[LLVMdev] Intended semantics for ``fence seq_cst``

JF Bastien jfb at google.com
Wed Jul 31 16:15:29 PDT 2013

struct {
  volatile int flag;
  int value;
} s;

int get_value_when_ready() {
  while (s.flag) ;
  return s.value;

This is "valid" legacy code on some processors, yet it's not valid to
replace __sync_synchronize with an atomic_thread_fence because, in
theory, LLVM could hoist the load of s.value. In practice it currently
doesn't, but it may in the future if my understanding is correct.

My main point is that LLVM needs to support code that was written
before C and C++ got a memory model, it doesn't matter that it's
undefined behavior and relies on a GCC-style builtin to be "correct".
The current standards offer all you need to write new code that can
express the above intended behavior, but __sync_synchronize isn't a
1:1 mapping to atomic_thread_fence(seq_cst), it has stronger semantics
and that's constraining which optimizations can be done on ``fence
seq_cst``. LLVM therefore probably wants to distinguish both, so that
it can fully optimize C++11 code without leaving legacy code in a bad

2013/7/31 Jeffrey Yasskin <jyasskin at google.com>:
> 2013/7/31 JF Bastien <jfb at google.com>:
>> Hi,
>> TL;DR: should we add a new memory ordering to fences?
>> ``fence seq_cst`` is currently use to represent two things:
>>  - GCC-style builtin ``__sync_synchronize()`` [0][1].
>>  - C11/C++11's sequentially-consistent thread fence
>> ``std::atomic_thread_fence(std::memory_order_seq_cst)`` [2].
>> As far as I understand:
>>  - The former orders all memory and emits an actual fence instruction.
>>  - The latter only provides a total order with other
>> sequentially-consistent loads and stores, which means that it's
>> possible to move non-sequentially-consistent loads and stores around
>> it.
> It still acts as an acquire/release fence for any other atomic
> instruction. For non-atomic instructions, if you have a race, the
> behavior is undefined anyway, so you can't get a stronger guarantee
> than what "fence seq_cst" provides.
> I think "fence seq_cst" is completely equivalent to
> __sync_synchronize(), but you could convince me otherwise by providing
> a sample program for which there's a difference.
>> The GCC-style builtin effectively does the same as the C11/C++11
>> sequentially-consistent thread fence, surrounded by compiler barriers
>> (``call void asm sideeffect "", "~{memory}"``).
>> The LLVM language reference [3] describes ``fence seq_cst`` in terms
>> of the C11/C++11 primitive, but it looks like LLVM's codebase treats
>> it like the GCC-style builtin. That's strictly correct, but it seems
>> desirable to represent the GCC-style builtin with a ninth
>> LLVM-internal memory ordering that's stricter than
>> ``llvm::SequentiallyConsistent``. ``fence seq_cst`` could then fully
>> utilize C11/C++11's semantics, without breaking the GCC-style builtin.
>> From C11/C++11's point of view this other memory ordering isn't useful
>> because the primitives offered are sufficient to express valid and
>> performant code, but I believe that LLVM needs this new memory
>> ordering to accurately represent the GCC-style builtin while fully
>> taking advantage of the C11/C++11 memory model.
>> Am I correct?
>> I don't think it's worth implementing just yet since C11/C++11 are
>> still relatively new, but I'd like to be a bit forward looking for
>> PNaCl's sake.
>> Thanks,
>> JF
>> [0] http://gcc.gnu.org/onlinedocs/gcc-4.8.1/gcc/_005f_005fsync-Builtins.html
>> [1] http://gcc.gnu.org/bugzilla/show_bug.cgi?id=36793
>> [2] C++11 Standard section 29.8 - Fences
>> [3] http://llvm.org/docs/LangRef.html#fence-instruction
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