Escape analysis hates copy elision

Yesterday Lauri Vasama showed me this awesome Godbolt:

struct S {
    static std::unique_ptr<S> make() noexcept;
    ~S();

    static std::unique_ptr<S> factory() {
        std::unique_ptr<S> s = S::make();
        return M(s);
    }
};

void take_ownership(S*) noexcept;

void test() {
    std::unique_ptr<S> p = S::factory();
    take_ownership(p.release());
}

When M(s) is defined as std::move(s), Clang gives pretty much optimal codegen for test:

  pushq %rax
  movq %rsp, %rdi
  callq S::make()
  movq (%rsp), %rdi
  callq take_ownership(S*)
  popq %rax
  retq

But by defining M(s) as std::move(s), we’re actually creating a return statement of the form return std::move(s), which is widely known as an antipattern in C++. Returning “by move” disables RVO, and even when RVO doesn’t happen, return std::move(x) is (in 99% of cases) no more efficient than return x, because return x triggers a special case in the standard known as “implicit move,” which means that the copy into the return slot uses the move constructor, not the copy constructor, even though the returned expression x is totally an lvalue.

I have a proposal before LWG right now — P2266 — which in C++23 will make that x into an rvalue, literally. This radically simplifies the wording and compiler implementation around “implicit move.”

Okay, so, let’s get rid of that “return by move.” Let’s define M(s) to just (s), and see what happens. (Here’s the Godbolt again.)

  pushq %rbx
  subq $16, %rsp
  leaq 8(%rsp), %rdi
  callq S::make()
  movq 8(%rsp), %rdi
  movq $0, 8(%rsp)
  callq take_ownership(S*)
  movq 8(%rsp), %rbx
  testq %rbx, %rbx
  je .LBB0_2
  movq %rbx, %rdi
  callq S::~S() [complete object destructor]
  movq %rbx, %rdi
  callq operator delete(void*)
.LBB0_2:
  addq $16, %rsp
  popq %rbx
  retq

Whoa! The code got way longer! What happened?


What happened was copy elision. When the body of factory was this:

static std::unique_ptr<S> factory() {
    std::unique_ptr<S> s = S::make();
    return std::move(s);
}

the meaning was “Create an object named s, whose initial value comes from being used as the return slot of S::make(). Then, construct the object in my own return slot by calling S’s move constructor on xvalue s.”

When the body of factory changed to this:

static std::unique_ptr<S> factory() {
    std::unique_ptr<S> s = S::make();
    return s;
}

the meaning changed as well, to “Either do the same thing as above; or, let s be another name for my return slot, and give it its initial value by using it as the return slot of S::make().” In the latter case we’ve gone from having “s” and “my return slot” be two separate objects, to having them be one single object. This is normally a big performance win; we like it.

But in this case, this optimization interfered with Clang’s escape analysis. Escape analysis is the thing that tells us, in

void f(int);
int test() {
    int x = 42;
    f(x);
    return x + 1;  // i.e., return 43
}

that x must still be 42 after the call to f, because (even though we don’t know what that function does in general) we know it can’t modify x, because it doesn’t know x’s address on our stack. Escape analysis tracks everything we do with x’s address, and can prove in this case that that address has never escaped into the wider world.

However, if you change f to take its parameter as const int&, then x’s stack address does escape, and so the compiler can’t assume the value of x remains unchanged after the call to other_function: it must reload x from memory and actually compute that addition. (Godbolt.) Because f might do

void f(const int& x) {
    *const_cast<int*>(&x) = 918;
}

Even worse, consider this caller:

void g(const int&);
void h();
int test() {
    int x = 0;
    g(x);
    x = 42;
    h();
    return x + 1;
}

In this case, h doesn’t even receive x’s address… yet h can still modify x, because by this point x’s address has already escaped! g and h might collude together:

int *global;
void g(const int& x) {
    global = const_cast<int*>(&x);
}
void h() {
    *global = 918;
}

The compiler’s escape analysis cannot rule out this possibility, and so, for all the compiler knows, it might be the truth! After the call to h, the compiler cannot assume that x’s value remains 42.


Back to our unique_ptr example.

struct S {
    static std::unique_ptr<S> make() noexcept;
    ~S();

    static std::unique_ptr<S> factory() {
        std::unique_ptr<S> s = S::make();
        return M(s);
    }
};

void take_ownership(S*) noexcept;

void test() {
    std::unique_ptr<S> p = S::factory();
    take_ownership(p.release());
}

Escape analysis reasons as follows:

  • The address of factory’s stack variable s escapes into S::make, as part of the calling convention for how S::make returns its prvalue result. We don’t know what S::make does with that address.

  • Later, we null out test’s stack variable p.

  • Then, we call take_ownership. We don’t know what it does.

  • Finally, we destroy p, which is a no-op if and only if p is still null.

Could take_ownership affect p’s value, the way h affected x’s value in our simpler example? Or can we assume that p’s value is definitely still null? In short: does p’s address escape?

Well, p is just another name for the return slot of S::factory. When S::factory returns “by move,” it is constructing that object right there, using the move-constructor of unique_ptr, which is fine for escape analysis because that move-constructor is inline — we know what it does, and it doesn’t stash any addresses in global variables. So p’s address doesn’t escape, which means that take_ownership can’t possibly have access to p, which means that p is still null when take_ownership returns, which means that we don’t need to reload its value nor generate any code to call delete on it if it’s non-null.

But, when S::factory returns “by name,” copy elision kicks in. Now the returned variable s becomes an alias for the object in factory’s return slot (which you’ll recall is already an alias for p). And s’s address does escape — it escapes into S::make!

Suppose S::make and take_ownership were secretly colluding, like this:

std::unique_ptr<S> *global;

std::unique_ptr<S> S::make() {
    std::unique_ptr<S> origp = std::make_unique<S>();
    global = &origp;
    return origp;
}

void take_ownership(S *rawp) {
    delete rawp;
    *global = std::make_unique<S>();
}

The compiler cannot rule out this possibility, and so it must assume that calling take_ownership might repopulate the stack variable p with a new value. So it generates all that extra code in test to reload, check, and possibly delete the value of p.


Clang and ICC behave pretty uniformly as described in this blog post. GCC “succeeds” in generating good code for both variations of the Godbolt above (with or without std::move), but this appears to be due to a GCC bug — it thinks return (s) with parentheses is a request to disable copy elision! A slight tweak to my M macro, to remove the redundant parentheses, and GCC joins the pack: Godbolt.


It would be interesting to see a compiler patch that instrumented escape analysis somehow, so that it could give an optimization-time note such as “Object x’s address escapes only because copy elision in f gave x the same address as object y.” I think that would happen a lot, and certainly isn’t something you’d want to see in your daily builds; but it might be very interesting to trawl through the output.


Anton Zhilin’s P2025R1 “Guaranteed copy elision for return variables” (June 2020) talks a bit about escape analysis in section 6.5, “What about the invalidation of optimizations?” The more we expand the scope of copy-elision, the easier it will be for copy-elision to bump up against escape analysis. The example dissected in today’s blog post is interesting precisely because it is obscure and happens so rarely.

Please do not use this post as evidence that copy elision is bad! Copy elision is awesome! Mainly this post is an interesting piece of trivia. But, secondarily, if any change to C++ is needed in this area, it would be tightening up the object model so that escape analysis could become more aggressive. I hope we all agree that the kind of “collusion” shown in this post is terribly contrived, and nothing of value would be lost if C++ disallowed it. Escape analysis should not allow for the possibility that a function has “remembered” the address of its own prvalue return slot.


Previously on this blog:

Posted 2021-03-07