haskell - What optimizations can GHC be expected to perform reliably?

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Top 5 Answer for haskell - What optimizations can GHC be expected to perform reliably?

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This GHC Trac page also explains the passes fairly well. This page explains the optimization ordering, though, like the majority of the Trac Wiki, it is out of date.

For specifics, the best thing to do is probably to look at how a specific program is compiled. The best way to see which optimizations are being performed is to compile the program verbosely, using the -v flag. Taking as an example the first piece of Haskell I could find on my computer:

Glasgow Haskell Compiler, Version 7.4.2, stage 2 booted by GHC version 7.4.1 Using binary package database: /usr/lib/ghc-7.4.2/package.conf.d/package.cache wired-in package ghc-prim mapped to ghc-prim- wired-in package integer-gmp mapped to integer-gmp- wired-in package base mapped to base- wired-in package rts mapped to builtin_rts wired-in package template-haskell mapped to template-haskell- wired-in package dph-seq not found. wired-in package dph-par not found. Hsc static flags: -static *** Chasing dependencies: Chasing modules from: *SleepSort.hs Stable obj: [Main] Stable BCO: [] Ready for upsweep   [NONREC       ModSummary {          ms_hs_date = Tue Oct 18 22:22:11 CDT 2011          ms_mod = main:Main,          ms_textual_imps = [import (implicit) Prelude, import Control.Monad,                             import Control.Concurrent, import System.Environment]          ms_srcimps = []       }] *** Deleting temp files: Deleting:  compile: input file SleepSort.hs Created temporary directory: /tmp/ghc4784_0 *** Checking old interface for main:Main: [1 of 1] Compiling Main             ( SleepSort.hs, SleepSort.o ) *** Parser: *** Renamer/typechecker: *** Desugar: Result size of Desugar (after optimization) = 79 *** Simplifier: Result size of Simplifier iteration=1 = 87 Result size of Simplifier iteration=2 = 93 Result size of Simplifier iteration=3 = 83 Result size of Simplifier = 83 *** Specialise: Result size of Specialise = 83 *** Float out(FOS {Lam = Just 0, Consts = True, PAPs = False}): Result size of Float out(FOS {Lam = Just 0,                               Consts = True,                               PAPs = False}) = 95 *** Float inwards: Result size of Float inwards = 95 *** Simplifier: Result size of Simplifier iteration=1 = 253 Result size of Simplifier iteration=2 = 229 Result size of Simplifier = 229 *** Simplifier: Result size of Simplifier iteration=1 = 218 Result size of Simplifier = 218 *** Simplifier: Result size of Simplifier iteration=1 = 283 Result size of Simplifier iteration=2 = 226 Result size of Simplifier iteration=3 = 202 Result size of Simplifier = 202 *** Demand analysis: Result size of Demand analysis = 202 *** Worker Wrapper binds: Result size of Worker Wrapper binds = 202 *** Simplifier: Result size of Simplifier = 202 *** Float out(FOS {Lam = Just 0, Consts = True, PAPs = True}): Result size of Float out(FOS {Lam = Just 0,                               Consts = True,                               PAPs = True}) = 210 *** Common sub-expression: Result size of Common sub-expression = 210 *** Float inwards: Result size of Float inwards = 210 *** Liberate case: Result size of Liberate case = 210 *** Simplifier: Result size of Simplifier iteration=1 = 206 Result size of Simplifier = 206 *** SpecConstr: Result size of SpecConstr = 206 *** Simplifier: Result size of Simplifier = 206 *** Tidy Core: Result size of Tidy Core = 206 writeBinIface: 4 Names writeBinIface: 28 dict entries *** CorePrep: Result size of CorePrep = 224 *** Stg2Stg: *** CodeGen: *** CodeOutput: *** Assembler: '/usr/bin/gcc' '-fno-stack-protector' '-Wl,--hash-size=31' '-Wl,--reduce-memory-overheads' '-I.' '-c' '/tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.s' '-o' 'SleepSort.o' Upsweep completely successful. *** Deleting temp files: Deleting: /tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.c /tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.s Warning: deleting non-existent /tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.c link: linkables are ... LinkableM (Sat Sep 29 20:21:02 CDT 2012) main:Main    [DotO SleepSort.o] Linking SleepSort ... *** C Compiler: '/usr/bin/gcc' '-fno-stack-protector' '-Wl,--hash-size=31' '-Wl,--reduce-memory-overheads' '-c' '/tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.c' '-o' '/tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.o' '-DTABLES_NEXT_TO_CODE' '-I/usr/lib/ghc-7.4.2/include' *** C Compiler: '/usr/bin/gcc' '-fno-stack-protector' '-Wl,--hash-size=31' '-Wl,--reduce-memory-overheads' '-c' '/tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.s' '-o' '/tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_1.o' '-DTABLES_NEXT_TO_CODE' '-I/usr/lib/ghc-7.4.2/include' *** Linker: '/usr/bin/gcc' '-fno-stack-protector' '-Wl,--hash-size=31' '-Wl,--reduce-memory-overheads' '-o' 'SleepSort' 'SleepSort.o' '-L/usr/lib/ghc-7.4.2/base-' '-L/usr/lib/ghc-7.4.2/integer-gmp-' '-L/usr/lib/ghc-7.4.2/ghc-prim-' '-L/usr/lib/ghc-7.4.2' '/tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.o' '/tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_1.o' '-lHSbase-' '-lHSinteger-gmp-' '-lgmp' '-lHSghc-prim-' '-lHSrts' '-lm' '-lrt' '-ldl' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Izh_static_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Czh_static_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Fzh_static_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Dzh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziPtr_Ptr_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziWord_Wzh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziInt_I8zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziInt_I16zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziInt_I32zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziInt_I64zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziWord_W8zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziWord_W16zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziWord_W32zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziWord_W64zh_static_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziStable_StablePtr_static_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Izh_con_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Czh_con_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Fzh_con_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_Dzh_con_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziPtr_Ptr_con_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziPtr_FunPtr_con_info' '-u' 'base_GHCziStable_StablePtr_con_info' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_False_closure' '-u' 'ghczmprim_GHCziTypes_True_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziPack_unpackCString_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziIOziException_stackOverflow_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziIOziException_heapOverflow_closure' '-u' 'base_ControlziExceptionziBase_nonTermination_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziIOziException_blockedIndefinitelyOnMVar_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziIOziException_blockedIndefinitelyOnSTM_closure' '-u' 'base_ControlziExceptionziBase_nestedAtomically_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziWeak_runFinalizzerBatch_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziTopHandler_flushStdHandles_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziTopHandler_runIO_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziTopHandler_runNonIO_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziConcziIO_ensureIOManagerIsRunning_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziConcziSync_runSparks_closure' '-u' 'base_GHCziConcziSignal_runHandlers_closure' link: done *** Deleting temp files: Deleting: /tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_1.o /tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.s /tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.o /tmp/ghc4784_0/ghc4784_0.c *** Deleting temp dirs: Deleting: /tmp/ghc4784_0 

