Posts Tagged ‘Compilers’

Is GCC a ‘good’ compiler?

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 Nigel Jones

It seems that barely a month goes by when I’m not asked my opinion on compilers. Sometimes I’m simply asked what compilers I use, while other times I’m asked my opinion on specific compilers – with GCC being by far the most asked about compiler. I’ve resisted writing about this topic because quite frankly it’s the sort of topic that people get very passionate about – and by passionate I mean frothing at the mouth passionate. It seems that some folks simply can’t accept the fact that someone doesn’t agree with them that XYZ is simply the best compiler ever. Notwithstanding this, the volume of inquiries has reached the point where I really feel the need to break my silence.

First of all lets make some general observations.

  1. Despite the fact that I’ve been doing this for nearly 30 years and also despite the fact that as a consultant I probably use a wider variety of compilers than someone that works for an employer, the simple fact is that I’ve only had cause to use in anger a limited number of compilers. Thus are Rowley compilers any good? Well their website is decent, the documentation is OK and the IDE very nice. However I’ve never built a real project with their tools and so I really don’t know whether Rowley compilers are any good.
  2. Many vendors provide compilers for many targets. As such it’s a good bet that if their 8051 compiler is very good, then their ARM compiler is also likely to be excellent. However it isn’t a given. Thus while I whole heartedly endorse the Keil 8051 compiler, I have no opinion on their ARM compiler.
  3. Compilers vary in price from ‘free’ to ‘cheap’ to ‘expensive’ to ‘they have got to be joking’. I’ve put all of these costs in quotes, because as you’ll see below, one’s perspective on what constitutes ‘free’ or ‘expensive’ is not easily defined.

So, enough with the preamble. Lets start with the ‘free’ and ‘cheap’ compilers, including GCC. Well for me the bottom line (literally) is that I can’t afford to use these compilers. The reason is quite simple. I’m a high priced consultant. I can charge high hourly rates in part because I have exceptionally high productivity. Part of the way I achieve my high productivity is by not wasting my time (and hence my client’s money) on stupid issues unrelated to the problem at hand. Given that a compiler / linker is such a frequently used tool, and given that I’m also the sort of engineer who pushes his tools hard, it’s absolutely essential to me that when I run into a compiler issue I can pick up the phone and get an intelligent response ASAP. One simply can’t do that with ‘free’ or ‘cheap’ compilers, and thus too often one is reduced to browsing the Internet to find the solution to a problem. When this happens, then my ‘free’ compiler rapidly starts to cost an arm and a leg.

What always amazes me about this topic is that so few employers / engineers seem to understand this. It seems that too many folks will eschew paying $2000 for a compiler – and then happily let their engineers bang their heads against a problem for a week – at a rate of at least $1000 a day.

Thus for me, the answer to the question ‘Is GCC a good compiler?’ is ‘no, it isn’t’. Of course if you are a student, or indeed anyone who is cash poor and time rich, then by all means use GCC. I’m sure you’ll be very pleased with the results and that you’ll find it to be a good compiler for you.

What then of the ‘expensive’ and they ‘have got to be joking’ categories? Rather interestingly, although based on limited experience, I’ve found that the very expensive compiler vendors ($10K+) also have lousy support. Instead it’s the ‘expensive’ vendors that actually seem to offer the best combination of functionality, code quality, support and price – and it’s this category that I tend to use the most.

Finally, regarding which compiler vendor I use. I happen to be a fan of IAR compilers. I’ve always found their code quality to be at least ‘good’. Their linker is probably the easiest and most powerful  linker I’ve ever used. Their support is very good (thanks Steve :-)). Finally their IDE is easy to use and has a very consistent look and feel across a wide range of processors, which is important to me as I tend to switch between architectures a lot.