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25.2 Introduction to Code Tuning
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What is the appeal of code tuning It s not the most effective way to improve performance. Program architecture, class design, and algorithm selection usually produce more dramatic improvements. Nor is it the easiest way to improve performance. Buying new hardware or a compiler with a better optimizer is easier. It s not the cheapest way to improve performance either. It takes more time to hand-tune code initially, and hand-tuned code is harder to maintain later. Code tuning is appealing for several reasons. One attraction is that it seems to defy the laws of nature. It s incredibly satisfying to take a routine that executes
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25. Code-Tuning Strategies
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in 20 microseconds, tweak a few lines, and reduce the execution speed to 2 microseconds. It s also appealing because mastering the art of writing efficient code is a rite of passage to becoming a serious programmer. In tennis, you don t get any points for the way you pick up a tennis ball, but you still need to learn the right way to do it. You can t just lean over and pick it up with your hand. If you re good, you whack it with the head of your racket until it bounces waist high and then you catch it. Whacking it more than three times or not bouncing it the first time are both serious failings. It doesn t really matter how you pick up a tennis ball, but within the tennis culture the way you pick it up carries a certain cachet. Similarly, no one but you and other programmers usually cares how tight your code is. Nonetheless, within the programming culture, writing micro-efficient code proves you re cool. The problem with code tuning is that efficient code isn t necessarily better code. That s the subject of the next few subsections.
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The Pareto Principle
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The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states that you can get 80 percent of the result with 20 percent of the effort. The principle applies to a lot of areas other than programming, but it definitely applies to program optimization. Barry Boehm reports that 20 percent of a program s routines consume 80 percent of its execution time (1987b). In his classic paper An Empirical Study of Fortran Programs, Donald Knuth found that less than 4 percent of a program usually accounts for more than 50 percent of its run time (1971). Knuth used a line-count profiler to discover this surprising relationship, and the implications for optimization are clear. You should measure the code to find the hot spots and then put your resources into optimizing the few percent that are used the most. Knuth profiled his line-count program and found that it was spending half its execution time in two loops. He changed a few lines of code and doubled the speed of the profiler in less than an hour. Jon Bentley describes a case in which a thousand-line program spent 80 percent of its time in a five-line square-root routine. By tripling the speed of the squareroot routine, he doubled the speed of the program (1988). Bentley also reports the case of a team who discovered that half an operating system s time was spent in a small loop. They rewrote the loop in microcode and made the loop 10 times faster, but it didn t change the system s performance they had rewritten the system s idle loop!
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25. Code-Tuning Strategies
Page 7
The team who designed the ALGOL language the granddaddy of most modern languages and one of the most influential languages ever received the following advice: The best is the enemy of the good. Working toward perfection may prevent completion. Complete it first, and then perfect it. The part that needs to be perfect is usually small.
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