performance – How do exceptions work (behind the scenes) in c++

Instead of guessing, I decided to actually look at the generated code with a small piece of C++ code and a somewhat old Linux install.

class MyException
{
public:
    MyException() { }
    ~MyException() { }
};

void my_throwing_function(bool throwit)
{
    if (throwit)
        throw MyException();
}

void another_function();
void log(unsigned count);

void my_catching_function()
{
    log(0);
    try
    {
        log(1);
        another_function();
        log(2);
    }
    catch (const MyException& e)
    {
        log(3);
    }
    log(4);
}

I compiled it with g++ -m32 -W -Wall -O3 -save-temps -cand looked at the generated assembly file.

    .file   "foo.cpp"
    .section    .text._ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev,"axG",@progbits,_ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev,comdat
    .align 2
    .p2align 4,,15
    .weak   _ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev
    .type   _ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev, @function
_ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev:
.LFB7:
    pushl   %ebp
.LCFI0:
    movl    %esp, %ebp
.LCFI1:
    popl    %ebp
    ret
.LFE7:
    .size   _ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev, .-_ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev

_ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev is MyException::~MyException()so the compiler decided it needed a non-inline copy of the destructor.

.globl __gxx_personality_v0
.globl _Unwind_Resume
    .text
    .align 2
    .p2align 4,,15
.globl _Z20my_catching_functionv
    .type   _Z20my_catching_functionv, @function
_Z20my_catching_functionv:
.LFB9:
    pushl   %ebp
.LCFI2:
    movl    %esp, %ebp
.LCFI3:
    pushl   %ebx
.LCFI4:
    subl    $20, %esp
.LCFI5:
    movl    $0, (%esp)
.LEHB0:
    call    _Z3logj
.LEHE0:
    movl    $1, (%esp)
.LEHB1:
    call    _Z3logj
    call    _Z16another_functionv
    movl    $2, (%esp)
    call    _Z3logj
.LEHE1:
.L5:
    movl    $4, (%esp)
.LEHB2:
    call    _Z3logj
    addl    $20, %esp
    popl    %ebx
    popl    %ebp
    ret
.L12:
    subl    $1, %edx
    movl    %eax, %ebx
    je  .L16
.L14:
    movl    %ebx, (%esp)
    call    _Unwind_Resume
.LEHE2:
.L16:
.L6:
    movl    %eax, (%esp)
    call    __cxa_begin_catch
    movl    $3, (%esp)
.LEHB3:
    call    _Z3logj
.LEHE3:
    call    __cxa_end_catch
    .p2align 4,,3
    jmp .L5
.L11:
.L8:
    movl    %eax, %ebx
    .p2align 4,,6
    call    __cxa_end_catch
    .p2align 4,,6
    jmp .L14
.LFE9:
    .size   _Z20my_catching_functionv, .-_Z20my_catching_functionv
    .section    .gcc_except_table,"a",@progbits
    .align 4
.LLSDA9:
    .byte   0xff
    .byte   0x0
    .uleb128 .LLSDATT9-.LLSDATTD9
.LLSDATTD9:
    .byte   0x1
    .uleb128 .LLSDACSE9-.LLSDACSB9
.LLSDACSB9:
    .uleb128 .LEHB0-.LFB9
    .uleb128 .LEHE0-.LEHB0
    .uleb128 0x0
    .uleb128 0x0
    .uleb128 .LEHB1-.LFB9
    .uleb128 .LEHE1-.LEHB1
    .uleb128 .L12-.LFB9
    .uleb128 0x1
    .uleb128 .LEHB2-.LFB9
    .uleb128 .LEHE2-.LEHB2
    .uleb128 0x0
    .uleb128 0x0
    .uleb128 .LEHB3-.LFB9
    .uleb128 .LEHE3-.LEHB3
    .uleb128 .L11-.LFB9
    .uleb128 0x0
.LLSDACSE9:
    .byte   0x1
    .byte   0x0
    .align 4
    .long   _ZTI11MyException
.LLSDATT9:

Surprise! There are no extra instructions at all on the normal code path. The compiler instead generated extra out-of-line fixup code blocks, referenced via a table at the end of the function (which is actually put on a separate section of the executable). All the work is done behind the scenes by the standard library, based on these tables (_ZTI11MyException is typeinfo for MyException).

