Intel® ISPC Performance Guide

The SPMD programming model provided by ispc naturally delivers excellent performance for many workloads thanks to efficient use of CPU SIMD vector hardware. This guide provides more details about how to get the most out of ispc in practice.

Key Concepts

This section describes the four most important concepts to understand and keep in mind when writing high-performance ispc programs. It assumes good familiarity with the topics covered in the ispc Users Guide.

Efficient Iteration With "foreach"

The foreach parallel iteration construct is semantically equivalent to a regular for() loop, though it offers meaningful performance benefits. (See the documentation on "foreach" in the Users Guide for a review of its syntax and semantics.) As an example, consider this simple function that iterates over some number of elements in an array, doing computation on each one:

export void foo(uniform int a[], uniform int count) {
    for (int i = programIndex; i < count; i += programCount) {
        // do some computation on a[i]

Depending on the specifics of the computation being performed, the code generated for this function could likely be improved by modifying the code so that the loop only goes as far through the data as is possible to pack an entire gang of program instances with computation each time through the loop. Doing so enables the ispc compiler to generate more efficient code for cases where it knows that the execution mask is "all on". Then, an if statement at the end handles processing the ragged extra bits of data that didn't fully fill a gang.

export void foo(uniform int a[], uniform int count) {
    // First, just loop up to the point where all program instances
    // in the gang will be active at the loop iteration start
    uniform int countBase = count & ~(programCount-1);
    for (uniform int i = 0; i < countBase; i += programCount) {
        int index = i + programIndex;
        // do some computation on a[index]
    // Now handle the ragged extra bits at the end
    int index = countBase + programIndex;
    if (index < count) {
        // do some computation on a[index]

While the performance of the above code will likely be better than the first version of the function, the loop body code has been duplicated (or has been forced to move into a separate utility function).

Using the foreach looping construct as below provides all of the performance benefits of the second version of this function, with the compactness of the first.

export void foo(uniform int a[], uniform int count) {
    foreach (i = 0 ... count) {
        // do some computation on a[i]

Improving Control Flow Coherence With "foreach_tiled"

Depending on the computation being performed, foreach_tiled may give better performance than foreach. (See the documentation in the Users Guide for the syntax and semantics of foreach_tiled.) Given a multi-dimensional iteration like:

foreach (i = 0 ... width, j = 0 ... height) {
    // do computation on element (i,j)

if the foreach statement is used, elements in the gang of program instances will be mapped to values of i and j by taking spans of programCount elements across i with a single value of j. For example, the foreach statement above roughly corresponds to:

for (uniform int j = 0; j < height; ++j)
    for (int i = 0; i < width; i += programCount) {
        // do computation

When a multi-dimensional domain is being iterated over, foreach_tiled statement maps program instances to data in a way that tries to select square n-dimensional segments of the domain. For example, on a compilation target with 8-wide gangs of program instances, it generates code that iterates over the domain the same way as the following code (though more efficiently):

for (int j = programIndex/4; j < height; j += 2)
    for (int i = programIndex%4; i < width; i += 4) {
        // do computation

Thus, each gang of program instances operates on a 2x4 tile of the domain. With higher-dimensional iteration and different gang sizes, a similar mapping is performed--e.g. for 2D iteration with a 16-wide gang size, 4x4 tiles are iterated over; for 4D iteration with a 8-gang, 1x2x2x2 tiles are processed, and so forth.

Performance benefit can come from using foreach_tiled in that it essentially optimizes for the benefit of iterating over compact regions of the domain (while foreach iterates over the domain in a way that generally allows linear memory access.) There are two benefits from processing compact regions of the domain.

First, it's often the case that the control flow coherence of the program instances in the gang is improved; if data-dependent control flow decisions are related to the values of the data in the domain being processed, and if the data values have some coherence, iterating with compact regions will improve control flow coherence.

Second, processing compact regions may mean that the data accessed by program instances in the gang is more coherent, leading to performance benefits from better cache hit rates.