Looking from the first *** Simplifier: to the last, where all the optimization phases happen, we see quite a lot.

First of all, the Simplifier runs between almost all the phases. This makes writing many passes much easier. For example, when implementing many optimizations, they simply create rewrite rules to propagate the changes instead of having to do it manually. The simplifier encompasses a number of simple optimizations, including inlining and fusion. The main limitation of this that I know is that GHC refuses to inline recursive functions, and that things have to be named correctly for fusion to work.

Next, we see a full list of all the optimizations performed:

  • Specialise

    The basic idea of specialization is to remove polymorphism and overloading by identifying places where the function is called and creating versions of the function that aren't polymorphic - they are specific to the types they are called with. You can also tell the compiler to do this with the SPECIALISE pragma. As an example, take a factorial function:

    fac :: (Num a, Eq a) => a -> a fac 0 = 1 fac n = n * fac (n - 1) 

    As the compiler doesn't know any properties of the multiplication that is to be used, it cannot optimize this at all. If however, it sees that it is used on an Int, it now can create a new version, differing only in the type:

    fac_Int :: Int -> Int fac_Int 0 = 1 fac_Int n = n * fac_Int (n - 1) 

    Next, rules mentioned below can fire, and you end up with something working on unboxed Ints, which is much faster than the original. Another way to look at specialisation is partial application on type class dictionaries and type variables.

    The source here has a load of notes in it.

