Part 1 on profile-guided optimizations (PGO) in LDC. An article about optimization of virtual (class) function calls using profile data by transforming indirect calls to direct calls, with a description of how this is implemented in LDC using LLVM.

Edit (15 Apr 2016): The D code of LDC performs 7% faster (on the testcase) when compiled with PGO. I added “function” to the title so my father no longer thinks this is about video phone calls.

Profile-Guided Optimization (PGO)

In this article I’ll discuss the implementation of optimizations that the compiler can do when it is given details of a typical execution flow of your program. These details are the “profile” of your program: how many times is this function called, how often was a control-flow branch taken, how often is function A called by function B, what are likely values of variable X, how much memory is usually allocated for something, etc.
A profile can be obtained through different means, but here I will only discuss instrumented profiling. The compiler adds ‘instrumentation’ code in a first compilation pass. You then run your program with input that is representative of the use case for which you want to optimize the code, and upon exit the program outputs the profile data in a separate file. This profile data file is used by the compiler in a second compilation pass to compile and optimize your program. You do not have to generate a new profile very often. Profile data can be reused when recompiling a program with small changes; LDC will detect changes in control flow and will ignore profile data accordingly.

A simple build process using PGO looks like1:

> ldc2 -fprofile-instr-generate=profile.raw yourprogram.d -of=instrumented_program
> ./instrumented_program
> ldc-profdata merge profile.raw
> ldc2 yourprogram.d -of=optimized_program

Instrumentation makes your program significantly slower, which makes instrumented PGO unsuitable for example for programs whose behavior depends on specific timings or interactions with other systems.

PGO is not yet available in released LDC versions, but there is a PR on Github that adds PGO based on execution counts which I hope can be merged into master soon. For ease of writing, I’ve written this article as if these optimizations are already in LDC. For now, they are available in my pgo-indirectcall GH branch.

Direct and indirect calls

A direct call is a call to a function whose address is known and is encoded in the machine instruction code. An indirect call is a call to some address stored in memory or in a register. An earlier part of the program stored the address of a function in a variable, and the indirect call calls the function pointed to by that variable. Indirect calls are used in many programs: they enable polymorphic objects, are used for dynamic library bindings, select execution of hardware interrupt routines, etc. In D, you probably use them all the time when calling class methods.

What makes indirect calls “slower” than direct calls is the extra indirection: the CPU has to read a piece of memory before it can jump to the function to continue execution. Modern CPUs are marvelous machines and I believe indirect calls are just as fast as direct calls in many cases. But a direct call can be inlined during compilation and allows analysis of what is happening inside the called function and what is returned by it. This should help in generating faster executables. At the moment LLVM developers are adding an “Indirect Call Promotion” pass that transforms an indirect call into a branch + direct call using profiling information, and of course LDC should take advantage of it.

Indirect Call Promotion (ICP)

The presentation that got me started on this topic is “Profile-based Indirect Call Promotion” by Ivan Baev. The ICP optimization is transforming this code fragment

// An unknown function address is loaded into fptr, ...
void function() fptr = get_function_ptr();
// ... and is called

to this:

void function() fptr = get_function_ptr();
// We check if the address is the address of void likely_function().
if (fptr == &likely_function)
    likely_function(); // Yes! Call likely_function() /directly/
    fptr(); // Nope, do the indirect call.

Note that you can manually transform code to a functionpointer comparison + direct call and you will get the same machine code without the need for profiling. If you have a good hunch about what the function pointer could point to, you can rewrite your code like this and you’ll perhaps get a performance improvement. With a helper template function it’s easy to do so:

auto is_likely(alias Likely, Fptr, Args...)(Fptr fptr, Args args) {
    return (fptr == &Likely) ? Likely(args) : fptr(args);
// ...
void function() fptr = get_function_ptr();

I recommend taking a look at the generated LLVM IR (ldc2 -output-ll ...) and see for yourself what difference this makes with optimizations on (-O3) and with an inlinable likely_function function.

Indirect Call profiling

In the compile pass that adds instrumentation (ldc2 -fprofile-instr-generate -fprofile-indirect-calls), code like this

void somefunction() {
    fptr(); // typeof(fptr) = void function()

is transformed to (somewhat simplified)

void somefunction() {
    increment_counter(&__profc_somefunction, 0);
    __llvm_profile_instrument_target(fptr, &__profd_somefunction, 0);

Instrumentation works on a per-function basis: each instrumented function gains a set of data structures that store profiling information during execution. These data structures are automatically added to the code by LLVM when it detects the presence of LLVM profiling intrinsic function calls. The __profc_... data structure is an array storing execution counts; the second parameter for increment_counter is the counter index. For the rest of this article, I will exclude the execution counters; I plan to write a second article about execution counting PGO in LDC in the near future. Before exiting an instrumented program, the linked-in profiling runtime library dumps these instrumentation data structures in a profile file (in raw format).

