Benedikt Meurer JavaScript Engine Hacker and Programming Language Enthusiast.

An Introduction to Speculative Optimization in V8

This article was originally published here.

Following up on my talk "A Tale of TurboFan" (slides) at JS Kongress, I wanted to give some additional context on how TurboFan, V8's optimizing compiler, works and how V8 turns your JavaScript into highly-optimized machine code. For the talk I had to be brief and leave out several details. So I'll use this opportunity to fill the gaps, especially how V8 collects and uses the profiling information to perform speculative optimizations.

Overview #

Before we dive into the details of how TurboFan works, I'll briefly explain how V8 works on a high level. Let's have a look at this simplified breakdown of how V8 works (taken from the "JavaScript Start-up Performance" blog post by my colleague Addy Osmani):

How V8 Works

Whenever Chrome or Node.js has to execute some piece of JavaScript, it passes the source code to V8. V8 takes that JavaScript source code and feeds it to the so-called Parser, which creates an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) representation for your source code. The talk "Parsing JavaScript — better lazy than eager?" from my colleague Marja Hölttä contains some details of how this works in V8. The AST is then passed on to the recently introduced Ignition Interpreter, where it is turned into a sequence of bytecodes. This sequence of bytecodes is then executed by Ignition.

During execution, Ignition collects profiling information or feedback about the inputs to certain operations. Some of this feedback is used by Ignition itself to speed up subsequent interpretation of the bytecode. For example, for property accesses such as o.x, where o has the same shape all the time (i.e. you always pass a value {x:v} for o where v is a String), we cache information on how to get to the value of x. Upon subsequent execution of the same bytecode we don't need to search for x in o again. The underlying machinery here is called inline cache (IC). You can find a lot of details about how this works for property accesses in the blog post "What's up with monomorphism?" by my colleague Vyacheslav Egorov.

Probably even more important — depending on your workload — the feedback collected by the Ignition interpreter is consumed by the TurboFan JavaScript compiler to generate highly-optimized machine code using a technique called Speculative Optimization. Here the optimizing compiler looks at what kinds of values were seen in the past and assumes that in the future we're going to see the same kinds of values. This allows TurboFan to leave out a lot of cases that it doesn't need to handle, which is extremely important to execute JavaScript at peak performance.

The Basic Execution Pipeline #

Let's consider a reduced version of the example from my talk, focusing solely on the function add, and how this is executed by V8.

function add(x, y) {
return x + y;

console.log(add(1, 2));

If you run this in the Chrome DevTools console, you'll see that it outputs the expected result 3:

Chrome DevTools

Let's examine what happens under the hood in V8 to actually get to these results. We'll do this step by step for the function add. As mentioned before, we first need to parse the function source code and turn that into an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST). This is done by the Parser. You can see the AST that V8 generates internally using the --print-ast command line flag in a Debug build of the d8 shell.

$ out/Debug/d8 --print-ast add.js
--- AST ---
FUNC at 12
. KIND 0
. NAME "add"
. . VAR (0x7fbd5e818210) (mode = VAR) "x"
. . VAR (0x7fbd5e818240) (mode = VAR) "y"
. RETURN at 23
. . ADD at 32
. . . VAR PROXY parameter[0] (0x7fbd5e818210) (mode = VAR) "x"
. . . VAR PROXY parameter[1] (0x7fbd5e818240) (mode = VAR) "y"

This format is not very easy to consume, so let's visualize it.

Abstract Syntax Tree

Initially the function literal for add is parsed into a tree representation, with one subtree for the parameter declarations and one subtree for the actual function body. During parsing it is impossible to tell which names correspond to which variables in the program, mostly due to the funny var hoisting rules and eval in JavaScript, but also for other reasons. So for every name the parser initially creates so-called VAR PROXY nodes. The subsequent scope resolution step connects these VAR PROXY nodes to the declaring VAR nodes or marks them as either global or dynamic lookups, depending on whether the parser has seen an eval expression in one of the surrounding scopes.

Once this is done we have a complete AST that contains all the necessary information to generate executable bytecode from it. The AST is then passed to the BytecodeGenerator, which is the part of the Ignition interpreter that generates bytecode on a per-function basis. You can also see the bytecode being generated by V8 using the flag --print-bytecode with the d8 shell (or with node).

