Inlining in Cairo

Inlining is a common code optimization technique supported by most compilers. It involves replacing a function call at the call site with the actual code of the called function, eliminating the overhead associated with the function call itself. This can improve performance by reducing the number of instructions executed, but may increase the total size of the program. When you're thinking about whether to inline a function, take into account things like how big it is, what parameters it has, how often it gets called, and how it might affect the size of your compiled code.

The inline Attribute

In Cairo, the inline attribute suggests whether or not the Sierra code corresponding to the attributed function should be directly injected in the caller function's context, rather than using a function_call libfunc to execute that code.

There are three variants of the inline attribute that one can use:

  • #[inline] suggests performing an inline expansion.
  • #[inline(always)] suggests that an inline expansion should always be performed.
  • #[inline(never)] suggests that an inline expansion should never be performed.

Note: the inline attribute in every form is a hint, with no requirements on the language to place a copy of the attributed function in the caller. This means that the attribute may be ignored by the compiler. In practice, #[inline(always)] will cause inlining in all but the most exceptional cases.

Many of the Cairo corelib functions are inlined. User-defined functions may also be annotated with the inline attribute. Annoting functions with the #[inline(always)] attribute reduces the total number of steps required when calling these attributed functions. Indeed, injecting the Sierra code at the caller site avoids the step-cost involved in calling functions and obtaining their arguments.

However, inlining can also lead to increased code size. Whenever a function is inlined, the call site contains a copy of the function's Sierra code, potentially leading to duplication of code across the compiled code.

Therefore, inlining should be applied with caution. Using #[inline] or #[inline(always)] indiscriminately will lead to increased compile time. It is particularly useful to inline small functions, ideally with many arguments. This is because inlining large functions will increase the code length of the program, and handling many arguments will increase the number of steps to execute these functions.

The more frequently a function is called, the more beneficial inlining becomes in terms of performance. By doing so, the number of steps for the execution will be lower, while the code length will not grow that much or might even decrease in terms of total number of instructions.

Inlining is often a tradeoff between number of steps and code length. Use the inline attribute cautiously where it is appropriate.

Inlining Example

Let's introduce a short example to illustrate the mechanisms of inlining in Cairo. Listing 11-3 shows a basic program allowing comparison between inlined and non-inlined functions.

fn main() -> felt252 {
    inlined() + not_inlined()

fn inlined() -> felt252 {

fn not_inlined() -> felt252 {

Listing 11-3: A small Cairo program that adds the return value of 2 functions, with one of them being inlined

Let's take a look at the corresponding Sierra code to see how inlining works under the hood:

// type declarations
type felt252 = felt252 [storable: true, drop: true, dup: true, zero_sized: false]

// libfunc declarations
libfunc function_call<user@main::main::not_inlined> = function_call<user@main::main::not_inlined>
libfunc felt252_const<1> = felt252_const<1>
libfunc store_temp<felt252> = store_temp<felt252>
libfunc felt252_add = felt252_add
libfunc felt252_const<2> = felt252_const<2>

// statements
00 function_call<user@main::main::not_inlined>() -> ([0])
01 felt252_const<1>() -> ([1])
02 store_temp<felt252>([1]) -> ([1])
03 felt252_add([1], [0]) -> ([2])
04 store_temp<felt252>([2]) -> ([2])
05 return([2])
06 felt252_const<1>() -> ([0])
07 store_temp<felt252>([0]) -> ([0])
08 return([0])
09 felt252_const<2>() -> ([0])
10 store_temp<felt252>([0]) -> ([0])
11 return([0])

// funcs
main::main::main@0() -> (felt252)
main::main::inlined@6() -> (felt252)
main::main::not_inlined@9() -> (felt252)

The Sierra file is structured in three parts:

  • Type and libfunc declarations.
  • Statements that constitute the program.
  • Declaration of the functions of the program.

The Sierra code statements always match the order of function declarations in the Cairo program. Indeed, the declaration of the functions of the program tells us that:

  • main function starts at line 0, and returns a felt252 on line 5.
  • inlined function starts at line 6, and returns a felt252 on line 8.
  • not_inlined function starts at line 9, and returns a felt252 on line 11.

