Using RcppNT2 to Compute the Sum

January 31, 2016

(This article was first published on Rcpp Gallery, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)


The Numerical Template Toolbox (NT2)
collection of header-only C++ libraries that make it
possible to explicitly request the use of SIMD instructions
when possible, while falling back to regular scalar
operations when not. NT2 itself is powered
by Boost, alongside two proposed
Boost libraries – Boost.Dispatch, which provides a
mechanism for efficient tag-based dispatch for functions,
and Boost.SIMD, which provides a framework for the
implementation of algorithms that take advantage of SIMD
RcppNT2 wraps
and exposes these libraries for use with R.

If you haven’t already, read the
RcppNT2 introduction article
to get acquainted with the RcppNT2 package.

Computing the Sum

First, let’s review how we might use std::accumulate()
to sum a vector of numbers. We explicitly pass in the
std::plus() functor, just to make it clear that
the std::accumulate() algorithm expects a binary
functor when accumulating values.

using namespace Rcpp;

// [[Rcpp::export]]
double vectorSum(NumericVector x) {
   return std::accumulate(x.begin(), x.end(), 0.0, std::plus<double>());

Now, let’s rewrite this to take advantage of RcppNT2.
There are two main steps required to take advantage of
RcppNT2 at a high level:

  1. Write a functor, with a templated call operator,
    with the implementation written in a
    Boost.SIMD-aware’ way;

  2. Provide the functor as an argument to the
    appropriate SIMD algorithm.

Let’s follow these steps in implementing our SIMD sum.

// [[Rcpp::depends(RcppNT2)]]
using namespace RcppNT2;

struct simd_plus {
   template <typename T>
   T operator()(const T& lhs, const T& rhs) {
      return lhs + rhs;

// [[Rcpp::export]]
double vectorSumSimd(NumericVector x) {
   return simdReduce(x.begin(), x.end(), 0.0, simd_plus());

As you can see, it’s quite simple to take advantage of
Boost.SIMD. For very simple operations such as this,
RcppNT2 provides a number of pre-defined functors,
which can be accessed in the RcppParallel::functor
namespace. The following is an equivalent way of defining
the above function:

// [[Rcpp::export]]
double vectorSumSimdV2(NumericVector x) {
   return simdReduce(x.begin(), x.end(), 0.0, functor::plus());

Behind the scenes of simdReduce(), Boost.SIMD will
apply your templated functor to ‘packs’ of values when
appropriate, and scalar values when not. In other words,
there are effectively two kinds of template
specializations being generated behind the scenes: one
with T = double, and one with T =
. The use of the packed
representation is what allows Boost.SIMD to ensure
vectorized instructions are used and generated.
Boost.SIMD provides a host of functions and operator
overloads that ensure that optimized instructions are
used when possible over a packed object, while falling
back to ‘default’ operations for scalar values when not.

Now, let’s compare the performance of these two


# helper function for printing microbenchmark output
printBm <- function(bm) {
  summary <- summary(bm)
  print(summary[, 1:7], row.names = FALSE)

# allocate a large vector
v <- rnorm(1E6)

# ensure they compute the same values
stopifnot(all.equal(vectorSum(v), vectorSumSimd(v)))

# compare performance
bm <- microbenchmark(vectorSum(v), vectorSumSimd(v))
             expr     min       lq     mean   median       uq      max
     vectorSum(v) 870.894 887.1535 978.7471 987.1810 989.1060 1792.215
 vectorSumSimd(v) 270.985 283.2315 297.8062 287.6565 298.7115  608.373

Perhaps surprisingly, the RcppNT2 solution is much
faster – the gains are similar to what we might have
seen when computing the sum in parallel. However, we’re
still just using a single core; we’re just taking
advantage of vectorized instructions provided by the CPU.
In this particular case, on Intel CPUs, Boost.SIMD will
ensure that we are using the addpd instruction, which
is documented in the Intel Software Developer’s Manual

Note that, for the naive serial sum, the compiler would
likely generate similarly efficient code when the
-ffast-math optimization flag is set. By default, the
compiler is somewhat ‘pessimistic’ about the set of
optimizations it can perform around floating point
arithmetic. This is because it must respect the
IEEE floating point standard,
and this means respecting the fact that, for example,
floating point operations are not assocative:

((0.1 + 0.2) + 0.3) - (0.1 + (0.2 + 0.3))
[1] 1.110223e-16

Surprisingly, the above computation does not evaluate to

In practice, you’re likely safe to take advantage of the
-ffast-math optimizations, or Boost.SIMD, in your own
work. However, be sure to test and verify!

This article provides just a taste of how RcppNT2 can be used.
If you’re interested in learning more, please check out the
RcppNT2 website.

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