Intel® AVX State Transitions: Migrating SSE Code to AVX

Published:08/02/2012   Last Updated:08/02/2012


Intel® Advanced Vector eXtensions (AVX) are the latest instruction set addition to the IA-32 and IA-64 architectures. They provide enhanced 256-bit SIMD operations on 8-wide floating-point vectors for Intel® 2nd Generation Core®™ processors code named Sandy Bridge and later processors. When porting or optimizing applications for AVX, one must pay careful attention to the transitions between SSE code and AVX code. Failure to do so can result in performance penalties. This document will detail these performance penalties, as well as an overview of the tools available for helping to detect and avoid situations where these performance penalties are encountered. This document assumes familiarity with both SSE and AVX. For an introduction to Intel® AVX, see the document “Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions” at

Instruction Set Definitions

Throughout this document, the following abbreviations will be used to refer to instruction sets.

  • The SSE instruction sets will be referred to as “legacy SSE”
  • The Intel® AVX 128-bit instructions will be referred to as AVX-128
  • The Intel® AVX 256-bit instructions will be referred to as AVX-256

Intel® AVX Operating States

The Intel® AVX instruction set expands the existing 128-bit XMM register set to 256-bit YMM registers. This creates a situation where partial registers can be accessed, for example accessing the 128-bit lower half of a 256-bit YMM register via legacy SSE instructions. Correctness requires that the processor preserve the upper 128-bits of a 256-bit YMM register while executing 128-bit legacy SSE code and restore this state when transitioning back to 256-bit AVX code. The action of preserving and restoring of the upper state can incur a performance penalty unless the proper bits are known to be zero.

The upper 128-bits of the 256-bit YMM registers can operate in three possible states:

  • State A: The upper half of ALL YMM registers is known to be zero. This can be considered to be the program starting state prior to executing any AVX-256 instructions.
  • State B: The upper half of ANY YMM register is not known to be zero. This state occurs as a result of executing an AVX-256 instruction.
  • State C: The upper half of ANY YMM register is not known to be zero whilst executing a legacy SSE instruction. The upper half off ALL YMM registers must be saved/restored by internal hardware as required.

Figure 1 depicts the three operating states. The transitions from each respective state will be described in the following sections.

Figure 1: Register File Operating States

State A

When operating in State A, the upper half of ALL the YMM registers is known to be zero. As long as 128-bit instructions are being executed-whether those instructions are legacy SSE instructions or AVX-128 instructions-no performance penalty will occur. Execution of any AVX-256 instruction will remove the known zero status of the upper 128-bits of the instruction's target YMM register, causing a transition into State B.

State B

When operating in State B, the full 256-bit YMM register is in use. AVX-256 and AVX-128 instructions can be executed without penalty. AVX-128 instructions execute penalty free because the upper half of the instruction's target register is zeroed upon execution.

If legacy SSE instructions are executed while in State B, a transition to State C occurs. Because the zero state of the YMM registers is not known, the transition to State C happens regardless of whether the upper 128-bits of the YMM registers are zero. Transitions to/from State C are undesirable because the upper 128-bits of ALL YMM registers must be stored in an internal register buffer before execution of the legacy SSE instruction can begin. The same penalty is paid when transitioning out of State C. The cost of the penalty is on the order of 50-80 clock cycles on Sandy Bridge hardware.

The correct method for transitioning to legacy SSE code from AVX code is to clear the upper 128-bits of ALL YMM registers, forcing a transition to State A. AVX provides two instructions to accomplish this:

  • VZEROALL: Zero out the contents of ALL YMM registers
  • VZEROUPPER: Zero out the upper 128-bits of ALL YMM registers.

The penalty paid for transitions utilizing these instructions is only the execution cost of the instruction-a single cycle on modern hardware.

