Nim performance tuning for the uninitiated

UPDATE 2017-06-04: Corrected some slight misinformation regarding link time optimisations and the {.inline.} pragma, some stylistic improvements, added more references.

Table of contents


This post documents the trials and tribulations I encountered during my foray into the wonderful world of low-level performance optimisation. For those intimately familiar with modern optimising compilers and CPU architectures, this will be kindergarten stuff. Although I have done my share of low-level C and assembly coding in my high-spirited teenager years, that was more than 20 years ago on a then-state-of-the-art 486 DX-2/66, so naturally it didn’t prevent me from running into some quite embarrassing mistakes as things are vastly different today, as we’ll shortly see…

Some of you might know that I’m writing a ray tracer (veeeeeery slowly), so it’s no surprise that I’m quite a bit obsessed with raw numerical performance. Don’t bother with what people tell you about Moore’s Law, falling GFLOP prices, programmer productivity and the “evils” of optimisation—anybody who writes or uses ray-tracing software can tell you that nothing is ever fast enough for this task (we’ll come back to this at the end in more detail). The de facto language choice for writing such high-performance applications has always been C++, potentially with some assembly thrown in for good measure. One of the main reasons why I have chosen Nim for this project was that it promises C-level performance without having to resort to any weird tricks (and, of course, it prevents me from having to use C++). I have a very annoying habit that I don’t just believe other people’s statements unless I can verify them myself, so I thought it was high time to put Nim’s efficiency claims to test… which, as we’ll see, led me into some trouble.

First attempts

The whole performance test idea came up when I was implementing the ray-triangle intersection routine in my ray tracer. My plan was simple: implement the same algorithm in C++ and Nim and measure if there’s any performance penalty for using Nim. Theoretically, there would be very little to no difference in runtime speed as Nim code gets transformed to plain C first, which then gets run through the same optimising C++ compiler. I was a bit unsure though if Nim objects would map directly to C structs and what magnitude of performance degradation (if any) would the GC introduce.

As my first slightly misguided attempt I tried to execute the intersection routine with the same static input a few million times, then calculate an average intersections per second figure from that. To my greatest shock, the C++ version measured to be about 40-50 times faster!

Now, there were a couple of serious problems with this naive approach. Firstly, I used a simple direct implementation of the Möller–Trumbore intersection algorithm. Notice that the algorithm can terminate early in multiple places? Therefore, it would make much more sense to test with a dataset large and varied enough so that the different execution paths would be exercised with roughly the same probability, allowing for a meaningful average to be calculated for the whole algorithm. Secondly—and this is the worse problem!—by using static data defined at the time of compilation, we’re giving the compiler a free license to optimise the whole code away and just replace it with a constant! This might come as a surprise to some—and it certainly did surprise me!—but it turns out that modern optimising compilers like gcc and clang are really good at constant folding!

So why don’t we just turn the compiler optimisations off for the tests then? Well, that would defeat the whole purpose of the performance measurements, so that’s out of the question. We must always use the optimised release builds for such tests. But then how can we ever be certain that the compiler hasn’t pulled some tricks behind our backs, rendering the whole test scenario invalid? Well, the only way to do that reliably is to inspect the final output produced by the compiler, namely the resulting binary. Luckily, we don’t have to do exactly that, as there’s a second-best (and much more convenient) option: most compilers can be instructed to emit the post-optimisation stage assembly sources that are used for generating the final binary.

While this might sound a little intimidating for non-assembly programmers (which is probably at least 99.9999% of all programmers in the world today), in practice we don’t need to be expert assembly coders to assert whether the compiler has done what we wanted. Moreover, this is definitely a useful skill to have because sometimes we can “nudge” the compiler into the right direction to come up with more efficient assembly-level structures by re-arranging the high-level code a bit and maybe adding a few inlining hints here and there. Again, the only foolproof way to see if such tricks have really worked is to inspect the assembly output.

Test setup

The two most obvious solutions to prevent constant folding is to either load the test data from a file or to generate it at runtime. I chose the latter because I’d have to write the test data generation code anyway, so why not do it at runtime then.

