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5. Cachegrind: a high-precision tracing profiler

5. Cachegrind: a high-precision tracing profiler

To use this tool, specify --tool=cachegrind on the Valgrind command line.

5.1. Overview

Cachegrind is a high-precision tracing profiler. It runs slowly, but collects precise and reproducible profiling data. It can merge and diff data from different runs. To expand on these characteristics:

  • Precise. Cachegrind measures the exact number of instructions executed by your program, not an approximation. Furthermore, it presents the gathered data at the file, function, and line level. This is different to many other profilers that measure approximate execution time, using sampling, and only at the function level.

  • Reproducible. In general, execution time is a better metric than instruction counts because it's what users perceive. However, execution time often has high variability. When running the exact same program on the exact same input multiple times, execution time might vary by several percent. Furthermore, small changes in a program can change its memory layout and have even larger effects on runtime. In contrast, instruction counts are highly reproducible; for some programs they are perfectly reproducible. This means the effects of small changes in a program can be measured with high precision.

For these reasons, Cachegrind is an excellent complement to time-based profilers.

Cachegrind can annotate programs written in any language, so long as debug info is present to map machine code back to the original source code. Cachegrind has been used successfully on programs written in C, C++, Rust, and assembly.

Cachegrind can also simulate how your program interacts with a machine's cache hierarchy and branch predictor. This simulation was the original motivation for the tool, hence its name. However, the simulations are basic and unlikely to reflect the behaviour of a modern machine. For this reason they are off by default. If you really want cache and branch information, a profiler like perf that accesses hardware counters is a better choice.

5.2. Using Cachegrind and cg_annotate

First, as for normal Valgrind use, you should compile with debugging info (the -g option in most compilers). But by contrast with normal Valgrind use, you probably do want to turn optimisation on, since you should profile your program as it will be normally run.

Second, run Cachegrind itself to gather the profiling data.

Third, run cg_annotate to get a detailed presentation of that data. cg_annotate can combine the results of multiple Cachegrind output files. It can also perform a diff between two Cachegrind output files.

5.2.1. Running Cachegrind

To run Cachegrind on a program prog, run:

valgrind --tool=cachegrind prog

The program will execute (slowly). Upon completion, summary statistics that look like this will be printed:

==17942== I refs:          8,195,070

The I refs number is short for "Instruction cache references", which is equivalent to "instructions executed". If you enable the cache and/or branch simulation, additional counts will be shown.

5.2.2. Output File

Cachegrind also writes more detailed profiling data to a file. By default this Cachegrind output file is named cachegrind.out.<pid> (where <pid> is the program's process ID), but its name can be changed with the --cachegrind-out-file option. This file is human-readable, but is intended to be interpreted by the accompanying program cg_annotate, described in the next section.

The default .<pid> suffix on the output file name serves two purposes. First, it means existing Cachegrind output files aren't immediately overwritten. Second, and more importantly, it allows correct profiling with the --trace-children=yes option of programs that spawn child processes.

5.2.3. Running cg_annotate

Before using cg_annotate, it is worth widening your window to be at least 120 characters wide if possible, because the output lines can be quite long.

Then run:

cg_annotate <filename>

on a Cachegrind output file.

5.2.4. The Metadata Section

The first part of the output looks like this:

-- Metadata
Invocation:       ../cg_annotate concord.cgout
Command:          ./concord ../cg_main.c
Events recorded:  Ir
Events shown:     Ir
Event sort order: Ir
Threshold:        0.1%
Annotation:       on

It summarizes how Cachegrind and the profiled program were run.

  • Invocation: the command line used to produce this output.

  • Command: the command line used to run the profiled program.

  • Events recorded: which events were recorded. By default, this is Ir. More events will be recorded if cache and/or branch simulation is enabled.

  • Events shown: the events shown, which is a subset of the events gathered. This can be adjusted with the --show option.

  • Event sort order: the sort order used for the subsequent sections. For example, in this case those sections are sorted from highest Ir counts to lowest. If there are multiple events, one will be the primary sort event, and then there can be a secondary sort event, tertiary sort event, etc., though more than one is rarely needed. This order can be adjusted with the --sort option. Note that this does not specify the order in which the columns appear. That is specified by the "events shown" line (and can be changed with the --show option).

