Let’s say I ask you to fill a char array of size n with zeros. I don’t know why, exactly, but please play along for now.

If this were C, we would probably reach for memset, but let’s pretend we are trying to write idiomatic C++ instead.

You might come up with something like1:

void fill1(char *p, size_t n) {
    std::fill(p, p + n, 0);

I’d give this solution full marks. In fact, I’d call it more or less the canonical modern C++ solution to the problem.

What if told you there was a solution that was up to about 29 times faster? It doesn’t even require sacrificing any goats to the C++ gods, either: just adding three characters:

void fill2(char *p, size_t n) {
    std::fill(p, p + n, '\0');

Yes, switching 0 to '\0' speeds this up by nearly a factor of thirty on my SKL box2, at least with my default compiler (gcc) and optimization level (-O2):

Function Bytes / Cycle
fill1 1.0
fill2 29.1

The why becomes obvious if you look at the assembly:


fill1(char*, unsigned long):
        add     rsi, rdi
        cmp     rsi, rdi
        je      .L1
        mov     BYTE PTR [rdi], 0  ; store 0 into memory at [rdi]
        add     rdi, 1             ; increment rdi
        cmp     rsi, rdi           ; compare rdi to size
        jne     .L3                ; keep going if rdi < size

This version is using a byte-by-byte copy loop, which I’ve annotated – it is more or less a 1:1 translation of how you’d imagine std::fill is written. The result of 1 cycle per byte is exactly what we’d expect using speed limit analysis: it is simultaneously limited by two different bottlenecks: 1 taken branch per cycle, and 1 store per cycle.

The fill2 version doesn’t have a loop at all:


fill2(char*, unsigned long):
        test    rsi, rsi
        jne     .L8                ; skip the memcpy call if size == 0
        mov     rdx, rsi
        xor     esi, esi
        jmp     memset             ; tailcall to memset

Rather, it simply defers immediately to memset. We aren’t going to dig into the assembly for memset here, but the fastest possible memset would run at 32 bytes/cycle, limited by 1 store/cycle and maximum vector the width of 32 bytes on my machine, so the measured value of 29 bytes/cycle indicates it’s using an implementation something along those lines.

So that’s the why, but what’s the why of the why (second order why)?

I thought this had something to do with the optimizer. After all, at -O3 even the fill1 version using the plain 0 constant calls memset.

I was wrong, however. The answer actually lies in the implementation of the C++ standard library (there are various, gcc is using libstdc++ in this case). Let’s take a look at the implementation of std::fill (I’ve reformatted the code for clarity and removed some compile-time concept checks):

   *  ...
   *  This function fills a range with copies of the same value.  For char
   *  types filling contiguous areas of memory, this becomes an inline call
   *  to @c memset or @c wmemset.
  template<typename _ForwardIterator, typename _Tp>
  inline void fill(_ForwardIterator __first, _ForwardIterator __last, const _Tp& __value)
    std::__fill_a(std::__niter_base(__first), std::__niter_base(__last), __value);

The included part of the comment3 already hints at what is to come: the implementor of std::fill has apparently considered specifically optimizing the call to a memset in some scenarios. So we keep following the trail, which brings us to the helper method std::__fill_a. There are two overloads that are relevant here, the general method and an overload which handles the special case:

  template<typename _ForwardIterator, typename _Tp>
  inline typename
  __gnu_cxx::__enable_if<!__is_scalar<_Tp>::__value, void>::__type
  __fill_a(_ForwardIterator __first, _ForwardIterator __last, const _Tp& __value)
    for (; __first != __last; ++__first)
      *__first = __value;

  // Specialization: for char types we can use memset.
  template<typename _Tp>
  inline typename
  __gnu_cxx::__enable_if<__is_byte<_Tp>::__value, void>::__type
  __fill_a(_Tp* __first, _Tp* __last, const _Tp& __c)
    const _Tp __tmp = __c;
    if (const size_t __len = __last - __first)
      __builtin_memset(__first, static_cast<unsigned char>(__tmp), __len);

Now we see how the memset appears. It is called explicitly by the second implementation shown above, selected by enable_if when the SFINAE condition __is_byte<_Tp> is true. Note, however, that unlike the general function, this variant has a single template argument: template<typename _Tp>, and the function signature is:

__fill_a(_Tp* __first, _Tp* __last, const _Tp& __c)

Hence, it will only be considered when the __first and __last pointers which delimit the range have the exact same type as the value being filled. When when you write std::fill(p, p + n, 0) where p is char *, you rely on template type deduction for the parameters, which ends up deducing char * and int for the iterator type and value-to-fill type, because 0 is an integer constant.

That is, it is if you had written:

std::fill<char *, int>(p, p + n, 0);

This prevents the clever memset optimization from taking place: the overload that does it is never called because the iterator value type is different than the value-to-fill type.

This suggests a fix: we can simply force the template argument types rather than rely on type deduction:

void fill3(char *p, size_t n) {
    std::fill<char *, char>(p, p + n, 0);

This way, we get the memset version.

Finally, why does fill2 using '\0' get the fast version, without forcing the template arguments? Well '\0' is a char constant, so the value-to-assign type is char. You could achieve the same effect with a cast, e.g., static_cast<char>(0) – and for buffers which have types like unsigned char this is necessary because '\0' does not have the same type as unsigned char (at least on gcc).

One might reasonably ask if this could be fixed in the standard library. I think so.