$ out/Debug/d8 --print-bytecode add.js
[generated bytecode for function: add]
Parameter count 3
Frame size 0
   12 E> 0x37738712a02a @    0 : 94                StackCheck
   23 S> 0x37738712a02b @    1 : 1d 02             Ldar a1
   32 E> 0x37738712a02d @    3 : 29 03 00          Add a0, [0]
   36 S> 0x37738712a030 @    6 : 98                Return
Constant pool (size = 0)
Handler Table (size = 16)

This tells us that a new bytecode object was generated for the function add, which accepts three parameters: the implicit receiver this, and the explicit formal parameters x and y. The function doesn't need any local variables (the frame size is zero), and contains the sequence of four bytecodes:

Ldar a1
Add a0, [0]

To explain that, we first need to understand how the interpreter works on a high level. Ignition uses a so-called register machine (in contrast to the stack machine approach that was used by earlier V8 versions in the FullCodegen compiler). It holds its local state in interpreter registers, some of which map to real CPU registers, while others map to specific slots in the native machine stack memory.

Interpreter overview

The special registers a0 and a1 correspond to the formal parameters for the function on the machine stack (in this case we have two formal parameters). Formal parameters are the parameters declared in the source code, which might be different from the actual number of parameters passed to the function at runtime. The last computed value of each bytecode is usually kept in a special register called the accumulator, the current stack frame or activation record is identified by the stack pointer, and the program counter points to the currently executed instruction in the bytecode. Let's check what the individual bytecodes do in this example:

  • StackCheck compares the stack pointer to some known upper limit (actually a lower limit since the stack grows downwards on all architectures supported by V8). If the stack grows above a certain threshold, we abort execution of the function and throw a RangeError saying that the stack was overflowed.
  • Ldar a1 loads the value of the register a1 into the accumulator register (the name stands for LoaD Accumulator Register).
  • Add a0, [0] loads the value from the a0 register and adds it to the value in the accumulator register. The result is then placed into the accumulator register again. Note that addition here can also mean string concatenation, and that this operation can execute arbitrary JavaScript depending on the operands. The + operator in JavaScript is really complex, and many people have tried to illustrate the complexity in talks. Emily Freeman recently gave a talk at JS Kongress titled "JavaScript's "+" Operator and Decision Fatigue" on precisely this topic. The [0] operand to the Add operator refers to a feedback vector slot, where Ignition stores the profiling information about the values we've seen during execution of the function. We'll get back to this later when we investigate how TurboFan optimizes the function.
  • Return ends execution of the current function and transfers control back to the caller. The value returned is the current value in the accumulator register.

My colleague Franziska Hinkelmann wrote an article "Understanding V8's Bytecode" a while ago that gives some additional insight into how V8's bytecode works.

Speculative Optimization #

Now that you have a rough understanding of how V8 executes your JavaScript in the baseline case, it's time to start looking into how TurboFan fits into the picture, and how your JavaScript code can be turned into highly optimized machine code. The + operator is already such a complex operation in JavaScript which has to do a lot of checks before it eventually does the number addition on the inputs.

Runtime Semantics of the + operator

It's not immediately obvious how this can be done in just a few machine instructions to reach peak performance (comparable to Java or C++ code). The magic keyword here is Speculative Optimization, which makes use of assumptions about possible inputs. For example, when we know that in the case of x+y, both x and y are numbers, we don't need to handle the cases where either of them is a string, or even worse — the case where the operands can be arbitrary JavaScript objects on which we need to run the abstract operation ToPrimitive first.

ToPrimitive operation

Knowing that both x and y are numbers also means that we can rule out observable side effects — for example we know it cannot shut down the computer or write to a file or navigate to a different page. In addition we know that the operation won't throw an exception. Both of these are important for optimizations, because an optimizing compiler can only eliminate an expression if it knows for sure that this expression won't cause any observable side effects and doesn't raise exceptions.

