Accessing floating-point context from .NET applications

A few days ago, I wrote about the need for the .NET framework to support floating-point exceptions. Although the solution I proposed there goes some way towards fixing the problem, it would create a few of its own as well.

The main issue is that the processor’s FPU (floating-point unit) is a global resource. Therefore it should be handled with extreme care.

For an example of what can go wrong if you don’t, we can look at the story of Managed DirectX. DirectX is the high-performance multimedia/graphics/gaming API on the Windows platform. Because performance is of the essence, the DirectX guys decided to ask the processor to do its calculations in single precision by default. This is somewhat faster than the default, and all that is generally needed for the kinds of applications they encountered.

When people started using the .NET framework to build applications using Managed DirectX, some people found that it broke the .NET math functions. The reason: the precision setting of the FPU is global. It therefore affected all floating-point code in the application, including the calls into the .NET Base Class Libraries.

The problem with our initial solution is that it doesn’t behave nicely. It doesn’t isolate other code from changes to the floating-point state. This can affect code in unexpected ways.

So how do we fix this?

One option is to flag code that uses special floating-point settings with an attribute like “FloatingPointContextAware.” Any code that has this attribute can access floating-point state. However, any code that does not have this attribute would require the CLR to explicitly save the floating-point state.

Unfortunately, this fix suffers from a number of drawbacks:

  1. In some applications, like error analysis, you want to set global state. For example, one way to check whether an algorithm is stable is to run it twice using different rounding modes. If the two results are significantly different, you have a problem.
  2. It is overkill in most situations. If you’re going to use special floating-point features, you should be able to isolate yourself properly from any changes in floating-point state. If you have no knowledge such features exist, chances are your code won’t break if, say, the rounding mode is changed.
  3. It is a performance bottleneck. You can’t require all your client code to also have this attribute. Remember the goal was to allow ‘normal’ calculations to be done as fast as possible while making the edge cases reasonably fast as well. It is counter-productive to impose a performance penalty on every call.

The best solution I can think of is to actually treat the floating-point unit for what it is: a resource. If you want to use its special features, you should inform the system when you plan to use them, and also when you’re done using them.

We make floating-point state accessible only through instances of a FloatingPointContext class, which implements IDisposable and does the necessary bookkeeping. It saves enough of the floating-point state when it is constructed, and restores it when it is disposed. You don’t always have to save and restore the full floating-point state, including values on the stack, etc. In most cases, you only need to save the control word, which is relatively cheap.

A typical use for this class would be as follows:

using (FloatingPointContext context = new FloatingPointContext())
    context.RoundingMode = RoundingMode.TowardsZero;
    // Do some calculations
    if (context.IsExceptionFlagRaised(
      // Do some more stuff

I have submitted a proposal for a FloatingPointContext class to the CLR team. So far they have chosen to keep it under consideration for the next version. Let’s hope they’ll choose to implement it.

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