One idea would be to keying off of only the type of the first and last pointers, like this:

  template<typename _Tp, typename _Tvalue>
  inline typename
  __gnu_cxx::__enable_if<__is_byte<_Tp>::__value, void>::__type
  __fill_a(_Tp* __first, _Tp* __last, const _Tvalue& __c)
    const _Tvalue __tmp = __c;
    if (const size_t __len = __last - __first)
      __builtin_memset(__first, static_cast<unsigned char>(__tmp), __len);

This says: who cares about the type of the value, it is going to get converted during assignment to the value type of the pointer anyways, so just look at the pointer type. E.g., if the type of the value-to-assign _Tvalue is int, but _Tp is char then this expands to this version, which is totally equivalent:

  __fill_a(char* __first, char* __last, const int& __c)
    const int __tmp = __c;
    if (const size_t __len = __last - __first)
      __builtin_memset(__first, static_cast<unsigned char>(__tmp), __len);

This works … for simple types like int. Where it fails is if the value to fill has a tricky, non-primitive type, like this:

struct conv_counting_int {
    int v_;
    mutable size_t count_ = 0;

    operator char() const {
        return (char)v_;

size_t fill5(char *p, size_t n) {
    conv_counting_int zero{0};
    std::fill(p, p + n, zero);
    return zero.count_;

Here, the pointer type passed to std::fill is char, but you cannot safely apply the memset optimization above, since the conv_counting_int counts the number of times it is converted to char, and this value will be wrong (in particular, it will be 1, not n) if you perform the above optimization.

This can be fixed. You could limit the optimization to the case where the pointer type is char-like and the value-to-assign type is “simple” in the sense that it won’t notice how many times it has been converted. A sufficient check would be that the type is scalar, i.e. std::is_scalar<T> – although there is probably a less conservative check possible. So something like this for the SNIFAE check:

  template<typename _Tpointer, typename _Tp>
    inline typename
    __gnu_cxx::__enable_if<__is_byte<_Tpointer>::__value && __is_scalar<_Tp>::__value, void>::__type
    __fill_a( _Tpointer* __first,  _Tpointer* __last, const _Tp& __value) {

Here’s an example of how that would work. It’s not fully fleshed out but shows the idea.

Finally, one might ask why memset is used when gcc is run at -O3 or when clang is used (like this). The answer is the optimizer. Even if the compile-time semantics of the language select what appears to a byte-by-byte copy loop, the compiler itself can transform that into memset, or something else like a vectorized loop, if it can prove it is as-if equivalent. That recognition happens at -O3 for gcc but at -O2 for clang.

What Does It Mean

So what does it all mean? Is there a moral to this story?

Some use this as evidence that the somehow C++ and/or the STL are irreparably broken. I don’t agree. Some other languages, even “fast” ones, will never give you the memset speed, although many will - but many of those that do (e.g., java.util.Arrays.fill()) do it via special recognition or handling of the function by the compiler or runtime. In the C++ standard library, the optimization the library writers have done is available to anyone, which is a big advantage. That the optimization fails, perhaps unexpectedly, in some cases is unfortunate but it’s nice that you can fix it yourself.

Also, C++ gets two shots at this one: many other languages rely on the compiler to optimize these patterns, and this also occurs in C++. It’s just a bit of a quirk of gcc that optimization doesn’t help here: it doesn’t vectorize at -O2, nor does it do idiom recognition. Both of those result in much faster code: we’ve seen the effect of idiom recognition already: it results in a memset. Even if idiom recognition wasn’t enabled or didn’t work, vectorization would help a lot: here’s gcc at -O3, but with idiom recognition disabled. It uses 32-byte stores (vmovdqu YMMWORD PTR [rax], ymm0) which will be close to memset speed (but a bit of unrolling woudl have helped). In many other languages it would only be up to the compiler: there wouldn’t be a chance to get memset even with no optimization as there is in C++.

Do we throw out modern C++ idioms, at least where performance matters, for example by replacing std::fill with memset? I don’t think so. It is far from clear where memset can even be used safely in C++. Unlike say memcpy and trivially copyable, there is no type trait for “memset is equivalent to zeroing”. It’s probably OK for byte-like types, and is widely used for other primitive types (which we can be sure are trivial, but can’t always be sure of the representation), but even that may not be safe. Once you introduced even simple structures or classes, the footguns multiply. I recommend std::fill and more generally sticking to modern idioms, except in very rare cases where profiling has identified a hotspot, and even then you should take the safest approach that still provides the performance you need (e.g., by passing (char)0 in this case).


The source for my benchmark is available on GitHub.


Thanks to Matt Godbolt for creating Compiler Explorer, without which this type of investigation would be much more painful – to the point where it often wouldn’t happen at all.

Matt Godbolt, tc, Nathan Kurz and Pocak for finding typos.


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  1. Of course, you wouldn’t wrap the std::fill function in another fill function that just forwards directly to the standard function: you’d just call std::fill directly. We use a function here so you can see the parameter types and we can examine the disassembly easily. 

  2. On quickbench, the difference varies slightly from run to run but is usually around 31 to 32 times. 

  3. Interestingly, the comment mentions wmemset in addition to memset which would presumably be applied for values of type wchar_t (32-bits on this platform), but I don’t find any evidence that is actually the case via experiment or by examining the code – the optimization appears to only be currently implemented for byte-like values and memset