Intel's compiler: is crippling the competition acceptable?

Mark Mackey (mark @

UPDATE: new scripts are available for patching the compiler and/or the executables compiled with the compiler. See here for details.

The Problem

A while ago I upgraded my copy of the Intel Fortran Compiler for Linux (to version 7.1.040, build 20040309Z). All seemed well, and the code compiled with the new version passed all of our unit tests. However, when we moved the new executables out to our compute farm they started segfaulting all over the place. What was going on?

The investigation

The code in question is several hundred thousand lines of old-style poorly commented Fortran 77, with a bit of C mixed in to make things more interesting. We've had problems before with compiler upgrades, so having the new compiler produce code which didn't work wasn't completely surprising. However, this one seemed odder than usual: the executables all seemed to pan out fine on the compile machine, but fail on the compute farm. Running gdb indicated that they segfaulted in a routine called __intel_cpu_dispatch_fail, which wasn't enormously productive. The stack trace showed which routine in our code led to the __intel_cpu_dispatch_fail segfault, but it was a pretty simple routine and there wasn't anything obviously wrong with it.

We've seen bugs with the Intel compilers before (and with other compilers too, I might add) where the optimiser caused problems. Sure enough, compiling with all of the optimisation flags turned off produced executables that ran perfectly fine across our collection of machines, albeit rather slowly. Reinstating the optimisation flags one-at-a-time revealed that the -xK flag was the culprit: if that was specified, the executables segfaulted on the compute farm, if not, they didn't.

The -xK flag to the 'ifc' compiler specifies that SSE instructions should be used (the equivalent to gcc's -fpmath=sse). If we compiled with -axK (produce both normal 386 code and SSE code and decide at runtime which to use), then all was OK. So, it looked like some sort of bug with the SSE code emitted by the compiler, so I was tempted simply to downgrade again and wait for the next version, which hopefully would have fixed the bug.

I cast a final eye over the last run on the compute farm, and noticed that while most of the machines segfaulted on the -ax code, a few didn't. Interestingly, the ones on which the code worked were all single-processor Pentium 4s, which the ones on which it crashed were all dual-processor Athlon MPs. Hmmm. It's either an SMP bug or an AMD bug, and I was interested enough to try and work out which.

Tracing the code up to the segfault on one of the Athlons, I found the smoking gun in an exponential routine:

(gdb) break vmlsExp4
Breakpoint 1 at 0x8106340
(gdb) run probe.dat probe.dat
Starting program: fastqmf probe.dat probe.dat

Breakpoint 1, 0x08106340 in vmlsExp4 ()
(gdb) disas
Dump of assembler code for function vmlsExp4:
0x08106340 <vmlsExp4+0>  testl  $0xffffff00,0xedb375c
0x0810634a <vmlsExp4+10> jne    0x8106760 <vmlsExp4.I>
0x08106350 <vmlsExp4+16> testl  $0xffffff80,0xedb375c
0x0810635a <vmlsExp4+26> jne    0x8106464 <vmlsExp4.H>
0x08106360 <vmlsExp4+32> testl  $0xffffffff,0xedb375c
0x0810636a <vmlsExp4+42> jne    0x816c9f8 <__intel_cpu_dispatch_fail>
0x08106370 <vmlsExp4+48> call   0x816c89a <__intel_cpu_indicator_init>
0x08106375 <vmlsExp4+53> jmp    0x8106340 <vmlsExp4>
0x08106377 <vmlsExp4+55> ret
End of assembler dump.

vmlsExp4 is (I managed to work out) the vectorised exponential routine. What this code does is check the bits of a global variable. If it's 0x100 or greater, then call vmlsExp4.I (which contains SSE2 code), otherwise if it's 0x80 or greater, call vmlsExp4.H (which contains SSE code), otherwise if it's 0 call __intel_cpu_indicator_init, otherwise call __intel_cpu_dispatch_fail (which simply segfaults nastily by doing a 'movl $0x1,0x0').

Looking at __intel_cpu_indicator_init, it goes and checks the various processor capabilities and sets the global variable at 0xedb375c to a value depending on the processor capabilities. If you can do SSE2, the value is 0x200. If you can only do SSE1, you get 0x80, and so on. If you can't do anything, you get the value 0x1. What is odd is that the Athlon chips can do SSE quite happily, but seem to end up with a value 0x1 anyway. Tracing through the code on a P4 and an Athlon revealed the culprit (in __intel_cpu_indicator_init).

