GCC Explorer - an interactive take on compilation

One of the things I spend a fair amount of time doing at work is compiling my C/C++ code and looking at the disassembly output. Call me old-fashioned, but I think sometimes the only way to really grok your code is to see what the processor will actually execute. Particularly with some of the newer features of C++11 — lambdas, move constructors, threading primitives etc — it’s nice to be able to see how your elegant code becomes beautiful (and maybe even fairly optimal) machine code.

I’d managed to get my pipeline for taking small snippets of C code, building them with GCC, de-mangling the output, musing on the assembly, tweaking the input and then repeating over and over again. It occurred to me there might be a better way, and I set to hacking up a much more pleasant experience, partially in my own time and partially during downtime at work.

I got the OK to open source the fruits of my labour, and so I’m delighted to announce the release of GCC Explorer, a web-based tool for exploring the output of the compiler under small tweaks of the code, compiler version and compiler flags.

Taking a very small example, it’s interesting to note the difference in code output between the following three hash bucket choosing functions:

// Hash with dynamic number of buckets.
extern int NumBuckets;
int hash1(int value) {
    return value % NumBuckets;

// Hash with constant number of buckets.
const auto ConstNumBuckets = 257;
int hash2(int value) {
    return value % ConstNumBuckets;

// Hash with constantunsigned number of buckets. One
// of the places where 'auto' might have led to a
// problem as it's easy to forget the trailing 'u'.
const auto uConstNumBuckets = 257u;
int hash3(int value) {
    return value % uConstNumBuckets;

(I’m working on ways to be able to send links to GCC Explorer for canned code snippets. For now you’ll have to copy paste in, or pick from the examples.)

In the first case, the compiler’s forced to use the uber-slow integer divide instruction. In the second, thanks to some cunning tricks for compile-time constants, the compiler can use multiply-by-reciprocal type operations to remove the divide and replace it with two multiplies. It’s easy to forget that the signed-ness has a performance cost (and probably isn’t what you wanted anyway), and with auto it’s easy to miss. The third case shows how good it can be (although I believe there are some even more cunning ways to do modulus of power-2 plus 1 values. 257 is a prime that’s power-2 plus one, so quite handy for small hash tables.)

The code of GCC Explorer is available on github for your pleasure, too.

Filed under: Coding
Posted at 22:40:00 BST on 24th May 2012.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a developer working on cool secret stuff for DRW, a fabulous trading company.