Veit's Blog

Fixed Point Division

08/12/2017

A few days back, I wrote a blog post on a library—dubbed silly—that implements Fixed Point Arithmetic. At that point I wasn’t sure how to properly implement division—i.e. without losing the fractional part. Afraid I might get the details wrong, I decided to gloss over the problem description and implementation a little. Harrison Clarke, a fellow Recurser, pointed me to a code snippet in reaction to the post that solves the problem with long division. I rewrote my code based on that, and now I actually have both solutions in my repo, one named silly_idiv and the other, proper solution, silly_div. The only reason I kept the integral version is that it’s a whole lot faster, and the fractional part isn't really necessary for some calculations.

I’m going to walk you through my initial solution and its limitations, and then look at an implementation that remedies those.

This post assumes familiarity with the C programming language. It will make heavy use of bitwise operators.

Fixed Point numbers

There are multiple ways to reasonably represent fixed point numbers, of course. In silly, I used a silly—sorry—but very clear format. It is a struct of the form:

typedef struct {
unsigned sign :1;
unsigned before :31;
unsigned after :32;
} silly;
Fig. 1: A silly struct.

It uses bitfields to tell the compiler how wide the individual parts of the struct are. Realizing that it really is just a 64 bit bytestring, we could also define the silly data type as:

typedef uint64_t silly;
Fig. 2: A simpler representation of silly.

The formats are essentially equivalent—assuming the compiler honors our width specifiers. With a struct, however, we get the accessors for free. Because we don’t need the accessors and work on the whole thing while implementing division, I decide to cheat in this post and assume that the format is the one presented in Figure 2.

For the sake of completion, I’ll also provide a routine that converts from the struct representation to the uint64_t representation:

uint64_t silly_to_raw(silly s) {
return ((((uint64_t) s.before) << 32) + s.after) |
(s.sign ? 1ULL<<63 : 0);
}
Fig. 3: Converting from structs to bytes.

Don’t worry, the rest of the code will be more readable.

Implementing integer division

Implementing division is simple if you think about our format. All we have to do is divide the two numbers as if they were integers and take care of the sign bit. Let's do it:

silly silly_idiv(silly x, silly y) {
uint64_t sign_bit = 1UL<<63;
// unsetting the sign bit to ignore it
silly res = ((x & ~sign_bit) / (y & sign_bit)) << 32;

// setting the sign bit iff only one of sign bits is set
res |= (x & sign_bit) ^ (y & sign_bit);
return res;
}
Fig. 4: Dividing, the naive way.

Great. We’ve implemented division. The sign bit part is a bit clunky, but if we strip that away, all we have left is one division operation and a shift left by 32 bits. The division is integral because of that shift: we fill up the fractional part with zeroes by shifting.

This is fairly straightforward, but it’s also not necessarily great. If we used a smaller number type, we could promote both numbers to a higher precision and handle the precision loss that way. But with 64-bit numbers, there is no easy way out.

Real division: the long form

I was stumped by this problem and couldn’t really figure out a neat way to fix my code. This is where I left y’all in my last blog post. But Harrison sent me a link to a C# library that implements long form division. The main problem with this is that it’s much slower. But sometimes you just need to bite the bullet, so I reimplemented their algorithm in C.

Before we dive into the implementation, let me talk about the underlying algorithm for a moment: what we’re trying to implement is a binary form of long division. We will go through the bits as we go through the digits in decimal long division, the form you probably learned in school.

Let’s go through the division of 2456 by 12, in decimal, just to recapitulate. This example mirrors Figure 3-1 from “Write Great Code”:

2    -> 12 goes into 34 twice
_______
12 | 3456
24

2    -> subtract and pull down
_______
12 | 3456
24
------
105

// rinse and repeat

28
_______
12 | 3456
24
------
105
96

28
_______
12 | 3456
24
------
105
96
------
96

288
_______
12 | 3456
24
------
105
96
------
96
96

// done: result is 288
Fig. 5: Long division.

