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Why is (a*b != 0) faster than (a != 0 && b != 0) in Java?

Posted by: admin November 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Questions:

I’m writing some code in Java where, at some point, the flow of the program is determined by whether two int variables, “a” and “b”, are non-zero (note: a and b are never negative, and never within integer overflow range).

I can evaluate it with

if (a != 0 && b != 0) { /* Some code */ }

Or alternatively

if (a*b != 0) { /* Some code */ }

Because I expect that piece of code to run millions of times per run, I was wondering which one would be faster. I did the experiment by comparing them on a huge randomly generated array, and I was also curious to see how the sparsity of the array (fraction of data = 0) would affect the results:

long time;
final int len = 50000000;
int arbitrary = 0;
int[][] nums = new int[2][len];

for (double fraction = 0 ; fraction <= 0.9 ; fraction += 0.0078125) {
    for(int i = 0 ; i < 2 ; i++) {
        for(int j = 0 ; j < len ; j++) {
            double random = Math.random();

            if(random < fraction) nums[i][j] = 0;
            else nums[i][j] = (int) (random*15 + 1);
        }
    }

    time = System.currentTimeMillis();

    for(int i = 0 ; i < len ; i++) {
        if( /*insert nums[0][i]*nums[1][i]!=0 or nums[0][i]!=0 && nums[1][i]!=0*/ ) arbitrary++;
    }
    System.out.println(System.currentTimeMillis() - time);
}

And the results show that if you expect “a” or “b” to be equal to 0 more than ~3% of the time, a*b != 0 is faster than a!=0 && b!=0:

Graphical graph of the results of a AND b non-zero

I’m curious to know why. Could anyone shed some light? Is it the compiler or is it at the hardware level?

Edit: Out of curiosity… now that I learned about branch prediction, I was wondering what the analog comparison would show for a OR b is non-zero:

Graph of a or b non-zero

We do see the same effect of branch prediction as expected, interestingly the graph is somewhat flipped along the X-axis.

Update

1- I added !(a==0 || b==0) to the analysis to see what happens.

2- I also included a != 0 || b != 0, (a+b) != 0 and (a|b) != 0 out of curiosity, after learning about branch prediction. But they are not logically equivalent to the other expressions, because only a OR b needs to be non-zero to return true, so they are not meant to be compared for processing efficiency.

3- I also added the actual benchmark that I used for the analysis, which is just iterating an arbitrary int variable.

4- Some people were suggesting to include a != 0 & b != 0 as opposed to a != 0 && b != 0, with the prediction that it would behave more closely to a*b != 0 because we would remove the branch prediction effect. I didn’t know that & could be used with boolean variables, I thought it was only used for binary operations with integers.

Note: In the context that I was considering all this, int overflow is not an issue, but that’s definitely an important consideration in general contexts.

CPU: Intel Core i7-3610QM @ 2.3GHz

Java version: 1.8.0_45
Java(TM) SE Runtime Environment (build 1.8.0_45-b14)
Java HotSpot(TM) 64-Bit Server VM (build 25.45-b02, mixed mode)

Answers:

I’m ignoring the issue that your benchmarking might be flawed, and taking the result at face value.

Is it the compiler or is it at the hardware level?

That latter, I think:

  if (a != 0 && b != 0)

will compile to 2 memory loads and two conditional branches

  if (a * b != 0)

will compile to 2 memory loads, a multiply and one conditional branch.

The multiply is likely to be faster than the second conditional branch if the hardware-level branch prediction is ineffective. As you increase the ratio … the branch prediction is becoming less effective.

The reason that conditional branches are slower is that they cause the instruction execution pipeline to stall. Branch prediction is about avoiding the stall by predicting which way the branch is going to go and speculatively choosing the next instruction based on that. If the prediction fails, there is a delay while the instruction for the other direction is loaded.

(Note: the above explanation is oversimplified. For a more accurate explanation, you need to look at the literature provided by the CPU manufacturer for assembly language coders and compiler writers. The Wikipedia page on Branch Predictors is good background.)


However, there is one thing that you need to be careful about with this optimization. Are there any values where a * b != 0 will give the wrong answer? Consider cases where computing the product results in integer overflow.


UPDATE

Your graphs tend to confirm what I said.

  • There is also a “branch prediction” effect in the conditional branch a * b != 0 case, and this comes out in the graphs.