As a concrete example, for the ray tracer example in the ispc distribution (in the examples/rt directory), performance is 20% better when the pixels are iterated over using foreach_tiled than foreach, because more coherent regions of the scene are accessed by the set of rays in the gang of program instances.

Using Coherent Control Flow Constructs

Recall from the ispc Users Guide, in the SPMD-on-SIMD Execution Model section that if statements with a uniform test compile to more efficient code than if tests with varying tests. The coherent cif statement can provide many benefits of if with a uniform test in the case where the test is actually varying.

In this case, the code the compiler generates for the if test is along the lines of the following pseudo-code:

bool expr = /* evaluate cif condition */
if (all(expr)) {
    // run "true" case of if test only
} else if (!any(expr)) {
    // run "false" case of if test only
} else {
    // run both true and false cases, updating mask appropriately

For if statements where the different running SPMD program instances don't have coherent values for the boolean if test, using cif introduces some additional overhead from the all and any tests as well as the corresponding branches. For cases where the program instances often do compute the same boolean value, this overhead is worthwhile. If the control flow is in fact usually incoherent, this overhead only costs performance.

In a similar fashion, ispc provides cfor, cwhile, and cdo statements. These statements are semantically the same as the corresponding non-"c"-prefixed functions.

Use "uniform" Whenever Appropriate

For any variable that will always have the same value across all of the program instances in a gang, declare the variable with the uniform qualifier. Doing so enables the ispc compiler to emit better code in many different ways.

As a simple example, consider a for loop that always does the same number of iterations:

for (int i = 0; i < 10; ++i)
    // do something ten times

If this is written with i as a varying variable, as above, there's additional overhead in the code generated for the loop as the compiler emits instructions to handle the possibility of not all program instances following the same control flow path (as might be the case if the loop limit, 10, was itself a varying value.)

If the above loop is instead written with i uniform, as:

for (uniform int i = 0; i < 10; ++i)
    // do something ten times

Then better code can be generated (and the loop possibly unrolled).

In some cases, the compiler may be able to detect simple cases like these, but it's always best to provide the compiler with as much help as possible to understand the actual form of your computation.

Use "Structure of Arrays" Layout When Possible

In general, memory access performance (for both reads and writes) is best when the running program instances access a contiguous region of memory; in this case efficient vector load and store instructions can often be used rather than gathers and scatters. As an example of this issue, consider an array of a simple point datatype laid out and accessed in conventional "array of structures" (AOS) layout:

struct Point { float x, y, z; };
uniform Point pts[...];
float v = pts[programIndex].x;

In the above code, the access to pts[programIndex].x accesses non-sequential memory locations, due to the y and z values between the desired x values in memory. A "gather" is required to get the value of v, with a corresponding decrease in performance.

If Point was defined as a "structure of arrays" (SOA) type, the access can be much more efficient:

struct Point8 { float x[8], y[8], z[8]; };
uniform Point8 pts8[...];
int majorIndex = programIndex / 8;
int minorIndex = programIndex % 8;
float v = pts8[majorIndex].x[minorIndex];

In this case, each Point8 has 8 x values contiguous in memory before 8 y values and then 8 z values. If the gang size is 8 or less, the access for v will have the same value of majorIndex for all program instances and will access consecutive elements of the x[8] array with a vector load. (For larger gang sizes, two 8-wide vector loads would be issues, which is also quite efficient.)

However, the syntax in the above code is messy; accessing SOA data in this fashion is much less elegant than the corresponding code for accessing the data with AOS layout. The soa qualifier in ispc can be used to cause the corresponding transformation to be made to the Point type, while preserving the clean syntax for data access that comes with AOS layout:

soa<8> Point pts[...];
float v = pts[programIndex].x;

Thanks to having SOA layout a first-class concept in the language's type system, it's easy to write functions that convert data between the layouts. For example, the aos_to_soa function below converts count elements of the given Point type from AOS to 8-wide SOA layout. (It assumes that the caller has pre-allocated sufficient space in the pts_soa output array.

void aos_to_soa(uniform Point pts_aos[], uniform int count,
                soa<8> pts_soa[]) {
     foreach (i = 0 ... count)
         pts_soa[i] = pts_aos[i];

Analogously, a function could be written to convert back from SOA to AOS if needed.