Due to the dynamic nature of JavaScript we usually don't know the precise types of values until runtime, i.e. just by looking at the source code it's often impossible to tell the possible values of inputs to operations. That's why we need to speculate, based on previously collected feedback about the values we've seen so far, and then assume that we're going to always see similar values in the future. This might sound fairly limited, but it has proven to work well for dynamic languages like JavaScript.

function add(x, y) {
return x + y;

In this particular case, we collect information about the input operands and the resulting value of the + operation (the Add bytecode). When we optimize this code with TurboFan and we've seen only numbers so far, we put checks in place to check that both x and y are numbers (in that case we know that the result is going to be a number as well). If either of these checks fail we go back to interpreting the bytecode instead — a process called Deoptimization. Thus TurboFan doesn't need to worry about all these other cases of the + operator and doesn't even need to emit machine code to handle those, but can focus on the case for numbers, which translates well to machine instructions.

Closure structure

The feedback collected by Ignition is stored in the so-called Feedback Vector (previously named Type Feedback Vector). This special data structure is linked from the closure and contains slots to store different kinds of feedback, i.e. bitsets, closures or hidden classes, depending on the concrete inline cache (IC). My colleague Michael Stanton gave a nice presentation at AmsterdamJS earlier this year titled "V8 and How It Listens to You", which explains some of the concepts of the Feedback Vector in detail. The closure also links to the SharedFunctionInfo, which contains the general information about the function (like source position, bytecode, strict/sloppy mode, etc.), and there's a link to the context as well, which contains the values for the free variables of the function and provides access to the global object (i.e. the <iframe> specific data structures).

In the case of the add function, the Feedback Vector has exactly one interesting slot (in addition to the general slots like the call count slot), and this is a BinaryOp slot, where binary operations like +, -, *, etc. can record feedback about the inputs and outputs that were seen so far. You can check what's inside the feedback vector of a specific closure using the specialized %DebugPrint() intrinsic when running with the --allow-natives-syntax command line flag (in a Debug build of d8).

function add(x, y) {
return x + y;

console.log(add(1, 2));

Running this with --allow-natives-syntax in d8 we observe:

$ out/Debug/d8 --allow-natives-syntax add.js DebugPrint: 0xb5101ea9d89:
[Function] in OldSpace … - feedback vector: 0xb5101eaa091: [FeedbackVector] in
OldSpace - length: 1 SharedFunctionInfo: 0xb5101ea99c9
<SharedFunctionInfo add>
Optimized Code: 0 Invocation Count: 1 Profiler Ticks: 0 Slot #0 BinaryOp
BinaryOp:SignedSmall …</SharedFunctionInfo

We can see the invocation count is 1, since we ran the function add exactly once. Also there's no optimized code yet (indicated by the arguably confusing 0 output). But there's exactly one slot in the Feedback Vector, which is a BinaryOp slot whose current feedback is SignedSmall. What does that mean? The bytecode Add that refers to the feedback slot 0 has only seen inputs of type SignedSmall so far and has also only produced outputs of type SignedSmall up until now.

But what is this SignedSmall type about? JavaScript doesn't have a type of that name. The name comes from an optimization that is done in V8 when representing small signed integer values that occur frequently enough in programs to deserve a special treatment (other JavaScript engines have similar optimizations).

Excurse: Value Representation #

Let's briefly explore how JavaScript values are represented in V8 to better understand the underlying concept. V8 uses a technique called Pointer Tagging to represent values in general. Most of the values we deal with live in the JavaScript heap, and have to be managed by the garbage collector (GC). But for some values it would be too expensive to always allocate them in memory. Especially for small integer values that are often used as indices to arrays and temporary computation results.

Tagging Scheme

In V8, we have two possible tagged representations: A Smi (short for Small Integer) and a HeapObject, which points to memory in the managed heap. We make use of the fact that all allocated objects are aligned on word boundaries (64-bit or 32-bit depending on the architecture), which means that the 2 or 3 least significant bits are always zero. We use the least significant bit to distinguish between a HeapObject (bit is 1) and a Smi (bit is 0). For Smi on 64-bit architectures the least significant 32 bits are actually all zero and the signed 32-bit value is stored in the upper half of the word. This is to allow efficient access to the 32-bit value in memory using a single machine instruction instead of having to load and shift the value, but also because 32-bit arithmetic is common for bitwise operations in JavaScript.

