Small objects and pointer tagging

February 11, 2021

Welcome back to the third post in what is quickly turning into a series on runtime optimization. The last two posts were about inline caching and quickening, two techniques for speeding up the interpreter loop.

In this post, we will instead look at a different part of the runtime: the object model.

The problem

Right now, we represent objects as tagged unions.

typedef enum {
} ObjectType;

typedef struct {
  ObjectType type;
  union {
    const char *str_value;
    word int_value;
} Object;

This C struct contains two components: a tag for the type, and space for either an integer or a C string pointer. In order to create a new Object, we allocate space for it on the C heap and pass a pointer around. For example, here is the current constructor for integers:

Object* new_int(word value) {
  Object* result = malloc(sizeof *result);
  CHECK(result != NULL && "could not allocate object");
  *result = (Object){.type = kInt, .int_value = value};
  return result;

I don’t know about you, but to me this seems a little wasteful. Allocating every single new integer object on the heap leaves a lot to be desired. malloc is slow and while memory is cheaper these days than it used to be, it still is not free. We’ll need to do something about this.

In addition, even if we somehow reduced allocation to the bare minimum, reading from and writing to memory is still slow. If we can avoid that, we could greatly speed up our runtime.

This post will focus on a particular strategy for optimizing operations on integer objects, but the ideas also apply broadly to other small objects. See Exploring further for more food for thought.

The solution space

There are a number of strategies to mitigate this gratuitous allocation, most commonly:

  1. Interning a small set of canonical integer objects. CPython does this for the integers between -5 and 256.
  2. Interning all integers by looking them up in a specialized hash table before allocating. This is also called hash consing.
  3. Have a statically typed low-level language where the compiler can know ahead of time what type every variable is and how much space it requires. C and Rust compilers, for example, can do this.

The first two approaches don’t reduce the memory traffic, but the third approach does. Our runtime has no such type guarantees and no compiler to speak of, so that’s a no-go, and I think we can do better than the first two strategies. We’ll just need to get a little clever and re-use some old knowledge from the 80s.

What’s in a pointer?

Before we get clever, we should take a step back and think about the Object pointers we pass around. The C standard guarantees that malloc will return an aligned pointer. On 32-bit systems, this means that the result will be 4-byte aligned, and on 64-bit systems, it will be 8-byte aligned. This post will only focus on 64-bit systems, so for our purposes all malloced objects will be 8-byte aligned.

Being 8-byte aligned means that all pointers are multiples of 8. This means that if you look at the pointer representation in binary, they look like:

High                                                           Low

See that? The three lowest bits are zero. Since we’re guaranteed the pointers will always be given to us with the three zero bits, we can use those bits to store some extra information. Lisp and Smalltalk runtimes have been doing this for at least 30 years.

On some hardware, there are also bits unused in the high part of the address. We will only use the lower part of the address, though, because the high bits are reserved for future use.

The scheme

To start, we will tag all pointers to heap-allocated objects with a lower bit of 11. This means that now all real heap pointers will end in 001 instead of 000. We will then assume that any pointer with a lowest bit of 0 is actually an integer. This leaves us 63 bits of integer space. This is one less bit than we had before, which we will talk about more in Exploring further.

We are doing this because the assumption behind this pointer tagging is that integer objects are both small and common. Adding and subtracting them should be very cheap. And it’s not so bad if all operations on pointers have to remove the low 1 bit, either. x86-64 addressing modes make it easy to fold that into normal struct member reads and writes2.

And guess what? The best part is, since we were smart and used helper functions to allocate, type check, read from, and write to the objects, we don’t even need to touch the interpreter core or library functions. We only need to touch the functions that work directly on objects. Let’s take a look.

New object representation

Okay, we should also look at at the struct definition. I think we should first make Object opaque. We don’t want anyone trying to dereference a tagged pointer!

struct Object;
typedef struct Object Object;

Now we’ll need to represent the rest of the heap-allocated objects in some other type. I think HeapObject is a reasonable and descriptive name. We can keep using the tagged union approach from earlier.

typedef struct {
  ObjectType type;
  union {
    const char* str_value;
} HeapObject;

Right now we only have strings but I imagine it would be useful to add some more types later on.