The tests execute the following steps:

  • Precalculate T number of random triangles so that all points of the triangles lie on the surface of the unit sphere.

  • Precalculate R number of random rays so that each ray goes through two points randomly selected on the surface of the unit sphere.

  • Intersect each ray with the whole set of triangles, so there will be RT intersection tests in total.

The only tricky thing is to make sure that the random points we pick on the sphere are uniformly distributed. A straightforward solution to this problem can be found here.

All tests were performed on a MacBook Pro (Mid 2014), 2.2 GHz Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM running OS X El Capitan 10.11.6.

Round 1 — Nim vs C++

0. C++

The “gold standard” for our daring enterprise will be the performance of the single-threaded orthodox C++ implementation. You can check out the source code here. As we can see in the results below, our testing method gives us a roughly 5% hit rate. The exact hit rate does not actually matter as long as it’s not too close to zero and if it hovers around the same value in all tests.

Total intersection tests:  100,000,000
  Hits:                      4,994,583 ( 4.99%)
  Misses:                   95,005,417 (95.01%)

Total time:                       1.93 seconds
Millions of tests per second:    51.87

So ~51.9 millions of ray-triangle tests per second it is. I guess that’s not too bad for a straightforward C implementation! It turns out that Nim can easily match that, but you have to know exactly what you’re doing to get there, as I’ll show below.

Memory layout

One very important thing to note is how the triangle data is laid out in memory. For every single ray we’re going to mow through all the triangles in a linear fashion, checking for intersections, so we must store the triangles contiguously in a big chunk of memory to best utilise the CPU data caches. This is straightforward to do in C:

struct Vec3
  float x;
  float y;
  float z;

Vec3 *allocTriangles(int numTriangles)
  return (Vec3 *) malloc(sizeof(Vec3) * numTriangles * 3);

Inspecting the assembly output

Before progressing any further, let’s take a quick look at a typical number crunching function in assembly form! This is the command to compile the C++ source into the final executable:

clang -std=c++11 -lm -O3 -o perftest perftest.cpp

And the command to emit the corresponding assembly output:

clang -std=c++11 -S -O3 -o perftest.s perftest.cpp

Now we can do a full text search in the resulting .s file for the function we want to inspect (rayTriangleIntersect in this case). As I said, we don’t really need to understand assembly on a deep level for our purposes; it’s enough to know that a healthy-looking number crunching function should resemble something like this:

    .globl  __Z20rayTriangleIntersectP3RayP4Vec3S2_S2_
    .align  4, 0x90
__Z20rayTriangleIntersectP3RayP4Vec3S2_S2_:   # decorated function name
    .cfi_startproc            # function starts here
    pushq   %rbp              # some init stuff
    .cfi_def_cfa_offset 16
    .cfi_offset %rbp, -16
    movq    %rsp, %rbp
    .cfi_def_cfa_register %rbp
    movq    (%rdx), %xmm14
    movq    (%rsi), %xmm15

    ...                       # omitted

    mulss   %xmm6, %xmm11
    movaps  %xmm1, %xmm2
    mulss   %xmm0, %xmm2
    subss   %xmm2, %xmm11
    movaps  %xmm13, %xmm4     # actual function body
    mulss   %xmm0, %xmm4
    movaps  %xmm5, %xmm2
    mulss   %xmm7, %xmm2
    addss   %xmm7, %xmm2

    ...                       # omitted

    jmp LBB5_9                # some cleanup stuff
    movss   LCPI5_0(%rip), %xmm6
    jmp LBB5_9
    movss   LCPI5_0(%rip), %xmm6
    jmp LBB5_9
    movss   LCPI5_0(%rip), %xmm6
    movaps  %xmm6, %xmm0
    popq    %rbp
    .cfi_endproc              # the end

The init and cleanup stuff we’re not really interested about, but the fact that they are there is actually a good sign; this means that the compiler has not optimised away the whole function. The function body for numerical calculations involving floating point numbers will be basically lots of mucking around with the SSE registers1 (XMM1 to XMM15). For those who have never seen assembly listings before, movaps moves values between registers, mulss multiplies two registers, addss adds them together and so on. Even for a relatively short numerical function like ours, the function body will go on for pages. This is good, this is what we wanted—it looks like we have the real function here, not just some constant folded version of it.