On 32-bit architectures, the Smi representation has the least significant bit set to 0 and a signed 31-bit value shifted to the left by one stored in the upper 31-bit of the word.

Feedback Lattice #

The SignedSmall feedback type refers to all values that have Smi representation. For the Add operation it means that it has only seen inputs represented as Smi so far and all outputs that were produced could also be represented as Smi (i.e. the values didn't overflow the range of possible 32-bit integer values). Let's check what happens if we also call add with other numbers that are not representable as Smi.

function add(x, y) {
return x + y;

console.log(add(1, 2));
console.log(add(1.1, 2.2));

Running this again with --allow-natives-syntax in d8 we observe:

$ out/Debug/d8 --allow-natives-syntax add.js DebugPrint: 0xb5101ea9d89:
[Function] in OldSpace … - feedback vector: 0x3fd6ea9ef9: [FeedbackVector] in
OldSpace - length: 1 SharedFunctionInfo: 0x3fd6ea9989
<SharedFunctionInfo add>
Optimized Code: 0 Invocation Count: 2 Profiler Ticks: 0 Slot #0 BinaryOp
BinaryOp:Number …</SharedFunctionInfo

First of all, we see that the invocation count is now 2, since we ran the function twice. And then we see that the BinaryOp slot value changed to Number, which indicates that we've seen arbitrary numbers for the addition (i.e. non-integer values). For addition there's a lattice of possible states for feedback, which roughly looks like this:

Feedback Lattice

The feedback starts as None, which indicates that we haven't seen anything so far, so we don't know anything. The Any state indicates that we have seen a combination of incompatible inputs or outputs. The Any state thus indicates that the Add is considered polymorphic. In contrast, the remaining states indicate that the Add is monomorphic, because it has seen and produced only values that are somewhat the same.

  • SignedSmall means that all values have been small integers (signed 32-bit or 31-bit depending on the word size of the architecture), and all of them have been represented as Smi.
  • Number indicates that all values have been regular numbers (this includes SignedSmall).
  • NumberOrOddball includes all the values from Number plus undefined, null, true and false.
  • String means that both inputs have been string values.
  • BigInt means that both inputs have been BigInts, see the current stage 2 proposal for details.

It's important to note that the feedback can only progress in this lattice. It's impossible to ever go back. If we'd ever go back then we risk entering a so-called deoptimization loop where the optimizing compiler consumes feedback and bails out from optimized code (back to the interpreter) whenever it sees values that don't agree with the feedback. The next time the function gets hot we will eventually optimize it again. So if we didn't progress in the lattice then TurboFan would generate the same code again, which effectively means it will bail out on the same kind of input again. Thus the engine would be busy just optimizing and deoptimizing code, instead of running your JavaScript code at high speed.

The Optimization Pipeline #

Now that we know how Ignition collects feedback for the add function, let's see how TurboFan makes use of that feedback to generate minimal code. I'll use the special intrinsic %OptimizeFunctionOnNextCall() to trigger optimization of a function in V8 at a very specific point in time. We often use these intrinsics to write tests that stress the engine in a very specific way.

function add(x, y) {
return x + y;

add(1, 2); // Warm up with SignedSmall feedback.
add(1, 2); // Optimize and run generated code.

Here we explicitly warm up the x+y site with SignedSmall feedback by passing in two integer values whose sum also fits into the small integer range. Then we tell V8 that it should optimize the function add (with TurboFan) when it's called the next time, and eventually we call add, which triggers TurboFan and then runs the generated machine code.


TurboFan takes the bytecode that was previously generated for add and extracts the relevant feedback from the FeedbackVector of add. It turns this into a graph representation and passes the graph through the various phases of the frontend, optimization and backend stages. I'm not going into the details of the passes here, that's a topic for a separate blog post (or a series of separate blog posts). Instead we're going to look at the generated machine code and see how the speculative optimization works. You can see the code generated by TurboFan by passing the --print-opt-code flag to d8.

