Archive for April, 2010

Efficient C Tip #12 – Be wary of switch statements

Saturday, April 10th, 2010 Nigel Jones

This is the twelfth in a series of tips on writing efficient C for embedded systems. Like the previous topic, I suspect that this will be a bit controversial. As the title suggests, if you are interested in writing efficient C, you need to be wary of switch statements. Before I explain why, a little background will be useful. I did all of my early embedded systems programming in assembly language. This wasn’t out of some sense of machismo, it was simply a reflection of the fact that there were no high level languages available (with the possible exception of PL/M). Naturally as well as programming embedded systems I also did computer programming, initially in Pascal and BASIC, and later in C. One of the major differences I found in using the HLL was the wonderful switch / case statement. I found it to be a beautiful tool – with a few lines of source code I could do all sorts of powerful things that were simply very difficult or tedious to do in assembly language. Fast forward a number of years and C compilers began to become available for small embedded systems and so I naturally started using them, together with of course the attendant switch statement. All was well in paradise until the day I used a switch statement in an interrupt service routine and found to my horror that the ISR was taking about ten times longer to execute than I thought was reasonable.

This precipitated an investigation into how exactly switch statements are implemented by the compiler. When I did this, I discovered a number of things that should give one pause.

Heuristic Algorithms

The first thing I discovered is that compilers typically have a number of ways of implementing a switch statement. They seem to be loosely divided into the following trichotomy:

  1. An if-else-if-else-if chain. In this implementation, the switch statement is treated as syntactic sugar for an if-else-if chain.
  2. Some form of jump or control tables, or as they are sometimes called a computed goto. This is a favorite technique of assembly language programmers and the compiler writers can use it to great effect.
  3. A hybrid of 1 & 2.

Where it gets interesting is how the compiler decides which approach to use. If the case values are contiguous (e.g. zero through ten), then it’s likely the compiler will use some form of jump table. Conversely if the case values are completely disjointed (e.g. zero, six, twenty, four hundred and a thousand) then an if-else implementation is likely. However what does the compiler do when, for example, you have a bifurcated set of ranges such as zero-ten and ninety – one hundred? Well the answer is, that each compiler seems to have some form of heuristic algorithm for determining what is the ‘best’ way of implementing a given set of cases. Although some compilers allow you to force a particular implementation, for the most part you are at the mercy of the compiler.

Comparative Execution Speeds

If you think about it, it should become apparent that a jump table approach is likely to give a highly consistent time of execution through the decision tree, whereas the if-else -if chain has a highly variable time of execution depending upon the particular value of the switched variable.  Notwithstanding this, the jump table approach has a certain amount of execution overhead associated with it. This means that although its  mean execution time (which is normally the same as its worst and best execution time) may be dramatically better than the mean execution time of the if-else-if chain, the if-else-if chain’s best execution time may be considerably better. So what you say! Well in some cases, a particular value is far more likely to occur than the other values, thus it would be very nice if this value was tested first. However, as you will now see, this isn’t guaranteed…

Order of Execution

For many years I wrote switch statements under the assumption that the case values would be evaluated from top to bottom. That is, if the compiler chose to implement the switch statement as an if-else-if chain, then it would first test the first case, then the second case and so on down to the default case at the bottom of my source code. Well it turns out that my assumption was completely wrong. The compiler is under no such obligation, and indeed will often evaluate the values bottom to top. Furthermore, the compiler will often evaluate the default value first. For example consider a defaulted switch statement with contiguous case values in the range zero to ten. If the index variable is an unsigned int, then there are at least 65525 possible values handled by the default case, and so it makes sense to eliminate them first. Now if you know that the index variable can only possibly take on the values zero to ten, then you can of course eliminate the default statement – and then get excoriated by the coding standards / MISRA folks.


This is the area where I really get worried. Consider the case where you have a switch statement in an ISR. The code is working with no problems until one day it is necessary to make a change to the switch statement – by for example adding an additional case value. This simple change can cause the compiler to completely change the implementation of the switch statement. As a result, you may find that:

  1. The worst case execution time has jumped dramatically.
  2. The mean execution time has jumped dramatically.
  3. The stack space required by the ISR has jumped dramatically.

Any of these three possibilities can cause your program to fail catastrophically. Now of course one could argue ‘that’s why you test all changes’. However, in my opinion it’s far better to be proactive and to avoid putting yourself in this situation in the first place.

I’d also be remiss in not noting the dreaded missing break statement maintenance problem. However as a religious user of Lint, I’m not normally too concerned about this.

Switch statement alternatives

If performance and stability is your goal then I strongly recommend that you implement your code, the way you want it executed. This means either explicitly use an if-else-if chain or use function pointers. If function pointers scare you, then you might want to read this article I wrote on the subject.


Based on my experience, I have a number of things that I do when it comes to switch statements. If you find my analysis compelling, you may want to adopt them:

  1. Switch statements should be the last language construct you reach for – and not the first.
  2. Learn how to use function pointers. Once you do you’ll find a lot of the reasons for using switch statements go away.
  3. Try to keep all the case values contiguous.
  4. If you can’t keep the case values contiguous, go to the other extreme and make them disparate – that way you are less likely to have the compiler change the algorithm on you.
  5. If your compiler supports it, consider using pragmas to lock in a particular implementation.
  6. Be very wary of using switch statements in interrupt service routines or any other performance critical code.
  7. Use Lint to guard against missing break statements.

Comments welcome!

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