 15f:   0f a2           cpuid
 161:   89 45 fc        mov    %eax,0xfffffffc(%ebp)
 164:   89 5d f8        mov    %ebx,0xfffffff8(%ebp)
 167:   89 4d f4        mov    %ecx,0xfffffff4(%ebp)
 16a:   89 55 f0        mov    %edx,0xfffffff0(%ebp)
 19f:   8b 45 f8        mov    0xfffffff8(%ebp),%eax
 1a2:   3d 47 65 6e 75  cmp    $0x756e6547,%eax
 1a7:   bb 01 00 00 00  mov    $0x1,%ebx
 1ac:   75 18           jne    1c6 <__intel_cpu_indicator_init+0x8c>
 1ae:   8b 45 f0        mov    0xfffffff0(%ebp),%eax
 1b1:   3d 69 6e 65 49  cmp    $0x49656e69,%eax
 1b6:   75 0e           jne    1c6 <__intel_cpu_indicator_init+0x8c>
 1b8:   8b 45 f4        mov    0xfffffff4(%ebp),%eax
 1bb:   3d 6e 74 65 6c  cmp    $0x6c65746e,%eax
 1c0:   75 04           jne    1c6 <__intel_cpu_indicator_init+0x8c>

The 'cpuid' call here puts the CPU manufacturer's ID in ebx:edx:ecx. The 'cmp' instructions later then check that these values were 'Genu','ineI','ntel' (i.e. 'GeniuneIntel'). If not, then we jump off to a bit of code that doesn't even pretend to check for the CPU capabilities but instead returns 0x1 (i.e it's a 386, and nothing other than the bog-standard 386 instruction set is available).

Think about what this means. The code produced by the Intel compiler checks to see if it's running on an Intel chip. If not, it deliberately won't run SSE or SSE2 code, even if the chip capability flags (available through the 'cpuid' instruction) say that it can. In other words, the code has been nobbled to run slower on non-Intel chips.

Talking to Intel

I raised this with Intel through their compiler support forums. The initial response from Intel was that

The most recent update of 8.0 compilers should have fixed the run-time issue with -xW and -xK on AMD processors. I don't believe the fix has been carried back to 7.1. It's not deliberate, it's an oversight, due to AMD processors not being supported or tested with those options.

followed later (after some discussion) by

As Tim correctly pointed out, this was a bug introduced into the vector math library. It is fixed in the current 8.0 compilers. There are no plans to fix it for 7.1.

It is worth noting at this point that Intel were in the process of phasing out support for their version 7.0 compilers given that the version 8.0 compilers has been available for some time, so while the 'no plans to fix 7.1' line was disappointing, it was perhaps not unexpected.

Home-brewed patches

In the meantime, I'd seen enough performance gains with this version of the compiler over the previous version that we had used (at least on the Intel chips) to want to keep the upgrade. The solution? Patch the compiler! I wrote and made available a simple patch for one of the libraries included with the compiler which removed the 'GenuineIntel' check: any CPU ID string would now pass. Code compiled with the patched compiler works fine on both AMD and Intel chips because it can't tell the difference :).

The plot thickens

Despite the fact that Intel were no longer officially supporting version 7.1 of their compiler, they did in fact release a new version (version 7.1.044 build 20040901Z). I had a quick look at the code in __intel_cpu_indicator_init and it hadn't changed, so Intel had obviously not addressed this 'bug'. However, when I looked closer, I found something interesting. The code for vmlsExp4 looks like this with build 20040901Z:

 08106340 <vmlsExp4>
 8106340:       f7 05 1c 36 db 0e 00    testl  $0xffffff00,0xedb361c
 8106347:       ff ff ff
 810634a:       0f 85 28 00 00 00       jne    8106378 <vmlsExp4.I>
 8106350:       f7 05 1c 36 db 0e ff    testl  $0xffffffff,0xedb361c
 8106357:       ff ff ff
 810635a:       0f 85 28 02 00 00       jne    8106588 <vmlsExp4.A>
 8106360:       e8 35 64 06 00          call   816c79a <__intel_cpu_indicator_init>
 8106365:       eb d9                   jmp    8106340 <vmlsExp4>
 8106367:       c3                      ret

Compare this to the code produced by the older build.

VersionSSE2 availableSSE availableSSE not available
Build 20040309ZRun SSE2 code vmlsExp4.IRun SSE code vmlsExp4.HSegfault
Build 20040901ZRun SSE2 code vmlsExp4.IRun SSE code vmlsExp4.A

Remember that non-Intel chips are found to have no ISA extensions available regardless of whether that's correct or not, so they fall into the last column. Also note that if the code was compiled with the -axK flag (i.e check if SSE is available and only use it if it is), then vmlsExp4 is never called in the first place on non-Intel chips, which are forced to go off and run 386 legacy non-vectorised code.

