-Ofast and -ffast-math non-local effects

October 25, 2023


-ffast-math / -Ofast options are very tricky to use correctly: in addition to breaking your immediate floating point arithmetic code (which you might be prepared for) it also breaks the code not compiled with these options but happen to be present in the same address space:

G libfoo.so libfoo.so (-Ofast) libbar.so libbar.so (-O2) has FP code libfoo.so->libbar.so lib breaks bin bin bin (-O2) has FP code libbar.so->bin lib breaks bin libfoo.so libfoo.so (-O2) has FP code libbar.so libbar.so (-O2) has FP code libfoo.so ->libbar.so lib is broken by bin bin bin (-Ofast) has no FP code libbar.so ->bin lib is broken by bin

Here I assume that code built with -Ofast was clean and was prepared to changes caused by -Ofast effect. -O2-compiled code was not prepared for -Ofast flag effects.

All the red boxes are negatively affected by the module compiled with -Ofast.

More words

Let’s start off with an executable example: we’ll construct a very small double value and print it with some of it’s properties:

An example

#include <math.h>
#include <stdio.h>

static const char * fpc(double v) {
    switch (fpclassify(v)) {
        case FP_ZERO: return "FP_ZERO";
        case FP_SUBNORMAL: return "FP_SUBNORMAL";
        case FP_NORMAL: return "FP_NORMAL";
        case FP_INFINITE: return "FP_INFINITE";
        case FP_NAN: return "FP_NAN";
        default: return "UKNOWN (unhandled?)";

int main() {
    double small = 0x1.0p-1040;
    volatile double also_small = 0x1.0p-1040;
    printf("     small = %a or %e (%s)\n", small, small, fpc(small));
    printf("also_small = %a or %e (%s)\n", also_small, also_small, fpc(also_small));

C standard defines a few FP classes (taken from man fpcassify):

I am using volatile on also_small to prevent gcc from folding constants at compile time. I also use gcc extension to write down floats in hexadecimal form (instead of decimal form).

Quick quiz: what class should the above program print you think?

Let’s run it and see the answer:

$ gcc a.c -o a -O2 && ./a
     small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_SUBNORMAL)
also_small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_SUBNORMAL)

$ gcc a.c -o a -Ofast && ./a
     small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_SUBNORMAL)
also_small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_ZERO)

$ gcc a.c -o a -ffast-math && ./a
     small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_SUBNORMAL)
also_small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_ZERO)

Apparently it depends! On -O2 the value is detected as FP_SUBNORMAL and on -Ofast (or -ffast-math) it goes as FP_ZERO. Thus printf() disagrees and prints something that looks more like a small number than zero.

That is unfortunate. But maybe it’s expected by someone who uses -Ofast?

Cross-module effects

Let’s create an empty empty.c file and build it with -Ofast. And then build our initial program with -O2. I’ll use gcc-12 specifically:

$ touch empty.c
$ gcc-12 -shared -fPIC empty.c -Ofast -o libfast.so

$ gcc-12 -O2 a.c -o a && ./a
     small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_SUBNORMAL)
also_small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_SUBNORMAL)

$ gcc-12 -O2 a.c -o a -L. -Wl,--no-as-needed -lfast -Wl,-rpath,'$ORIGIN' && ./a
     small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_SUBNORMAL)
also_small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_ZERO)

See the difference?

Some distributions like Debian or Ubuntu use -Wl,--as-needed by default and throw away the library dependencies without explicit symbol references. -Wl,--no-as-needed makes sure we still retain -lfast in our runtime dependencies.

Note how the mere presence of libfast.so in the library dependencies changes output of the program otherwise compiled and liked with -O2 option:

G libfast.so libfast.so (-Ofast) no code! a a (-O2) has FP code libfast.so->a lib breaks bin a a (-O2) has the same FP code

Breakage mechanics

Before looking at the implementation let’s have a look at the option descriptions gcc man page provides:


  Sets the options -fno-math-errno, -funsafe-math-optimizations,
  -ffinite-math-only, -fno-rounding-math, -fno-signaling-nans,
  -fcx-limited-range and -fexcess-precision=fast.

  This option causes the preprocessor macro "__FAST_MATH__" to be defined.

  This option is not turned on by any -O option besides -Ofast since it
  can result in incorrect output for programs that depend on an exact
  implementation of IEEE  or  ISO  rules/specifications  for math
  functions. It may, however, yield faster code for programs that do not
  require the guarantees of these specifications.