Turns out you can do the same thing in binary. There is another example in “Write Great Code”, Figure 3-2, that you can work through. The mechanics are exactly the same. So, without further ado, here is a stripped down version of that algorithm, without a whole bunch of optimizations that you can find in the actual implementation:

silly silly_div(silly x, silly y) {
// disregard the sign
uint64_t sign_bit = 1UL<<63;
uint64_t rem = x & ~sign_bit;
uint64_t div = y & ~sign_bit;

uint64_t quo = 0UL;
int b = 33; // 64 / 2 + 1

while (rem && b >= 0) {
uint64_t d = rem / div;
rem %= div;
quo += d << b;

rem <<= 1;
--b;
}

uint64_t res = quo >> 1;
res |= (x & sign_bit) ^ (y & sign_bit);

return res;
}
Fig. 6: Dividing, the slow way.

This is a lot of code. Let’s try to walk through it block by block and figure out what it does together.

First we define two variables rem and div that are our input values without the sign bit set. Then we define a variable quo, which stands for quotient. It will hold the result of our computation. We also define the number of bits we have to go through—named b in this context. We’ll have to go through at most <width> / 2 + 1 bits, where width is the total of bits in the number. Because we know that in our use case the width is always 64, I unrolled that equation; the result is 33.

Most of the work here happens in the while loop. It will be executed b times, but we also have a shortcut condition: if the remainder is zero, we can stop because no more work will happen in the loop anyway.

So what is the loop doing? It’s basically performing long division in binary. Maybe a visualizing example will help, so let’s walk through a division of 20.0 and 8.0. It should yield 2.5. All of the values look like 64-bit integers, shifted by 32 bits, because of the fraction.

// first iteration:
//   rem = 20.0<<32
d = rem/div; // 2.0
rem %= div; // 4.0<<32
quo += d << b; // 2.0<<33 == 4.0<<32

rem <<= 1; // 4.0<<33 == 8.0<<32
--b; // 32

//second iteration
// rem = 8.0<<32
d = rem/div; // 1.0
rem %= div; // 0.0
quo += d << b; // 4.0<<32 + 1.0<<32 == 5.0<<32

rem <<= 1; // 0.0
--b; // 31

[rest of the loop has no effect, we’re done]
Fig. 7: Moving bits by hand.

This exercise might seem a bit silly—those of you who studied Computer Science might be reminded of exercises from first semester courses that then seemed pointless—, but it visualizes the sliding window of our division pretty well. Through all of the steps we successively build our quo value. As promised, it’s basically just binary long division, though the format is a little contrived.

We are not done yet, though. Particularly perceptive observers will have noted that what we stored in quo isn’t actually 2.5. But it almost is. To be precise, it’s 5.0, the double of our expected result. That is why, at the end of the function shown in Figure 6, we have to shift the value in quo by one bit, effectively dividing by 2. Then we add the sign bit back—the process for that is the same as in the naive solution—and we’re good to go!

Possible optimizations

I talked about possible optimizations earlier, and I don’t want to leave you without touching on them again briefly. Both the code I borrowed from and my own code implement two simple optimizations:

1. If the divider is divisible by 2^n, we can reduce the number of loop iterations by four for each byte if we just shift the divider. Look at the implementation here.
2. If the remainder has leading zeroes we can skip this number of iterations. Think of long division: I can skip a bunch of steps if my number is padded with 0. This can be checked in each iteration and is implemented here.

Neither of these optimizations interfere with the actual algorithm, meaning we could just turn them off if we wanted to. This makes the optimizations very low-hanging fruit: they are local, small, and have a sufficient performance impact, such that Knuth’s famous quip about “the root of all evil” is not applicable to us.

Fin

Implementing this was another fun exercise! I hope you enjoyed my little walkthrough into long form division to solve a real world problem. Though the library in which I implemented this algorithm is just a toy, the underlying algorithm seems pretty solid.

This whole journey, like my foray into Binary Coded Decimals, has been inspired by Write Great Code, and I still wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s well written, ridiculously informative, and highly inspirational. With the author's help, I might implement floating point numbers next. And if I do, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here.