  • Float out

    EDIT: I apparently misunderstood this before. My explanation has completely changed.

    The basic idea of this is to move computations that shouldn't be repeated out of functions. For example, suppose we had this:

    \x -> let y = expensive in x+y 

    In the above lambda, every time the function is called, y is recomputed. A better function, which floating out produces, is

    let y = expensive in \x -> x+y 

    To facilitate the process, other transformations may be applied. For example, this happens:

     \x -> x + f 2  \x -> x + let f_2 = f 2 in f_2  \x -> let f_2 = f 2 in x + f_2  let f_2 = f 2 in \x -> x + f_2 

    Again, repeated computation is saved.

    The source is very readable in this case.

    At the moment bindings between two adjacent lambdas are not floated. For example, this does not happen:

    \x y -> let t = x+x in ... 

    going to

     \x -> let t = x+x in \y -> ... 
  • Float inwards

    Quoting the source code,

    The main purpose of floatInwards is floating into branches of a case, so that we don't allocate things, save them on the stack, and then discover that they aren't needed in the chosen branch.

    As an example, suppose we had this expression:

    let x = big in     case v of         True -> x + 1         False -> 0 

    If v evaluates to False, then by allocating x, which is presumably some big thunk, we have wasted time and space. Floating inwards fixes this, producing this:

    case v of     True -> let x = big in x + 1     False -> let x = big in 0 

    , which is subsequently replaced by the simplifier with

    case v of     True -> big + 1     False -> 0 

    This paper, although covering other topics, gives a fairly clear introduction. Note that despite their names, floating in and floating out don't get in an infinite loop for two reasons:

    1. Float in floats lets into case statements, while float out deals with functions.
    2. There is a fixed order of passes, so they shouldn't be alternating infinitely.

  • Demand analysis

    Demand analysis, or strictness analysis is less of a transformation and more, like the name suggests, of an information gathering pass. The compiler finds functions that always evaluate their arguments (or at least some of them), and passes those arguments using call-by-value, instead of call-by-need. Since you get to evade the overheads of thunks, this is often much faster. Many performance problems in Haskell arise from either this pass failing, or code simply not being strict enough. A simple example is the difference between using foldr, foldl, and foldl' to sum a list of integers - the first causes stack overflow, the second causes heap overflow, and the last runs fine, because of strictness. This is probably the easiest to understand and best documented of all of these. I believe that polymorphism and CPS code often defeat this.

  • Worker Wrapper binds

    The basic idea of the worker/wrapper transformation is to do a tight loop on a simple structure, converting to and from that structure at the ends. For example, take this function, which calculates the factorial of a number.

    factorial :: Int -> Int factorial 0 = 1 factorial n = n * factorial (n - 1) 

    Using the definition of Int in GHC, we have

    factorial :: Int -> Int factorial (I# 0#) = I# 1# factorial (I# n#) = I# (n# *# case factorial (I# (n# -# 1#)) of     I# down# -> down#) 

    Notice how the code is covered in I#s? We can remove them by doing this:

    factorial :: Int -> Int factorial (I# n#) = I# (factorial# n#)  factorial# :: Int# -> Int# factorial# 0# = 1# factorial# n# = n# *# factorial# (n# -# 1#) 

    Although this specific example could have also been done by SpecConstr, the worker/wrapper transformation is very general in the things it can do.

  • Common sub-expression

    This is another really simple optimization that is very effective, like strictness analysis. The basic idea is that if you have two expressions that are the same, they will have the same value. For example, if fib is a Fibonacci number calculator, CSE will transform

    fib x + fib x 


    let fib_x = fib x in fib_x + fib_x 

    which cuts the computation in half. Unfortunately, this can occasionally get in the way of other optimizations. Another problem is that the two expressions have to be in the same place and that they have to be syntactically the same, not the same by value. For example, CSE won't fire in the following code without a bunch of inlining:

    x = (1 + (2 + 3)) + ((1 + 2) + 3) y = f x z = g (f x) y 

    However, if you compile via llvm, you may get some of this combined, due to its Global Value Numbering pass.