The __profd_... data structure is of primary interest here: it stores “value” profile data. In this case, the value is the raw pointer value stored in fptr. __llvm_profile_instrument_target sends the fptr value as a IPVK_IndirectCallTarget value type to value-profiling slot 0. LLVM’s profiling machinery then takes this value and eventually presents the compiler with a list of values and how often they occured for each value-profiling slot. This is done by the profiling runtime library of compiler-rt, the profile processing tool ldc-profdata2, and the llvm::InstrProfReader class. But, how can you use function address values when they can be different for each program run?

The __profd_... data structure contains more information than just the value profile data. Among other things, it contains a reference (a hash) to the function name and it contains the function address (aha!). ldc-profdata reads all __profd_ data structures and translates address values to function name hashes (for the IPVK_IndirectCallTarget value type) if it can find the pointer value in a __profd_ structure. This mechanism determines that ICP is only possible on function call targets whose address+hash are stored in __profd_ structures. Currently, the only way to have LLVM generate (correct) __profd_ structures for function X is to add LLVM profiling intrinsic function calls inside function X. If your function pointer is pointing to printf a lot, ICP can not do anything (yet?). More on this later.

Here is a snippet from the output of ldc-profdata show for a profile obtained for LDC itself, showing the profile data for the extern(C++) function checkAccess(AggregateDeclaration*, Loc, Scope*, Dsymbol*):

    Indirect Call Site Count: 3
    Indirect Target Results:
    [ <call site>, <symbol name>, <count> ]
    [ 0, _ZN20AggregateDeclaration22isAggregateDeclarationEv, 196415 ]
    [ 0, _ZN7Dsymbol22isAggregateDeclarationEv, 13102 ]
    [ 1, _ZN11Declaration4protEv, 195211 ]
    [ 2, _ZN7Dsymbol7toCharsEv, 20 ]

Three indirect calls (0, 1, 2) are profiled for this function. At call site 0, two function pointer values were registered; 94% of the time it was a call to AggregateDeclaration::isAggregateDeclaration() that screams “inline me!” with ICP. For the other two call sites, only one function pointer value was registered. ICP at call site 1 will definitely also inline Declaration::prot().

Like the three indirect calls in checkAccess(AggregateDeclaration*, Loc, Scope*, Dsymbol*), most indirect calls in D are special: they are virtual function calls. Enter “Virtual Call Promotion”.

Virtual Call Promotion (VCP)

What I’ve been working on is going one step further than ICP in LDC: promote a virtual call to a direct call. In addition to profiling the function call address, we can also profile the object’s vtable address to promote vtable lookups to direct function calls. This eliminates two indirections: object to vtable to function pointer. Consider the following code:

class A {
    int foo(int a) {
        return a * 2;
// ...
void somefunction(A a) {
    // ...
    auto b =;
    // ...

Because somefunction must work for a’s of type A and for a’s of types derived from A, the virtual call to foo is ‘lowered’ by the compiler into this pseudo code:

void somefunction(A a) {
    // ...
    auto vtable = a.__vptr; // (a is actually a pointer: 0th indirection)
    int function(A, int) fptr = vtable[index of]; // vtable lookup (1st indirection)
    auto b = fptr(a, 2); // indirect call (2nd indirection)
    // ...

When the profile data indicates that somefunction is usually called with an object of exactly type B (derived from A) we can optimize the code to this3:

void somefunction(A a) {
    // ...
    auto b =
        (cast(void*)a.__vptr == cast(void*)typeid(B).vtbl.ptr)
            ? b = // a direct call
            : b =;  // the original indirect call with vtable lookup
    // ...

The code is transformed into a comparison of object a’s vtable pointer with the vtable pointer for objects of type B: if true, do a direct call; otherwise, do the original virtual call. The is D syntax for explicitly calling the foo function of class B, regardless of whether a is of type B.
(Unfortunately, cast(void*)typeof(B).vtbl.ptr is not a constant and the D code isn’t quite what LDC will generate3.)

(For comparison, GCC has an option to do speculative devirtualization, without profile data.)

Coaxing LLVM

The instrumentation of a virtual call is similar to that of an indirect call. The instrumented version (ldc2 -fprofile-instr-generate -fprofile-virtual-calls) of the virtual call pseudo-code is:

void somefunction(A a) {
    // ...
    auto vtable = a.__vptr; // (a is actually a pointer: 0th indirection)
    __llvm_profile_instrument_target(vtable, &__profd_somefunction, 0);
    int function(A, int) fptr = vtable[index of]; // vtable lookup (1st indirection)
    auto b = fptr(a, 2); // indirect call (2nd indirection)
    // ...

