Learn OCaml the Hard Way is a series about learning OCaml from the ground up:
- A taste of OCaml’s predictable performance (You’re here)
- Going through the OCaml compiler pipeline (manually)
- Predictable Performance of OCaml’s module system
eqaf, a constant-time compare function implementation in OCaml, is a great case to demonstrate the predictable performance of OCaml’s compiler. Why?
- The goal of a constant-time compare function is to avoid timing attacks, which requires fully deterministic and predictable runtime performance.
- Usually, cryptography functions are written in assembly to have total control of resulting binary and avoid unneeded optimization by the compiler.
- However, eqaf showed us that you can write clean OCaml and get simple and predictable resulting assembly.
This is the first issue of Learn OCaml the Hard Way. Subscribe to get notified when a new article is out.
About Garbage Collection
It’s hard to have a stable runtime performance for languages that comes with a garbage collector. To have a predictable runtime performance characteristic in these languages, the following rules are usually required to be followed religiously:
- Avoid garbage collections by avoiding memory allocations.
- Avoid boxed values to generate assembly as low-level as possible.
Hence, the resulting code are usually unidiomatic and hard to maintain.
Compiler Explorer is a handy tool for exploring compilers and its assembly output. It has built-in OCaml support and removes boilerplate automatically. I recommend you to test the following example with it.
Here’s the implementation of
let[@inline] get x i = String.unsafe_get x i |> Char.code external unsafe_get_int16 : string -> int -> int = "%caml_string_get16u" let[@inline] get16 x i = unsafe_get_int16 x i let equal ~ln a b = let l1 = ln asr 1 in let r = ref 0 in for i = 0 to pred l1 do r := !r lor (get16 a (i * 2) lxor get16 b (i * 2)) done ; for _ = 1 to ln land 1 do r := !r lor (get a (ln - 1) lxor get b (ln - 1)) done ; !r = 0 let equal a b = let al = String.length a in let bl = String.length b in if al <> bl then false else equal ~ln:al a b
Besides basic OCaml syntaxes, interesting bits in the example are:
You can force OCaml to always inline a function via adding an attribute
String.getbut without bound-checking. It’s unsafe for most use-cases but it’s used here to avoid jumping to exception.
OCaml provides a FFI
externalfor interfacing with C. Here we use it to call a primitive function provided by OCaml’s runtime
externalis always unsafe and should be really take care about.
- Primitives are not stable. For example: https://github.com/mirage/ocaml-base64/pull/36
n asr mshifts
nto the right by
mbits. This is an arithmetic shift: the sign bit of
nis replicated. The result is unspecified if
m < 0or
m > Sys.int_size.
refcreates a reference cell and allows in-place replacement with
x - 1.
landare logical bit-wise
Although the OCaml code is quite low-level (and not very functional). It’s still cleaner than most constant-time compare functions implemented in assembly.
Read the asm
Here’s the resulting assembly of the previous example, copied from the
eqaf source. You can get the same output via Compiler Explorer.
let[@inline] get x i = String.unsafe_get x i |> Char.code (* XXX(dinosaure): we use [unsafe_get] to avoid jump to exception: sarq $1, %rbx movzbq (%rax,%rbx), %rax leaq 1(%rax,%rax), %rax ret *) external unsafe_get_int16 : string -> int -> int = "%caml_string_get16u" let[@inline] get16 x i = unsafe_get_int16 x i (* XXX(dinosaure): same as [unsafe_get] but for [int16]: sarq $1, %rbx movzwq (%rax,%rbx), %rax leaq 1(%rax,%rax), %rax ret *) let equal ~ln a b = let l1 = ln asr 1 in (* sarq $1, %rcx orq $1, %rcx *) let r = ref 0 in (* movq $1, %rdx *) for i = 0 to pred l1 do r := !r lor (get16 a (i * 2) lxor get16 b (i * 2)) done ; (* movq $1, %rsi addq $-2, %rcx cmpq %rcx, %rsi jg .L104 .L105: leaq -1(%rsi,%rsi), %r8 sarq $1, %r8 movzwq (%rdi,%r8), %r9 leaq 1(%r9,%r9), %r9 movzwq (%rbx,%r8), %r8 leaq 1(%r8,%r8), %r8 // [unsafe_get_int16 a i] and [unsafe_get_int6 b i] xorq %r9, %r8 orq $1, %r8 orq %r8, %rdx movq %rsi, %r8 addq $2, %rsi cmpq %rcx, %r8 jne .L105 .L104: *) for _ = 1 to ln land 1 do r := !r lor (get a (ln - 1) lxor get b (ln - 1)) done ; (* movq $3, %rsi movq %rax, %rcx andq $3, %rcx cmpq %rcx, %rsi jg .L102 .L103: movq %rax, %r8 addq $-2, %r8 sarq $1, %r8 movzbq (%rdi,%r8), %r9 leaq 1(%r9,%r9), %r9 movzbq (%rbx,%r8), %r8 leaq 1(%r8,%r8), %r8 // [unsafe_get a i] and [unsafe_get b i] xorq %r9, %r8 orq $1, %r8 orq %r8, %rdx movq %rsi, %r8 addq $2, %rsi cmpq %rcx, %r8 jne .L103 .L102: *) !r = 0 (* cmpq $1, %rdx sete %al movzbq %al, %rax leaq 1(%rax,%rax), %rax ret *)
Each OCaml code is compiled to a cleanly separated section of assembly, The resulting assembly contains no garbage collection, no types information, and no advanced features but still pretty readable.
eqaf allows us to have a basic understanding about OCaml’s assembly output without inferences of GC, boxed values, and advanced syntaxes such as pattern matching. We will explore more in the future issues.
Like this post? Subscribe to Learn OCaml the Hard Way to get more!
- For understanding OCaml’s syntax (and everything OCaml), Real World OCaml does way better job than I can.