Optimizing Code

Generally you should first compile and run your code without optimizations (the default). Once you are sure that the code runs correctly, you can use the techniques in this article to make it load and run faster.

How to optimize code

Code is optimized by specifying optimization flags when running emcc. The levels include: -O0 (no optimization), -O1, -O2, -Os, -Oz, and -O3.

For example, to compile with optimization level -O2:

emcc -O2 file.cpp

The higher optimization levels introduce progressively more aggressive optimization, resulting in improved performance and code size at the cost of increased compilation time. The levels can also highlight different issues related to undefined behavior in code.

The optimization level you should use depends mostly on the current stage of development:

  • When first porting code, run emcc on your code using the default settings (without optimization). Check that your code works and debug and fix any issues before continuing.
  • Build with lower optimization levels during development for a shorter compile/test iteration cycle (-O0 or -O1).
  • Build with -O2 or -O3 when releasing your code. -O3 builds are even more optimized than -O2, but at the cost of significantly longer compilation time.
  • Other optimizations are discussed in the following sections.

In addition to the -Ox options, there are separate compiler options that can be used to control the JavaScript optimizer (js-opts), LLVM optimizations (llvm-opts) and LLVM link-time optimizations (llvm-lto).

Note

  • The meanings of the emcc optimization flags (-O1, -O2 etc.) are different to the similarly-named options in gcc, clang, and other compilers, because optimizing JavaScript is very different to optimizing native code. The mapping of the emcc levels to the LLVM bitcode optimization levels is documented in the reference.

Advanced compiler settings

There are several flags you can pass to the compiler to affect code generation, which will also affect performance — for example DISABLE_EXCEPTION_CATCHING. These are documented in src/settings.js. Some of these will be directly affected by the optimization settings (you can find out which ones by searching for apply_opt_level in tools/shared.py).

A few useful flags are:

  • NO_EXIT_RUNTIME: Building with -s NO_EXIT_RUNTIME=1 lets the compiler know that you don’t want to shut down the runtime environment after the main() function finishes. This allows it to discard the atexit and global destructor calls it would otherwise make, improving code size and startup speed.

    This is useful if your main() function finishes but you still want to execute code, for example in an app that uses a main loop function.

    Note

    Emscripten will not shut down the runtime if it detects emscripten_set_main_loop(), but it is better to optimise away the unnecessary code.

Code size

This section describes optimisations and issues that are relevant to code size. They are useful both for small projects or libraries where you want the smallest footprint you can achieve, and in large projects where the sheer size may cause issues (like slow startup speed) that you want to avoid.

Memory initialization

By default Emscripten emits the static memory initialization code inside the .js file. This can cause the JavaScript file to be very large, which will slow down startup. It can also cause problems in JavaScript engines with limits on array sizes, resulting in errors like Array initializer too large or Too much recursion.

The --memory-init-file 1 emcc option causes the compiler to emit this code in a separate binary file with suffix .mem. The .mem file is loaded (asynchronously) by the main .js file before main() is called and compiled code is able to run.

Note

From Emscripten 1.21.1 this setting is enabled by default for fully optimized builds, that is, -O2 and above.

Trading off code size and performance

You may wish to build the less performance-sensitive source files in your project using -Os or -Oz and the remainder using -O2 (-Os and -Oz are similar to -O2, but reduce code size at the expense of performance. -Oz reduces code size more than -Os.)

Note that -Oz may take longer to build. For example, it enables EVAL_CTORS which tries to optimize out C++ global constructors, which takes time.

Miscellaneous code size tips

In addition to the above (defining a separate memory initialization file as mentioned above, and using -Os or -Oz as mentioned above), the following tips can help to reduce code size:

  • Floh’s blogpost on this topic is very helpful.
  • Use llvm-lto when compiling from bitcode to JavaScript: --llvm-lto 1. This can break some code as the LTO code path is less tested.
  • Disable Inlining: -s INLINING_LIMIT=1. Compiling with -Os or -Oz generally avoids inlining too.
  • Use closure on the outside non-asm.js code: --closure 1. This can break code that doesn’t use closure annotations properly.
  • You can use the NO_FILESYSTEM option to disable bundling of filesystem support code (the compiler should optimize it out if not used, but may not always succeed). This can be useful if you are building a pure computational library, for example. See settings.js for more details.
  • You can use EXPORTED_RUNTIME_METHODS to define which runtime methods are exported. By default a bunch of useful methods are exported, which you may not need; setting this to a smaller list will cause fewer methods to be exported. In conjunction with the closure compiler, this can be very effective, since closure can eliminate non-exported code. See settings.js for more details. See test_no_nuthin in tests/test_other.py for an example usage in the test suite.
  • You can use ELIMINATE_DUPLICATE_FUNCTIONS to remove duplicate functions, which C++ templates often create. See settings.js for more details.
  • You can move some of your code into the Emterpreter, which will then run much slower (as it is interpreted), but it will transfer all that code into a smaller amount of data.
  • You can use separate modules through dynamic linking. That can increase the total code size of everything, but reduces the maximum size of a single module, which can help in some cases (e.g. if a single big module hits a memory limit).

Very large codebases

The previous section on reducing code size can be helpful on very large codebases. In addition, here are some other topics that might be useful.