Now, it’s important to keep the invariant that whenever we have a HeapObject*, it is a valid pointer. This means that we should always untag before casting from Object* to HeapObject*. This will help both keep our interfaces clean and avoid bugs. You’ll see what I mean in a little bit.

Helper functions

Now that we have our object representation down, we can take a look at the helper functions. Let’s start with the easiest three, object_is_int, object_as_int, and new_int:

enum {
  kIntegerTag = 0x0,      // 0b0
  kIntegerTagMask = 0x1,  // 0b1
  kIntegerShift = 1,

bool object_is_int(Object* obj) {
  return ((uword)obj & kIntegerTagMask) == kIntegerTag;

word object_as_int(Object* obj) {
  return (word)obj >> kIntegerShift;

Object* new_int(word value) {
  CHECK(value < INTEGER_MAX && "too big");
  CHECK(value > INTEGER_MIN && "too small");
  return (Object*)((uword)value << kIntegerShift);

We decided that integer tags are one bit wide, zero, and the lowest bit. This function puts that in code. If you are unfamiliar with bit manipulation, check out the Wikipedia article on bit masks. The constants INTEGER_MAX and INTEGER_MIN refer to the maximum and minimum values that will fit in the 63 bits of space we have. Right now there are some CHECKs that will abort the program if the integer does not fit in 63 bits. Implementing a fallback to heap-allocated 64-bit integers or even big integers is a potential extension (see Exploring further).

The test for heap objects is similar to the test for ints. We use the same tag width (one bit) but we expect the bit to be 1, not 0.

enum {
  // ...
  kHeapObjectTag = 0x1,      // 0b01
  kHeapObjectTagMask = 0x1,  // 0b01

bool object_is_heap_object(Object* obj) {
  return ((uword)obj & kHeapObjectTagMask) == kHeapObjectTag;

Any pointer that passes object_is_heap_object should be dereferenceable once unmasked.

Speaking of unmasking, we also have a function to do that. And we also have a function that can cast the other way, too.

HeapObject* object_address(Object* obj) {
  return (HeapObject*)((uword)obj & ~kHeapObjectTagMask);

Object* object_from_address(HeapObject* obj) {
  return (Object*)((uword)obj | kHeapObjectTag);

The function object_address will be the only function that returns a HeapObject*. It checks that the object passed in is actually a heap object before casting and untagging. This should be safe enough.

Alright, so we can make integers and cast between Object* and HeapObject*. We still need to think about object_type and the string functions. Fortunately, they can mostly be implemented in terms of the functions we implemented above!

Let’s take a look at object_type. For non-heap objects, it has to do some special casing. Otherwise we can just pull out the type field from the HeapObject*.

ObjectType object_type(Object* obj) {
  if (object_is_int(obj)) {
    return kInt;
  return object_address(obj)->type;

And now for the string functions. These are similar enough to their previous implementations, with some small adaptations for the new object model.

bool object_is_str(Object* obj) { return object_type(obj) == kStr; }

const char* object_as_str(Object* obj) {
  return object_address(obj)->str_value;

Object* new_str(const char* value) {
  HeapObject* result = malloc(sizeof *result);
  CHECK(result != NULL && "could not allocate object");
  *result = (HeapObject){.type = kStr, .str_value = value};
  return object_from_address(result);

That’s that for the helper functions. It’s a good thing we implemented int_add, str_print, etc in terms of our helpers. None of those have to change a bit.

Performance analysis

I am not going to run a tiny snippet of bytecode in a loop and call it faster than the previous interpreter. See Performance analysis from the first post for an explanation.

I am, however, going to walk through some of the generated code for functions we care about.

We said that integer operations were important, so let’s take a look at what kind of code the compiler generates for int_add. For a refresher, let’s look at the definition for int_add (which, mind you, has not changed since the last post):

Object* int_add(Object* left, Object* right) {
  return new_int(object_as_int(left) + object_as_int(right));

Previously this would read from memory in object_as_int, call malloc in new_int, and then write to memory. That’s a whole lot of overhead and function calls. Even if malloc were free, memory traffic would still take quite a bit of time.