  • Liberate case

    This seems to be a terribly documented transformation, besides the fact that it can cause code explosion. Here is a reformatted (and slightly rewritten) version of the little documentation I found:

    This module walks over Core, and looks for case on free variables. The criterion is: if there is a case on a free variable on the route to the recursive call, then the recursive call is replaced with an unfolding. For example, in

    f = \ t -> case v of V a b -> a : f t 

    the inner f is replaced. to make

    f = \ t -> case v of V a b -> a : (letrec f = \ t -> case v of V a b -> a : f t in f) t 

    Note the need for shadowing. Simplifying, we get

    f = \ t -> case v of V a b -> a : (letrec f = \ t -> a : f t in f t) 

    This is better code, because a is free inside the inner letrec, rather than needing projection from v. Note that this deals with free variables, unlike SpecConstr, which deals with arguments that are of known form.

    See below for more information about SpecConstr.

  • SpecConstr - this transforms programs like

    f (Left x) y = somthingComplicated1 f (Right x) y = somethingComplicated2 


    f_Left x y = somethingComplicated1 f_Right x y = somethingComplicated2  {-# INLINE f #-} f (Left x) = f_Left x f (Right x) = f_Right x 

    As an extended example, take this definition of last:

    last [] = error "last: empty list" last (x:[]) = x last (x:x2:xs) = last (x2:xs) 

    We first transform it to

    last_nil = error "last: empty list" last_cons x [] = x last_cons x (x2:xs) = last (x2:xs)  {-# INLINE last #-} last [] = last_nil last (x : xs) = last_cons x xs 

    Next, the simplifier runs, and we have

    last_nil = error "last: empty list" last_cons x [] = x last_cons x (x2:xs) = last_cons x2 xs  {-# INLINE last #-} last [] = last_nil last (x : xs) = last_cons x xs 

    Note that the program is now faster, as we are not repeatedly boxing and unboxing the front of the list. Also note that the inlining is crucial, as it allows the new, more efficient definitions to actually be used, as well as making recursive definitions better.

    SpecConstr is controlled by a number of heuristics. The ones mentioned in the paper are as such:

    1. The lambdas are explicit and the arity is a.
    2. The right hand side is "sufficiently small," something controlled by a flag.
    3. The function is recursive, and the specializable call is used in the right hand side.
    4. All of the arguments to the function are present.
    5. At least one of the arguments is a constructor application.
    6. That argument is case-analysed somewhere in the function.

    However, the heuristics have almost certainly changed. In fact, the paper mentions an alternative sixth heuristic:

    Specialise on an argument x only if x is only scrutinised by a case, and is not passed to an ordinary function, or returned as part of the result.

This was a very small file (12 lines) and so possibly didn't trigger that many optimizations (though I think it did them all). This also doesn't tell you why it picked those passes and why it put them in that order.

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It's not a "compiler optimisation", but it's something guaranteed by the language specification, so you can always count on it happening. Essentially, this means that work is not performed until you "do something" with the result. (Unless you do one of several things to deliberately turn off laziness.)

This, obviously, is an entire topic in its own right, and SO has lots of questions and answers about it already.

In my limited experience, making your code too lazy or too strict has vastly larger performance penalties (in time and space) than any of the other stuff I'm about to talk about...

Strictness analysis

Laziness is about avoiding work unless it's necessary. If the compiler can determine that a given result will "always" be needed, then it won't bother storing the calculation and performing it later; it'll just perform it directly, because that is more efficient. This is so-called "strictness analysis".

The gotcha, obviously, is that the compiler cannot always detect when something could be made strict. Sometimes you need to give the compiler little hints. (I'm not aware of any easy way to determine whether strictness analysis has done what you think it has, other than wading through the Core output.)


If you call a function, and the compiler can tell which function you're calling, it may try to "inline" that function - that is, to replace the function call with a copy of the function itself. The overhead of a function call is usually pretty small, but inlining often enables other optimisations to happen which wouldn't have happened otherwise, so inlining can be a big win.

Functions are only inlined if they are "small enough" (or if you add a pragma specifically asking for inlining). Also, functions can only be inlined if the compiler can tell what function you're calling. There are two main ways that the compiler could be unable to tell:

  • If the function you're calling is passed in from somewhere else. E.g., when the filter function is compiled, you can't inline the filter predicate, because it's a user-supplied argument.

  • If the function you're calling is a class method and the compiler doesn't know what type is involved. E.g., when the sum function is compiled, the compiler can't inline the + function, because sum works with several different number types, each of which has a different + function.