Note how vague the description is: it says your floating point code might do something funny that violates C standard but does not go into specifics.

For most people it should be a good hint not to use the option lightly.

The effect we see in fpclassify() in our example’s instability is the result of -funsafe-math-optimizations option. That one is described as:


  Allow optimizations for floating-point arithmetic that (a) assume that
  arguments and results are valid and (b) may violate IEEE or ANSI
  standards.  When used at link time, it may include libraries or
  startup files that change the default FPU control word or other
  similar optimizations.

  This option is not turned on by any -O option since it can result in
  incorrect output for programs that depend on an exact implementation
  of IEEE or ISO rules/specifications for math functions. It  may,
  however, yield faster code for programs that do not require the
  guarantees of these specifications.  Enables -fno-signed-zeros,
  -fno-trapping-math, -fassociative-math and -freciprocal-math.

  The default is -fno-unsafe-math-optimizations.

This option changes global setting of an FP unit at program start. This change affects not only the code explicitly compiled with -ffast-math but also affects everything else that resides in the same address space.

Mechanically the FPU state changes when gcc links crtfastmath.o on -Ofast / -ffast-math. Object file is implemented via spec machinery:

$ gcc -dumpspecs | fgrep crtfastmath

... %{Ofast|ffast-math|funsafe-math-optimizations:crtfastmath.o%s} ...

This spec dump tells gcc to always add a crtfastmath.o as an input if any of -Ofast, -ffast-math or -funsafe-math-optimizations is passed to gcc. We can also verify it with -Wl,-t to trace all linker inputs:

$ touch a.c

$ gcc -shared a.c -o libshared.so -Wl,-t |& fgrep crtfast

$ gcc -shared a.c -o libshared.so -Wl,-t -Ofast |& fgrep crtfast |& unnix

To achieve this effect libgcc/config/i386/crtfastmath.c defines global constructor to change FP state:

static void __attribute__((constructor))
set_fast_math (void)
  unsigned int mxcsr = __builtin_ia32_stmxcsr ();
  mxcsr |= MXCSR_DAZ | MXCSR_FTZ;
  __builtin_ia32_ldmxcsr (mxcsr);

The above code sets two flags normally disabled in mxcsr SSE flags register:

This effect was seen as too problematic by many and gcc-13 stopped enabling crtfastmath.o for libraries (-shared option) in https://gcc.gnu.org/PR55522.

While the fix limits the impact to final programs that enable -Ofast it is still able to break all the libraries linked into the program linked with -Ofast.

As the library test suites are usually not ran with -Ofast the breakage might not be noticed until data corruption starts happening on real data in final applications.

Actual breakage in an actual program

I did not know about this -ffast-math problem until nixpkgs updated libsodium library to 1.0.19 which started defaulting to -Ofast in “Try using -Ofast / -O3 by default” commit.

After a libsodium upgrade test suites for various programs started failing with obscure errors of data corruption around double conversion to string and back. In some of the cases libsodium was not even used directly and was an indirect dependency via libzmq:

G libsodium.so libsodium.so (includes crtfastmath.o) libzmq.so libzmq.so (just a libsodium.so user) libsodium.so->libzmq.so bitcoind bitcoind (failed tests) libzmq.so->bitcoind

It was very confusing to see bitcoind to fail double serialization / deserialization tests after libsodium update (which API was not used in the program at all).

I usually try to avoid crypto-currency software. But in this case compiler was implied to generate bad code and I had to look closer.

Other compilers

clang also considers disabling crtfastmath.o for shared libraries to follow gcc lead: https://github.com/llvm/llvm-project/issues/57589.

According to Wikipedia ICC enables -ffast-math equivalent on the optimizations above -O0. That sounds quite unsafe.

Why do we even have that lever?

But why do these transformations exist at all? Why treat small doubles differently compared to larger values? We don’t do it with small integers after all (I hope!).

Apparently at least older CPUs (and maybe modern ones as well?) were slower to handle denormalized values. Sometimes 100x slower. Thus cutting a corner here might have a visible win in applications that don’t care about precision or predictability of the result.

Binary representation of floating points

How small those values need to be to get flushed to zero on occasion?

Wikipedia’s “Double-precision floating-point format” article is a great detailed explanation of the float64 format.