  • Threshold: cg_annotate by default omits files and functions with very low counts to keep the output size reasonable. By default cg_annotate only shows files and functions that account for at least 0.1% of the primary sort event. The threshold can be adjusted with the --threshold option.

  • Annotation: whether source file annotation is enabled. Controlled with the --annotate option.

If cache simulation is enabled, details of the cache parameters will be shown above the "Invocation" line.

5.2.5. Global, File, and Function-level Counts

Next comes the summary for the whole program:

-- Summary

8,195,070 (100.0%)  PROGRAM TOTALS

The Ir column label is suffixed with underscores to show the bounds of the columns underneath.

Then comes file:function counts. Here is the first part of that section:

-- File:function summary
  Ir______________________  file:function

< 3,078,746 (37.6%, 37.6%)  /home/njn/grind/ws1/cachegrind/concord.c:
  1,630,232 (19.9%)           get_word
    630,918  (7.7%)           hash
    461,095  (5.6%)           insert
    130,560  (1.6%)           add_existing
     91,014  (1.1%)           init_hash_table
     88,056  (1.1%)           create
     46,676  (0.6%)           new_word_node

< 1,746,038 (21.3%, 58.9%)  ./malloc/./malloc/malloc.c:
  1,285,938 (15.7%)           _int_malloc
    458,225  (5.6%)           malloc

< 1,107,550 (13.5%, 72.4%)  ./libio/./libio/getc.c:getc

<   551,071  (6.7%, 79.1%)  ./string/../sysdeps/x86_64/multiarch/strcmp-avx2.S:__strcmp_avx2

<   521,228  (6.4%, 85.5%)  ./ctype/../include/ctype.h:
    260,616  (3.2%)           __ctype_tolower_loc
    260,612  (3.2%)           __ctype_b_loc

<   468,163  (5.7%, 91.2%)  ???:
    468,151  (5.7%)           ???

<   456,071  (5.6%, 96.8%)  /usr/include/ctype.h:get_word

Each entry covers one file, and one or more functions within that file. If there is only one significant function within a file, as in the first entry, the file and function are shown on the same line separate by a colon. If there are multiple significant functions within a file, as in the third entry, each function gets its own line.

This example involves a small C program, and shows a combination of code from the program itself (including functions like get_word and hash in the file concord.c) as well as code from system libraries, such as functions like malloc and getc.

Each entry is preceded with a <, which can be useful when navigating through the output in an editor, or grepping through results.

The first percentage in each column indicates the proportion of the total event count is covered by this line. The second percentage, which only shows on the first line of each entry, shows the cumulative percentage of all the entries up to and including this one. The entries shown here account for 96.8% of the instructions executed by the program.

The name ??? is used if the file name and/or function name could not be determined from debugging information. If ??? filenames dominate, the program probably wasn't compiled with -g. If ??? function names dominate, the program may have had symbols stripped.

After that comes function:file counts. Here is the first part of that section:

-- Function:file summary
  Ir______________________  function:file

> 2,086,303 (25.5%, 25.5%)  get_word:
  1,630,232 (19.9%)           /home/njn/grind/ws1/cachegrind/concord.c
    456,071  (5.6%)           /usr/include/ctype.h

> 1,285,938 (15.7%, 41.1%)  _int_malloc:./malloc/./malloc/malloc.c

> 1,107,550 (13.5%, 54.7%)  getc:./libio/./libio/getc.c

>   630,918  (7.7%, 62.4%)  hash:/home/njn/grind/ws1/cachegrind/concord.c

>   551,071  (6.7%, 69.1%)  __strcmp_avx2:./string/../sysdeps/x86_64/multiarch/strcmp-avx2.S

>   480,248  (5.9%, 74.9%)  malloc:
    458,225  (5.6%)           ./malloc/./malloc/malloc.c
     22,023  (0.3%)           ./malloc/./malloc/arena.c

>   468,151  (5.7%, 80.7%)  ???:???

>   461,095  (5.6%, 86.3%)  insert:/home/njn/grind/ws1/cachegrind/concord.c

This is similar to the previous section, but is grouped by functions first and files second. Also, the entry markers are > instead of <.