All statements corresponding to the main function are located between lines 0 and 5:

00 function_call<user@main::main::not_inlined>() -> ([0])
01 felt252_const<1>() -> ([1])
02 store_temp<felt252>([1]) -> ([1])
03 felt252_add([1], [0]) -> ([2])
04 store_temp<felt252>([2]) -> ([2])
05 return([2])

The function_call libfunc is called on line 0 to execute the not_inlined function. This will execute the code from lines 9 to 10 and store the return value in the variable with id 0.

09	felt252_const<2>() -> ([0])
10	store_temp<felt252>([0]) -> ([0])

This code uses a single data type, felt252. It uses two library functions - felt_const<2>, which returns the constant felt252 2, and store_temp<felt252>, which pushes a constant value to memory. The first line calls the felt_const<2> libfunc to create a variable with id 0. Then, the second line pushes this variable to memory for later use.

After that, Sierra statements from line 1 to 2 are the actual body of the inlined function:

06	felt252_const<1>() -> ([0])
07	store_temp<felt252>([0]) -> ([0])

The only difference is that the inlined code will store the felt252_const value in a variable with id 1, because [0] refers to a variable previously assigned:

01	felt252_const<1>() -> ([1])
02	store_temp<felt252>([1]) -> ([1])

Note: in both cases (inlined or not), the return instruction of the function being called is not executed, as this would lead to prematurely end the execution of the main function. Instead, return values of inlined and not_inlined will be added and the result will be returned.

Lines 3 to 5 contain the Sierra statements that will add the values contained in variables with ids 0 and 1, store the result in memory and return it:

03	felt252_add([1], [0]) -> ([2])
04	store_temp<felt252>([2]) -> ([2])
05	return([2])

Now, let's take a look at the Casm code corresponding to this program to really understand the benefits of inlining.

Casm Code Explanations

Here is the Casm code for our previous program example:

1	call rel 3
2	ret
3	call rel 9
4	[ap + 0] = 1, ap++
5	[ap + 0] = [ap + -1] + [ap + -2], ap++
6	ret
7	[ap + 0] = 1, ap++
8	ret
9	[ap + 0] = 2, ap++
10	ret
11	ret

Don't hesitate to use playground to follow along and see all the execution trace.

Each instruction and each argument for any instruction increment the Program Counter (known as PC) by 1. This means that ret on line 2 is actually the instruction at PC = 3, as the argument 3 corresponds to PC = 2.

The call and ret instructions allow implementation of a function stack:

  • call instruction acts like a jump instruction, updating the PC to a given value, whether relatively to the current value using rel or absolutely using abs.
  • ret instruction jumps back right after the call instruction and continues the execution of the code.

We can now decompose how these instructions are executed to understand what this code does:

  • call rel 3: this instruction increments the PC by 3 and executes the instruction at this location, which is call rel 9 at PC = 4.
  • call rel 9 increments the PC by 9 and executes the instruction at PC = 13, which is actually line 9.
  • [ap + 0] = 2, ap++: ap stands for Allocation Pointer, which points to the first memory cell that has not been used by the program so far. This means we store the value 2 in the next free memory cell indicated by the current value of ap, after which we increment ap by 1. Then, we go to the next line which is ret.
  • ret: jumps back to the line after call rel 9, so we go to line 4.
  • [ap + 0] = 1, ap++ : we store the value 1 in [ap] and we apply ap++ so that [ap - 1] = 1. This means we now have [ap-1] = 1, [ap-2] = 2 and we go to the next line.
  • [ap + 0] = [ap + -1] + [ap + -2], ap++: we sum the values 1 and 2 and store the result in [ap], and we apply ap++ so the result is [ap-1] = 3, [ap-2] = 1, [ap-3]=2.
  • ret: jumps back to the line after call rel 3, so we go to line 2.
  • ret: last instruction executed as there is no more call instruction where to jump right after. This is the actual return instruction of the Cairo main function.

