The x86 architecture is the weirdo, part 2

Raymond Chen

Some time ago I noted that The x86 architecture is the weirdo. (And by x86 I mean specifically x86-32.) I was reminded by the compiler folks of another significant place where the x86 architecture is different from all the others, and that’s in how Windows structured exceptions are managed.

On Windows, all the other architectures track exception handling by using unwind codes and other information declared as metadata. If you step through a function on any other architecture, you won’t see any instructions related to exception handling. Only when an exception occurs does the system look up the instruction pointer in the exception-handling information in the metadata, and use that to decide what to do: Which exception handler should run? What objects need to be destructed? That sort of thing.

But the x86 is the weirdo. On Windows, the x86 tracks exception information at runtime. When control enters a function that needs to deal with exceptions (either because it it wants to handle the exception, or just because it wants to run destructors when an exception is thrown out of the function), the code must create an entry in a linked list threaded through the stack and anchored by the value in fs:[0]. In the Microsoft Visual C++ implementation, the linked list node also contains an integer which represents the current progress through the function, and that integer is updated whenever there is a change to the list of objects requiring destruction. It is updated immediately after the construction of an object completes, and immediately before the destruction of an object commences.

This special integer is a real pain in the neck, because the optimizer sees it as a dead store and really wants to optimize it out. Indeed sometimes, it really is a dead store, but sometimes it isn’t.


struct S { S(); ~S(); };

void f1();
void f2();

S g()
    S s1;
    S s2;
    return S();

The code generation for this function goes like this:

struct ExceptionNode
    ExceptionNode* next;
    int (__stdcall *handler)(PEXCEPTION_POINTERS);
    int state;

S g()
    // Create a new node
    ExceptionNode node; = fs:[0];
    node.handler = exception_handler_function;
    node.state = -1; // nothing needs to be destructed

    // Make it the new head of the linked list
    fs:[0] = &node;

    construct s1;
    node.state = 0; // s1 needs to be destructed


    construct s2;
    node.state = 1; // s1 and s2 need to be destructed


    construct return value;
    node.state = 2; // s1, s2, and return value need to be destructed

    node.state = 3; // s1 and return value need to be destructed
    destruct s2;

    node.state = 4; // return value needs to be destructed
    destruct s1;

The unwind state variable is updated whenever the list of “objects requiring destruction” changes. As far as the optimizer is concerned, all of these updates to state look like dead stores, since it seems that nobody reads them.

Aha, but somebody does read them: The exception_handler_function. The problem is that the call to the exception_handler_function is invisible: It is called when an exception is thrown by the f1() or f2() function, or by the destructor of the S objects.¹

But wait, some of these really are dead stores. For example, the assignments of 2 to node.state is a dead store, because it is immediately followed by a store of 3, and there is nothing in between, so no exception could occur while the value is 2. Similarly, the store of 3 is dead because the destructor of S is implicitly noexcept.¹ And the store of 4 is dead for the same reason: No exception can occur when destructing s1.

Further dead store elimination becomes possible if f1 or f2 are changed to noexcept.

So the optimizer is in a tricky spot here: It wants to eliminate dead stores, but the simple algorithm for identifying dead stores doesn’t work here because of the potential for exceptions.

Coroutines make this even worse: When a coroutine suspends, the exception-handling node needs to be copied from the stack into the coroutine frame, and then removed from the stack frame. And when the coroutine resumes, the state needs to be copied from the coroutine frame back into the stack, and linked into the chain of exception handlers.

Knowing exactly when to do this unlinking and relinking is tricky, because you still have to catch exceptions that occur in await_suspend and store them in the promise. But we learned that await_suspend is fragile because the coroutine may have resumed and run to completion before await_suspend returns.

void await_suspend(coroutine_handle<> handle)
  throw oops; // who catches this?

The language says that the thrown exception is caught by the coroutine framework, which calls promise.unhandled_exception(). But the promise may no longer exist!

Dealing with all these crazy edge cases makes exception handling on x86, and particularly exception handling on x86 in coroutines, quite a complicated undertaking.

Bonus reading: Zero-cost exceptions aren’t zero cost.

¹ Destructors default to noexcept if no members or base classes have potentially-throwing destructors, but you can mark your destructor as potentially-throwing,² and then exceptions thrown from destructors become something the compiler has to worry about.

² Please don’t do that.


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  • 紅樓鍮 0

    But why does x86-32 exception handling have to work that way? Especially since x86-64 exception handling is table-based, like all the RISC architectures.

    • philiplu 0

      Table-based exception-handling metadata requires function prologue/epilogue sequences to have constrained forms that can be described by that metadata. When NT was first designed for x86-32, there was a lot of existing asm code that people wanted to easily port over to NT, and that ported code included pretty much every weird function entry/exit sequence you could think of (and lots more that you wouldn’t imagine anyone would ever think of). Switching to table-based metadata would have required modifying all that code, making porting more difficult. At least, I assume that’s the reasoning – I was deeply involved in the SEH runtime code in the ’90s and ’00s when I was on the VC++ compiler team.

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