For those wanting to delve further into the dark art of assembly programming, make sure to check out the two excellent articles in the further reading section at the end of the article.

1. Nim — using GLM

I started out with nim-glm in my ray tracer, which is more or less a port of the GLM OpenGL mathematics library. The original version of the code used nim-glm’s Vec3[float32] type and its associated methods for vector operations.

To my greatest shock, the performance of my initial Nim code was quite abysmal, barely 1-2 millions of tests per second! After much head scratching and debugging it turned out that nim-glm was the culprit: the vector component getter and setter methods were not inlined by the compiler. After a few strategically placed inline pragmas the situation got somewhat better, but still a 10-fold performance degradation compared to the C++ version:

Total intersection tests:  100,000,000
  Hits:                      4,703,478 ( 4.70%)
  Misses:                   95,296,522 (95.30%)

Total time:                      19.86 seconds
Millions of tests per second:     5.04

At this point I decided to give up on nim-glm altogether and write my own vector routines. The thing is, nim-glm is a fine general purpose vector maths library, but when it’s time to get into serious performance optimisation mode, you want complete control over the codebase, and using an external component that heavily uses macros is just asking for trouble.

2. Nim — custom vector class (object refs)

Okay, so using my own vector maths code resulted in some improvement, but not by much:

Total intersection tests:  100,000,000
  Hits:                      5,718,606 ( 5.72%)
  Misses:                   94,281,394 (94.28%)

Total time:                      11.41 seconds
Millions of tests per second:     8.76

What went wrong here? It turns out that for some reason I used object references instead of plain objects for my Vec3 and Ray types:

type Vec3 = ref object
  x, y, z: float32

type Ray = ref object
  dir, orig: Vec3

Inspecting the corresponding C code in the nimcache directory makes the problem blatantly obvious (I cleaned up the generated symbol names for clarity):

struct Vec3ObjectType {
  NF32 x;
  NF32 y;
  NF32 z;

struct RayObjectType {
  Vec3ObjectType* dir;    // indirection!
  Vec3ObjectType* orig;   // indirection!

struct SeqVec3Type {
  TGenericSeq Sup;
  Vec3ObjectType* data[SEQ_DECL_SIZE];  // indirection! (array of pointers)

SeqVec3Type* vertices;

So instead of having a contiguous block of triangle data, we ended up with a contiguous block of pointers to each of the points making up the triangles. This has disastrous performance implications: all the points are randomly scattered around in memory so the cache utilisation will be really terrible as it is evident from the results.

3. Nim — custom vector class (objects)

Fortunately, the fix is very simple; we only need to remove the ref keywords:

type Vec3* = object
  x*, y*, z*: float32

type Ray* = object
  dir*, orig*: Vec3

This will make the resulting type definitions be in line with our original C++ code:

struct RayObjectType {
  Vec3ObjectType dir;
  Vec3ObjectType orig;

struct SeqVec3Type {
  TGenericSeq Sup;
  Vec3ObjectType data[SEQ_DECL_SIZE];  // array of structs

And the moment of truth:

Total intersection tests:  100,000,000
  Hits:                      5,206,370 ( 5.21%)
  Misses:                   94,793,630 (94.79%)

Total time:                       1.96 seconds
Millions of tests per second:    50.93

Awww yeah! This is basically the same performance we had with the C++ version. Comparing the assembly outputs of the Nim and C++ versions (exercise to the reader) reveals that they are basically the same, which is no great surprise as ultimately we’re using the same compiler to generate the binaries.

4. Nim — vector module

Alright, so time to extract the vector maths stuff into its own module. Pretty trivial task, right? Let’s run the tests again:

Total intersection tests:  100,000,000
  Hits:                      5,237,698 ( 5.24%)
  Misses:                   94,762,302 (94.76%)

Total time:                       2.89 seconds
Millions of tests per second:    34.55

Shit, what went wrong here?