Here is a snippet from a profile obtained for LDC itself with VCP enabled, again showing the profile data for the extern(C++) function checkAccess(AggregateDeclaration*, Loc, Scope*, Dsymbol*):

    Indirect Call Site Count: 3
    Indirect Target Results:
    [ <call site>, <symbol name>, <count> ]
    [ 0, , 181132 ] *
    [ 0, , 13102 ]
    [ 0, , 12316 ]  *
    [ 0, , 2921 ]   *
    [ 0, , 46 ]     *
    [ 1, , 131771 ]
    [ 1, , 53053 ]
    [ 1, , 6526 ]
    [ 1, , 3502 ]
    [ 1, , 296 ]
    [ 1, , 40 ]
    [ 1, , 21 ]
    [ 1, , 2 ]
    [ 2, , 20 ]

Why are there no symbol names?
To get vtable value profiling to work, I have to trick LLVM a little. As mentioned above, the __profd_ data structures are used to translate raw pointer values to hashes that are given by the compiler (and are constant across program runs). But __profd_X is only generated by LLVM when it encounters a call to an LLVM profiling instrinsic function inside function X. And, a vtable is not a function! What LDC has to do is manually create __profd_ data structures for vtables exactly like LLVM does for functions, such that LLVM can do the pointer value to hash lookup. (And a valid __profd_ data structure also contains a pointer to a __profc_ array with counter entries, so we also have to generate that.)
LLVM keeps a list of all function names for which it autogenerated __profd_ and puts them in the executable in a compressed format; __profd_ contains a function name hash that indexes into that compressed data. Because I generate my own __profd_ data structures, the symbol names are not in LLVM’s list of profiled names and the hash lookup fails. Not a big deal: LDC only needs to know the hashes of the vtable pointers, not the actual names. This really needs a better solution; perhaps an LLVM patch to allow pointer->hash->name lookup for arbitrary symbols, which would also help solve the problem of unavailable ICP for function targets that were not compiled with instrumentation on.

Back to the profile data excerpt. At call site 0, five different vtable pointer values were registered, and 86% of the time it’s the first one. A clear opportunity for VCP. Let’s look at the generated LLVM IR4 at -O3:

  %4 = tail call %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol* @_ZN7Dsymbol8toParentEv(%ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol* nonnull %smember_arg) ; [#uses = 7]
  %6 = getelementptr inbounds %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol, %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol* %4, i64 0, i32 0
  %7 = load %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol.__vtbl*, %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol.__vtbl** %6, align 8
  %8 = icmp eq %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol.__vtbl* %7, bitcast (%ddmd.dstruct.StructDeclaration.__vtbl* @_D4ddmd7dstruct17StructDeclaration6__vtblZ to %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol.__vtbl*)
  br i1 %8, label %pgo.vtable.true, label %pgo.vtable.false, !prof !185

  %9 = bitcast %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol* %4 to %ddmd.aggregate.AggregateDeclaration*
  br label %pgo.vtable.end

  %"smemberparent.isAggregateDeclaration@vtbl" = getelementptr inbounds %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol.__vtbl, %ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol.__vtbl* %7, i64 0, i32 54
  %10 = load %ddmd.aggregate.AggregateDeclaration* (%ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol*)*, %ddmd.aggregate.AggregateDeclaration* (%ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol*)** %"smemberparent.isAggregateDeclaration@vtbl", align 8
  %11 = tail call %ddmd.aggregate.AggregateDeclaration* %10(%ddmd.dsymbol.Dsymbol* nonnull %4)
  br label %pgo.vtable.end

  %12 = phi %ddmd.aggregate.AggregateDeclaration* [ %9, %pgo.vtable.true ], [ %11, %pgo.vtable.false ]
  %13 = icmp eq %ddmd.aggregate.AggregateDeclaration* %12, null

!185 = !{!"branch_weights", i32 181133, i32 28386}

Line by line:
%4 stores the value of smemberparent = smember.toParent(); (direct call);
%6 gets a pointer to the location of the vtable pointer __vptr of smemberparent;
%7 loads the vtable pointer;
%8 is the result of comparing %7 with the link-time constant vtable pointer of StructDeclaration;
What follows is a branch on condition %8, with extra branch weights metadata !prof !185 (recognize the numbers (+1)?);
pgo.vtable.true: If true, the call smemberparent.StructDeclaration.isAggregateDeclaration() is completely inlined (return this;) and only a bitcast remains;
pgo.vtable.false: If false, the call smemberparent.isAggregateDeclaration() is executed by indexing into the vtable (%"smemb...@vtbl" and %10) and calling that function pointer (%11);
The branches merge at pgo.vtable.end: where a PHI node selects the return value %9 or %10 depending on the execution path taken and stores it in %12;
Finally, %13 checks whether the return value was null (the !) and !smemberparent.isAggregateDeclaration() is done, with VCP!