You might wonder why this section is needed, and how it differs from the previous section. The answer is inlining. In this example there are two entries demonstrating a function whose code is effectively spread across more than one file: get_word and malloc. Here is an example from profiling the Rust compiler, a much larger program that uses inlining more:

>  30,469,230 (1.3%, 11.1%)  <rustc_middle::ty::context::CtxtInterners>::intern_ty:
   10,269,220 (0.5%)           /home/njn/.cargo/registry/src/
    7,696,827 (0.3%)           /home/njn/dev/rust0/compiler/rustc_middle/src/ty/
    3,858,099 (0.2%)           /home/njn/dev/rust0/library/core/src/

In this case the compiled function intern_ty includes code from three different source files, due to inlining. These should be examined together. Older versions of cg_annotate presented this entry as three separate file:function entries, which would typically be intermixed with all the other entries, making it hard to see that they are all really part of the same function.

5.2.6. Per-line Counts

By default, a source file is annotated if it contains at least one function that meets the significance threshold. This can be disabled with the --annotate option.

To continue the previous example, here is part of the annotation of the file concord.c:

-- Annotated source file: /home/njn/grind/ws1/cachegrind/docs/concord.c

      .         /* Function builds the hash table from the given file. */  
      .         void init_hash_table(char *file_name, Word_Node *table[])  
      8 (0.0%)  {                                                          
      .             FILE *file_ptr;                                        
      .             Word_Info *data;                                       
      2 (0.0%)      int line = 1, i;                                       
      .             /* Structure used when reading in words and line numbers. */
      3 (0.0%)      data = (Word_Info *) create(sizeof(Word_Info));        
      .             /* Initialise entire table to NULL. */                 
  2,993 (0.0%)      for (i = 0; i < TABLE_SIZE; i++)                       
    997 (0.0%)          table[i] = NULL;                                   
      .             /* Open file, check it. */                             
      4 (0.0%)      file_ptr = fopen(file_name, "r");                      
      2 (0.0%)      if (!(file_ptr)) {                                     
      .                 fprintf(stderr, "Couldn't open '%s'.\n", file_name);
      .                 exit(EXIT_FAILURE);                                
      .             }                                                      
      .             /*  'Get' the words and lines one at a time from the file, and insert them
      .             ** into the table one at a time. */                    
 55,363 (0.7%)      while ((line = get_word(data, line, file_ptr)) != EOF) 
 31,632 (0.4%)          insert(data->word, data->line, table);             
      2 (0.0%)      free(data);                                            
      2 (0.0%)      fclose(file_ptr);                                      
      6 (0.0%)  }  

Each executed line is annotated with its event counts. Other lines are annotated with a dot. This may be because they contain no executable code, or they contain executable code but were never executed.

You can easily tell if a function is inlined from this output. If it is not inlined, it will have event counts on the lines containing the opening and closing braces. If it is inlined, it will not have event counts on those lines. In the example above, init_hash_table does have counts, so you can tell it is not inlined.

Note again that inlining can lead to surprising results. If a function f is always inlined, in the file:function and function:file sections counts will be attributed to the functions it is inlined into, rather than itself. However, if you look at the line-by-line annotations for f you'll see the counts that belong to f. So it's worth looking for large counts/percentages in the line-by-line annotations.

Sometimes only a small section of a source file is executed. To minimise uninteresting output, Cachegrind only shows annotated lines and lines within a small distance of annotated lines. Gaps are marked with line numbers, for example:

(counts and code for line 704)
-- line 375 ----------------------------------------
-- line 514 ----------------------------------------
(counts and code for line 878)

The number of lines of context shown around annotated lines is controlled by the --context option.

Any significant source files that could not be found are shown like this:

-- Annotated source file: ./malloc/./malloc/malloc.c                       
Unannotated because one or more of these original files are unreadable:    
- ./malloc/./malloc/malloc.c 

This is common for library files, because libraries are usually compiled with debugging information but the source files are rarely present on a system.

Cachegrind relies heavily on accurate debug info. Sometimes compilers do not map a particular compiled instruction to line number 0, where the 0 represents "unknown" or "none". This is annoying but does happen in practice. cg_annotate prints these in the following way:

-- Annotated source file: /home/njn/dev/rust0/compiler/rustc_borrowck/src/

1,046,746 (0.0%)  <unknown (line 0)>

Finally, when annotation is performed, the output ends with a summary of how many counts were annotated and unannotated, and why. For example:

-- Annotation summary

3,534,817 (43.1%)    annotated: files known & above threshold & readable, line numbers known
        0            annotated: files known & above threshold & readable, line numbers unknown
        0          unannotated: files known & above threshold & two or more non-identical
4,132,126 (50.4%)  unannotated: files known & above threshold & unreadable 
   59,950  (0.7%)  unannotated: files known & below threshold
  468,163  (5.7%)  unannotated: files unknown

5.2.7. Forking Programs

If your program forks, the child will inherit all the profiling data that has been gathered for the parent.

