Studio 12: C User’s Guide.)

The two assertions are:

  • -xrestrict

    Asserts that all pointers passed into functions are restricted pointers. This means that if a function gets two pointers passed into it, under -xrestrict the compiler can assume that those two pointers never point at overlapping memory.

  • -xalias_level

    Indicates what assumptions can be made about the degree of aliasing between two different pointers. -xalias_level can be considered a statement about coding style -- you are telling the compiler how you treat pointers in the coding style you use (for example, you can tell the compiler that an int* will never point to the same memory location as a float*).

The following table summarizes the options for -xalias_level for C (cc).

Any pointers can alias (default)
Basic types do not alias each other (for example, int* and float*)
Structure pointers alias by offset. Structure members of the same type at the same offset (in bytes) from the structure pointer, may alias.
Structure pointers alias by common fields. If the first few fields of two structure pointers have identical types, then they may potentially alias.
Pointers to structures with different variable types in them do not alias
Pointers to differently named structures do not alias (so even if all the elements in the structures have the same types, if they have different names, then the structures do not alias). This is the level of aliasing allowed by the language standard.
There are no pointers to the interiors of structures and char* is considered a basic type (at lower levels char* is considered as potentially aliasing with any other pointers)

The following table summarizes the options for -xalias_level for C++ (CC).

Any pointers can alias (default)
basic types do not alias (same as basic for C)
corresponds to layout for C


  • Specifying -xrestrict and -xalias_level correctly can lead to significant performance gains. But if your code does not conform to the requirements of the flags, then the results of running the application may be unpredictable.

  • For C, -xalias_level=std means that pointers behave in the same way as the 1999 ISO C standard suggests. Specified for standard-conforming codes.

  • The flag -fast for C includes -xalias_level=basic. If the code contains aliasing of different basic types, then -fast needs to be followed by the flag -xalias_level=any to tell the compiler that any pointers may potentially alias.
A set of flags to try

The final thing to do is to pull all these points together to make a suggestion for a good set of flags. Remember that this set of flags may not actually be appropriate for your application, but it is hoped that they will give you a good starting point. (Use of the flags in square brackets, [..] depends on special circumstances.)

Generate debugging information (may use -g0 for C++)
Aggressive optimization
-xtarget=generic [-xtarget=sparc64vi -fma=fused] [-xarch=sse -xvector=simd]
Specify target platform
Enable interprocedural optimization
Compile with profile feedback
-fsimple=0 -fns=no]
No floating-point arithmetic optimizations. Use if IEEE-754 compliance is important
Set level of pointer aliasing (for C and C++). Use only if you know the option to be safe for your program.
Uses restricted pointers (for C). Use only if you know the option to be safe for your program.

Final remarks

There are many other options that the compilers recognize. The ones presented here probably give the most noticeable performance gains for most programs and are relatively easy to use. When selecting the compiler options for your program:

  • It is important to be aware of just what you are telling the compiler to do. A program may have unpredictable results if it does not conform to the requirements of the flags.

  • Optimization is a tradeoff between increased compile time and improved runtime performance.

  • So, only use those flags that give you both a performance benefit and make acceptable assertions about the code.


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