OK, that was not actually a surprise for me, I already knew how this compiler did it. Continuing with the assembly output:

    .text
    .align 2
    .p2align 4,,15
.globl _Z20my_throwing_functionb
    .type   _Z20my_throwing_functionb, @function
_Z20my_throwing_functionb:
.LFB8:
    pushl   %ebp
.LCFI6:
    movl    %esp, %ebp
.LCFI7:
    subl    $24, %esp
.LCFI8:
    cmpb    $0, 8(%ebp)
    jne .L21
    leave
    ret
.L21:
    movl    $1, (%esp)
    call    __cxa_allocate_exception
    movl    $_ZN11MyExceptionD1Ev, 8(%esp)
    movl    $_ZTI11MyException, 4(%esp)
    movl    %eax, (%esp)
    call    __cxa_throw
.LFE8:
    .size   _Z20my_throwing_functionb, .-_Z20my_throwing_functionb

Here we see the code for throwing an exception. While there was no extra overhead simply because an exception might be thrown, there is obviously a lot of overhead in actually throwing and catching an exception. Most of it is hidden within __cxa_throwwhich must:

  • Walk the stack with the help of the exception tables until it finds a handler for that exception.
  • Unwind the stack until it gets to that handler.
  • Actually call the handler.

Compare that with the cost of simply returning a value, and you see why exceptions should be used only for exceptional returns.

To finish, the rest of the assembly file:

    .weak   _ZTI11MyException
    .section    .rodata._ZTI11MyException,"aG",@progbits,_ZTI11MyException,comdat
    .align 4
    .type   _ZTI11MyException, @object
    .size   _ZTI11MyException, 8
_ZTI11MyException:
    .long   _ZTVN10__cxxabiv117__class_type_infoE+8
    .long   _ZTS11MyException
    .weak   _ZTS11MyException
    .section    .rodata._ZTS11MyException,"aG",@progbits,_ZTS11MyException,comdat
    .type   _ZTS11MyException, @object
    .size   _ZTS11MyException, 14
_ZTS11MyException:
    .string "11MyException"

The typeinfo data.

    .section    .eh_frame,"a",@progbits
.Lframe1:
    .long   .LECIE1-.LSCIE1
.LSCIE1:
    .long   0x0
    .byte   0x1
    .string "zPL"
    .uleb128 0x1
    .sleb128 -4
    .byte   0x8
    .uleb128 0x6
    .byte   0x0
    .long   __gxx_personality_v0
    .byte   0x0
    .byte   0xc
    .uleb128 0x4
    .uleb128 0x4
    .byte   0x88
    .uleb128 0x1
    .align 4
.LECIE1:
.LSFDE3:
    .long   .LEFDE3-.LASFDE3
.LASFDE3:
    .long   .LASFDE3-.Lframe1
    .long   .LFB9
    .long   .LFE9-.LFB9
    .uleb128 0x4
    .long   .LLSDA9
    .byte   0x4
    .long   .LCFI2-.LFB9
    .byte   0xe
    .uleb128 0x8
    .byte   0x85
    .uleb128 0x2
    .byte   0x4
    .long   .LCFI3-.LCFI2
    .byte   0xd
    .uleb128 0x5
    .byte   0x4
    .long   .LCFI5-.LCFI3
    .byte   0x83
    .uleb128 0x3
    .align 4
.LEFDE3:
.LSFDE5:
    .long   .LEFDE5-.LASFDE5
.LASFDE5:
    .long   .LASFDE5-.Lframe1
    .long   .LFB8
    .long   .LFE8-.LFB8
    .uleb128 0x4
    .long   0x0
    .byte   0x4
    .long   .LCFI6-.LFB8
    .byte   0xe
    .uleb128 0x8
    .byte   0x85
    .uleb128 0x2
    .byte   0x4
    .long   .LCFI7-.LCFI6
    .byte   0xd
    .uleb128 0x5
    .align 4
.LEFDE5:
    .ident  "GCC: (GNU) 4.1.2 (Ubuntu 4.1.2-0ubuntu4)"
    .section    .note.GNU-stack,"",@progbits

Even more exception handling tables, and assorted extra information.

So, the conclusion, at least for GCC on Linux: the cost is extra space (for the handlers and tables) whether or not exceptions are thrown, plus the extra cost of parsing the tables and executing the handlers when an exception is thrown. If you use exceptions instead of error codes, and an error is rare, it can be fastersince you do not have the overhead of testing for errors anymore.

In case you want more information, in particular what all the __cxa_ functions do, see the original specification they came from:

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