If the output file name (controlled by --cachegrind-out-file) does not contain %p, then the outputs from the parent and child will be intermingled in a single output file, which will almost certainly make it unreadable by cg_annotate.

5.2.8. cg_annotate Warnings

There are two situations in which cg_annotate prints warnings.

  • If a source file is more recent than the Cachegrind output file. This is because the information in the Cachegrind output file is only recorded with line numbers, so if the line numbers change at all in the source (e.g. lines added, deleted, swapped), any annotations will be incorrect.

  • If information is recorded about line numbers past the end of a file. This can be caused by the above problem, e.g. shortening the source file while using an old Cachegrind output file. If this happens, the figures for the bogus lines are printed anyway (and clearly marked as bogus) in case they are important.

5.2.9. Merging Cachegrind Output Files

cg_annotate can merge data from multiple Cachegrind output files in a single run. (There is also a program called cg_merge that can merge multiple Cachegrind output files into a single Cachegrind output file, but it is now deprecated because cg_annotate's merging does a better job.)

Use it as follows:

cg_annotate file1 file2 file3 ...

cg_annotate computes the sum of these files (effectively file1 + file2 + file3), and then produces output as usual that shows the summed counts.

The most common merging scenario is if you want to aggregate costs over multiple runs of the same program, possibly on different inputs.

5.2.10. Differencing Cachegrind output files

cg_annotate can diff data from two Cachegrind output files in a single run. (There is also a program called cg_diff that can diff two Cachegrind output files into a single Cachegrind output file, but it is now deprecated because cg_annotate's differencing does a better job.)

Use it as follows:

cg_annotate --diff file1 file2

cg_annotate computes the difference between these two files (effectively file2 - file1), and then produces output as usual that shows the count differences. Note that many of the counts may be negative; this indicates that the counts for the relevant file/function/line are smaller in the second version than those in the first version.

The simplest common scenario is comparing two Cachegrind output files that came from the same program, but on different inputs. cg_annotate will do a good job on this without assistance.

A more complex scenario is if you want to compare Cachegrind output files from two slightly different versions of a program that you have sitting side-by-side, running on the same input. For example, you might have version1/prog.c and version2/prog.c. A straight comparison of the two would not be useful. Because functions are always paired with filenames, a function f would be listed as version1/prog.c:f for the first version but version2/prog.c:f for the second version.

In this case, use the --mod-filename option. Its argument is a search-and-replace expression that will be applied to all the filenames in both Cachegrind output files. It can be used to remove minor differences in filenames. For example, the option --mod-filename='s/version[0-9]/versionN/' will suffice for the above example.

Similarly, sometimes compilers auto-generate certain functions and give them randomized names like T.1234 where the suffixes vary from build to build. You can use the --mod-funcname option to remove small differences like these; it works in the same way as --mod-filename.

When --mod-filename is used to compare two different versions of the same program, cg_annotate will not annotate any file that is different between the two versions, because the per-line counts are not reliable in such a case. For example, imagine if version2/prog.c is the same as version1/prog.c except with an extra blank line at the top of the file. Every single per-line count will have changed. In comparison, the per-file and per-function counts have not changed, and are still very useful for determining differences between programs. You might think that this means every interesting file will be left unannotated, but again inlining means that files that are identical in the two versions can have different counts on many lines.

5.2.11. Cache and Branch Simulation

Cachegrind can simulate how your program interacts with a machine's cache hierarchy and/or branch predictor. The cache simulation models a machine with independent first-level instruction and data caches (I1 and D1), backed by a unified second-level cache (L2). For these machines (in the cases where Cachegrind can auto-detect the cache configuration) Cachegrind simulates the first-level and last-level caches. Therefore, Cachegrind always refers to the I1, D1 and LL (last-level) caches.

When simulating the cache, with --cache-sim=yes, Cachegrind gathers the following statistics:

  • I cache reads (Ir, which equals the number of instructions executed), I1 cache read misses (I1mr) and LL cache instruction read misses (ILmr).