Tips and Techniques

This section introduces a number of additional techniques that are worth keeping in mind when writing ispc programs.

Understanding Gather and Scatter

Memory reads and writes from the program instances in a gang that access irregular memory locations (rather than a consecutive set of locations, or a single location) can be relatively inefficient. As an example, consider the "simple" array indexing calculation below:

int i = ....;
uniform float x[10] = { ... };
float f = x[i];

Since the index i is a varying value, the program instances in the gang will in general be reading different locations in the array x. Because not all CPUs have a "gather" instruction, the ispc compiler has to serialize these memory reads, performing a separate memory load for each running program instance, packing the result into f. (The analogous case happens for a write into x[i].)

In many cases, gathers like these are unavoidable; the program instances just need to access incoherent memory locations. However, if the array index i actually has the same value for all of the program instances or if it represents an access to a consecutive set of array locations, much more efficient load and store instructions can be generated instead of gathers and scatters, respectively.

In many cases, the ispc compiler is able to deduce that the memory locations accessed by a varying index are either all the same or are uniform. For example, given:

uniform int x = ...;
int y = x;
return array[y];

The compiler is able to determine that all of the program instances are loading from the same location, even though y is not a uniform variable. In this case, the compiler will transform this load to a regular vector load, rather than a general gather.

Sometimes the running program instances will access a linear sequence of memory locations; this happens most frequently when array indexing is done based on the built-in programIndex variable. In many of these cases, the compiler is also able to detect this case and then do a vector load. For example, given:

for (int i = programIndex; i < count; i += programCount)
  // process array[i];

Regular vector loads and stores are issued for accesses to array[i].

Both of these cases have been ones where the compiler is able to determine statically that the index has the same value at compile-time. It's often the case that this determination can't be made at compile time, but this is often the case at run time. The reduce_equal() function from the standard library can be used in this case; it checks to see if the given value is the same across over all of the running program instances, returning true and its uniform value if so.

The following function shows the use of reduce_equal() to check for an equal index at execution time and then either do a scalar load and broadcast or a general gather.

uniform float array[..] = { ... };
float value;
int i = ...;
uniform int ui;
if (reduce_equal(i, &ui) == true)
    value = array[ui]; // scalar load + broadcast
    value = array[i];  // gather

For a simple case like the one above, the overhead of doing the reduce_equal() check is likely not worthwhile compared to just always doing a gather. In more complex cases, where a number of accesses are done based on the index, it can be worth doing. See the example examples/volume_rendering in the ispc distribution for the use of this technique in an instance where it is beneficial to performance.

Understanding Memory Read Coalescing

XXXX todo

Avoid 64-bit Addressing Calculations When Possible

Even when compiling to a 64-bit architecture target, ispc does many of the addressing calculations in 32-bit precision by default--this behavior can be overridden with the --addressing=64 command-line argument. This option should only be used if it's necessary to be able to address over 4GB of memory in the ispc code, as it essentially doubles the cost of memory addressing calculations in the generated code.

Avoid Computation With 8 and 16-bit Integer Types

The code generated for 8 and 16-bit integer types is generally not as efficient as the code generated for 32-bit integer types. It is generally worthwhile to use 32-bit integer types for intermediate computations, even if the final result will be stored in a smaller integer type.

Implementing Reductions Efficiently

It's often necessary to compute a reduction over a data set--for example, one might want to add all of the values in an array, compute their minimum, etc. ispc provides a few capabilities that make it easy to efficiently compute reductions like these. However, it's important to use these capabilities appropriately for best results.

