[SOLVED] How to deal with branch prediction when using a switch case in CPU emulation

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I recently read the question here Why is it faster to process a sorted array than an unsorted array? and found the answer to be absolutely fascinating and it has completely changed my outlook on programming when dealing with branches that are based on Data.

I currently have a fairly basic, but fully functioning interpreted Intel 8080 Emulator written in C, the heart of the operation is a 256 long switch-case table for handling each opcode. My initial thought was this would obviously be the fastest method of working as opcode encoding isn’t consistent throughout the 8080 instruction set and decoding would add a lot of complexity, inconsistency and one-off cases. A switch-case table full of pre-processor macros is a very neat and easy to maintain.

Unfortunately, after reading the aforementioned post it occurred to me that there’s absolutely no way the branch predictor in my computer can predict the jumping for the switch case. Thus every time the switch-case is navigated the pipeline would have to be completely wiped, resulting in a several cycle delay in what should otherwise be an incredibly quick program (There’s not even so much as multiplication in my code).

I’m sure most of you are thinking “Oh, the solution here is simple, move to dynamic recompilation”. Yes, this does seem like it would cut out the majority of the switch-case and increase speed considerably. Unfortunately my primary interest is emulating older 8-bit and 16-bit era consoles (the intel 8080 here is only an example as it’s my simplest piece of emulated code) where cycle and timing keeping to the exact instruction is important as the Video and Sound must be processed based on these exact timings.

When dealing with this level of accuracy performance becomes an issue, even for older consoles (Look at bSnes for example). Is there any recourse or is this simply a matter-of-fact when dealing with processors with long pipelines?


On the contrary, switch statements are likely to be converted to jump tables, which means they perform possibly a few ifs (for range checking), and a single jump. The ifs shouldn’t cause a problem with branch prediction because it is unlikely you will have a bad op-code. The jump is not so friendly with the pipeline, but in the end, it’s only one for the whole switch statement..

I don’t believe you can convert a long switch statement of op-codes into any other form that would result in better performance. This is of course, if your compiler is smart enough to convert it to a jump table. If not, you can do so manually.

If in doubt, implement other methods and measure performance.


First of all, make sure you don’t confuse branch prediction and branch target prediction.

Branch prediction solely works on branch statements. It decides whether a branch condition would fail or succeed. They have nothing to do with the jump statement.

Branch target prediction on the other hand tries to guess where the jump will end up in.

So, your statement "there’s no way the branch predictor can predict the jump" should be "there’s no way the branch target predictor can predict the jump".

In your particular case, I don’t think you can actually avoid this. If you had a very small set of operations, perhaps you could come up with a formula that covers all your operations, like those made in logic circuits. However, with an instruction set as big as a CPU’s, even if it were RISC, the cost of that computation is much higher than the penalty of a single jump.

Answered By – Shahbaz

Answer Checked By – Pedro (BugsFixing Volunteer)

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