  • D cache reads (Dr, which equals the number of memory reads), D1 cache read misses (D1mr), and LL cache data read misses (DLmr).

  • D cache writes (Dw, which equals the number of memory writes), D1 cache write misses (D1mw), and LL cache data write misses (DLmw).

Note that D1 total accesses is given by D1mr + D1mw, and that LL total accesses is given by ILmr + DLmr + DLmw.

When simulating the branch predictor, with --branch-sim=yes, Cachegrind gathers the following statistics:

  • Conditional branches executed (Bc) and conditional branches mispredicted (Bcm).

  • Indirect branches executed (Bi) and indirect branches mispredicted (Bim).

When cache and/or branch simulation is enabled, cg_annotate will print multiple counts per line of output. For example:

  Ir______________________ Bc____________________ Bcm__________________ Bi____________________ Bim______________  function:file

>     8,547  (0.1%, 99.4%)     936  (0.1%, 99.1%)    177  (0.3%, 96.7%)      59  (0.0%, 99.9%) 38 (19.4%, 66.3%)  strcmp:
      8,503  (0.1%)            928  (0.1%)           175  (0.3%)             59  (0.0%)        38 (19.4%)           ./string/../sysdeps/x86_64/multiarch/../multiarch/strcmp-sse2.S

5.3. Cachegrind Command-line Options

Cachegrind-specific options are:


Write the Cachegrind output file to file rather than to the default output file, cachegrind.out.<pid>. The %p and %q format specifiers can be used to embed the process ID and/or the contents of an environment variable in the name, as is the case for the core option --log-file.

--cache-sim=no|yes [no]

Enables or disables collection of cache access and miss counts.

--branch-sim=no|yes [no]

Enables or disables collection of branch instruction and misprediction counts.

--instr-at-start=no|yes [yes]

Enables or disables instrumentation at the start of execution. Use this in combination with CACHEGRIND_START_INSTRUMENTATION and CACHEGRIND_STOP_INSTRUMENTATION to measure only part of a client program's execution.

--I1=<size>,<associativity>,<line size>

Specify the size, associativity and line size of the level 1 instruction cache. Only useful with --cache-sim=yes.

--D1=<size>,<associativity>,<line size>

Specify the size, associativity and line size of the level 1 data cache. Only useful with --cache-sim=yes.

--LL=<size>,<associativity>,<line size>

Specify the size, associativity and line size of the last-level cache. Only useful with --cache-sim=yes.

5.4. cg_annotate Command-line Options

-h --help

Show the help message.


Show the version number.


Diff two Cachegrind output files.

--mod-filename <regex> [default: none]

Specifies an s/old/new/ search-and-replace expression that is applied to all filenames. Useful when differencing, for removing minor differences in paths between two different versions of a program that are sitting in different directories. An i suffix makes the regex case-insensitive, and a g suffix makes it match multiple times.

--mod-funcname <regex> [default: none]

Like --mod-filename, but for filenames. Useful for removing minor differences in randomized names of auto-generated functions generated by some compilers.

--show=A,B,C [default: all, using order in the Cachegrind output file]

Specifies which events to show (and the column order). Default is to use all present in the Cachegrind output file (and use the order in the file). Best used in conjunction with --sort.

--sort=A,B,C [default: order in the Cachegrind output file]

Specifies the events upon which the sorting of the file:function and function:file entries will be based.

--threshold=X [default: 0.1%]

Sets the significance threshold for the file:function and function:files sections. A file or function is shown if it accounts for more than X% of the counts for the primary sort event. If annotating source files, this also affects which files are annotated.

--show-percs, --no-show-percs, --show-percs=<no|yes> [default: yes]

When enabled, a percentage is printed next to all event counts. This helps gauge the relative importance of each function and line.

--annotate, --no-annotate, --auto=<no|yes> [default: yes]

Enables or disables source file annotation.

--context=N [default: 8]

The number of lines of context to show before and after each annotated line. Use a large number (e.g. 100000) to show all source lines.

5.5. cg_merge Command-line Options

-o outfile

Write the output to to outfile instead of standard output.

5.6. cg_diff Command-line Options

-h --help

Show the help message.


Show the version number.

