Sun Studio 12: Performance Analyzer

Single-Threaded Execution and Function Calls

The simplest case of program execution is that of a single-threaded program calling functions within its own load object.

When a program is loaded into memory to begin execution, a context is established for it that includes the initial address to be executed, an initial register set, and a stack (a region of memory used for scratch data and for keeping track of how functions call each other). The initial address is always at the beginning of the function _start(), which is built into every executable.

When the program runs, instructions are executed in sequence until a branch instruction is encountered, which among other things could represent a function call or a conditional statement. At the branch point, control is transferred to the address given by the target of the branch, and execution proceeds from there. (Usually the next instruction after the branch is already committed for execution: this instruction is called the branch delay slot instruction. However, some branch instructions annul the execution of the branch delay slot instruction).

When the instruction sequence that represents a call is executed, the return address is put into a register, and execution proceeds at the first instruction of the function being called.

In most cases, somewhere in the first few instructions of the called function, a new frame (a region of memory used to store information about the function) is pushed onto the stack, and the return address is put into that frame. The register used for the return address can then be used when the called function itself calls another function. When the function is about to return, it pops its frame from the stack, and control returns to the address from which the function was called.

Function Calls Between Shared Objects

When a function in one shared object calls a function in another shared object, the execution is more complicated than in a simple call to a function within the program. Each shared object contains a Program Linkage Table, or PLT, which contains entries for every function external to that shared object that is referenced from it. Initially the address for each external function in the PLT is actually an address within, the dynamic linker. The first time such a function is called, control is transferred to the dynamic linker, which resolves the call to the real external function and patches the PLT address for subsequent calls.

If a profiling event occurs during the execution of one of the three PLT instructions, the PLT PCs are deleted, and exclusive time is attributed to the call instruction. If a profiling event occurs during the first call through a PLT entry, but the leaf PC is not one of the PLT instructions, any PCs that arise from the PLT and code in are replaced by a call to an artificial function, @plt, which accumulates inclusive time. There is one such artificial function for each shared object. If the program uses the LD_AUDIT interface, the PLT entries might never be patched, and non-leaf PCs from @plt can occur more frequently.


When a signal is sent to a process, various register and stack operations occur that make it look as though the leaf PC at the time of the signal is the return address for a call to a system function, sigacthandler(). sigacthandler() calls the user-specified signal handler just as any function would call another.

The Performance Analyzer treats the frames resulting from signal delivery as ordinary frames. The user code at the point at which the signal was delivered is shown as calling the system function sigacthandler(), and sigacthandler() in turn is shown as calling the user’s signal handler. Inclusive metrics from both sigacthandler() and any user signal handler, and any other functions they call, appear as inclusive metrics for the interrupted function.

The Collector interposes on sigaction() to ensure that its handlers are the primary handlers for the SIGPROF signal when clock data is collected and SIGEMT signal when hardware counter overflow data is collected.


Traps can be issued by an instruction or by the hardware, and are caught by a trap handler. System traps are traps that are initiated from an instruction and trap into the kernel. All system calls are implemented using trap instructions. Some examples of hardware traps are those issued from the floating point unit when it is unable to complete an instruction (such as the fitos instruction for some register-content values on the UltraSPARC® III platform), or when the instruction is not implemented in the hardware.

When a trap is issued, the Solaris LWP or Linux kernel enters system mode. On the Solaris OS, the microstate is usually switched from User CPU state to Trap state then to System state. The time spent handling the trap can show as a combination of System CPU time and User CPU time, depending on the point at which the microstate is switched. The time is attributed to the instruction in the user’s code from which the trap was initiated (or to the system call).

For some system calls, it is considered critical to provide as efficient handling of the call as possible. The traps generated by these calls are known as fast traps. Among the system functions that generate fast traps are gethrtime and gethrvtime. In these functions, the microstate is not switched because of the overhead involved.

In other circumstances it is also considered critical to provide as efficient handling of the trap as possible. Some examples of these are TLB (translation lookaside buffer) misses and register window spills and fills, for which the microstate is not switched.

In both cases, the time spent is recorded as User CPU time. However, the hardware counters are turned off because the CPU mode has been switched to system mode. The time spent handling these traps can therefore be estimated by taking the difference between User CPU time and Cycles time, preferably recorded in the same experiment.

In one case the trap handler switches back to user mode, and that is the misaligned memory reference trap for an 8-byte integer which is aligned on a 4-byte boundary in Fortran. A frame for the trap handler appears on the stack, and a call to the handler can appear in the Performance Analyzer, attributed to the integer load or store instruction.

When an instruction traps into the kernel, the instruction following the trapping instruction appears to take a long time, because it cannot start until the kernel has finished executing the trapping instruction.

Tail-Call Optimization

The compiler can do one particular optimization whenever the last thing a particular function does is to call another function. Rather than generating a new frame, the callee reuses the frame from the caller, and the return address for the callee is copied from the caller. The motivation for this optimization is to reduce the size of the stack, and, on SPARC platforms, to reduce the use of register windows.

Suppose that the call sequence in your program source looks like this:

A -> B -> C -> D

When B and C are tail-call optimized, the call stack looks as if function A calls functions B, C, and D directly.

A -> B
A -> C
A -> D

That is, the call tree is flattened. When code is compiled with the -g option, tail-call optimization takes place only at a compiler optimization level of 4 or higher. When code is compiled without the- g option, tail-call optimization takes place at a compiler optimization level of 2 or higher.