Now let’s take a look at the code generated by a C compiler. To get this code, I pasted interpreter.c into The Compiler Explorer. You could also run objdump -S ./interpreter or gdb -batch -ex "disassemble/rs int_add" ./interpreter. Or even run GDB and poke at the code manually. Anwyay, here’s the generated code:

int_add:                                # @int_add
        and     rdi, -2
        lea     rax, [rdi + rsi]
        and     rax, -2

How about that, eh? What was previously a monster of a function is now four whole instructions3 and no memory operations. Put that in your pipeline and smoke it.

This is the kind of benefit we can reap from having small objects inside pointers.

Thanks for reading! Make sure to check out the repo and poke at the code.

Exploring further

In this post, we made an executive decision to shrink the available integer range by one bit. We didn’t add a fallback to heap-allocated 64-bit numbers. This is an interesting extension to consider if you occasionally need some big numbers. Or maybe, if you need really big numbers, you could also add a fallback to heap allocated bignums! If you don’t care at all, it’s not unreasonable to decide to make your integer operations cut off at 63 bits.

This post spent a decent chunk of time fitting integers into pointers. I chose to write about integers because it was probably the simplest way to demonstrate pointer tagging and immediate objects. However, your application may very well not be integer heavy. It’s entirely possible that in a typical workload, the majority of objects floating around your runtime are small strings! Or maybe floats, or maybe something else entirely. The point is, you need to measure and figure out what you need before implementing something. Consider implementing small strings or immediate booleans as a fun exercise. You will have to think some more about your object tagging system!

Pointer tagging is not the only way to compress values into pointer-sized objects. For runtimes whose primary numeric type is a double, it may make sense to implement NaN boxing. This is what VMs like SpiderMonkey4 and LuaJIT do.

Remember my suggestion about the template interpreter from the quickening post? Well, that idea is even more attractive now. You, the runtime writer, get to write a lot less assembly. And your computer gets to run a lot less code.

This post puts two distinct concepts together: small objects and pointer tagging. Maybe you don’t really need small objects, though, and want to store other information in the tag bits of your pointer. What other kinds of information could you store in there that is relevant to your workload? Perhaps you can tag pointers to all prime integers. Or maybe you want to tag different heap-allocated objects with their type tags. Either way, the two techniques are independent and can be used separately.

  1. In my blog post about the Ghuloum compiler, I used the bit patterns from the original Ghuloum paper to tag integers, characters, and different types of heap-allocated objects. Feel free to skim that if you want a taste for different pointer tagging schemes. 

  2. (Adapted from my Reddit comment)

    Say you have a C struct:

    struct foo {
      int bar;

    and a heap-allocated instance of that struct:

    struct foo *instance = malloc(...);

    Reading an attribute of that struct in C looks like:


    and gets compiled down to something like the following pseudo-assembly (which assumes the instance pointer is stored in a register):

    mov rax, [instance+offsetof(foo, bar)]

    This is read as:

    1. take pointer from whatever register instance is in
    2. add the offset for the bar field to the pointer
    3. dereference that resulting pointer
    4. store that in rax

    And if you tag your pointers with, say, 0x1, you want to remove the 0x1. Your C code will look like:

    instance->bar & ~0x1;

    or maybe:

    instance->bar - 1;

    Which compiles down to:

    mov rax, [instance+offsetof(foo, bar)-1]

    and since both offsetof(foo, bar) and 1 are compile-time constants, that can get folded into the same mov instruction. 

  3. And guess what? This is just what the C compiler can generate from a C description of our object model. I have not figured out how to add the right compiler hints, but another correct implementation of int_add is just two instructions:

    int_add:                                # @int_add
        lea     rax, [rdi + rsi]

    I’m not sure what’s going on with the code generation that prevents this optimization, but we really should be able to add two integers without doing any fiddling with tags. In an assembly/template interpreter world, this kind of fine-grained control becomes much easier. 

  4. This is interesting because V8 and Dart, other JS(-like) VMs use pointer tagging. Seach “Smi” (or perhaps “Smi integer”) if you want to learn more.