--mod-filename=<expr> [default: none]

Specifies an s/old/new/ search-and-replace expression that is applied to all filenames.

--mod-funcname=<expr> [default: none]

Like --mod-filename, but for filenames.

5.7. Cachegrind Client Requests

Cachegrind provides the following client requests in cachegrind.h.


Start Cachegrind instrumentation if not already enabled. Use this in combination with CACHEGRIND_STOP_INSTRUMENTATION and --instr-at-start to measure only part of a client program's execution.


Stop Cachegrind instrumentation if not already disabled. Use this in combination with CACHEGRIND_START_INSTRUMENTATION and --instr-at-start to measure only part of a client program's execution.

5.8. Simulation Details

This section talks about details you don't need to know about in order to use Cachegrind, but may be of interest to some people.

5.8.1. Cache Simulation Specifics

The cache simulation approximates the hardware of an AMD Athlon CPU circa 2002. Its specific characteristics are as follows:

  • Write-allocate: when a write miss occurs, the block written to is brought into the D1 cache. Most modern caches have this property.

  • Bit-selection hash function: the set of line(s) in the cache to which a memory block maps is chosen by the middle bits M--(M+N-1) of the byte address, where:

    • line size = 2^M bytes

    • (cache size / line size / associativity) = 2^N bytes

  • Inclusive LL cache: the LL cache typically replicates all the entries of the L1 caches, because fetching into L1 involves fetching into LL first (this does not guarantee strict inclusiveness, as lines evicted from LL still could reside in L1). This is standard on Pentium chips, but AMD Opterons, Athlons and Durons use an exclusive LL cache that only holds blocks evicted from L1. Ditto most modern VIA CPUs.

The cache configuration simulated (cache size, associativity and line size) is determined automatically using the x86 CPUID instruction. If you have a machine that (a) doesn't support the CPUID instruction, or (b) supports it in an early incarnation that doesn't give any cache information, then Cachegrind will fall back to using a default configuration (that of a model 3/4 Athlon). Cachegrind will tell you if this happens. You can manually specify one, two or all three levels (I1/D1/LL) of the cache from the command line using the --I1, --D1 and --LL options. For cache parameters to be valid for simulation, the number of sets (with associativity being the number of cache lines in each set) has to be a power of two.

On PowerPC platforms Cachegrind cannot automatically determine the cache configuration, so you will need to specify it with the --I1, --D1 and --LL options.

Other noteworthy behaviour:

  • References that straddle two cache lines are treated as follows:

    • If both blocks hit --> counted as one hit

    • If one block hits, the other misses --> counted as one miss.

    • If both blocks miss --> counted as one miss (not two)

  • Instructions that modify a memory location (e.g. inc and dec) are counted as doing just a read, i.e. a single data reference. This may seem strange, but since the write can never cause a miss (the read guarantees the block is in the cache) it's not very interesting.

    Thus it measures not the number of times the data cache is accessed, but the number of times a data cache miss could occur.

If you are interested in simulating a cache with different properties, it is not particularly hard to write your own cache simulator, or to modify the existing ones in cg_sim.c.

5.8.2. Branch Simulation Specifics

Cachegrind simulates branch predictors intended to be typical of mainstream desktop/server processors of around 2004.

Conditional branches are predicted using an array of 16384 2-bit saturating counters. The array index used for a branch instruction is computed partly from the low-order bits of the branch instruction's address and partly using the taken/not-taken behaviour of the last few conditional branches. As a result the predictions for any specific branch depend both on its own history and the behaviour of previous branches. This is a standard technique for improving prediction accuracy.

For indirect branches (that is, jumps to unknown destinations) Cachegrind uses a simple branch target address predictor. Targets are predicted using an array of 512 entries indexed by the low order 9 bits of the branch instruction's address. Each branch is predicted to jump to the same address it did last time. Any other behaviour causes a mispredict.

More recent processors have better branch predictors, in particular better indirect branch predictors. Cachegrind's predictor design is deliberately conservative so as to be representative of the large installed base of processors which pre-date widespread deployment of more sophisticated indirect branch predictors. In particular, late model Pentium 4s (Prescott), Pentium M, Core and Core 2 have more sophisticated indirect branch predictors than modelled by Cachegrind.

Cachegrind does not simulate a return stack predictor. It assumes that processors perfectly predict function return addresses, an assumption which is probably close to being true.