Avoid memory spikes by separating out asm.js

By default Emscripten emits one JS file, containing the entire codebase: Both the asm.js code that was compiled, and the general code that sets up the environment, connects to browser APIs, etc. in a very large codebase, this can be inefficient in terms of memory usage, as having all of that in one script means the JS engine might use some memory to parse and compile the asm.js, and might not free it before starting to run the codebase. And in a large game, starting to run the code might allocate a large typed array for memory, so you might see a “spike” of memory, after which temporary compilation memory will be freed. And if big enough, that spike can cause the browser to run out of memory and fail to load the application. This is a known problem on Chrome (other browsers do not seem to have this issue).

A workaround is to separate out the asm.js into another file, and to make sure that the browser has a turn of the event loop between compiling the asm.js module and starting to run the application. This can be achieved by running emcc with --separate-asm.

You can also do this manually, as follows:

  • Run tools/separate_asm.py. This receives as inputs the filename of the full project, and two filenames to emit: the asm.js file and a file for everything else.

  • Load the asm.js script first, then after a turn of the event loop, the other one, for example using code like this in your HTML file:

    var script = document.createElement('script');
    script.src = "the_asm.js";
    script.onload = function() {
      setTimeout(function() {
        var script = document.createElement('script');
        script.src = "the_rest.js";
        document.body.appendChild(script);
      }, 1); // delaying even 1ms is enough
    };
    document.body.appendChild(script);
    

Running by itself

If you hit memory limits in browsers, it can help to run your project by itself, as opposed to inside a web page containing other content. If you open a new web page (as a new tab, or a new window) that contains just your project, then you have the best chance at avoiding memory fragmentation issues.

Outlining

JavaScript engines will often compile very large functions slowly (relative to their size), and fail to optimize them effectively (or at all). One approach to this problem is to use “outlining”: breaking them into smaller functions that can be compiled and optimized more effectively.

Outlining increases overall code size, and can itself make some code less optimised. Despite this, outlining can sometimes improve both startup and runtime speed. For more information read Outlining: a workaround for JITs and big functions.

The OUTLINING_LIMIT setting defines the function size at which Emscripten will try to break large functions into smaller ones. Search for this setting in settings.js for information on how to determine what functions may need to be outlined and how to choose an appropriate function size.

Aggressive variable elimination

Aggressive variable elimination attempts to remove variables whenever possible, even at the cost of increasing code size by duplicating expressions. This can improve speed in cases where you have extremely large functions. For example it can make sqlite (which has a huge interpreter loop with thousands of lines in it) 7% faster.

You can enable aggressive variable elimination with -s AGGRESSIVE_VARIABLE_ELIMINATION=1.

Note

This setting can be harmful in some cases. Test before using it.

Other optimization issues

C++ exceptions

C++ exceptions are turned off by default in -O1 (and above). This prevents the generation of try-catch blocks, which lets the code run much faster, and also makes the code smaller.

To re-enable exceptions in optimized code, run emcc with -s DISABLE_EXCEPTION_CATCHING=0 (see src/settings.js).

Memory Growth

Building with -s ALLOW_MEMORY_GROWTH=1 allows the total amount of memory used to change depending on the demands of the application. This is useful for apps that don’t know ahead of time how much they will need, but it disables some optimizations. (Work is ongoing to improve this.)

Inlining

Inlining often generates large functions, as these allow the compiler’s optimizations to be more effective. Unfortunately large functions can be slower at runtime than multiple smaller functions because JavaScript engines often either don’t optimize big functions (for fear of long JIT times), or they do optimize them resulting in noticeable pauses.

Note

-O1 and -O2 inline functions by default. Ironically, this can actually decrease performance in some cases!

You can try to avoid this issue by disabling inlining (in specific files or everywhere), or by using Running by itself.

Viewing code optimization passes

Enable Debug mode (EMCC_DEBUG) to output files for each JavaScript optimization pass.

Unsafe optimizations

A few UNSAFE optimizations you might want to try are:

  • -s FORCE_ALIGNED_MEMORY=1: Makes all memory accesses fully aligned. This can break on code that actually requires unaligned accesses.
  • --llvm-lto 1: This enables LLVM’s link-time optimizations, which can help in some cases. However there are known issues with these optimizations, so code must be extensively tested. See llvm-lto for information about the other modes.
  • --closure 1: This can help with reducing the size of the non-generated (support/glue) code, and with startup. However it can break if you do not do proper Closure Compiler annotations and exports.

Profiling

Modern browsers have JavaScript profilers that can help find the slower parts in your code. As each browser’s profiler has limitations, profiling in multiple browsers is highly recommended.

To ensure that compiled code contains enough information for profiling, build your project with profiling as well as optimization and other flags:

emcc -O2 --profiling file.cpp

Troubleshooting poor performance

Emscripten-compiled code can currently achieve approximately half the speed of a native build. If the performance is significantly poorer than expected, you can also run through the additional troubleshooting steps below:

  • Building Projects is a two-stage process: compiling source code files to LLVM and generating JavaScript from LLVM. Did you build using the same optimization values in both steps (-O2 or -O3)?
  • Test on multiple browsers. If performance is acceptable on one browser and significantly poorer on another, then file a bug report, noting the problem browser and other relevant information.
  • Does the code validate in Firefox (look for “Successfully compiled asm.js code” in the web console). If you see a validation error when using an up-to-date version of Firefox and Emscripten then please file a bug report.