Tl;DR: all the numbers of 64-bits have the following bit layout:

G float64 sign 1 bit exp 11 bits frac 52 bits

Depending on the exponent exp value there are two formulas and three(ish) cases:

The main detail here is implied 1.frac vs 0.frac in the first two cases. Otherwise the structure is the same. A few examples of value encodings:

value encoded sign/exp/frac notes
0x1.5p0 0x3ff5000000000000 0/0x3ff/0x0005000000000000 A normalized value
0x1.0p-1022 0x0010000000000000 0/1/0 Smallest normalized value
0x0.fffffffffffffp-1022 0x000fffffffffffff 0/0/0x000fffffffffffff Largest denormalized value
0x1.5p-1040 0x0000054000000000 0/0/0x0054000000000 A denormalized value
0x1.0p-1074 0x0000000000000001 0/0/1 Smallest denormalized value
0.0 0x0000000000000000 0/0/0 Positive zero
-0.0 0x8000000000000000 1/0/0 Negative zero
Inf 0x7ff0000000000000 0/0x7ff/0 Positive infinity
-Inf 0xfff0000000000000 1/0x7ff/0 Negative infinity
NaN 0xfff8000000000000 1/0x7ff/0x0008000000000000 NaN for 0/0 value

There are various curious facts about this encoding:

Normalized and denormalized value sets do not intersect: all denormalized absolute values are smaller than smallest normalized value.

Having a short glance at first 3 hexadecimal digits is enough to get the idea which FP class we are looking at:

Normalized values do not allow for 0.0 encoding: frac always has an implied leading 1. start for fraction. Thus zeros have to be encoded using denormalized scheme.

(Positive) zero is encoded as all zero bits. Thus memset() on array of floats creates sensible array of zeros.

There are two zeros: signed and unsigned.

While zeros require subnormal encoding of an exponent they are considered a separate FP_ZERO class from FP_SUBNORMAL

Normalized values use all their 52 bits of fraction for precision. Denormalized values usually use less as they maintain a few leading zeros to encode smaller values.

Looking at the binary representation one can imagine how CPU would implement at least trivial operations (like addition and subtraction) on floating points with the same exponent value and then slightly extend it to operation on numbers with different exponents.

The effect of MXCSR_DAZ and MXCSR_FTZ

By now it should be clear that MXCSR_DAZ and MXCSR_FTZ flags effectively turn any denormalized value into zero for any FP operation.

The minor problem happens if denormalized value is already constructed in memory and is used by something else. That is why we get seemingly nonsensical result above when FP_ZERO has a non-zero encoding:

also_small = 0x0.00004p-1022 or 8.487983e-314 (FP_ZERO)

Is it hard to hit a denormalized value? It depends! If you operate on small values like 102010^{-20} (micros) and use to raise it to higher powers, like 16, then you get outside the normal range: (1020)16=0x0.00000000007e8p1022{(10^{-20})}^{16} = 0x0.00000000007e8p^{-1022}

These are very small values.

With such flushing enabled it is a lot easier to hit a NaN by dividing (flushed) zero by (flushed) zero or by subtracting infinities a bit after.

Parting words

-Ofast is not a safe option to use without a second thought. In addition to breaking your immediate floating point arithmetic code -ffast-math / -Ofast also breaks the code not compiled with these options. This non-local effect is most problematic.

libsodium tried it and broke a few reverse dependencies that relied on denormalized values to work as expected.

For the time being libsodium rolled back -Ofast default. That should stop FP code breakage for users of older gcc.

There probably is a lot more packages enabling -Ofast without realizing what effects it causes on FP code correctness somewhere else.

To notice the problem the code needs to exercise denormalized values which might require very small actual values as operands.

What is worse: the truncation problems might come and go depending on what compiler decides to do with the intermediate values: perform an operation on FP unit and observe the truncation, pass it in memory and process using bitwise arithmetic and not observe the truncation or re-associate the operations and expose denormalized values. This instability effect is very similar to i387 FPU instability on i386 documented at https://gcc.gnu.org/wiki/x87note.

Floating point encoding is straightforward, but is full of corner cases: normalized, denormalized, zeros, infinities and NaNs. Handling all the cases requires extra work from the programmer and the CPU.

MXCSR_DAZ and MXCSR_FTZ status bits allow CPU to treat most denormalized values as zeros at a cost of C and IEEE standard conformance.

Have fun!