As an example, consider the task of computing the sum of all of the values in an array. In C code, we might have:

/* C implementation of a sum reduction */
float sum(const float array[], int count) {
    float sum = 0;
    for (int i = 0; i < count; ++i)
        sum += array[i];
    return sum;

Exactly this computation could also be expressed as a purely uniform computation in ispc, though without any benefit from vectorization:

/* inefficient ispc implementation of a sum reduction */
uniform float sum(const uniform float array[], uniform int count) {
    uniform float sum = 0;
    for (uniform int i = 0; i < count; ++i)
        sum += array[i];
    return sum;

As a first try, one might try using the reduce_add() function from the ispc standard library; it takes a varying value and returns the sum of that value across all of the active program instances.

/* inefficient ispc implementation of a sum reduction */
uniform float sum(const uniform float array[], uniform int count) {
    uniform float sum = 0;
    foreach (i = 0 ... count)
        sum += reduce_add(array[i]);
    return sum;

This implementation loads a gang's worth of values from the array, one for each of the program instances, and then uses reduce_add() to reduce across the program instances and then update the sum. Unfortunately this approach loses most benefit from vectorization, as it does more work on the cross-program instance reduce_add() call than it saves from the vector load of values.

The most efficient approach is to do the reduction in two phases: rather than using a uniform variable to store the sum, we maintain a varying value, such that each program instance is effectively computing a local partial sum on the subset of array values that it has loaded from the array. When the loop over array elements concludes, a single call to reduce_add() computes the final reduction across each of the program instances' elements of sum. This approach effectively compiles to a single vector load and a single vector add for each loop iteration's of values--very efficient code in the end.

/* good ispc implementation of a sum reduction */
uniform float sum(const uniform float array[], uniform int count) {
    float sum = 0;
    foreach (i = 0 ... count)
        sum += array[i];
    return reduce_add(sum);

Using "foreach_active" Effectively

For high-performance code,

For example, consider this segment of code, from the introduction of foreach_active in the ispc User's Guide:

uniform float array[...] = { ... };
int index = ...;
foreach_active (i) {

Here, index was assumed to possibly have the same value for multiple program instances, so the updates to array[index] are serialized by the foreach_active statement in order to not have undefined results when index values do collide.

The code generated by the compiler can be improved in this case by making it clear that only a single element of the array is accessed by array[index] and that thus a general gather or scatter isn't required. Specifically, by using the extract() function from the standard library to extract the current program instance's value of index into a uniform variable and then using that to index into array, as below, more efficient code is generated.

foreach_active (instanceNum) {
    uniform int unifIndex = extract(index, instanceNum);

Using Low-level Vector Tricks

Many low-level Intel® SSE and AVX coding constructs can be implemented in ispc code. The ispc standard library functions intbits() and floatbits() are often useful in this context. Recall that intbits() takes a float value and returns it as an integer where the bits of the integer are the same as the bit representation in memory of the float. (In other words, it does not perform an integer to floating-point conversion.) floatbits(), then, performs the inverse computation.

As an example of the use of these functions, the following code efficiently reverses the sign of the given values.

float flipsign(float a) {
    unsigned int i = intbits(a);
    i ^= 0x80000000;
    return floatbits(i);

This code compiles down to a single XOR instruction.

The "Fast math" Option

ispc has a --opt=fast-math command-line flag that enables a number of optimizations that may be undesirable in code where numerical precision is critically important. For many graphics applications, for example, the approximations introduced may be acceptable, however. The following two optimizations are performed when --opt=fast-math is used. By default, the --opt=fast-math flag is off.

  • Expressions like x / y, where y is a compile-time constant, are transformed to x * (1./y), where the inverse value of y is precomputed at compile time.
  • Expressions like x / y, where y is not a compile-time constant, are transformed to x * rcp(y), where rcp() maps to the approximate reciprocal instruction from the ispc standard library.

"inline" Aggressively

Inlining functions aggressively is generally beneficial for performance with ispc. Definitely use the inline qualifier for any short functions (a few lines long), and experiment with it for longer functions.

Avoid The System Math Library

The default math library for transcendentals and the like in ispc has higher error than the system's math library, though is much more efficient due to being vectorized across the program instances and due to the fact that the functions can be inlined in the final code. (It generally has errors in the range of 10ulps, while the system math library generally has no more than 1ulp of error for transcendentals.)

If the --math-lib=system command-line option is used when compiling an ispc program, then calls to the system math library will be generated instead. This option should only be used if the higher precision is absolutely required as the performance impact of using it can be significant.

Declare Variables In The Scope Where They're Used

Performance is slightly improved by declaring variables at the same block scope where they are first used. For example, in code like the following, if the lifetime of foo is only within the scope of the if clause, write the code like this:

float func() {
    if (x < y) {
        float foo;
        ... use foo ...

Try not to write code as:

float func() {
    float foo;
    if (x < y) {
        ... use foo ...

Doing so can reduce the amount of masked store instructions that the compiler needs to generate.

Instrumenting Intel® ISPC Programs To Understand Runtime Behavior

ispc has an optional instrumentation feature that can help you understand performance issues. If a program is compiled using the --instrument flag, the compiler emits calls to a function with the following signature at various points in the program (for example, at interesting points in the control flow, when scatters or gathers happen.)

extern "C" {
    void ISPCInstrument(const char *fn, const char *note,
                        int line, uint64_t mask);

This function is passed the file name of the ispc file running, a short note indicating what is happening, the line number in the source file, and the current mask of active program instances in the gang. You must provide an implementation of this function and link it in with your application.

For example, when the ispc program runs, this function might be called as follows:

ISPCInstrument("foo.ispc", "function entry", 55, 0xfull);

This call indicates that at the currently executing program has just entered the function defined at line 55 of the file foo.ispc, with a mask of all lanes currently executing (assuming a four-wide gang size target machine).

For a fuller example of the utility of this functionality, see examples/aobench_instrumented in the ispc distribution. This example includes an implementation of the ISPCInstrument() function that collects aggregate data about the program's execution behavior.

When running this example, you will want to direct to the ao executable to generate a low resolution image, because the instrumentation adds substantial execution overhead. For example:

% ./ao 1 32 32

After the ao program exits, a summary report along the following lines will be printed. In the first few lines, you can see how many times a few functions were called, and the average percentage of SIMD lanes that were active upon function entry.

ao.ispc(0067) - function entry: 342424 calls (0 / 0.00% all off!), 95.86% active lanes
ao.ispc(0067) - return: uniform control flow: 342424 calls (0 / 0.00% all off!), 95.86% active lanes
ao.ispc(0071) - function entry: 1122 calls (0 / 0.00% all off!), 97.33% active lanes
ao.ispc(0075) - return: uniform control flow: 1122 calls (0 / 0.00% all off!), 97.33% active lanes
ao.ispc(0079) - function entry: 10072 calls (0 / 0.00% all off!), 45.09% active lanes
ao.ispc(0088) - function entry: 36928 calls (0 / 0.00% all off!), 97.40% active lanes

Choosing A Target Vector Width

By default, ispc compiles to the natural vector width of the target instruction set. For example, for SSE2 and SSE4, it compiles four-wide, and for AVX, it complies 8-wide. For some programs, higher performance may be seen if the program is compiled to a doubled vector width--8-wide for SSE and 16-wide for AVX.

For workloads that don't require many of registers, this method can lead to significantly more efficient execution thanks to greater instruction level parallelism and amortization of various overhead over more program instances. For other workloads, it may lead to a slowdown due to higher register pressure; trying both approaches for key kernels may be worthwhile.

This option is only available for each of the SSE2, SSE4 and AVX targets. It is selected with the --target=sse2-x2, --target=sse4-x2 and --target=avx-x2 options, respectively.

Notices & Disclaimers

Performance varies by use, configuration and other factors. Learn more at