Archive for August, 2008

Have you looked at your linker output file recently?

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008 Nigel Jones

Of all the myriad of files involved in a typical embedded firmware project, probably the two most feared (and yes I do mean feared) are the linker control file (which tells the linker how to link your application) and the linker output file. Today it’s the latter which I’ll be talking about.

The linker output file tells you a myriad of information about the way your application has been put together. Unfortunately, much of it is in such a cryptic format that examination of the file is a painful process. Indeed, for this reason, I suspect that most projects are completed with nothing more than a cursory look at this file.

This is a shame, because examination of the linker output file can significantly reduce your debugging time. To show you what I mean, consider my typical action sequence when I first start coding up a project.

1. Write a module.
2. Compile module and correct all errors and warnings.
3. Lint module and correct all complaints from Lint.
4. Repeat steps 1, 2 & 3 until I have sufficient modules to be able to generate a linkable image.
5. Link image and repeat steps 1-4 until the linker has no warnings or errors.
6. Examine the linker output file.

I’d wager that most developers out there would be reaching for the debugger in step 6. The reason I do not, is because I can typically find some bugs simply by looking at the linker output. For example, consider this code sequence:

if (0 == var)
} else if (1 == var)
else if (2 == var)

I make these sort of copy and paste errors all the time. In this case, when var is 2, I meant to call function_c but inadvertently I ended up calling function_b again. Since function_b exists, the compiler is happy and so there are typically no warnings.

So how does looking at the linker output file help me in this case? Well, if you have a decent linker it will give you a list of all the functions that aren’t called and that consequently have been stripped out of the final image. If in perusing this list I see that function_c() is listed as uncalled, then I immediately know I’ve got a bug somewhere. Typically tracking it down is very easy.

I’ll leave for another day the other ways I use the linker output file to debug code.


Improvements versus Features

Thursday, August 7th, 2008 Nigel Jones

I’m taking a slight detour from my usual topics to blather about what I see as an unfortunate trend that is making its way from the PC world to the embedded world. My perception is that as more embedded systems get sophisticated user interfaces, the desire to add features seems inescapable. While I don’t see adding features as bad, per se, doing so instead of improving the product is a bad thing. What do I mean by improving the product? Well, typically those things that most users don’t understand, for example noise floors, power consumption, SNR, software reliability and so on.

In the days before user interfaces, pretty much the only way to improve a product was to work on the “invisible” parameters. Today, it’s often far easier to add a new feature than it is to labor at, for example, wringing a few more db of performance out of that digital filter while keeping the number of clock cycles unchanged.

Am I tilting at windmills? I don’t think so. Is my plea pointless – probably. However the next time someone comes along asking for a YANF (Yet Another New Feature), do them and you a favor and ask how time spent on the YANF compares to time spent on improving the product.


Efficient C Tips #3 – Avoiding post increment / decrement

Friday, August 1st, 2008 Nigel Jones

It always seems counter intuitive to me, but post increment / decrement operations in C / C++ often result in inefficient code, particularly when de-referencing pointers. For example

for (i = 0, ptr = buffer; i < 8; i++)
 *ptr++ = i;

This code snippet contains two post increment operations. With most compilers, you’ll get better code quality by re-writing it like this:

for (i = 0, ptr = buffer; i < 8; ++i)
 *ptr = i;

Why is this you ask? Well, the best explanation I’ve come across to date is this one on the IAR website:

Certainly taking the time to understand what’s going on is worthwhile. However, if it makes your head hurt then just remember to avoid post increment / decrement operations.

Incidentally, you may find that on your particular target it makes no difference. However, this is purely a result of the fact that your target processor directly supports the required addressing modes to make post increments efficient. If you are interested in writing code that is universally efficient, then avoid the use of post increment / decrement.

You may also wonder just how much this saves you. I’ve run some tests on various compilers / targets and have found that this coding style cuts the object code size down from zero to several percent. I’ve never seen it increase the code size. More to the point, in loops, using a pre-increment can save you a load / store operation per increment per loop iteration. These can add up to some serious time savings.

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