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Stabilizer: Statistically Sound Performance Evaluation

Charlie Curtsinger and Emery D. Berger University of Massachusetts Amherst


Researchers and software developers require effective performance evaluation. Researchers must evaluate optimizations or measure overhead. Software developers use automatic performance regression tests to discover when changes improve or degrade performance. The standard methodology is to compare execution times before and after applying changes.

Unfortunately, modern architectural features make this approach unsound. Statistically sound evaluation requires multiple samples to test whether one can or cannot (with high confidence) reject the null hypothesis that results are the same before and after. However, caches and branch predictors make performance dependent on machine-specific parameters and the exact layout of code, stack frames, and heap objects. A single binary constitutes just one sample from the space of program layouts, regardless of the number of runs. Since compiler optimizations and code changes also alter layout, it is currently impossible to distinguish the impact of an optimization from that of its layout effects.

Stabilizer is a system that enables the use of the powerful statistical techniques required for sound performance evaluation on modern architectures. Stabilizer forces executions to sample the space of memory configurations by repeatedly rerandomizing layouts of code, stack, and heap objects at runtime. STABILIZER thus makes it possible to control for layout effects. Re-randomization also ensures that layout effects follow a Gaussian distribution, enabling the use of statistical tests like ANOVA. We demonstrate Stabilizer's’s efficiency (< 7% median overhead) and its effectiveness by evaluating the impact of LLVM’s optimizations on the SPEC CPU2006 benchmark suite. We find that, while -O2 has a significant impact relative to -O1, the performance impact of -O3 over -O2 optimizations is indistinguishable from random noise.

A full description of Stabilizer is available in the technical paper, which appeared at ASPLOS 2013.

See also this nice blog post about this research.

Building Requirements

NOTE: This project is no longer being actively maintained, and only works on quite old versions of LLVM.

Stabilizer requires LLVM 3.1. Stabilizer runs on OSX and Linux, and supports x86, x86_64, and PowerPC.

Stabilizer requires LLVM 3.1. Follow the directions here to build LLVM 3.1 and the Clang front-end. Stabilizer's build system assumes LLVM include files will be accessible through your default include path.

By default, Stabilizer will use GCC and the Dragonegg plugin to produce LLVM IR. Fortran programs can only be built with the GCC front end. Stabilizer is tested against GCC version 4.6.2.

Stabilizer's compiler driver szc is written in Python. It uses the argparse module, so a relatively modern version of Python (>=2.7) is required.

Building Stabilizer

$ git clone git:// stabilizer
$ make

By default, Stabilizer is build with debug output enabled. Run make clean release to build the release version with asserts and debug output disabled.

Using Stabilizer

Stabilizer includes the szc compiler driver, which builds programs using the Stabilizer compiler transformations. szc passes on common GCC flags, and is compatible with C, C++ and Fortran inputs.

To compile a program in foo.c with Stabilizer, run:

$ szc -Rcode -Rstack -Rheap foo.c -o foo

The -R flags enable randomizations, and may be used in any combination. Stabilizer uses GCC with the Dragonegg plugin as its default front-end. To use clang, pass -frontend=clang to szc.

The resulting executable is linked against with (or .dylib on OSX). Place this library somewhere in your system's dynamic library search path or (preferably) add the Stabilizer base directory to your LD_LIBRARY_PATH or DYLD_LIBRARY_PATH environment variable.


The szchi.cfg and szclo.cfg config files can be installed in a SPEC CPU2006 config directory to build and run benchmarks with Stabilizer. The szchi config -O2 for base and -O3 for peak tuning, and szclo uses -O0 and -O1.

The and scripts were used to drive experiments and collect results. The run script accepts optimization levels, benchmarks to enable (or disable with a "-" prefix), a number of runs, and build configurations in any order. For example:

$ ./ 10 bzip2 code code.stack code.heap.stack

This will run the bzip2 benchmark 10 times in each of three randomization configurations. The runspec tool must be in your path, so cd to your SPEC installation and sourceh shrc first.

$ ./ 10 -astar code link O2 O3

This will run every benchmark except astar 10 times with link randomization at -O2 and -O3 optimization levels.

Be warned: there is no easy way to distinguish O2 and O0 results after the fact: both are marked as "base" tuning. Keep these results in separate directories.

The process script reads .rsf files from SPEC and provides some summary statistics, or collects results in an easy-to-process format.

$ ./ $SPEC/result/*.rsf

This will print average runtimes for each benchmark in each configuration and tuning level for the runs in your SPEC results directory.

Pass the -trim flag to remove the highest and lowest runtimes before computing the average.

The -norm flag tests the results for normality using the Shapiro-Wilk test.

The -all flag dumps all results to console, suitable for pasting into a spreadsheet or CSV file.