Exploring SIMD-Backed Strings

Perhaps one of the most accessible uses of SIMD is in string algorithms. If you're unfamiliar, SIMD instructions are CPU operations that operate on vectors of data, as opposed to scalar registers like most instructions. This means that you can perform operations on multiple pieces of information, simultaneously. The example below shows SIMD addition, where two vectors are added component-wise with one instruction, all at the same time.

an example of component-wise addition in SIMD

For strings, there are a lot of ways SIMD can speed up algorithms. In Rust, there's the popular memchr crate that provides a ludicrously fast SIMD byte search, and plenty of optimized parsers utilize SIMD.1 SIMD string algorithms generally work like this:

  1. Convert a slice of the string to a SIMD vector
  2. Execute some SIMD instructions
  3. Repeat 1-2 for the whole string until the algorithm's result is computed

A couple of days ago, though, I had an idea: why don't we make a string type that's cheap to copy (small), and, using this smallness, make every algorithm performed on it to take advantage of SIMD automatically?

What is a SIMD-Backed String?

A SIMD-backed string is a string whose information is packed into a SIMD vector, in totality. Many string operations (e.g. find, contains, to_uppercase, etc.) can inherently be accelerated with SIMD, with no conversions necessary!

Since the length of the string is always less than the length of a SIMD vector, we can do all of our standard string operations using SIMD without any extra work.2 Also, since these strings are small, they'll be cheap to copy.

Here's a diagram of what a SIMD string might look like in memory:

example string, showing eight squares that contain the message: "hello!!"

In the above picture, each square is one byte, so the SIMD string is 8 bytes wide maximum. This special string is also NUL terminated. For any C programmers who just had a violent reaction upon reading that, don't worry! We can easily (and efficiently) compute the length using SIMD operations, so the pitfalls of NUL-terminated strings can be avoided.


Let's write an algorithm to convert a SIMD-string SS to lowercase. In ASCII world, you may know that for any uppercase letter ll, the corresponding lowercase letter is l+32l + 32. We can exploit this fact: at the simplest level, our algorithm will be a vector addition operation. Let's write it out:

;; simd.add DST LHS RHS
;; Splat takes in a scalar and returns
;; a vector filled with that scalar.
simd.add S S splat(32)

This performs component-wise addition on each byte in SS, turning each uppercase letter to lowercase. However, this implementation is buggy! What happens when the character is not alphabetic? We need a way to conditionally apply our addition, so that it only operates on uppercase letters.

That's where masks and selects come into play. A mask is a SIMD vector that contains only zeroes and ones. For our use-case, we want a mask MM such that Mi=1M_i = 1 when 65Si9065 \le S_i \le 90, and zero otherwise (6565 and 9090 are the byte values of 'A'and 'Z', respectively). In math notation:

Mi={165Si900otherwiseM_i = \begin{cases} 1 & 65 \le S_i \le 90 \\ 0 & \text{otherwise} \end{cases}

Then, we can use a select, which will use this mask to "conditionally" modify characters in our string. Here's what the algorithm looks like with the mask and select:

;; Two masks: one selecting values >= 65,
;; the other selecting values <= 90
simd.ge M1 S splat(65)
simd.le M2 S splat(90)
;; Combine the masks using bitwise-and
;; storing the result in M
simd.and M M1 M2

;; Stored in T
simd.add T S splat(32)
;; simd.select DST M T F
simd.select S M T S

The key here is simd.select. It takes in a mask, and for each ii, when Mi=1M_i = 1, it sets DSTi=Ti\text{DST}_i = T_i, and if Mi=0M_i = 0, it sets DSTi=Fi\text{DST}_i = F_i. In other words:

DSTi={TiMi=1FiMi=0\text{DST}_i = \begin{cases} T_i & M_i = 1 \\ F_i & M_i = 0 \end{cases}

Hopefully this example showed how SIMD can be used to write branchless, parallel algorithms. And (spoiler alert!), this algorithm is much faster than its non-SIMD counterpart.


I implemented SIMD-backed strings in Rust using the experimental portable-simd feature. The string looks like this:

pub struct Qstr<const N: usize>(Simd<u8, N>)
    LaneCount<N>: SupportedLaneCount;

This allows you to choose the size N at compile time.

I'd never used portable-simd before, but it was wonderful! The example algorithm I gave is implemented like this:

impl Qstr {
    // --snip--
    pub fn to_lowercase(&self) -> Self {
        let mask = self.0.simd_ge(Simd::splat(b'A')) & self.0.simd_le(Simd::splat(b'Z'));
        Self(mask.select(self.0 + Simd::splat(32), self.0))
    // --snip

portable-simd has an amazing API that allows SIMD code to be concise, intuitive, and of course, CPU-agnostic. My main only pain points were when I needed to swizzle a vector, but the team is actively working on that! I personally cannot wait until the library is stabilized!3


As far as I'm aware, SIMD-backed strings boast some of the best performance numbers out there right now. Here is a table comparing SIMD-backed strings with various other string types, run on my M1 MacBook Air:

Test Qstr String
uppercase 382.23ps 16.652ns
replace 741.00ps 27.079ns
contains 462.25ps 7.5863ns
find 783.67ps 11.436ns
eq 313.04ps 1.5928ns

This is only a small selection of algorithms, but similar performance behavior is present for the rest of the Qstr methods.4

For some methods (like replace), the performance increase was substantial. For others, (i.e. eq), the performance increase was statistically significant but not as incredible. Also note that each of tests were run on a string with length 16.

I've compiled a list of reasons why I think why such good performance is possible:

  • SIMD. Computations are done in a single step.
  • Small. The strings aren't heap allocated, and they're cache-efficient.
  • Branchless. Most algorithms can be done without branches.
  • Immutable. Moving it around is cheap and thus there are less pointer derefs.
  • Always in a SIMD vector. No conversions necessary!


This post was a report on some experiments I've been doing with SIMD-backed strings. I also tried to give an introduction to SIMD and its use-cases, so hopefully you can start applying SIMD to your programs where it's appropriate!

SIMD-backed strings are useful as a "small string" type, which is a very common optimization for string-related programs. They use SIMD out of the box, so no SIMD knowledge is required to take advantage of SIMD's speed!

Anyway, I hope this post was interesting and clear. If there were any issues, errors, or questions you came across while reading, feel free to open a GitHub issue in this website's GitHub repository!

  1. Examples: simdjson, tl, and atoi-simd. ↩︎

  2. The largest SIMD vectors I could find on commercial CPUs are 512-bits wide, but most machines support a maximum of 256-bit vectors. ↩︎

  3. Right now, you need the nightly version of Rust to use it. ↩︎

  4. Note that O(n)O(n) String operations like contains, find, and eq were done with worst-case scenarios. There were no notable worst-case scenarios for Qstr algorithms. ↩︎