  • If you project the curves beyond 0.9 on the X-axis, it looks like 1) they will meet at about 1.0 and 2) the meeting point will be at roughly the same Y value as for X = 0.0.


UPDATE 2

I don’t understand why the curves are different for the a + b != 0 and the a | b != 0 cases. There could be something clever in the branch predictors logic. Or it could indicate something else.

(Note that this kind of thing can be specific to a particular chip model number or even version. The results of your benchmarks could be different on other systems.)

However, they both have the advantage of working for all non-negative values of a and b.

Questions:
Answers:

I think your benchmark has some flaws and may not be useful for inferring about real programs. Here are my thoughts:

  • (a*b)!=0 will do the wrong thing for values that overflow, and (a+b)!=0 will additionally do the wrong thing for positive and negative values that sum to zero, so you can’t use either of those expressions in the general case, even if they work here.

  • (a|b)!=0 and (a+b)!=0 are testing if either value is non-zero, while (a*b)!=0 and a != 0 && b != 0 are testing if both are non-zero. The two types of conditions will not be true on the same percentage of data.

  • The VM will optimize the expression during the first few runs of the outer (fraction) loop, when fraction is 0, when the branches are almost never taken. The optimizer may do different things if you start fraction at 0.5.

  • Unless the VM is able to eliminate some of the array bounds checks here, there are four other branches in the expression just due to the bounds checks, and that’s a complicating factor when trying to figure out what’s happening at a low level. You may get different results if you split the two-dimensional array into two flat arrays, changing nums[0][i] and nums[1][i] to nums0[i] and nums1[i].

  • CPU branch predictors try to detect short patterns in the data, or runs of all branches being taken or not taken. Your randomly generated benchmark data is the worst thing for a branch predictor to try to deal with. If your real data has a predictable pattern, or it has long runs of all-zero and all-non-zero values, the branches could cost a lot less.

  • The particular code that is executed after the condition is met can affect the performance of evaluating the condition itself, because it affects things like whether or not the loop can be unrolled, which CPU registers are available, and if any of the fetched nums values need to be reused after evaluating the condition. Merely incrementing a counter in the benchmark is not a perfect placeholder for what real code would do.

  • System.currentTimeMillis() is on most systems not more accurate than +/- 10 ms. System.nanoTime() is usually more accurate.

As you can see there lots of uncertainties, and it’s always hard to say anything definite with these sort of micro-optimizations because a trick that is faster on one VM or CPU can be slower on another. If your VM is HotSpot, be aware that there are two further varieties, with the “Client” VM having different (weaker) optimizations compared to the “Server” VM.

If you can disassemble the machine code generated by the VM, do that rather than trying to guess what it does!

Questions:
Answers:

The answers here are good, though I had an idea that might improve things.

Since the two branches and associated branch prediction are the likely culprit, we may be able to reduce the branching to a single branch without changing the logic at all.

bool aNotZero = (nums[0][i] != 0);
bool bNotZero = (nums[1][i] != 0);
if (aNotZero && bNotZero) { /* Some code */ }

It may also work to do

int a = nums[0][i];
int b = nums[1][i];
if (a != 0 && b != 0) { /* Some code */ }

The reason being, by the rules of short circuiting, if the first boolean is false, the second should not be evaluated. It has to perform an extra branch to avoid evaluating nums[1][i] if nums[0][i] was false. Now, you may not care that nums[1][i] gets evaluated, but the compiler can’t be certain that it won’t throw an out of range or null ref when you do. By reducing the if block to simple bools, the compiler may be smart enough to realize that evaluating the second boolean unnecessarily won’t have negative side effects.

Questions:
Answers:

When we take the multiplication, even if one number is 0, then the product is 0. While writing

    (a*b != 0)

It evaluates the result of the product thereby eliminating the first few occurrences of the iteration starting from 0. As a result the comparisons are less than that when the condition is

   (a != 0 && b != 0)

Where every element is compared with 0 and evaluated. Hence the time required is less. But I believe that the second condition might give you more accurate solution.

Questions:
Answers:

You are using randomized input data which makes the branches unpredictable. In practice branches are often (~90%) predictable so in real code the branchful code is likely to be faster.

That said. I don’t see how a*b != 0 can be faster than (a|b) != 0. Generally integer multiplication is more expensive than a bitwise OR. But things like this occasionally get weird. See for example the “Example 7: Hardware complexities” example from Gallery of Processor Cache Effects.