To figure this out, we’ll need to understand how the Nim compiler works. First Nim generates a single C file for every module in the project, then from that point everything gets compiled and linked as if it were a regular C codebase (which technically it is): C files get compiled into objects files which then get linked together into the final binary. Inlining functions across objects files at link time is generally not performed by default by most compilers, and although gcc and clang can be instructed to do link time optimisations (LTO) by specifying the -flto flag, Nim doesn’t use this flag by default. Therefore, if we want to inline functions across module boundaries in a robust way—even when LTO is turned off—we need to explicitly tell the Nim compiler about it with the {.inline.} pragma. This pragma will force the inlining of the functions decorated with it into all generated C files where the functions are referenced on the Nim compiler (preprocessor) level.

5. Nim — vector module (with inlines)

Fixing this is very easy; as explained above, we’ll just need to decorate every method in our module with {.inline.} pragmas. For example:

proc `-`*(a, b: Vec3): Vec3 {.inline.} =
  result = vec3(a.x - b.x, a.y - b.y, a.z - b.z)

And we’re done, the performance of version 3 has been restored:

Total intersection tests:  100,000,000
  Hits:                      4,640,926 ( 4.64%)
  Misses:                   95,359,074 (95.36%)

Total time:                       1.96 seconds
Millions of tests per second:    51.12

Round 2 — Nim vs Java, JavaScript & Python

At this point I was really curious how some other languages I use regularly would stack up against our current benchmarks kings (look, there’s even a crown in the Nim logo, surely that can’t be just a coincidence!). I didn’t try to do any nasty tricks to increase performance in any of these tests (e.g. using simple arrays of primitives instead of objects in Java); I just did a straightforward idiomatic port in each case (you can check out the code here). Let’s see the final results:

LanguageVersionMtests/sRel. performanceTotal time (s)
C++Apple LLVM
JavaOracle JVM 1.8.0_112-b1631.30.60x3.20
JavaScriptNodeJS 4.4.729.20.56x3.43
Table 1 — Performance comparison of different language implementations of the Möller–Trumbore intersection algorithm executing 100M ray-triangle intersections.

I was quite disappointed with the Java results at only 60% of the performance of C++/Nim. JavaScript, on the other hand, did surprise me a lot; it’s basically on par with the performance of Java. I expected much less numerical performance from JavaScript! Taking into consideration that JavaScript has only doubles while in Java I was able to switch to floats for a slight performance bump makes this result even more impressive. Another surprise was that running the tests as standalone programs with NodeJS or in a browser (Chrome and Firefox was tested) yielded basically the same results. (Of course, all this doesn’t make JavaScript suddenly a good language, but it’s good to know that at least it’s not horribly slow!)

The CPython figures are, however, rather pathetic. I like Python a lot, it’s one of my favourite languages, but it’s clearly in no way suited to numerical computing (note we’re talking about the core language here, not NumPy and such). Fortunately, PyPy brings the performance back from absolutely abysmal (0.4% of the speed of the C code) to quite reasonable for a dynamic interpreted language (20% of the C code). That’s an impressive ~50x speedup (!) achieved by just switching from CPython to PyPy! Interestingly, CPython3 is about 30% slower than CPython2 in these tests. I don’t know if this a general trend with CPython3’s performance, but it’s discouraging, to say the least…

JIT warmup

There’s another thing to note that can confuse rookie benchmarkers and has implications on runtime performance, namely that JIT compiled languages need a “warm up” period before they can reach peak performance. In our current benchmark, that’s Java, JavaScript and PyPy (CPython employs no JIT whatsoever). While the performance of C++ and Nim scale linearly with the size of the dataset, for JITed languages the performance is roughly a logarithmic function of the dataset size, as summarised by the below table:

Language# of testsMtests/sRel. performance
Table 2 — JIT warmup characteristics of different runtimes; relative performance is relative to the performance of the C++ implementation.


Unsurprisingly, Nim is capable of reaching C/C++ performance when you know what you’re doing. Because there’s an extra layer of indirection when using Nim (Nim source code needs to be translated to C first) and Nim in general is further from the “metal” than C (in other words, it’s more high-level and less of a portable assembly language like C), one needs to be careful. But the most important thing to note is that Nim allows the programmer to take control over low-level details such as memory layout when necessary. This is in stark contrast with other high-level languages such as Java, Python and JavaScript which do not give the programmer this freedom. Having said that, the aforementioned languages have fared quite admirably in the benchmarks, JavaScript being the biggest surprise with a numerical performance on par with Java.

