A calling convention concept for functions with C++-like exception model


With C++’s biggest advantage compared to competing programming languages being its high performance, the two features that lower that performance are understandably controversial, namely RTTI and exceptions. The exceptions are the less nuanced part of this setup, mostly because they rely upon RTTI, but for other reasons as well.

The most controversial, as of late, part of the exception conundrum involves calling conventions. The most direct approach is to embed the return value in the processor state at every return of a function, and this is the approach proposed by Herb Sutter. However, Bjarne Stroustrup recently claimed that this approach was tested in the past and lead to unsatisfactory results when it came to performance of code which did not stumble upon an exception.

Current practice

The most heavy-handed convention involves heavy use of C-style stack state saving functions.

There are two more advanced techniques available for use. On Windows, Microsoft came up with something called Structural Exception Handling, and on Linux and friends, something called DWARF-2 Unwinding Tables is present. These should, theoretically, allow the non-throwing performance of code to reach the equivalent of little-to-no error checking. However, this doesn’t seem to work very well.

The explanation documents for DWARF-2 Unwinding Tables include a very peculiar example, where an exception is thrown through a function that doesn’t do anything with it. Given that RAII is a thing now, it looks like it was not taken into account during DWARF-2 and SEH dessign, resulting in, effectively, rethrows when a destructor is encountered.

Enter Stan’s Dumb Idea

Let’s have the exception marker without the exception marker. Let’s embed it in the execution state.

This is superficially similar to Unwinding Tables, to the best of my understanding, but is way dumber in the setup.

  1. Find a sequence of bytes which will never appear in compiled code. Something involving defined illegal opcodes is ideal.

  2. Compile the code mostly as if a marker convention was in place. Separate the blocks used exclusively in exception-thrown path to avoid them polluting cache while no exception is thrown.

  3. After our function, or multiple functions, embed our special not-code sequence, and follow it with a differential pointer to the special jump table.

  4. The special jump table should contain differential pointers to return addresses coupled with differential pointers to corresponding exception path blocks.

(This works with regular pointers instead of differential pointers too. I’m suggesting the use of differential pointers because they could be placed in position-independent code, which is advantageous in Linux shared libraries, for instance. If you have trouble with understanding the core concept, feel free to sub in regular pointers.)

When an exception is thrown, instead of returning directly from function, we scan the executable code itself and switch the return pointer so that it goes to the exception path (while the marker convention would contain a conditional jump at the return point).

This scheme has one obvious disadvantage compared to other setups I can think of, in that the code page must be readable by the code unless processor has special support for the type of operation presented here. In fact, I came up with the whole concept while considering such processor support first, but that would obviously be useless for milliards of machines deployed today, while doing in the wizard as shown here wouldn’t. However, setting code to unreadable executable is, from what I hear, a pretty rare setup - I’ve heard of hackers stumbling upon it on Wii U and being very surprised.