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White paper: How DIGITAL FX!32 works

DIGITAL FX!32 provides fast and transparent execution of 32-bit x86 applications on Windows NT 4.0 Alpha. FX!32 runs these applications at speeds comparable to high performance x86 platforms.

reating the speed: background optimization

The background optimizer produces high-speed native Alpha code from x86 code by using information that is gathered into profiles by the runtime. The native Alpha code is subsequently made available to the runtime and executed the next time the image is run. It is this coordinated process that adds high performance to the transparency of execution, and truly distinguishes DIGITAL FX!32.

Design goals

The operation and output of the background optimizer must be as transparent and robust as the runtime environment. The user must never see the operation of the background optimizer and it must always present code to the runtime that runs to correct completion. To ensure transparency, the background optimizer design allows for no assumptions, no manual initiation, and no user intervention in any question/answer cycle. Therefore, all optimization must be based on unambiguous and unimpeachable criteria.

Coupled with the stringent need for transparent and flawless operation is a requirement for the highest possible performance. It was an explicit goal for the background optimizer to generate Alpha code that runs at 70% of the performance of Alpha code that is generated by an Alpha compiler. The designers recognized that high performance required the exploitation of the full range of optimization techniques that have been developed for modern compilers.

Realization of the goals

The background optimizer guarantees transparent and robust operation by cooperating with the runtime to ensure the coherency of the x86 machine state. A coherent x86 machine state means that x86 register assignments, call/return boundaries, the x86 stack, and exception condition processing reflect faithfully what would be observed on actual x86 hardware.

Achieving the performance goals required that the designers exploit the full range of modern compiler optimization techniques. And, all modern optimization techniques are predicated on global optimization.

Perhaps the most serious flaw in previous binary translators was their limitation to the basic block or perhaps the extended basic block, as the fundamental unit of translation. All modern optimizing compilers require global optimization techniques that directly conflict with such a basic-block unit restriction. Therefore, removal of this restriction was the fundamental performance requirement. The background optimizer successfully removes this restriction by organizing carefully chosen groupings of basic blocks into significantly larger units, called translation units. Conceptually, a translation unit approximates a "routine" in a more traditional compiler. Thus, for the first time, the translation unit technology allows the full exploitation of global optimization techniques.

The background optimizer takes full advantage of the potential available from global optimization. After initial setup, it uses techniques such as in-lining to prepare code sequences for further optimization from techniques such as value propagation, common subexpression elimination, and scheduling.

By achieving its performance goals, the background optimizer is able to feed high-speed native Alpha code to the runtime, providing the largest part of the overall performance of DIGITAL FX!32.

User interface: the DIGITAL FX!32 manager

The user can view status and provide management information to the server with the DIGITAL FX!32 Manager. The Manager is available as an icon in the DIGITAL FX!32 program group.

For example, the user can specify a disk-space limit for optimized code and profiles. The server then ensures that any specified limit is not exceeded by discarding old or infrequently used optimized code and profiles. The user can protect important but seldem-used code from being discarded through easy-to-use dialog boxes.

The DIGITAL FX!32 Manager provides context-sensitive help, as well as providing access to the on-line help found in the DIGITAL FX!32 program group.


DIGITAL FX!32 provides fast and transparent execution of x86 Win32 applications on Windows NT Alpha because, for the first time, binary translation is coordinated with runtime emulation. Coordination between the runtime and the binary translator (the background optimizer) is provided by the FX!32 server.

The runtime provides transparent execution because it contains an emulator that implements the entire x86 user-mode instruction set and because it provides the complete x86 Win32 environment.

The performance of DIGITAL FX!32 comes from executing high-speed native Alpha code. The majority of that code is produced by a positive feedback loop that exists between the runtime and the background optimizer.The background optimizer provides high performance because it uses global optimization techniques that previously were only available to modern compilers; the background optimizer is the first translator that can use global optimization.

It is the coordination between the background optimizer and the runtime that successfully combines high performance with transparent execution and truly distinguishes DIGITAL FX!32.


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