Some fun implementation hurdles:

  • support VCP of virtual tables (classes) in other modules compiled without instrumentation;
  • an LLVM bug in processing profile data with unknown raw pointer values
    (18 Apr: the bug was fixed very quickly by Xinliang David Li!);
  • correctly deal with the return values (oh wait, some functions return void);
  • some calls are normal, others are ‘invokes’ with exception handling;
  • what about interfaces?
  • the ‘same’ function slots in related vtables have a slightly different function type (the this pointer changes type and perhaps covariant return types).

ICP and VCP interaction

Depending on class hierarchy, different vtables may refer to the same function.

class B : A {
    override int foo(int a) {
        return a + 1;
class C : A {
    void bar() {}
void somefunction(A a) {
    // ...
    auto b =;
    // ...
} and point to the same function, but the vtable pointers are different. Depending on the statistics of the object types passed to somefunction, you either want ICP of the indirect call after vtable lookup or VCP. When mostly C's are passed, you’d want VCP (assuming that it is faster than ICP, perhaps it really doesn’t matter). When it is mostly a mix of A’s and C’s being passed, you’d want ICP.

For a nice interaction between ICP and VCP, both the indirect call and the vtable lookup should be profiled (-fprofile-indirect-calls -fprofile-virtual-calls). I’ve currently implemented a simple scheme that ignores indirect call profile data when VCP is considered profitable (occurance count > 1000, and 80% or higher chance of occurance for a vtable pointer value). I am certain that smarter heuristics can be found for a better balance between VCP and ICP.

In the profile data given above, the vtable pointer occurances marked with a * all resulted in calls to AggregateDeclaration::isAggregateDeclaration() (combine the given profile data and do the math). An open question is whether it is better to do VCP (86% hit rate) or ICP (96% hit rate, but with extra vtable lookup “penalty”).

Measuring gives you a leg up on experts who are too good to measure. – Walter Bright

Performance measurements

The removal of the indirections is nice, but I think the big performance improvement potential is the possibility of inlining and eliminating the function call entirely, possibly leading to other optimizations. It does increase code size and the statistics could be different from the profile data, which both could degrade performance…

I write embarassingly little D and have no project of my own to compile and test to see whether ICP and VCP bring any increase (or decrease) in performance. The best I have is LDC itself: the front-end code is forked from DMD and is written in D. So what I did is compile LDC with and without PGO and see if there is a difference in compiling a “performance” testcase: some unittests ( codebase) with a lot of template code that take about 65 seconds to compile into an object file. I’m going to cheat too: the profile will be generated with the performance test case, i.e. it will be the best possible PGO profile for the performance test. Also, execution count PGO is turned on, so there’s that, too.

LDC version time ldc2 ...
normal 55.63s user 6.45s system 97% cpu 1:03.75 total
w/ PGO 54.04s user 6.62s system 97% cpu 1:02.26 total

I’ve simply measured the compilation time using the time command, 6 or more times, and here I’ve listed the fastest time measured. The error margin is large, but the build with PGO is consistently faster by about 1.5s; i.e. ~2% better performance with PGO. Nothing stunning, but I’m already very happy the performance difference is observable in these very naive tests (and in the right direction!).
The instrumented versions are approximately two times slower and the raw profile data file size is about 1MB.
The binaries with PGO are ~0.5% larger than without PGO.

Please don’t use these measurement data to build an argument in any discussion. I know they are terribly inaccurate and I have put them here only for illustration. I apologize for not having anything better at the moment.

Edit (15 Apr 2016): Execution in LDC is a mix of three parts: the D front-end (parsing and semantic analysis), the C++ “middle-end”, and the LLVM back-end (C++). In the measurements above, I measured the total execution time to show how much performance gain there is for LDC and because the middle-end also calls into the front-end code. However, since then I’ve found that a large fraction of the time is spent in C++ code and is thus not changed at all with PGO. Perhaps it is more fair to the PGO work to look at results from D code only. Here are measurements of the same binaries compiling the same code but with the extra option -o-, which stops compilation after semantic analysis:

LDC version time ldc2 -o- ...
normal 22.63s user 3.56s system 97% cpu 26.888 total
w/ PGO 20.78s user 3.57s system 97% cpu 25.081 total

We see that less than half of the time is spent on parsing and semantic analysis. The difference in total execution time is about the same as for the full compilation to object files. But now we see that the D code became about 7% faster with PGO!

