3.8. Optimisation (code improvement)

The -O* options specify convenient “packages” of optimisation flags; the -f* options described later on specify individual optimisations to be turned on/off; the -m* options specify machine-specific optimisations to be turned on/off.

3.8.1. -O*: convenient “packages” of optimisation flags.

There are many options that affect the quality of code produced by GHC. Most people only have a general goal, something like “Compile quickly” or “Make my program run like greased lightning.” The following “packages” of optimisations (or lack thereof) should suffice.

Once you choose a -O* “package,” stick with it—don't chop and change. Modules' interfaces will change with a shift to a new -O* option, and you may have to recompile a large chunk of all importing modules before your program can again be run safely (see Section 3.7.4).

No -O*-type option specified:

This is taken to mean: “Please compile quickly; I'm not over-bothered about compiled-code quality.” So, for example: ghc -c Foo.hs

-O or -O1:

Means: “Generate good-quality code without taking too long about it.” Thus, for example: ghc -c -O Main.lhs


Means: “Apply every non-dangerous optimisation, even if it means significantly longer compile times.”

The avoided “dangerous” optimisations are those that can make runtime or space worse if you're unlucky. They are normally turned on or off individually.

At the moment, -O2 is unlikely to produce better code than -O.


Says to run GCC with -O2, which may be worth a few percent in execution speed. Don't forget -fvia-C, lest you use the native-code generator and bypass GCC altogether!


This option will make GHC “forget” any -Oish options it has seen so far. Sometimes useful; for example: make all EXTRA_HC_OPTS=-Onot.

-Ofile <file>:

For those who need absolute control over exactly what options are used (e.g., compiler writers, sometimes :-), a list of options can be put in a file and then slurped in with -Ofile.

In that file, comments are of the #-to-end-of-line variety; blank lines and most whitespace is ignored.

Please ask if you are baffled and would like an example of -Ofile!

At Glasgow, we don't use a -O* flag for day-to-day work. We use -O to get respectable speed; e.g., when we want to measure something. When we want to go for broke, we tend to use -O -fvia-C -O2-for-C (and we go for lots of coffee breaks).

The easiest way to see what -O (etc.) “really mean” is to run with -v, then stand back in amazement. Alternatively, just look at the HsC_minus<blah> lists in the GHC driver script.

3.8.2. -f*: platform-independent flags

Flags can be turned off individually. (NB: I hope you have a good reason for doing this…) To turn off the -ffoo flag, just use the -fno-foo flag. So, for example, you can say -O2 -fno-strictness, which will then drop out any running of the strictness analyser.

The options you are most likely to want to turn off are:

Should you wish to turn individual flags on, you are advised to use the -Ofile option, described above. Because the order in which optimisation passes are run is sometimes crucial, it's quite hard to do with command-line options.

Here are some “dangerous” optimisations you might want to try:


Compile via C, and don't use the native-code generator. (There are many cases when GHC does this on its own.) You might pick up a little bit of speed by compiling via C. If you use _ccall_gc_s or _casm_s, you probably have to use -fvia-C.

The lower-case incantation, -fvia-c, is synonymous.

Compiling via C will probably be slower (in compilation time) than using GHC's native code generator.


(Default: 30) By raising or lowering this number, you can raise or lower the amount of pragmatic junk that gets spewed into interface files. (An unfolding has a “size” that reflects the cost in terms of “code bloat” of expanding that unfolding in another module. A bigger function would be assigned a bigger cost.)


(Default: 30) This option is similar to -funfolding-interface-threshold, except that it governs unfoldings within a single module. Increasing this figure is more likely to result in longer compile times than faster code. The next option is more useful:


(Default: 8) This is the magic cut-off figure for unfolding: below this size, a function definition will be unfolded at the call-site, any bigger and it won't. The size computed for a function depends on two things: the actual size of the expression minus any discounts that apply (see -funfolding-con-discount).


(Default: 2) If the compiler decides that it can eliminate some computation by performing an unfolding, then this is a discount factor that it applies to the funciton size before deciding whether to unfold it or not.

OK, folks, these magic numbers `30', `8', and '2' are mildly arbitrary; they are of the “seem to be OK” variety. The `8' is the more critical one; it's what determines how eager GHC is about expanding unfoldings.


This option causes all constructor fields which are marked strict (i.e. “!”) to be unboxed or unpacked if possible. For example:

data T = T !Float !Float

will create a constructor T containing two unboxed floats if the -funbox-strict-fields flag is given. This may not always be an optimisation: if the T constructor is scrutinised and the floats passed to a non-strict function for example, they will have to be reboxed (this is done automatically by the compiler).

This option should only be used in conjunction with -O, in order to expose unfoldings to the compiler so the reboxing can be removed as often as possible. For example:

f :: T -> Float
f (T f1 f2) = f1 + f2

The compiler will avoid reboxing f1 and f2 by inlining + on floats, but only when -O is on.

Any single-constructor data is eligible for unpacking; for example

data T = T !(Int,Int)

will store the two Ints directly in the T constructor, by flattening the pair. Multi-level unpacking is also supported:

data T = T !S
data S = S !Int !Int

will store two unboxed Int#s directly in the T constructor.


This option (which does not work with the native-code generator) tells the compiler to add extra code to test for already-evaluated values. You win if you have lots of such values during a run of your program, you lose otherwise. (And you pay in extra code space.)

We have not played with -fsemi-tagging enough to recommend it. (For all we know, it doesn't even work anymore… Sigh.)

3.8.3. -m*: platform-specific flags

Some flags only make sense for particular target platforms.


(SPARC machines) Means to pass the like-named option to GCC; it says to use the Version 8 SPARC instructions, notably integer multiply and divide. The similiar -m* GCC options for SPARC also work, actually.


(HPPA machines) Means to pass the like-named option to GCC. Required for Very Big modules, maybe. (Probably means you're in trouble…)


(iX86 machines) GHC tries to “steal” four registers from GCC, for performance reasons; it almost always works. However, when GCC is compiling some modules with four stolen registers, it will crash, probably saying:
Foo.hc:533: fixed or forbidden register was spilled.
This may be due to a compiler bug or to impossible asm
statements or clauses.
Just give some registers back with -monly-N-regs. Try `3' first, then `2'. If `2' doesn't work, please report the bug to us.

3.8.4. Code improvement by the C compiler.

The C compiler (GCC) is run with -O turned on. (It has to be, actually).

If you want to run GCC with -O2—which may be worth a few percent in execution speed—you can give a -O2-for-C option.