In the latter case, you can use the {-# SPECIALIZE #-} pragma to generate versions of a function that are hard-coded to a particular type. E.g., {-# SPECIALIZE sum :: [Int] -> Int #-} would compile a version of sum hard-coded for the Int type, meaning that + can be inlined in this version.

Note, though, that our new special-sum function will only be called when the compiler can tell that we're working with Int. Otherwise the original, polymorphic sum gets called. Again, the actual function call overhead is fairly small. It's the additional optimisations that inlining can enable which are beneficial.

Common subexpression elimination

If a certain block of code calculates the same value twice, the compiler may replace that with a single instance of the same computation. For example, if you do

(sum xs + 1) / (sum xs + 2) 

then the compiler might optimise this to

let s = sum xs in (s+1)/(s+2) 

You might expect that the compiler would always do this. However, apparently in some situations this can result in worse performance, not better, so GHC does not always do this. Frankly, I don't really understand the details behind this one. But the bottom line is, if this transformation is important to you, it's not hard to do it manually. (And if it's not important, why are you worrying about it?)

Case expressions

Consider the following:

foo (0:_ ) = "zero" foo (1:_ ) = "one" foo (_:xs) = foo xs foo (  []) = "end" 

The first three equations all check whether the list is non-empty (among other things). But checking the same thing thrice is wasteful. Fortunately, it's very easy for the compiler to optimise this into several nested case expressions. In this case, something like

foo xs =   case xs of     y:ys ->       case y of         0 -> "zero"         1 -> "one"         _ -> foo ys     []   -> "end" 

This is rather less intuitive, but more efficient. Because the compiler can easily do this transformation, you don't have to worry about it. Just write your pattern matching in the most intuitive way possible; the compiler is very good at reordering and rearranging this to make it as fast as possible.


The standard Haskell idiom for list processing is to chain together functions that take one list and produce a new list. The canonical example being

map g . map f 

Unfortunately, while laziness guarantees skipping unecessary work, all the allocations and deallocations for the intermediate list sap performance. "Fusion" or "deforestation" is where the compiler tries to eliminate these intermediate steps.

The trouble is, most of these functions are recursive. Without the recursion, it would be an elementary exercise in inlining to squish all the functions into one big code block, run the simplifier over it and produce really optimal code with no intermediate lists. But because of the recursion, that won't work.

You can use {-# RULE #-} pragmas to fix some of this. For example,

{-# RULES "map/map" forall f g xs. map f (map g xs) = map (f.g) xs #-} 

Now every time GHC sees map applied to map, it squishes it into a single pass over the list, eliminating the intermediate list.

Trouble is, this works only for map followed by map. There are many other possibilities - map followed by filter, filter followed by map, etc. Rather than hand-code a solution for each of them, so-called "stream fusion" was invented. This is a more complicated trick, which I won't describe here.

The long and short of it is: These are all special optimisation tricks written by the programmer. GHC itself knows nothing about fusion; it's all in the list librarys and other container libraries. So what optimisations happen depends on how your container libraries are written (or, more realistically, which libraries you choose to use).

For example, if you work with Haskell '98 arrays, don't expect any fusion of any kind. But I understand that the vector library has extensive fusion capabilities. It's all about the libraries; the compiler just provides the RULES pragma. (Which is extremely powerful, by the way. As a library author, you can use it to rewrite client code!)


  • I agree with the people saying "code first, profile second, optimise third".

  • I also agree with the people saying "it is useful to have a mental model for how much cost a given design decision has".

Balance in all things, and all that...

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If a let binding v = rhs is used in only one place you can count on the compiler to inline it, even if rhs is big.

The exception (that almost isn't one in the context of the current question) is lambdas risking work duplication. Consider:

let v = rhs     l = \x-> v + x in map l [1..100] 

there inlining v would be dangerous because the one (syntactic) use would translate into 99 extra evaluations of rhs. However, in this case, you would be very unlikely to want to inline it manually either. So essentially you can use the rule:

If you'd consider inlining a name that only appears once, the compiler will do it anyway.

As a happy corollary, using a let binding simply to decompose a long statement (with hope of gaining clarity) is essentially free.

This comes from community.haskell.org/~simonmar/papers/inline.pdf which includes a lot more information about inlining.

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