Final thoughts

The DDMD D source code uses the keyword final a lot. final helps tremendously in devirtualizing calls: when used on a class or on a class method, it makes it illegal to derive from that class or override that function in a derived class. So it is easy for the compiler to deduce that it can devirtualize a call (and final in a base class means that that function will never be a virtual function).

For fun, I’ve removed a bunch of final from the D source to see if it makes LDC slower, and then what PGO does to improve it. Removing all finals does not work, because removing final may mean a non-virtual function becomes virtual, risking a mismatch with the C++ headers used for interfacing the C++ and D parts of LDC. But removing final from all 292 occurances of final class and from all 138 occurances of override final still results in a functioning LDC compiler.
It is fun to browse through the profile data to get a feel for indirect call statistics. For example in ddmd.parse.Parser.parsePrimaryExp(), the removal of final means going from 4 to 82 indirect calls. Even without deleting final, some functions just have many indirect call sites: BinExp::checkOpAssignTypes(Scope*) has 84 indirect call sites, VarDeclaration::semantic(Scope*) has 138 and was called 887810 times. Don’t worry, many of these indirect call sites do not have profile data, i.e. execution never reached those paths. Ah, and Array<Dsymbol*>::opIndex(unsigned long) was called 13’759’873’768 times (which does not fit in an uint).

LDC version time ldc2 ...
removed final 56.43s user 6.43s system 97% cpu 1:04.40 total
removed final w/ PGO 54.35s user 6.30s system 97% cpu 1:02.27 total

After the removal of final, the compile times went up a little. PGO appears to compensate for the performance loss, with compile times just a little slower than with final (again, the error margin is larger than these differences…).

Edit (15 Apr 2016): See the edit above. Here measurements of just the parsing and semantic analysis (D code only), with final removed:

LDC version time ldc2 ...
removed final 23.44s user 3.65s system 97% cpu 27.704 total
removed final w/ PGO 20.85s user 3.51s system 97% cpu 24.942 total

The results are the same as before, but more dramatic. The PGO build without final is as fast as the PGO build with final, PGO appears to be able to completely compensate for the loss of devirtualization with final. The performance improvement with PGO is 10%!

Try it yourself

Unfortunately, there are no binaries available (yet?). To test PGO, you will need to build LDC yourself. I have an open PR that adds execution count instrumentation and PGO to LDC. The ICP and VCP optimizations described in this atricle are built upon that PR and can be found in my pgo-indirectcall GH branch. ICP is done by LLVM and will only work with LLVM trunk patched with D17864; VCP is done by LDC and should work without that patch. In all cases, you will need a very recent LLVM development trunk version (r266047 or newer).

I invite you to play with PGO in LDC yourself, although for the moment it is a little tedious to get started. I am curious to hear from your experiences: does performance improve / degrade or is it all the same? For what kind of code do you see differences in performance? Bugs? What PGO ideas do you have? Let me know what you think, for example on the D forums!


  1. PGO in LDC is not very well documented yet. There is only a draft wiki page: 

  2. LDC builds include a renamed llvm-profdata (to ldc-profdata) to ensure that the version used corresponds exactly to the LLVM version with which LDC was built. 

  3. The D code is not exactly what LDC will generate with PGO. LDC generates code that does a comparison of a.__vptr with the (link-time constant) address of the vtable for class B. cast(void*)typeof(B).vtbl.ptr is not a (link-time) constant, because typeid(B) is a mutable TypeInfo object. Until recently, LDC did have immutable TypeInfo objects for typeid expressions, but we had to make them mutable in order to support synchronize(typeid(B)){} statements (synchronize may write to the object’s __monitor and is therefore invalid for immutable objects, even though DMD accepts it). With immutable TypeInfo, the code would have been optimized to a comparison with a constant. I have not yet found a way to do a comparison with the vtable pointer as a constant (other than with the non-portable inline assembly __asm!(void *)("leaq __D" ~ B.mangleof[1..$] ~ "6__vtblZ(%rip), $0", "=r")). If you find a way, please do tell!  2

  4. If you use LDC and want to learn how your code is executed or want to try and optimize your code, it is very rewarding to learn the basics of LLVM IR representation and study the output of ldc2 -c -output-ll on pieces of your program. An interesting presentation that starts with an explanation of the basics: Understanding Compiler Optimization - Chandler Carruth - Opening Keynote Meeting C++ 2015