The greatest lesson for me in this experiment was that with modern compilers and CPU architectures a naive approach to benchmarking is almost always bound to fail. For performance critical applications one must establish a suite of robust automated performance tests and run them periodically as it’s very easy to introduce quite severe performance degradations even with the most innocent looking refactorings (e.g. think of the inlining problem after we extracted the vector operations into a module). Without a systematic approach to performance regression testing, such problems can be quite frustrating and time consuming to locate and fix (or even just detect, in case on non-trivial applications!). Also, when benchmarking there’s nothing like inspecting the actual assembly output; that’s the only foolproof way to catch the compiler red-handed at optimising away your test code.

Does it all matter?

I already hear some people repeating the common wisdom that hardware is cheap, programmers (and their time) are expensive, and with so much power to spare on modern CPUs, all this micro-optimisation exercise is just waste of time, right? Well, that depends. I tend to agree that performance is not so critical for lots (maybe even the majority) of programming tasks and in those cases it makes sense (commercially, at least) to optimise for programmer productivity by using a high-level language2 . But when speed matters, you are definitely going to hit a brick wall with a language that doesn’t make low-level optimisations possible.

Let’s pretend for a moment that our relative performance results would be valid for the entire ray-tracer (oversimplification, but not entirely impossible). Then if it would take 3 hours for the C and Nim implementations to render a single frame, the Java and JavaScript versions would require 5 hours, the PyPy version 15 hours, and finally the CPython implementations over 30 and 40 days (!) for versions 2 and 3, respectively. Java and JavaScript seem to be worthy contenders at first—until we start looking into taking advantage of multiple CPU cores and SIMD instructions. Only Java, C/C++ and Nim have proper multi-threading support, so assuming 4 CPU cores (fairly typical nowadays) and a very conservative 2x speedup by introducing multi-threading, the performance gap widens. From our list of languages only Nim and C/C++ make utilising SIMD instructions possible, so assuming another 2x speed bump thanks to this (again, staying quite conservative), the final figures would look like this:

LanguageTime to render a single frameRelative performance
Nim / C++45 minutes1.00x
Java2 hours 30 minutes0.30x
JavaScript5 hours0.15x
PyPy15 hours0.05x
CPython230 days0.001x
CPython340 days0.0008x

This is actually more in-line with real-life experience; a well-optimised C++ renderer can easily outperform a similarly well-optimised Java implementation by a factor of 2 to 3, and JavaScript and Python basically don’t even have a chance. As I said, this is not a Python bashing contest, I really like the language and use it all the time for writing scripts and small tools, but one needs to have a solid understanding of the limitations of one’s tools and sometime do a reality check… I always find it amusing when people attempt to “defend” their favourite inefficient high-level languages by saying that algorithmic optimisations are the most important. Well, of course, no sane person would argue with that! But if you took the same optimal algorithm and implemented it in a language that offered greater low-level control over the hardware (well, or had multi-threading and SIMD support at all), it is not unrealistic for the performance gain factor to be in the 2 to 1000 range!

As for myself, I will happily continue using Nim, safe in the knowledge that I won’t hit an insurmountable brick wall in the future, because whatever is possible in C in terms of performance, there’s a way to replicate that in Nim too, and with careful coding the runtime efficiency of both languages can be virtually identical.

  1. The SSE2 instruction set was introduced in 2001 with the Pentium 4, so virtually every x86 family processor supports it today. Note that this is 64-bit code, which you can easily spot because registers XMM8 through XMM15 are only available for 64-bit. ↩︎

  2. Not that I would consider Nim a low-level language, quite on the contrary! It’s as enjoyable and fast to code in Nim as in Python, but with the added benefit of type safety which is not a hassle thanks to Nim’s excellent type inference. I think of Nim as a high-level language with the possibility of going low-level when necessary, which is exactly what I want from a general purpose programming language. ↩︎


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