Performance Programming

CS 301: Assembly Language Programming Lecture, Dr. Lawlor

One of the biggest reasons to even think about computer architecture or assembly language is performance: if you understand what the machine is doing, it's a lot easier to do it faster.  

What is Fast?

Speed is in the eye of the beholder--in this case, the user.  But there's a big disconnect between computer speed and human speed:




31 years



Complete life cycle of a successful multi-person software project.

North America drifts a few feet.

2 weeks



Write, debug, and test a simple single-person program.

Set up billing for a commercial job.

15 minutes



Sysadmin arrives to reboot server.

Write trivial script or one-off program.

Shadow of a 30 foot tall building travels one foot.




Humans can respond to input.




Send data across a fast network.

Start seek on fast hard disk.

Bullet travels about 1 foot.






Print to the screen (printf or cout).

Call the operating system.

Blink an LED.




Execute a few instructions.

Call a function.

1 clock cycle, at 1GHz clock rate.

Light travels about 1 foot

Because computers are so fast, and humans are so slow:

Measure First

The simplest tool for figuring out what's slow is a timer: a function that returns the current real time ("wall-clock" time).   It's a really bad idea to try to optimize code without being able to measure its performance, because intuition just isn't reliable (at least, mine isn't).  At least half of the "optimizations" I try either don't help measurably, or actually slow the program down!

NetRun has a builtin function called "time_in_seconds", which returns a double giving the number of seconds.  Here's the implementation (from project/lib/inc.c):

/** Return the current time in seconds (since something or other). */
#if defined(WIN32)
# include <sys/timeb.h>
double time_in_seconds(void) { /* This seems to give terrible resolution (60ms!) */
struct _timeb t;
return t.millitm*1.0e-3+t.time*1.0;
#else /* UNIX or other system */
# include <sys/time.h> //For gettimeofday time implementation
double time_in_seconds(void) { /* On Linux, this is microsecond-accurate. */
struct timeval tv;
return tv.tv_usec*1.0e-6+tv.tv_sec*1.0;

As usual, there's one version for Windows, and a different version for everything else.  There are TONS of other ways to get some notion of time in your programs:

The usual way to use a timer like this is to call the timer before your code, call it after your code, and subtract the two times to get the "elapsed" time:

#include <fstream>
int foo(void) {
double t_before=time_in_seconds();
std::ofstream f("foo.dat"); /* code to be timed goes here */
double t_after=time_in_seconds();
double elapsed=t_after - t_before;
std::cout<<"That took "<<elapsed<<" seconds\n";
return 0;

(executable NetRun link)

The problems are that:

  1. time_in_seconds returns seconds, but it's only accurate to microseconds (not nanoseconds!)
  2. time_in_seconds takes about 800ns to return (which is considered pretty fast!)
  3. Your code might get interrupted by the OS, other processes, hardware events, etc

Problems 1 and 2 can be cured by running many iterations--"scaling up" many copies of the problem until it registers on your (noisy, quantized) timer.  So instead of doing this, which incorrectly claims "x+=y" takes 700ns:

int x=3, y=2;
double t1=time_in_seconds();
double t2=time_in_seconds();
std::cout<<(t2-t1)*1.0e9<<" ns\n";
return x;

(Try this in NetRun now!)

You'd do this, which shows the real time, 0.5ns!

int x=3, y=2, n=1000000;
double t1=time_in_seconds();
for (int i=0;i<n;i++) x+=y;
double t2=time_in_seconds();
std::cout<<(t2-t1)/n*1.0e9<<" ns\n";
return x;

(Try this in NetRun now!)

(If you get 0.0 nanoseconds, the compiler has converted the loop into x+=n*y.  Add "volatile" to the variable declarations to scare it away.)

Problem 3 can be cured by running the above several times, and throwing out the anomalously high values (which were probably interrupted).

Your other main tool for performance analysis is a "profiler".   This is a library that keeps track of which function is running, and totals up the number of function calls and time spent in each one.  The "Profile" checkbox in NetRun will run a profiler, and show you the top functions it found in your code.

Both timing and profiling have some problems, though:

NetRun has a nice little built-in function called print_time that takes a string and a function.  It times the execution of (many iterations of) the function, then divides by the number of iterations to print out exactly how long each call to the function takes.  The "Time" checkbox in NetRun just calls print_time on the default foo function.

To use the NetRun timer functionality on your own code, hit "Download this file as a .tar archive".