So, it looks like Intel did indeed address the bug of code compiled with -xK crashing on Athlon machines due to their nobbled CPUID check. However, they didn't fix it by removing the CPUID check, they fixed it by removing the 'is SSE available?' check. Note that nobody is going to release production code compiled with -xK, as even in the new version it will indeed crash if run on an old Pentium with no SSE support. Production code will be compiled with the -ax flags, and this won't even attempt to use any SSE/SSE2 instructions on non-Intel chips.

Is version 8 any better?

We've now upgraded to version 8.1 of the Intel Fortran Compiler as it now compiles our code more-or-less successfully. I was hardly surprised when I inspected the code for __intel_cpu_indicator_init: it's more complicated than it was in version 7 (checking for SSE3 support, among other things), and all of the math intrinsics have SSE3 equivalents added, but the checking for 'GenuineIntel' is still present. One difference is that Intel now openly admit that SSE3 functions are available only for Intel chips, but as far as I am aware it is not explicitly mentioned that code compiled with the -ax flags will not use any vectorisation on non-Intel processors and that SSE/SSE2 vectorisation is crippled on non-Intel processors.

Benchmarks beware

In many of not most benchmarks, the Intel compiler produces the fastest code of any F77/F90 compiler. However, care needs to be taken on non-Intel chips. Code compiled with -axW, for example, will not use ANY SSE or SSE2 instructions on non-Intel chips. This will almost certainly greatly impact performance. If the use of SSE2 is forced with -xW (which is what Intel sort-of-recommend for Opterons), then some SSE2 code will be used (as the code in the main program will use SSE2 instructions), but calls to the vectorised single-precision math instrinsics will use SSE, not SSE2.

In most of not all cases, then, code compiled with the Intel Fortran Compiler (and presumably icc as well, although I haven't tested it) will run slower than it should on non-Intel CPUs due to deliberate targeting of non-Intel CPUs by the compiler engineers. Benchmarks comparing the performance of AMD and Intel CPUs should beware of using the Intel compilers for this reason.

As an example, some (internal) code was compiled with ifc version 8.1.028 build 20050520Z twice. For the second compile, the Intel CPU check was patched out of the compiler and replaced with a no-op. The code is otherwise identical, compiled with '-O3 -fpp -tpp6 -ip -pad -w95 -cm -Vaxlib -static-libcxa'. The machines used are a dual-Opteron 248 and a P4 1.7 GHZ, values are seconds (lower is better, and note that the 'confs' test has a stochastic element and hence the times can vary by ~5% between runs).


The results for all unit tests of the software were identical between the original and patched versions. As can be seen, patching out the 'GenuineIntel' check makes no difference to the P4, but increases the performance of the Opteron by up to 10%. If the code was compiled with '-axW', then the Opteron really suffers: the 'Simplex' test is more than two times slower (it uses lots of exp() calls, and hence really benefits from vectorisation).

Patch-the-compiler redux

I like my little cluster of Athlons, and I also like ifc version 8.1 because the code it produces is faster than the code from ifc7. I hereby make available two little Perl scripts to fix the problem: this one patches the compiler to remove all references to 'GenuineIntel', so that any executables compiled with the compiler will not be artificially crippled on AMD chips. The script has been tested with compiler versions 7.1.040, 8.1.028 and 9.0.024, and should work on other builds. It should also work on the EM64T version of the compiler (thanks to Craig Wiegert), and with the Intel C compiler, but hasn't been properly tested on that (if you can test it on ICC please do so and let me know!)

Patching the compiler is arguably against the terms of the EULA (it's a gray area), and you might not have permission (either UNIX permission or managerial permission) to do so. So, there's also a script to patch executables compiled with the Intel compilers. Enjoy!

If someone comes across a version of ifc/icc for which these scripts don't work, please contact me and I'll update them. Both scripts may be freely modified and redistributed.


It is a shame that the Intel compiler, which use to be almost the no-brainer choice if your primary concern was fast code, is now being coerced into being a marketing tool. Crippling the output for non-Intel chips may mean that some published benchmarks may end up bogusly favouring Intel over AMD, but the cost is that if you want to release fast production code I can't recommend the (unpatched) compiler. There are an awful lot of AMD machines out there!

To Intel: there is a standard mechanism out there (invented by you!) for questioning a CPU as to its capabilities. You should be using that, not checking for the presence of your trademark. I don't expect Intel to support AMD-specific extensions, and I also don't expect Intel to have to test its compiler on AMD CPUs. However, if a CPU states that it can do SSE3 or whatever then I expect the code produced by the Intel compiler to use SSE3 instructions rather than to check first if the chip was made by Intel. It was not acceptable for Microsoft to go out and deliberately cripple Windows under DR-DOS, and likewise it isn't acceptable for you to cripple a product that you sell for not inconsequential sums of money so that it won't perform properly on competitors' hardware.