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Analyzing Binary Size Bloat in Tock

This article is cross-posted from Tweede Golf’s blog

Tock is a powerful and secure embedded operating system. While Tock was designed with resource constraints in mind, years of additional features, generalizing to more platforms, and security improvements have brought resource, and in particular, code size bloat.

A lot of code-size bloat. In 2018, when Tock was first released, a minimal kernel required ~7KB for code. Today, the default build for most platforms is easily over 100KB. This is a big problem for resource-sensitive applications–where a platform may only have a couple 100KB of executable flash or must execute from memory.

We (Folkert and Dion from Tweeded Golf) recently worked on a project that explores where all of this extra code size is spent, how much of it is fundamental to the design of Tock, and how Tock could adapt to support more platforms with stricter code size constraints.


Let’s first establish a baseline. We pick the NRF52840DK, a development board for the popular NRF52840 from Nordic Semiconductors. It is one of the main development boards in the Tock community and is pretty representative of many embedded applications. It helps that we also happened to have a few lying around. Our exploration is based off of a recent tip-version of Tock (commit 41aafdca37e6961af3ae19742edcdf40cd8e8d1a). The total size of the kernel for this version is

$ cd boards/nordic/nrf52840dk/
$ make
   text	   data	    bss	    dec	    hex	filename
 196610	     36	  34464	 231110	  386c6	...

The text section (where executable code lives) is almost 200kb! That’s a lot…

A Stripped-Down Board

OK, most of that 200KB is from peripheral drivers, including a full 6lowpan/802.15.4 stack, Bluetooth, as well as a number of subsystems for debugging, like a process console. Because Tock separates the kernel from applications, which can be loaded dynamically, the drivers a board configures are compiled in regardless of whether any application actually ever uses them.

So let’s start by just removing superfluous components to get to a stripped-down board. Initially we’ll only consider the kernel, so anything related to processes can also go. For a minimal functional program, we’ll leave in logic for a serial port (UART) and to print a message. This ends up removing about 150KB of code.

commit size of .text (kb)
439cfc4caaf12f656c4f9a5e9cf7bffd47da709e 45.1

Impressive! But 45KB is still a lot for a system that does very little. Getting rid of debug functionality in the panic! handler saves another 20KB:

commit size of .text (kb)
fa97bb11f3f406e3893c814a674f79776a4dfb8b 24.6

We now have a barebones version of Tock that can run processes and supports a minimal set of functionality–just printing to the console.

Let’s Pretend We Don’t Want Processes

We can go furher by getting rid of the process loading and scheduling infrastructure and, instead, implement a very simple timed-print inside the kernel itself.

Just removing processes entirely (by setting NUM_PROCS to 0 and letting code elimination do its magic) and implementing a simple kernel application, we cut the code size down by another 50%:

commit size of .text (kb)
57174fbd560b9f0495f136b7ddb1c63644a9fd41 12.3

Since our kernel now only uses the serial driver and timer infrastructure in one place, we can further get rid of the virtualization layers for both, which cost ~4KB in this case:

commit size of .text (kb)
952641f4553b80a749fde14d914b6aeeffbbdeb7 8.2

Finally, we can remove ~1.5KB of extraneous padding in the linker script which is only useful when allocating flash for a persistent storage driver:

commit size of .text (kb)
395222c24f975f7a47cc86f761b6013eedb0f4f7 6.8

We’re now down to a more respectable size for a minimal kernel.

At this point we ran out of things we knew we could remove. We can check with cargo bloat what the remaining functions in the binary are, and whether we think they make sense. In this case, the report looks pretty reasonable: there is no more formatting or obvious debugging code on a function level.

> make cargobloat
File  .text   Size             Crate Name
0.3%  31.5% 2.0KiB        nrf52840dk nrf52840dk::start
0.3%  30.0% 1.9KiB            kernel <kernel::kernel::Kernel>::kernel_loop::<nrf52840dk::Platform, nrf52::chip::NRF52<nrf52840::interrupt_servi...
0.1%   5.9%   378B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::int::specialized_div_rem::u64_div_rem
0.0%   4.7%   306B             nrf52 <nrf52::uart::Uarte>::handle_interrupt
0.0%   2.2%   140B             nrf52 init
0.0%   2.1%   138B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::mem::memcpy
0.0%   1.6%   104B        nrf52840dk <nrf52840dk::hello_world::HelloWorld<nrf5x::rtc::Rtc, nrf52::uart::Uarte> as kernel::hil::time::AlarmClien...
0.0%   1.5%    98B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::mem::memset
0.0%   1.1%    72B           cortexm <cortexm::systick::SysTick as kernel::platform::scheduler_timer::SchedulerTimer>::get_remaining_us
0.0%   1.0%    64B             nrf5x <nrf5x::rtc::Rtc as kernel::hil::time::Alarm>::set_alarm
0.0%   0.7%    44B           cortexm <cortexm::nvic::Nvic>::enable
0.0%   0.7%    42B             nrf5x <nrf5x::timer::TimerAlarm>::handle_interrupt
0.0%   0.6%    40B           cortexm cortexm::nvic::has_pending
0.0%   0.6%    40B compiler_builtins <u64 as compiler_builtins::int::shift::Ashl>::ashl
0.0%   0.6%    38B             nrf52 <nrf52::uart::Uarte>::set_tx_dma_pointer_to_buffer
0.0%   0.6%    36B             nrf5x <nrf5x::pinmux::Pinmux>::new
0.0%   0.5%    34B            kernel <kernel::collections::list::List<kernel::scheduler::round_robin::RoundRobinProcessNode>>::push_tail
0.0%   0.5%    32B         [Unknown] main
0.0%   0.4%    28B         cortexv7m cortexv7m::hard_fault_handler_arm_v7m_kernel
0.0%   0.4%    26B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::arm::__aeabi_memset4

Expensive division

The only thing that really caught our attention is the compiler builtins. In particular, the 64-bit integer division is quite large. The target we use has no instruction for this operation, so it is implemented entirely in software.

