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author Rob Landley <>
date Tue, 15 Nov 2011 01:09:27 -0600
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<b><h2>Design goals</h2></b>

<p>Toybox should be simple, small, and fast.  Often, these things need to be
balanced off against each other.  In general, simple is slightly more
important than small, and small is slightly more important than fast, but
it should be possible to get 80% of the way to each goal before they really
start to fight.</p>


<p>It's easy to say lots about optimizing for speed (which is why this section
is so long), but at the same time it's the one we care the least about.
The essence of speed is being as efficient as possible, which means doing as
little work as possible.  A design that's small and simple gets you 90% of the
way there, and most of the rest is either fine-tuning or more trouble than
it's worth (and often actually counterproductive).  Still, here's some

<p>First, understand the darn problem you're trying to solve.  You'd think
I wouldn't have to say this, but I do.  Trying to find a faster sorting
algorithm is no substitute for figuring out a way to skip the sorting step
entirely.  The fastest way to do anything is not to have to do it at all,
and _all_ optimization boils down to avoiding unnecessary work.</p>

<p>Speed is easy to measure; there are dozens of profiling tools for Linux
(although personally I find the "time" command a good starting place).
Don't waste too much time trying to optimize something you can't measure,
and there's no much point speeding up things you don't spend much time doing

<p>Understand the difference between throughput and latency.  Faster
processors improve throughput, but don't always do much for latency.
After 30 years of Moore's Law, most of the remaining problems are latency,
not throughput.  (There are of course a few exceptions, like data compression
code, encryption, rsync...)  Worry about throughput inside long-running
loops, and worry about latency everywhere else.  (And don't worry too much
about avoiding system calls or function calls or anything else in the name
of speed unless you are in the middle of a tight loop that's you've already
proven isn't running fast enough.)</p>

<p>"Locality of reference" is generally nice, in all sorts of contexts.
It's obvious that waiting for disk access is 1000x slower than doing stuff in
RAM (and making the disk seek is 10x slower than sequential reads/writes),
but it's just as true that a loop which stays in L1 cache is many times faster
than a loop that has to wait for a DRAM fetch on each iteration.  Don't worry
about whether "&" is faster than "%" until your executable loop stays in L1
cache and the data access is fetching cache lines intelligently.  (To
understand DRAM, L1, and L2 cache, read Hannibal's marvelous ram guid at Ars
<a href=>part one</a>,
<a href=>part two</a>,
<a href=>part three</a>,
plus this
<a href=>article on
cacheing</a>, and this one on
<a href=>bandwidth
and latency</a>.
And there's <a href=>more where that came from</a>.)
Running out of L1 cache can execute one instruction per clock cycle, going
to L2 cache costs a dozen or so clock cycles, and waiting for a worst case dram
fetch (round trip latency with a bank switch) can cost thousands of
clock cycles.  (Historically, this disparity has gotten worse with time,
just like the speed hit for swapping to disk.  These days, a _big_ L1 cache
is 128k and a big L2 cache is a couple of megabytes.  A cheap low-power
embedded processor may have 8k of L1 cache and no L2.)</p>

<p>Learn how virtual memory and memory managment units work.  Don't touch
memory you don't have to.  Even just reading memory evicts stuff from L1 and L2
cache, which may have to be read back in later.  Writing memory can force the
operating system to break copy-on-write, which allocates more memory.  (The
memory returned by malloc() is only a virtual allocation, filled with lots of
copy-on-write mappings of the zero page.  Actual physical pages get allocated
when the copy-on-write gets broken by writing to the virtual page.  This
is why checking the return value of malloc() isn't very useful anymore, it
only detects running out of virtual memory, not physical memory.  Unless
you're using a NOMMU system, where all bets are off.)</p>

<p>Don't think that just because you don't have a swap file the system can't
start swap thrashing: any file backed page (ala mmap) can be evicted, and
there's a reason all running programs require an executable file (they're
mmaped, and can be flushed back to disk when memory is short).  And long
before that, disk cache gets reclaimed and has to be read back in.  When the
operating system really can't free up any more pages it triggers the out of
memory killer to free up pages by killing processes (the alternative is the
entire OS freezing solid).  Modern operating systems seldom run out of
memory gracefully.</p>

<p>Also, it's better to be simple than clever.  Many people think that mmap()
is faster than read() because it avoids a copy, but twiddling with the memory
management is itself slow, and can cause unnecessary CPU cache flushes.  And
if a read faults in dozens of pages sequentially, but your mmap iterates
backwards through a file (causing lots of seeks, each of which your program
blocks waiting for), the read can be many times faster.  On the other hand, the
mmap can sometimes use less memory, since the memory provided by mmap
comes from the page cache (allocated anyway), and it can be faster if you're
doing a lot of different updates to the same area.  The moral?  Measure, then
try to speed things up, and measure again to confirm it actually _did_ speed
things up rather than made them worse.  (And understanding what's really going
on underneath is a big help to making it happen faster.)</p>

<p>In general, being simple is better than being clever.  Optimization
strategies change with time.  For example, decades ago precalculating a table
of results (for things like isdigit() or cosine(int degrees)) was clearly
faster because processors were so slow.  Then processors got faster and grew
math coprocessors, and calculating the value each time became faster than
the table lookup (because the calculation fit in L1 cache but the lookup
had to go out to DRAM).  Then cache sizes got bigger (the Pentium M has
2 megabytes of L2 cache) and the table fit in cache, so the table became
fast again...  Predicting how changes in hardware will affect your algorithm
is difficult, and using ten year old optimization advice and produce
laughably bad results.  But being simple and efficient is always going to
give at least a reasonable result.</p>

<p>The famous quote from Ken Thompson, "When in doubt, use brute force",
applies to toybox.  Do the simple thing first, do as little of it as possible,
and make sure it's right.  You can always speed it up later.</p>

<p>Again, simple gives you most of this.  An algorithm that does less work
is generally smaller.  Understand the problem, treat size as a cost, and
get a good bang for the byte.</p>

<p>Understand the difference between binary size, heap size, and stack size.
Your binary is the executable file on disk, your heap is where malloc() memory
lives, and your stack is where local variables (and function call return
addresses) live.  Optimizing for binary size is generally good: executing
fewer instructions makes your program run faster (and fits more of it in
cache).  On embedded systems, binary size is especially precious because
flash is expensive (and its successor, MRAM, even more so).  Small stack size
is important for nommu systems because they have to preallocate their stack
and can't make it bigger via page fault.  And everybody likes a small heap.</p>

<p>Measure the right things.  Especially with modern optimizers, expecting
something to be smaller is no guarantee it will be after the compiler's done
with it.  Binary size isn't the most accurate indicator of the impact of a
given change, because lots of things get combined and rounded during
compilation and linking.  Matt Mackall's bloat-o-meter is a python script
which compares two versions of a program, and shows size changes in each
symbol (using the "nm" command behind the scenes).  To use this, run
"make baseline" to build a baseline version to compare against, and
then "make bloatometer" to compare that baseline version against the current

<p>Avoid special cases.  Whenever you see similar chunks of code in more than
one place, it might be possible to combine them and have the users call shared
code.  (This is the most commonly cited trick, which doesn't make it easy.)</p>

<p>Some specific advice: Using a char in place of an int when doing math
produces significantly larger code on some platforms (notably arm),
because each time the compiler has to emit code to convert it to int, do the
math, and convert it back.  Bitfields have this problem on most platforms.
Because of this, using char to index a for() loop is probably not a net win,
although using char (or a bitfield) to store a value in a structure that's
repeated hundreds of times can be a good tradeoff of binary size for heap


<p>Complexity is a cost, just like code size or runtime speed.  Treat it as
a cost, and spend your complexity budget wisely.</p>

<p>Simplicity has lots of benefits.  Simple code is easy to maintain, easy to
port to new processors, easy to audit for security holes, and easy to
understand.  (Comments help, but they're no substitute for simple code.)</p>

<p><a href=>Joel
Spolsky argues against throwing code out and starting over</a>, and he has
good points: an existing debugged codebase contains a huge amount of baked
in knowledge about strange real-world use cases that the designers didn't
know about until users hit the bugs, and most of this knowledge is never
explicitly stated anywhere except in the source code.</p>

<p>That said, the Mythical Man-Month's "build one to throw away" advice points
out that until you've solved the problem you don't properly understand it, and
about the time you finish your first version is when you've finally figured
out what you _should_ have done.  (The corrolary is that if you build one
expecting to throw it away, you'll actually wind up throwing away two.  You
don't understand the problem until you _have_ solved it.)</p>

<p>Joel is talking about what closed source software can afford to do: Code
that works and has been paid for is a corporate asset not lightly abandoned.
Open source software can afford to re-implement code that works, over and
over from scratch, for incremental gains.  Before toybox, the unix command line
has already been reimplemented from scratch several times in a row (the
original AT&amp;T Unix command line in assembly and then in C, the BSD
versions, the GNU tools, BusyBox...) but maybe toybox can do a better job. :)</p>

<p>P.S.  How could I resist linking to an article about
<a href=>why
programmers should strive to be lazy and dumb</a>?</p>

<b><h2>Portability issues</h2></b>

<p>Toybox should run on every hardware platform Linux runs on.  Other
posix/susv3 environments (perhaps MacOS X or newlib+libgloss) are vaguely
interesting but only if they're easy to support; I'm not going to spend much
effort on them.</p>

<p>I don't do windows.</p>

<b><h3>32/64 bit</h3></b>
<p>Toybox should work on both 32 bit and 64 bit systems.  By the end of 2008
64 bit hardware will be the new desktop standard, but 32 bit hardware will
continue to be important in embedded devices for years to come.</p>

<p>Toybox relies on the fact that on any Unix-like platform, pointer and long
are always the same size (on both 32 and 64 bit).  Pointer and int are _not_
the same size on 64 bit systems, but pointer and long are.</p>

<p>This is guaranteed by the LP64 memory model, a Unix standard (which Linux
and MacOS X both implement).  See
<a href=>the LP64 standard</a> and
<a href=>the LP64
rationale</a> for details.</p>

<p>Note that Windows doesn't work like this, and I don't care.
<a href=>The
insane legacy reasons why this is broken on Windows are explained here.</a></p>

<b><h3>Signedness of char</h3></b>
<p>On platforms like x86, variables of type char default to unsigned.  On
platforms like arm, char defaults to signed.  This difference can lead to
subtle portability bugs, and to avoid them we specify which one we want by
feeding the compiler -funsigned-char.</p>

<p>The reason to pick "unsigned" is that way we're 8-bit clean by default.</p>

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