This RFC introduces the #[optimize] attribute for controlling optimization level on a per-item basis.


Currently, rustc has only a small number of optimization options that apply globally to the crate. With LTO and RLIB-only crates these options become applicable to a whole-program, which reduces the ability to control optimization even further.

For applications such as embedded, it is critical, that they satisfy the size constraints. This means, that code must consciously pick one or the other optimization level. Absence of a method to selectively optimize different parts of a program in different ways precludes users from utilising the hardware they have to the greatest degree.

With a C toolchain selective optimization is fairly easy to achieve by compiling the relevant codegen units (objects) with different options. In Rust ecosystem, where the concept of such units does not exist, an alternate solution is necessary.

With the #[optimize] attribute it is possible to annotate the optimization level of separate items, so that they are optimized differently from the global optimization option.

Guide-level explanation


Sometimes, optimizations are a trade-off between execution time and the code size. Some optimizations, such as loop unrolling increase code size many times on average (compared to original function size) for marginal performance benefits. In case such optimization is not desirable…

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn banana() {
    // code

…will instruct rustc to consider this trade-off more carefully and avoid optimising in a way that would result in larger code rather than a smaller one. It may also have effect on what instructions are selected to appear in the final binary.

Note that #[optimize(size)] is a hint, rather than a hard requirement and compiler may still, while optimising, take decisions that increase function size compared to an entirely unoptimized result.

Using this attribute is recommended when inspection of generated code reveals unnecessarily large function or functions, but use of -O is still preferable over -C opt-level=s or -C opt-level=z.


Conversely, when one of the global optimization options for code size is used (-Copt-level=s or -Copt-level=z), profiling might reveal some functions that are unnecessarily “hot”. In that case, those functions may be annotated with the #[optimize(speed)] to make the compiler make its best effort to produce faster code.

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn banana() {
    // code

Much like with #[optimize(size)], the speed counterpart is also a hint and will likely not yield the same results as using the global optimization option for speed.

Reference-level explanation

The #[optimize(size)] attribute applied to an item or expression will instruct the optimization pipeline to avoid applying optimizations that could result in a size increase and machine code generator to generate code that’s smaller rather than faster.

The #[optimize(speed)] attribute applied to an item or expression will instruct the optimization pipeline to apply optimizations that are likely to yield performance wins and machine code generator to generate code that’s faster rather than smaller.

The #[optimize] attributes are just a hint to the compiler and are not guaranteed to result in any different code.

If an #[optimize] attribute is applied to some grouping item (such as mod or a crate), it propagates transitively to all items defined within the grouping item. Note, that a function is also a “grouping” item for the purposes of this RFC, and #[optimize] attribute applied to a function will propagate to other functions or closures defined within the body of the function.

#[optimize] attribute may also be applied to a closure expression using the currently unstable stmt_expr_attributes feature.

It is an error to specify multiple incompatible #[optimize] options to a single item or expression at once. A more explicit #[optimize] attribute overrides a propagated attribute.

#[optimize(speed)] is a no-op when a global optimization for speed option is set (i.e. -C opt-level=1-3). Similarly #[optimize(size)] is a no-op when a global optimization for size option is set (i.e. -C opt-level=s/z). #[optimize] attributes are no-op when no optimizations are done globally (i.e. -C opt-level=0). In all other cases the exact interaction of the #[optimize] attribute with the global optimization level is not specified and is left up to implementation to decide.

#[optimize] attribute applied to non function-like items (such as struct) or non function-like expressions (i.e. not closures) is considered “unused” as of this RFC and should fire the unused_attribute lint (unless the same attribute was used for a function-like item or expression, via e.g. propagation). Some future RFC may assign some behaviour to this attribute with respect to such definitions.

Implementation approach

For the LLVM backend, these attributes may be implemented in a following manner:

#[optimize(size)] – explicit function attributes exist at LLVM level. Items with optimize(size) would simply apply the LLVM attributes to the functions.

#[optimize(speed)] in conjunction with -C opt-level=s/z – use a global optimization level of -C opt-level=2/3 and apply the equivalent LLVM function attribute (optsize, minsize) to all items which do not have an #[optimize(speed)] attribute.


  • Not all of the alternative codegen backends may be able to express such a request, hence the “this is a hint” note on the #[optimize] attribute.
    • As a fallback, this attribute may be implemented in terms of more specific optimization hints (such as inline(never), the future unroll(never) etc).

Rationale and alternatives

Proposed is a very semantic solution (describes the desired result, instead of behaviour) to the problem of needing to sometimes inhibit some of the trade-off optimizations such as loop unrolling.

Alternative, of course, would be to add attributes controlling such optimizations, such as #[unroll(no)] on top of a loop statement. There’s already precedent for this in the #[inline] annotations.

The author would like to argue that we should eventually have both, the #[optimize] for people who look at generated code but are not willing to dig for exact reasons, and the targeted attributes for people who know why the code is not satisfactory.

Furthermore, currently optimize is able to do more than any possible combination of targeted attributes would be able to such as influencing the instruction selection or switch codegen strategy (jump table, if chain, etc.) This makes the attribute useful even in presence of all the targeted optimization knobs we might have in the future.

Prior art

  • LLVM: optsize, optnone, minsize function attributes (exposed in Clang in some way);
  • GCC: __attribute__((optimize)) function attribute which allows setting the optimization level and using certain(?) -f flags for each function;
  • IAR: Optimizations have a check box for “No size constraints”, which allows compiler to go out of its way to optimize without considering the size trade-off. Can only be applied on a per-compilation-unit basis. Enabled by default, as is appropriate for a compiler targeting embedded use-cases.

Unresolved questions

  • Should we also implement optimize(always)? optimize(level=x)?
    • Left for future discussion, but should make sure such extension is possible.
  • Should there be any way to specify what global optimization for speed level is used in conjunction with the optimization for speed option (e.g. -Copt-level=s3 could be equivalent to -Copt-level=3 and #[optimize(size)] on the crate item);
    • This may matter for users of #[optimize(speed)].
  • Are the propagation and unused_attr approaches right?