Generated assembly code

This is the x64 machine code that is generated by TurboFan, with annotations from me and leaving out some technical details that don't matter (i.e. the exact call sequence to the Deoptimizer). So let's see what the code does:

# Prologue
leaq rcx,[rip+0x0]
movq rcx,[rcx-0x37]
testb [rcx+0xf],0x1
jnz CompileLazyDeoptimizedCode
push rbp
movq rbp,rsp
push rsi
push rdi
cmpq rsp,[r13+0xdb0]
jna StackCheck

The prologue checks whether the code object is still valid or whether some condition changed which requires us to throw away the code object. This was recently introduced by my intern Juliana Franco as part of her "Internship on Laziness". Once we know that the code is still valid, we build the stack frame and check that there's enough space left on the stack to execute the code.

# Check x is a small integer
movq rax,[rbp+0x18]
test al,0x1
jnz Deoptimize
# Check y is a small integer
movq rbx,[rbp+0x10]
testb rbx,0x1
jnz Deoptimize
# Convert y from Smi to Word32
movq rdx,rbx
shrq rdx, 32
# Convert x from Smi to Word32
movq rcx,rax
shrq rcx, 32

Then we start with the body of the function. We load the values of the parameters x and y from the stack (relative to the frame pointer in rbp) and check if both values have Smi representation (since feedback for + says that both inputs have always been Smi so far). This is done by testing the least significant bit. Once we know that they are both represented as Smi, we need to convert them to 32-bit representation, which is done by shifting the value by 32 bit to the right.

If either x or y is not a Smi the execution of the optimized code aborts immediately and the Deoptimizer restores the state of the function in the interpreter right before the Add.

Side note: We could also perform the addition on the Smi representation here; that's what our previous optimizing compiler Crankshaft did. This would save us the shifting, but currently TurboFan doesn't have a good heuristic to decide whether it's beneficial to do the operation on Smi instead, which is not always the ideal choice and highly dependent on the context in which this operation is used.

# Add x and y (incl. overflow check)
addl rdx,rcx
jo Deoptimize
# Convert result to Smi
shlq rdx, 32
movq rax,rdx
# Epilogue
movq rsp,rbp
pop rbp
ret 0x18

Then we go on to perform the integer addition on the inputs. We need to test explicitly for overflow, since the result of the addition might be outside the range of 32-bit integers, in which case we'd need to go back to the interpreter, which will then learn Number feedback on the Add. Finally we convert the result back to Smi representation by shifting the signed 32-bit value up by 32 bit, and then we return the value in the accumulator register rax.

As said before, this is not yet the perfect code for this case, since here it would be beneficial to just perform the addition on Smi representation directly, instead of going to Word32, which would save us three shift instructions. But even putting aside this minor aspect, you can see that the generated code is highly optimized and specialized to the profiling feedback. It doesn't even try to deal with other numbers, strings, big ints or arbitrary JavaScript objects here, but focuses only on the kind of values we've seen so far. This is the key ingredient to peak performance for many JavaScript applications.

Making progress #

So what if you suddenly change your mind and want to add numbers instead? Let's change the example to something like this instead:

function add(x, y) {
return x + y;

add(1, 2); // Warm up with SignedSmall feedback.
add(1, 2); // Optimize and run generated code.
add(1.1, 2.2); // Oops?!

Running this with --allow-natives-syntax and --trace-deopt we observe the following:

Deoptimization example

That's a lot of confusing output. But let's extract the important bits. First of all, we print a reason why we had to deoptimize, and in this case it's not a Smi, which means we baked in the assumption somewhere that a value is a Smi, but now we saw a HeapObject instead. Indeed it's the value in rax, which is supposed to be a Smi, but it's the number 1.1 instead. So we fail on the first check for the x parameter and we need to deoptimize to go back to interpreting the bytecode. That is a topic for a separate article though.

Takeaway #

I hope you enjoyed this dive into how speculative optimization works in V8 and how it helps us to reach peak performance for JavaScript applications. Don't worry too much about these details though. When writing applications in JavaScript focus on the application design instead and make sure to use appropriate data structures and algorithms. Write idiomatic JavaScript, and let us worry about the low level bits of the JavaScript performance instead. If you find something that is too slow, and it shouldn't be slow, please file a bug report, so we get a chance to look into that.