Target Feature vs Target CPU for Rust

In the previous article on auto-vectorization we looked at the different SIMD instruction set families on X86-64. We saw how he target-feature compiler flag and #[target_feature()] attribute gave us more control over the instructions used in the generated assembly.

There is a related compiler flag target-cpu we didn’t touch on, so it’s worth taking a look at how it affects the generated code.


Setting the target-cpu flag on the compiler does more than simply enabling new instruction set families. It changes the compiler’s instruction cost model which can cause it to generate drastically different code in some cases.

The Benchmark Function

So far the loops we’ve looked at have all dealt with loading, processing and storing adjacent elements in our slices.

This has been traditional use case for SIMD. If you tried to operate of values that aren’t stored sequentially in memory the time spent gathering the data into SIMD registers in the loading phase would nullify the performance gains from the processing stage.

To expand the opportunities for SIMD optimization Intel added the VPGATHER group of instructions when creating the AVX2 instruction family. These instructions takes a SIMD register containing multiple offsets and loads the value at those offsets from a base pointer into the corresponding element of the output SIMD register.

An example of a workload that could benefit from faster gathering is converting an indexed image. Indexed images are when each pixel doesn’t directly contain a colour but is an index into a color palette. If we wanted to convert from an indexed image to a normal image, we simple replace the index by the value looked up in the palette.

pub type RGBA32 = u32;
pub fn indexed_to_rgba32(input: &[u8], palette: &[RGBA32], output: &mut [RGBA32]) {
    let palette = &palette[0..256];
    for (y, index) in output.iter_mut().zip(input.iter()) {
        *y = palette[*index as usize];

By re-slicing the palette to the range 0..256 we can ensure that all random accesses using u8 indices will be valid and the compiler won’t need to generate bounds checks in the loop body.

So if we take the lessons from the previous article and apply the target-feature option to our compiler command line to allow the compiler to use instructions from AVX2 we get:

  ; ... start of the function leading up to loop ...
  movzx   eax, byte ptr [rdi + rcx]
  mov     eax, dword ptr [rdx + 4*rax]
  mov     dword ptr [r8 + 4*rcx], eax
  movzx   eax, byte ptr [rdi + rcx + 1]
  mov     eax, dword ptr [rdx + 4*rax]
  mov     dword ptr [r8 + 4*rcx + 4], eax
  movzx   eax, byte ptr [rdi + rcx + 2]
  mov     eax, dword ptr [rdx + 4*rax]
  mov     dword ptr [r8 + 4*rcx + 8], eax
  movzx   eax, byte ptr [rdi + rcx + 3]
  mov     eax, dword ptr [rdx + 4*rax]
  mov     dword ptr [r8 + 4*rcx + 12], eax
  add     rcx, 4
  cmp     r9, rcx
  jne     .LBB0_9
  test    r10, r10
  je      .LBB0_7

View Full Sample

Unfortunately we don’t see any sign of SIMD vectorization in the output. The loop has been unrolled to execute four iterations at a time, but it uses four separate loads to get the values from the palette.

CPU Micro-Architectures

To understand why this is happening we need a brief digression to explain some terms.

X86-64 is our CPU architecture. A specific CPU implementation of that architecture is called a micro-architecture. An architecture will have a base set to instructions all implementations must support, and families of optional instructions the implementation can choose to support. In a previous article I talked about optional instruction families such as SSE3, SSE4.1, AVX and AVX2. When we talk about a CPU supporting an optional instruction set family, we’re more specifically talking about the micro-architecture supporting it.

Micro-architecture’s use manufacturer designated code names. In recent times Intel has had Sandy Bridge, which was the first micro-architecture to support AVX instructions, followed later by Haswell which added AVX2, which was followed by Skylake. The code names can give an insight to the relationship between micro-architectures. Between Sandy Bridge and Haswell there was a small revision called Ivy Bridge, Broadwell was a similar small revision to Haswell.

Intel has moved away from marketing names such as i3, i5, i7 having any fixed relationship to micro-architecture. But broadly speaking an i7 will have a better micro-architecture than an i3 released at the same time.

An excellent resource for understanding the performance differences between micro-architectures is Agner Fog’s Instruction Tables document. This document gives the latency (number of CPU cycles it takes to complete an instruction) for every instruction across various Intel and AMD micro-architectures. We can use these numbers to estimate if using a specific instruction is worthwhile when there are multiple ways of implementing our code.

If you want to know why the micro-architectures have the performance they do, Agner also has his Micro-Architecture Manual.

The micro-architectures listed in the instruction tables that support AVX2 are Broadwell, Haswell, Skylake, and Coffeelake from Intel and Excavator and Zen from AMD. The latency of VPGATHERQD (the exact instruction we need for this function) ranges from 14 on Excavator down to only 2 on Skylake. We can see that newer micro-architecture don’t just add support for new instructions or increase the overall performance, they can greatly improve the relative performance of how individual instructions are executed.

Given that on some hardware using a SIMD gather instruction might be slower than the scalar code, the compiler has chosen not to vectorize this loop.

