Building C/C++: what really happens and why does it take so long

A relatively large portion of software development time is not spent on writing, running, debugging or even designing code, but waiting for it to finish compiling. This is usually seen as necessary evil and accepted as an unfortunate fact of life. This is a shame, because spending some time optimizing the build system can yield quite dramatic productivity gains.

Suppose a build system takes some thirty seconds to run for even trivial changes. This means that even in theory you can do at most two changes a minute. In practice the rate is a lot lower. If the build step takes only a few seconds, trying out new code becomes a lot faster. It is easier to stay in the zone when you don’t have to pause every so often to wait for your tools to finish doing their thing.

Making fundamental changes in the code often triggers a complete rebuild. If this takes an hour or more (there are code bases that take 10+ hours to build), people try to avoid fundamental changes as much as possible. This causes loss of flexibility. It becomes very tempting to just do a band-aid tweak rather than thoroughly fix the issue at hand. If the entire rebuild could be done in five to ten minutes, this issue would become moot.

In order to make things fast, we first have to understand what is happening when C/C++ software is compiled. The steps are roughly as follows:

  1. Configuration
  2. Build tool startup
  3. Dependency checking
  4. Compilation
  5. Linking

We will now look at each step in more detail focusing on how they can be made faster.

Configuration

This is the first step when starting to build. Usually means running a configure script or CMake, Gyp, SCons or some other tool. This can take anything from one second to several minutes for very large Autotools-based configure scripts.

This step happens relatively rarely. It only needs to be run when changing configurations or changing the build configuration. Short of changing build systems, there is not much to be done to make this step faster.

Build tool startup

This is what happens when you run make or click on the build icon on an IDE (which is usually an alias for make). The build tool binary starts and reads its configuration files as well as the build configuration, which are usually the same thing.

Depending on build complexity and size, this can take anywhere from a fraction of a second to several seconds. By itself this would not be so bad. Unfortunately most make-based build systems cause make to be invocated tens to hundreds of times for every single build. Usually this is caused by recursive use of make (which is bad).

It should be noted that the reason Make is so slow is not an implementation bug. The syntax of Makefiles has some quirks that make a really fast implementation all but impossible. This problem is even more noticeable when combined with the next step.

Dependency checking

Once the build tool has read its configuration, it has to determine what files have changed and which ones need to be recompiled. The configuration files contain a directed acyclic graph describing the build dependencies. This graph is usually built during the configure step. Suppose we have a file called SomeClass.cc which contains this line of code:

#include "OtherClass.hh"

This means that whenever OtherClass.hh changes, the build system needs to rebuild SomeClass.cc. Usually this is done by comparing the timestamp of SomeClass.o against OtherClass.hh. If the object file is older than the source file or any header it includes, the source file is rebuilt.

Build tool startup time and the dependency scanner are run on every single build. Their combined runtime determines the lower bound on the edit-compile-debug cycle. For small projects this time is usually a few seconds or so. This is tolerable.

The problem is that Make scales terribly to large projects. As an example, running Make on the codebase of the Clang compiler with no changes takes over half a minute, even if everything is in cache. The sad truth is that in practice large projects can not be built fast with Make. They will be slow and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

There are alternatives to Make. The fastest of them is Ninja, which was built by Google engineers for Chromium. When run on the same Clang code as above it finishes in one second. The difference is even bigger when building Chromium. This is a massive boost in productivity, it’s one of those things that make the difference between tolerable and pleasant.

If you are using CMake or Gyp to build, just switch to their Ninja backends. You don’t have to change anything in the build files themselves, just enjoy the speed boost. Ninja is not packaged on most distributions, though, so you might have to install it yourself.

If you are using Autotools, you are forever married to Make. This is because the syntax of autotools is defined in terms of Make. There is no way to separate the two without a backwards compatibility breaking complete rewrite. What this means in practice is that Autotool build systems are slow by design, and can never be made fast.

Compilation

At this point we finally invoke the compiler. Cutting some corners, here are the approximate steps taken.

  1. Merging includes
  2. Parsing the code
  3. Code generation/optimization

Let’s look at these one at a time. The explanations given below are not 100% accurate descriptions of what happens inside the compiler. They have been simplified to emphasize the facets important to this discussion. For a more thorough description, have a look at any compiler textbook.

The first step joins all source code in use into one clump. What happens is that whenever the compiler finds an include statement like #include “somefile.h”, it finds that particular source file and replaces the #include with the full contents of that file. If that file contained other #includes, they are inserted recursively. The end result is one big self-contained source file.

The next step is parsing. This means analyzing the source file, splitting it into tokens and building an abstract syntax tree. This step translates the human understandable source code into a computer understandable unambiguous format. It is what allows the compiler to understand what the user wants the code to do.

Code generation takes the syntax tree and transforms it into machine code sequences called object code. This code is almost ready to run on a CPU.

Each one of these steps can be slow. Let’s look at ways to make them faster.

Faster #includes

Including by itself is not slow, slowness comes from the cascade effect. Including even one other file causes everything included in it to be included as well. In the worst case every single source file depends on every header file. This means that touching any header file causes the recompilation of every source file whether they use that particular header’s contents or not.

Cutting down on interdependencies is straightforward. Only #include those headers that you actually use. In addition, header files must not include any other header files if at all possible. The main tool for this is called forward declaration. Basically what it means is that instead of having a header file that looks like this:

#include "SomeClass.hh"

class MyClass {
  SomeClass s;
};

You have this:

class SomeClass;

class MyClass {
  SomeClass *s;
}

Because the definition of SomeClass is not know, you have to use pointers or references to it in the header.

