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Optimization barriers

An optimization barrier is a special statement that prevents the compiler from making assumptions about the state of memory across the barrier. The compiler will not reorder reads or writes of variables across the barrier or assume that a variable’s value is unmodified across the barrier, except for local variables whose address is never taken. In Pintos, threads/synch.h defines the barrier() macro as an optimization barrier.

One reason to use an optimization barrier is when data can change asynchronously, without the compiler’s knowledge, e.g. by another thread or an interrupt handler. The too_many_loops function in devices/timer.c is an example. This function starts out by busy-waiting in a loop until a timer tick occurs:

/* Wait for a timer tick. */
int64_t start = ticks;
while (ticks == start)
  barrier ();

Without an optimization barrier in the loop, the compiler could conclude that the loop would never terminate, because start and ticks start out equal and the loop itself never changes them. It could then “optimize” the function into an infinite loop, which would definitely be undesirable.

Optimization barriers can be used to avoid other compiler optimizations. The busy_wait function, also in devices/timer.c, is an example. It contains this loop:

while (loops-- > 0)
  barrier ();

The goal of this loop is to busy-wait by counting loops down from its original value to 0. Without the barrier, the compiler could delete the loop entirely, because it produces no useful output and has no side effects. The barrier forces the compiler to pretend that the loop body has an important effect.

Finally, optimization barriers can be used to force the ordering of memory reads or writes. For example, suppose we add a “feature” that, whenever a timer interrupt occurs, the character in global variable timer_put_char is printed on the console, but only if global Boolean variable timer_do_put is true. The best way to set up x to be printed is then to use an optimization barrier, like this:

timer_put_char = 'x';
barrier ();
timer_do_put = true;

Without the barrier, the code is buggy because the compiler is free to reorder operations when it doesn’t see a reason to keep them in the same order. In this case, the compiler doesn’t know that the order of assignments is important, so its optimizer is permitted to exchange their order. There’s no telling whether it will actually do this, and it is possible that passing the compiler different optimization flags or using a different version of the compiler will produce different behavior.

Another solution is to disable interrupts around the assignments. This does not prevent reordering, but it prevents the interrupt handler from intervening between the assignments. It also has the extra runtime cost of disabling and re-enabling interrupts:

enum intr_level old_level = intr_disable ();
timer_put_char = 'x';
timer_do_put = true;
intr_set_level (old_level);

A second solution is to mark the declarations of timer_put_char and timer_do_put as volatile. This keyword tells the compiler that the variables are externally observable and restricts its latitude for optimization. However, the semantics of volatile are not well-defined, so it is not a good general solution. The base Pintos code does not use volatile at all.

The following is not a solution, because locks neither prevent interrupts nor prevent the compiler from reordering the code within the region where the lock is held:

lock_acquire (&timer_lock);     /* INCORRECT CODE */
timer_put_char = 'x';
timer_do_put = true;
lock_release (&timer_lock);

The compiler treats invocation of any function defined externally, that is, in another source file, as a limited form of optimization barrier. Specifically, the compiler assumes that any externally defined function may access any statically or dynamically allocated data and any local variable whose address is taken. This often means that explicit barriers can be omitted. It is one reason that Pintos contains few explicit barriers.

A function defined in the same source file, or in a header included by the source file, cannot be relied upon as an optimization barrier. This applies even to invocation of a function before its definition, because the compiler may read and parse the entire source file before performing optimization.