Specifying the Exact Micro-Architecture to Rust

The obvious answer seem to be the target-cpu flag. If we compile again with target-cpu=skylake and change the compiler’s cost model so that VPGATHER instructions are considered faster to execute we get:

  ; ... start of the function leading up to loop ...
    vpmovzxbq       ymm0, dword ptr [rdi + rsi + 4]
    vpmovzxbq       ymm1, dword ptr [rdi + rsi]
    vpcmpeqd        xmm2, xmm2, xmm2
    vpgatherqd      xmm3, xmmword ptr [rdx + 4*ymm1], xmm2
    vpcmpeqd        xmm1, xmm1, xmm1
    vpgatherqd      xmm2, xmmword ptr [rdx + 4*ymm0], xmm1
    ; ... loop body continues ...

View Full Sample

We can now see the compiler has generated radically different code. It’s vectorized and unrolled the loop, so we can see multiple instances of VPGATHERQD. Each iteration of the assembler loop corresponds to 64 iterations of the original loop.

Benchmarking Results

If we benchmark the two compiler generated versions of the function along with a hard written version of the same function using the _mm256_i32gather_epi32 intrinsic function we get the following results.

CPU cpu-feature=+avx2 cpu-target=Skylake Intrinsics
Haswell (i5-4670K @ 3.4Ghz) 26 μs 44 μs 33 μs
Zen 1 (AMD EPYC 7571 @ 2.1GHz) 39 μs 92 μs 72 μs
Skylake (i7-8650U @ 1.90GHz) 28 μs 20 μs 15 μs

The compilers decision holds up. On all micro-architectures apart from Skylake it’s slower to vectorize the loop and use the VPGATHERQD instruction.

We also see the same result from the previous article where the compilers generated AVX2 is not as fast as the manually written version.

Targeting Multiple Micro-Architectures

In the previous articles we saw how #[target_feature(enable = "...")] and is_x86_feature_detected!("...") can be used in our code to compile multiple variants of our functions and switch at runtime.

Unfortunately there is no equivalent for generating multiple variants of our functions to target different micro-architectures.

Back to target-feature (briefly)

So far when discussing target-feature we’ve been controlling major changes like enabling new instruction set families. However micro-architecture specific tuning can also be done with via target-feature.

For the above example passing -C target-feature=+fast-gather would also generate auto-vectorized output using VPGATHERQD.

This won’t solve our multi-versioning problem though. These smaller tuning features aren’t able to be passed to the #[target_feature(enable = "...")] attribute.

Overall it’s more ergonomic simply to pass the specific micro-architecture name rather than working out all the specific tuning options that apply.

The Effect on Explicit SIMD

Micro-architecture tuning doesn’t just affect compilation and auto-vectorization of scalar Rust. It can also affect explicit SIMD code written using intrinsics. This might be unexpected as the Rust documentation for x86-64 intrinsics links to Intel’s documentation which will usually list the exact instruction to be generated.

However when implementing the Intel SIMD intrinsics in Rustc, the compiler authors followed Intel’s naming and semantics, but actually mapped them to high level operations in LLVM (LLVM is the Rust compiler’s backend). This leaves LLVM free to remap to whatever instruction it thinks will give the optimal performance for the current compilation settings.

We can see a concrete demonstration of this with the _mm256_shuffle_epi8 intrinsic from AVX2. The Rust documentation describes it’s behavior and links to Intel’s documentation which states that it maps to the VPSHUFB instruction.

use std::arch::x86_64::*;

#[target_feature(enable = "avx2")]
pub unsafe fn do_shuffle(input: __m256i) -> __m256i {
    const SHUFFLE_CONTROL_DATA: [u8; 32] = [
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
        0x0E, 0x0F, 0x0E, 0x0F,
    let shuffle_control = _mm256_loadu_si256(SHUFFLE_CONTROL_DATA.as_ptr() as *const __m256i);
    _mm256_shuffle_epi8(input, shuffle_control)

However when we compile we see that instead of a single instruction the compiler has generated a sequence of two shuffles: VPSHUFHW and VPSHUFHD to implement our function:

  mov       rax, rdi
  vpshufhw  ymm0, ymmword ptr [rsi], 239
  vpshufd   ymm0, ymm0, 170
  vmovdqa   ymmword ptr [rdi], ymm0

View Full Sample

If we add a target CPU flag to our compiler options, this time picking haswell we get:

  mov       rax, rdi
  vmovdqa   ymm0, ymmword ptr [rsi]
  vpshufb   ymm0, ymm0, ymmword ptr [rip + .LCPI0_0]
  vmovdqa   ymmword ptr [rdi], ymm0

View Full Sample

We get only our single target VPSHUFB instruction generated. We could also have used -C target-feature=+fast-variable-shuffle.


Setting the target-cpu flag does more than simply enabling new instruction set families. It changes the compiler’s instruction cost model which can cause it to generate drastically different code in some cases.

This is most obvious around AVX2, which is recent enough that early implementations have different instructions costs than more recent micro-architectures.

Unfortunately there is no convenient solution in Rust for multi-versioning functions to target different CPU micro-architectures within a single executable.


All the source code for the article can be found on GitHub.


Link to the discussion on Reddit