To summarize:

  • call rel 3 corresponds to the main function, which is obviously not inlined.
  • call rel 9 triggers the call the not_inlined function, which returns 2 and stores it at the final location [ap-3].
  • The line 4 is the inlined code of the inlined function, which returns 1 and stores it at the final location [ap-2]. We clearly see that there is no call instruction in this case, because the body of the function is inserted and directly executed.
  • After that, the sum is computed and we ultimately go back to the line 2 which contains the final ret instruction that returns the sum, corresponding to the return value of the main function.

It is interesting to note that in both Sierra code and Casm code, the not_inlined function will be called and executed before the body of the inlined function, even though the Cairo program executes inlined() + not_inlined().

The Casm code of our program clearly shows that there is a function call for the not_inlined function, while the inlined function is correctly inlined.

Additional Optimizations

Let's study another program that shows other benefits that inlining may sometimes provide. Listing 11-4 shows a Cairo program that calls 2 functions and doesn't return anything:

fn main() {

fn inlined() -> felt252 {

fn not_inlined() -> felt252 {
    'not inlined'

Listing 11-4: A small Cairo program that calls inlined and not_inlined and doesn't return any value.

Here is the corresponding Sierra code:

// type declarations
type felt252 = felt252 [storable: true, drop: true, dup: true, zero_sized: false]
type Unit = Struct<ut@Tuple> [storable: true, drop: true, dup: true, zero_sized: true]

// libfunc declarations
libfunc function_call<user@main::main::not_inlined> = function_call<user@main::main::not_inlined>
libfunc drop<felt252> = drop<felt252>
libfunc struct_construct<Unit> = struct_construct<Unit>
libfunc felt252_const<29676284458984804> = felt252_const<29676284458984804>
libfunc store_temp<felt252> = store_temp<felt252>
libfunc felt252_const<133508164995039583817065828> = felt252_const<133508164995039583817065828>

// statements
00 function_call<user@main::main::not_inlined>() -> ([0])
01 drop<felt252>([0]) -> ()
02 struct_construct<Unit>() -> ([1])
03 return([1])
04 felt252_const<29676284458984804>() -> ([0])
05 store_temp<felt252>([0]) -> ([0])
06 return([0])
07 felt252_const<133508164995039583817065828>() -> ([0])
08 store_temp<felt252>([0]) -> ([0])
09 return([0])

// funcs
main::main::main@0() -> (Unit)
main::main::inlined@4() -> (felt252)
main::main::not_inlined@7() -> (felt252)

In this specific case, we can observe that the compiler has applied additional optimizations to the main function of our code : the code of the inlined function, which is annotated with the #[inline(always)] attribute, is actually not copied in the main function. Instead, the main function starts with the function_call libfunc to call the not_inlined function, entirely omitting the code of the inlined function.

Because inlined return value is never used, the compiler optimizes the main function by skipping the inlined function code. This will actually reduce the code length while reducing the number of steps required to execute main.

In contrast, line 0 uses the function_call libfunc to execute the not_inlined function normally. This means that all the code from lines 7 to 8 will be executed:

07 felt252_const<133508164995039583817065828>() -> ([0])
08 store_temp<felt252>([0]) -> ([0])

This value stored in the variable with id 0 is then dropped on line 1, as it is not used in the main function:

01 drop<felt252>([0]) -> ()

Finally, as the main function doesn't return any value, a variable of unit type () is created and returned:

02 struct_construct<Unit>() -> ([1])
03 return([1])


Inlining is a compiler optimization technique that can be very useful in various situations. Inlining a function allows to get rid of the overhead of calling a function with the function_call libfunc by injecting the Sierra code directly in the caller function's context, while potentially optimizing the Sierra code executed to reduce the number of steps. If used effectively, inlining can even reduce code length as shown in the previous example.

Nevertheless, applying the inline attribute to a function with a lot of code and few parameters might result in an increased code size, especially if the inlined function is used many times in the codebase. Use inlining only where it makes sense, and be aware that the compiler handles inlining by default. Therefore, manually applying inlining is not recommended in most situations, but can help improve and fine-tune your code's behavior.