Remember that #including MyClass.hh would have caused SomeClass.hh and all its #includes to be added to the original source file. Now they aren’t, so the compiler’s work has been reduced. We also don’t have to recompile the users of MyClass if SomeClass changes. Cutting the dependency chain like this everywhere in the code base can have a major effect in build time, especially when combined with the next step. For a more detailed analysis including measurements and code, see here.

Faster parsing

The most popular C++ libraries, STL and Boost, are implemented as header only libraries. That is, they don’t have a dynamically linkable library but rather the code is generated anew into every binary file that uses them. Compared to most C++ code, STL and Boost are complex. Really, really complex. In fact they are most likely the hardest pieces of code a C++ compiler has to compile. Boost is often used as a stress test on C++ compilers, because it is so difficult to compile.

It is not an exaggeration to say that for most C++ code using STL, parsing the STL headers is up to 10 times slower than parsing all the rest. This leads to massively slow build times because of class headers like this:

#include <vector>

class SomeClass {
private:
  vector<int> numbers;

public:
  ...
};

As we learned in the previous chapter, this means that every single file that includes this header must parse STL’s vector definition, which is an internal implementation detail of SomeClass and even if they would not use vector themselves. Add some other class include that uses a map, one for unordered_map, a few Boost includes and what do you end up with? A code base where compiling any file requires parsing all of STL and possibly Boost. This is a factor of 3-10 slowdown on compile times.

Getting around this is relatively simple, though takes a bit of work. It is known as the pImpl idiom. One way of achieving it is this:

---header---

struct someClassPrivate;

class SomeClass {
private:
  someClassPrivate *p;
};

---- implementation ---
#include <vector>
struct someClassPrivate {
  vector<int> numbers;
};

SomeClass::SomeClass() {
  p = new someClassPrivate;
}

SomeClass::~SomeClass() {
  delete p;
}

Now the dependency chain is cut and users of SomeClass don’t have to parse vector. As an added bonus the vector can be changed to a map or anything else without needing to recompile files that use SomeClass.

 Faster code generation

Code generation is mostly an implementation detail of the compiler, and there’s not much that can be done about it. There are a few ways to make it faster, though.

Optimizing code is slow. In every day development all optimizations should be disabled. Most build systems do this by default, but Autotools builds optimized binaries by default. In addition to being slow, this makes debugging a massive pain, because most of the time trying to print the value of some variable just prints out “value optimised out”.

Making Autotools build non-optimised binaries is relatively straightforward. You just have to run configure like this: ./configure CFLAGS=’O0 -g’ CXXFLAGS=’-O0 -g’. Unfortunately many people mangle their autotools cflags in config files so the above command might not work. In this case the only fix is to inspect all autotools config files and fix them yourself.

The other trick is about reducing the amount of generated code. If two different source files use vector<int>, the compiler has to generate the complete vector code in both of them. During linking (discussed in the next chapter) one of them is just discarded. There is a way to tell the compiler not to generate the code in the other file using a technique that was introduced in C++0x called extern templates. They are used like this.

file A:

#include <vector>
template class std::vector<int>;

void func() {
  std::vector<int> numbers;
}

file B:

#include <vector>
extern template class std::vector<int>;

void func2() {
  std::vector<int> idList;
}

This instructs the compiler not to generate vector code when compiling file B. The linker makes it use the code generated in file A.

Build speedup tools

CCache is an application that stores compiled object code into a global cache. If the same code is compiled again with the same compiler flags, it grabs the object file from the cache rather than running the compiler. If you have to recompile the same code multiple times, CCache may offer noticeable speedups.

A tool often mentioned alongside CCache is DistCC, which increases parallelism by spreading the build to many different machines. If you have a monster machine it may be worth it. On regular laptop/desktop machines the speed gains are minor (it might even be slower).

Precompiled headers

Precompiled headers is a feature of some C++ compilers that basically serializes the in-memory representation of parsed code into a binary file. This can then be read back directly to memory instead of reparsing the header file when used again. This is a feature that can provide massive speedups.

Out of all the speedup tricks listed in this post, this has by far the biggest payoff. It turns the massively slow STL includes into, effectively, no-ops.

So why is it not used anywhere?

Mostly it comes down to poor toolchain support. Precompiled headers are fickle beasts. For example with GCC they only work between two different compilation units if the compiler switches are exactly the same. Most people don’t know that precompiled headers exist, and those that do don’t want to deal with getting all the details right.

CMake does not have direct support for them. There are a few modules floating around the Internet, but I have not tested them myself. Autotools is extremely precompiled header hostile, because its syntax allows for wacky and dynamic alterations of compiler flags.

Faster Linking

When the compiler compiles a file and comes to a function call that is somewhere outside the current file, such as in the standard library or some other source file, it effectively writes a placeholder saying “at this point jump to function X”. The linker takes all these different compiled files and connects the jump points to their actual locations. When linking is done, the binary is ready to use.

Linking is surprisingly slow. It can easily take minutes on relatively large applications. As an extreme case, linking the Chromium browser on ARM takes 3 gigs of RAM and takes 18 hours.

Yes, hours.

The main reason for this is that the standard GNU linker is quite slow. Fortunately there is a new, faster linker called Gold. It is not the default linker yet, but hopefully it will be soon. In the mean time you can install and use it manually.

A different way of making linking faster is to simply cut down on these symbols using a technique called symbol visibility. The gist of it is that you hide all non-public symbols from the list of exported symbols. This means less work and memory use for the linker, which makes it faster.

Conclusions

Contrary to popular belief, compiling C++ is not actually all that slow. The STL is slow and most build tools used to compile C++ are slow. However there are faster tools and ways to mitigate the slow parts of the language.

Using them takes a bit of elbow grease, but the benefits are undeniable. Faster build times lead to happier developers, more agility and, eventually, better code.