State C

Operating in State C is undesirable. Whenever control is transferred from State B into State C, the upper half of ALL YMM registers must be saved to an internal register buffer. The same penalty occurs when transferring control out of State C as the contents of the register buffer must be restored into each respective YMM register. While in this operating state, any number of legacy SSE instructions can be executed. The penalty paid is only the cost for the two transitions. A summary of the transition penalties between the three operating states is displayed in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Performance of Register State Transitions

Software Tools for Detecting AVX/SSE Translation Penalties

As mentioned previously, Intel® AVX was designed for uniform blocks of legacy SSE or AVX code. As always, it is best to profile applications to detect whether translation penalties are a bottleneck of the program.

Intel®VTune Amplifier XE

Intel® VTune Amplifier XE provides two hardware events for tracking Intel® AVX transitions within programs. It comes in both precise (_PS) and non-precise versions, depending on the hardware utilizing the profiler. The hardware events are:

  • OTHER_ASSISTS.AVX_TO_SSE: The number of penalty transitions from AVX-256 to legacy SSE
  • OTHER_ASSISTS.SSE_TO_AVX: The number of penalty transitions from legacy SSE to AVX-256

For a detailed walkthrough of using Intel® VTune Amplifier XE to discover transition penalties, see section 2.2 of the document “Avoiding AVX-SSE Transition Penalties” at

Intel Software Development Emulator

The Intel® Software Development Emulator (SDE) comes with a built-in AVX/SSE transition checker. Because it is an emulator, some real-time applications may run poorly inside the emulation environment. When testing specific areas of large real-time systems, it is better to utilize Intel® VTune Amplifier XE.

The Intel® Software Development Emulator can be downloaded free for Windows and Linux from

The example below will use the source code found in figure 1 of “Avoiding AVX-SSE Transition Penalties” at The source code found in the article is duplicated below for convenience.

The source code in figure 3 iterates over each pair of elements from two given arrays and calculates the distance between each pair of values using the following formula:

Figure 4: Assembly code listing for figure 3
Assume that upon entry to the loop, the program is in State A. The state transitions occur as follows:

Note that because the first iteration of the loop leaves execution inside State C, subsequent loops suffer two transition penalties: one penalty for moving from SSE ? AVX, and one for moving from AVX -> SSE.

For this example, assume an array size of 4000 elements. The loop operates on 4 elements at a time. Then it is expected that the number of AVX -> SSE transitions should be equal to the number of iterations of the loop-1000 penalties.

Because during the first iteration of the loop, no SSE ? AVX penalty is paid, there should be one less penalty than in the AVX ? SSE case for a total of 999 penalties. Below this expected behavior will be verified using Intel® Software Development Emulator.

1. Run SDE on the Compiled Module
To use Intel® Software Development Emulator for AVX transition checking, run the following from the command line:

This will run the transition checker, and produce an output file in the directory of execution.

2. Analyze the Output

Open in any available text editor. The file will detail the locations of transition penalties that occurred during the execution of the program.

Below is the output from SDE on the sample code given above using the array size of 4000.

3. Locating Penalties Using Virtual Addresses

To locate where in the source code the penalties occur, SDE comes bundled with X86 Encoder Decoder (XED) which can be used to disassemble the application.

The output of XED for the sample program above is listed below. Only the relevant block of addresses are included.

Avoiding Transition Penalties

In order to achieve maximum performance, minimizing transitions into State C is a priority. This can be achieved by keeping the upper bits of the YMM registers in the known-zero state provided by State A. Transitioning into State A is done by using the two instructions provided by AVX-VZEROALL, and VZEROUPPER.

When transitioning between blocks of legacy SSE and AVX-256 instructions, ensure that the upper half of ALL YMM registers is known to be zero when:

  • Inside a module that utilizes AVX code then calling code using legacy SSE instructions
  • Returning from code utilizing AVX code to legacy SSE instructions

Figure 5 shows the comparison between compiling with and without the AVX flag. Note how the legacy SSE instructions have been changed to use the AVX-128 instructions.

