Strict aliasing in C

A lot of the code I write is for computer games. In such code bases it’s commonplace to use various binary hacks for things like floating point comparisons to get an edge on performance. As a result I’ve become rather blazĂ© about aliasing types in my pointers.

Pointer type aliasing is where you “lie” to the compiler and tell it a memory address contains a type of data that it in fact doesn’t. A quick example:

inline bool IsNegative(float f)
    return *reinterpret_cast<int*>(&f) 
        & 0x80000000;

Here, the floating point value f is interpreted as an integer — we lie to the compiler and tell it that there’s a pointer to an integer at the same location (an alias), then read its data. Since we know the top bit of a floating point value is its sign bit, if it’s set, we know f was a negative value. In some cases, a routine like this can be faster than a traditional f < 0 as it doesn’t directly involve floating point operations. On some processors this can be faster, in some circumstances.

Anyway, this kind of stuff is not uncommon in game code, especially in the guts of the core engine. While I’ve always known that such code is a bit “dodgy”, it was a bit of a shock to learn that in recent GCC versions “strict pointer aliasing” is now the default.

Strict pointer aliasing is allowed by the C++ standard, and is where the compiler is allowed to decide two pointers don’t point at the same object if they’re of unrelated types. If they don’t point at the same object, the compiler isn’t forced to reload values into registers when one is written to.

On an x86 machine, this isn’t usually an issue. The processor has so few registers, almost everything lives in memory all the time anyway. However, on more modern RISC-type architectures (PowerPC, ARM etc) a lot of the performance gains come from heavy pipelining and many registers. Being able to keep values in registers and not relying on reading and writing to and from memory is a positive boon. So it’s understandable why GCC has gone for stricter aliasing.

The main reason this has passed me by is because I’m either working on x86 machines (where this rarely bites, and only really on Intel’s compiler), or on PlayStation 1 or 2. The latter two machines use creaking old versions of the compiler (2.95.6 or so) which aren’t strict, nor that clever at optimising.

With the Playstation 3, all that’s changed. The machine is PowerPC-based, and the compiler is more recent. Luckily, a guy called Mike Acton has written several useful articles on the subject, and he has plenty of handy advice about how to avoid common pitfalls.

In the example above, the code should be:

inline bool IsNegative(float f)
        float f;
        int i;
    } u;
    u.f = f;
    return u.i & 0x80000000;

Or alternatively, adding -fno-strict-aliasing to the command-line parameters will do the trick too. Though that’s cheating, and means you don’t get the full benefit of the optimiser.

Filed under: Coding
Posted at 23:30:00 GMT on 28th December 2007.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago in the finance industry.