See Hennessy and Patterson's classic text "Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach", 4th edition (2007), Section 2.3 (pages 80-89) for background on modern branch predictors.

5.8.3. Accuracy

Cachegrind's instruction counting has one shortcoming on x86/amd64:

  • When a REP-prefixed instruction executes each iteration is counted separately. In contrast, hardware counters count each such instruction just once, no matter how many times it iterates. It is arguable that Cachegrind's behaviour is more useful.

Cachegrind's cache profiling has a number of shortcomings:

  • It doesn't account for kernel activity. The effect of system calls on the cache and branch predictor contents is ignored.

  • It doesn't account for other process activity. This is arguably desirable when considering a single program.

  • It doesn't account for virtual-to-physical address mappings. Hence the simulation is not a true representation of what's happening in the cache. Most caches and branch predictors are physically indexed, but Cachegrind simulates caches using virtual addresses.

  • It doesn't account for cache misses not visible at the instruction level, e.g. those arising from TLB misses, or speculative execution.

  • Valgrind will schedule threads differently from how they would be when running natively. This could warp the results for threaded programs.

  • The x86/amd64 instructions bts, btr and btc will incorrectly be counted as doing a data read if both the arguments are registers, e.g.:

        btsl %eax, %edx

    This should only happen rarely.

  • x86/amd64 FPU instructions with data sizes of 28 and 108 bytes (e.g. fsave) are treated as though they only access 16 bytes. These instructions seem to be rare so hopefully this won't affect accuracy much.

Another thing worth noting is that results are very sensitive. Changing the size of the executable being profiled, or the sizes of any of the shared libraries it uses, or even the length of their file names, can perturb the results. Variations will be small, but don't expect perfectly repeatable results if your program changes at all.

Many Linux distributions perform address space layout randomisation (ASLR), in which identical runs of the same program have their shared libraries loaded at different locations, as a security measure. This also perturbs the results.

5.9. Implementation Details

This section talks about details you don't need to know about in order to use Cachegrind, but may be of interest to some people.

5.9.1. How Cachegrind Works

The best reference for understanding how Cachegrind works is chapter 3 of "Dynamic Binary Analysis and Instrumentation", by Nicholas Nethercote. It is available on the Valgrind publications page.

5.9.2. Cachegrind Output File Format

The file format is fairly straightforward, basically giving the cost centre for every line, grouped by files and functions. It's also totally generic and self-describing, in the sense that it can be used for any events that can be counted on a line-by-line basis, not just cache and branch predictor events. For example, earlier versions of Cachegrind didn't have a branch predictor simulation. When this was added, the file format didn't need to change at all. So the format (and consequently, cg_annotate) could be used by other tools.

The file format:

file         ::= desc_line* cmd_line events_line data_line+ summary_line
desc_line    ::= "desc:" ws? non_nl_string
cmd_line     ::= "cmd:" ws? cmd
events_line  ::= "events:" ws? (event ws)+
data_line    ::= file_line | fn_line | count_line
file_line    ::= "fl=" filename
fn_line      ::= "fn=" fn_name
count_line   ::= line_num (ws+ count)* ws*
summary_line ::= "summary:" ws? count (ws+ count)+ ws*
count        ::= num


  • non_nl_string is any string not containing a newline.

  • cmd is a string holding the command line of the profiled program.

  • event is a string containing no whitespace.

  • filename and fn_name are strings.

  • num and line_num are decimal numbers.

  • ws is whitespace.

The contents of the "desc:" lines are printed out at the top of the summary. This is a generic way of providing simulation specific information, e.g. for giving the cache configuration for cache simulation.

More than one line of info can be present for each file/fn/line number. In such cases, the counts for the named events will be accumulated.

The number of counts in each line and the summary_line should not exceed the number of events in the event_line. If the number in each line is less, cg_annotate treats those missing as though they were a "0" entry. This can reduce file size.

A file_line changes the current file name. A fn_line changes the current function name. A count_line contains counts that pertain to the current filename/fn_name. A "fn=" file_line and a fn_line must appear before any count_lines to give the context of the first count_lines.

Similarly, each file_line must be immediately followed by a fn_line.

The summary line is redundant, because it just holds the total counts for each event. But this serves as a useful sanity check of the data; if the totals for each event don't match the summary line, something has gone wrong.

Bad, Bad Bug!

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