File  .text   Size             Crate Name
0.1%   5.9%   378B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::int::specialized_div_rem::u64_div_rem
0.0%   2.1%   138B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::mem::memcpy
0.0%   1.5%    98B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::mem::memset
0.0%   0.6%    40B compiler_builtins <u64 as compiler_builtins::int::shift::Ashl>::ashl
0.0%   0.4%    26B compiler_builtins compiler_builtins::arm::__aeabi_memset4

This operation is used to convert between microseconds (for humans) and native ticks (for computers). For instance:

hertz * us / 1_000_000

It might be worth it to actually write this as a subtracting loop, something like:

pub fn micros_to_ticks(freq: u32, micros: u32) -> u32 {
    let mut remaining = freq as u64 * micros as u64;

    let mut accum = 0;

    let mut num = 1_000_000_000u32;
    let mut fac = 1_000u32;

    while fac > 0 {
        while let Some(new) = remaining.checked_sub(num as u64) {
            remaining = new;
            accum += fac;

        num /= 10;
        fac /= 10;


GPIO pin initialization

Because start is the biggest function, we had a look at its source code to see if there is anything we can cut out. After some trial and error, we found that the initialization of GPIO pins uses a lot of instructions.

commit size of .text size of nrf52840dk::start
d915dc33718688f21c44265aca10891ac9a4805e 8822B 2100B
f893f60346b7a07bbd4bddd21dfe8eff11a36c12 7574B 940B

This “solution” in the final commit is incorrect, but it shows there is potential here: even for a small binary the gains are substantial.

The problem is that the initialization cannot occur in a const, so all the pins need to be set up at runtime.

With processes

In practice, Tock will of course run processes. So while the previous experiment is useful to learn how small the kernel could be, it is not realistic.

When we bump the number of processes from zero to one, the binary gets a lot bigger again. Cargo bloat shows that there is formatting code in the binary.

File  .text   Size             Crate Name
0.1%   3.6%    812B              core <&mut cortexm::mpu::CortexMConfig<8: usize> as core::fmt::Display>::fmt
0.0%   1.5%    328B              core <core::fmt::Formatter>::pad_integral
0.0%   1.3%    288B              core <core::fmt::Formatter>::write_fmt
0.0%   1.0%    222B              core <core::fmt::Formatter>::pad

However, it is not immediately obvious what the root cause is. We could do some searching through the disassembly to track down callers to those formatting functions, but in this case there is a simpler way.

By default cargo bloat cuts lines off so they fit in your terminal.

File  .text    Size             Crate Name
0.4%  19.6%  4.3KiB        nrf52840dk nrf52840dk::start
0.2%   8.6%  1.9KiB            kernel <kernel::kernel::Kernel>::kernel_loop::<nrf52840dk::Platform, nrf52::chip::NRF52<nrf52840::interrupt_serv...
0.1%   7.7%  1.7KiB            kernel <kernel::process_standard::ProcessStandard<nrf52::chip::NRF52<nrf52840::interrupt_service::Nrf52840Defaul...
0.1%   3.6%    812B              core <&mut cortexm::mpu::CortexMConfig<8: usize> as core::fmt::Display>::fmt

To get the full name of functions, we need to pass

> CARGO_BLOAT_FLAGS=-w make cargobloat

File  .text    Size             Crate Name
0.4%  19.6%  4.3KiB        nrf52840dk nrf52840dk::start
0.2%   8.6%  1.9KiB            kernel <kernel::kernel::Kernel>::kernel_loop::<nrf52840dk::Platform, nrf52::chip::NRF52<nrf52840::interrupt_service::Nrf52840DefaultPeripherals>, 1: u8>
0.1%   7.7%  1.7KiB            kernel <kernel::process_standard::ProcessStandard<nrf52::chip::NRF52<nrf52840::interrupt_service::Nrf52840DefaultPeripherals>> as kernel::process::Process>::print_full_process

Now we find a large function with “print” in its name. Suspicious!

fn print_full_process(&self, writer: &mut dyn Write) {
    // Disable the printing to save bytes! The precious bytes!
    if !config::CONFIG.debug_panics {

    // ...

We can easily remove all the formatting code by turning this into an if true. Dead code elimination will just remove the rest of this function’s body.

The commit below bumps the number of processes to one and removes the debug info:

commit size of .text (kb)
with one process 22.8
6ee2198a58b7ef6e3251803509cf4e66b65a6587 16.8


Next we decided to use the C blinky application as our benchmark, and made some modifications to the code so memmove is not included.

commit size of .text (kb)
24fac24a2fa0adfebb968188e9b1d56027886d2e 20.1
10afc491f124ebe9cef64e8b26bd23d209656b78 19.8

The memmove story is interesting. It turns out that code like

if dst != src {
    slice[dst] = slice[src]

is actually emitted as a memmove, even though all conditions for a memcpy are satisfied.

This is unfortunate because memmove is slower and also much bigger than memcpy (which is often included anyway).

Size optimizations in the rust standard library

At RustNL the idea formed to have a cfg(optimize_for_size) option in the rust standard library. The thinking is that much of the standard library is optimized for capable machines (that e.g. have SIMD instructions available). Those choices don’t always make sense for embedded.

The tracking issue has a list with merged and closed PRs that improve embedded binary size.


So now we know where Tock’s code size bloat comes from, and how Tock could adapt to support more platforms with stricter code size constraints: