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What is the between likely and unlikely calls in Kernel. While searching through the kernel source i found these statements.

# define likely(x)      __builtin_expect(!!(x), 1)
# define unlikely(x)    __builtin_expect(!!(x), 0)

Could somebody shed some light into it?

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This is really a programming question, better suited for Stack OVerflow. –  Gilles Apr 19 '11 at 20:17
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1 Answer

up vote 5 down vote accepted

They are compiler hints for GCC. They're used in conditionals to tell the compiler if a branch is likely to be taken or not. It can help the compiler laying down the code in such a way that's optimal for the most frequent outcome.

They are used like this:

if (likely(some_condition)) {
  // the compiler will try and make the code layout optimal for the case
  // where some_condition is true, i.e. where this block is run
} else {
  // this block is less frequently used

It should be used with great care (i.e. based on actual branch profiling results). A wrong hint can degrade performance (obviously).

Some examples of how the code can be optimized are easily found by searching for GCC __builtin_expect. This blog post gcc optimisation: __builtin_expect for example details a disassembly with it.

The kind of optimizations that can be done is very processor-specific. The general idea is that often, processors will run code faster if it does not branch/jump all over the place. The more linear it is, and the more predictable the branches are, the faster it will run. (This is especially true for processors with deep pipelines for example.)

So the compiler will emit the code such that the most likely branch will not involve a jump if that's what the target CPU prefers, for instance.

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What is meant by unicorns? Is it a technical term or just a filler? –  Sen Apr 19 '11 at 8:03
I removed the unicorns to avoid confusion. –  Mat Apr 19 '11 at 8:05
Could you please elaborate on the compiler will try and make the code layout optimal for the case? I would like to know how it does that. –  Sen Apr 19 '11 at 8:08
added a bit of information on that. there is no general way of optimizing code, it's all very processor dependent. –  Mat Apr 19 '11 at 8:19
Thanks Mat. I understood it well. –  Sen Apr 19 '11 at 10:56
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