Figure 5

Note: If the module is compiled with Intel® Composer XE, the compiler will also replace calls to legacy SSE instructions inside inline assembly blocks to the newer AVX-128 instructions automatically. For the behavior of other compilers, check their respective documentation.

For a more detailed look at AVX Transition penalties when using Intel® Composer XE, see the document “Avoiding AVX-SSE Transition Penalties” at

Example Transition Penalties

Note: The examples below are examples of where the transition penalties occur. By using modern compilers and compiler intrinsics, legacy SSE instructions will automatically be updated to the newer AVX-128 instructions. Therefore these are not examples of real code modifications.

For the following code listings, assume starting in State A.

The code found in listing 1 shows a block of assembly instructions which contains two transition penalties.

Listing 1

To remove these penalties, the legacy SSE instruction ADDSS is updated to the AVX-128 VADDSS instruction as shown in listing 2.

Listing 2

For cases where legacy SSE code is called by code which has been updated to use AVX instructions, the state of the upper 128-bits of the YMM registers must be known to be zero to avoid transition penalties. An example of this exists in listing 3.

Listing 2

To remove the penalty, a call to VZEROUPPER is inserted before calling the legacy SSE code. In addition, the state of the YMM registers must be manually saved so they can be retrieved afterward.

Similar to the case above, functions utilizing AVX-256 instructions should terminate with a call to VZEROUPPER/VZEROALL to potentially avoid penalties caused by legacy SSE instructions in the calling code.

Linking with Existing SSE Code

In simple cases such as those detailed above, proper use of compiler intrinsics, as well as compiling the module for the AVX instruction will remove transition penalties. However, when a project links with external code which is not recompiled to utilize AVX instructions, the transition penalties may, or may not, be automatically removed by the compiler.

In cases such as this, care must be taken to ensure the upper 128-bits of the YMM registers is managed properly to avoid transitions into State C. Figure 6 details an example of a main module interacting with a statically linked library.

Listing 6

With the main module compiled to take advantage of the AVX instruction set, calling library functions which utilize legacy SSE will cause transition penalties to occur. One penalty will occur on entry to the library function and another when AVX instructions are executed upon return to the calling code.

These transition penalties are removed by saving the state of the YMM registers and inserting a call to VZEROUPPER before calling the legacy SSE function as was seen in listing 3.

Intel® Composer XE will automatically insert the necessary calls to remove the transition penalties when interacting with statically linked libraries. However, in cases where the compiler does not automatically insert the calls to VZEROUPPER/VZEROALL, the intrinsic _mm256_zeroupper is used to manually return to execution State A before calling legacy SSE code.

When the external library is compiled to use AVX instructions while the main module uses legacy SSE code, ensure that the library code calls VZEROUPPER/VZEROALL before returning to the calling code to remove transition penalties.


When upgrading high-performance applications to utilize the new Intel® AVX instruction set, it is important to watch for critical loops involving costly transitions between AVX and legacy SSE code. When deciding to integrate AVX code into a project, keep the following in mind:

  • Leave the YMM registers in a known zero state prior to executing legacy SSE code by using the VZEROUPPER or VZEROALL instructions.
  • If the external code utilizes AVX instructions, set the YMM registers to a known-zero state before returning to the caller by calling VZEROUPPER or VZEROALL.

For a more detailed look at the Intel®AVX instruction set, see the document “Intel®Advanced Vector Extensions Programming Reference” at

For a more detailed look at Intel®Architecture, see the “Intel® 64 and IA-32 Architectures Software Developer Manuals” at

For another look at avoiding transition penalties using Intel® Composer XE see the document “Avoiding AVX-SSE Transition Penalties” at

About the Author

Chris Kirkpatrick is an intern Software Engineer in the Software and Services Group of Intel Corporation where he enjoys specializing in computer graphics and software optimization. When in leisure, Chris enjoys reading and writing music.

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