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Controlling compiler optimization flags

This page provides an overview on the different ways in which compiler optimization flags used by EasyBuild can be controlled.

Controlling target architecture specific optimizations via --optarch

Default behaviour

By default, EasyBuild optimizes builds for the CPU architecture of the build host, by instructing the compiler to generate instructions for the highest instruction set supported by the process architecture of the build host processor.

This is done by including specific compiler flags in $CFLAGS, $CXXFLAGS, $FFLAGS, $F90FLAGS, etc.

For example:


Heterogeneous clusters

Optimizing for the processor architecture of the build host is usually what you want in an HPC cluster, but it has some implications if your cluster is heterogeneous (i.e., has different processor generations), or if you want to execute your applications in a machine with a processor architecture that is different from the one of the build host.

For example, if you compile your application optimized for an Intel Haswell processor (i.e. using AVX2 instructions), it will not run on a system with an older Intel Nehalem processor.

One possible workaround for heterogeneous HPC clusters is to build as many copies of the software stack as you have processor generations in your cluster, and to configure your system so each compute node uses the right software stack matching its processor architecture type. Details for one way of doing this, using automounter/autofs are available at

Another solution is to configure EasyBuild to not optimize for the processor architecture of the build host via --optarch, see below.

Build environment vs hardcoding in build scripts

Be aware that that using --optarch as described below does not provide hard guarantees that the build will be executed using the intended compiler flags.

EasyBuild will define the appropriate environment variables ($CFLAGS and co) to use the compiler flags as specified, but some MakeFiles or build systems could have hardcoded values that have not been dealt with yet (for example, via a patch file or by specifying options to the make command).

For example, the OpenBLAS build system will autodetect the processor architecture in the build host, and will optimize for that processor architecture by default.

If you want a generic OpenBLAS build you will need to tweak the OpenBLAS easyconfig file to define the desired TARGET to use. For this you will need to modify the buildopts easyconfig parameter, for example:

buildopts = 'TARGET=PRESCOTT BINARY=64 ' + threading + ' CC="$CC" FC="$F77"'

See these links for more details w.r.t. OpenBLAS:

Specifying target architecture specific optimization flags to use via --optarch=<flags>

Using the --optarch EasyBuild configuration option, specific compiler flags can be provided that EasyBuild should use, rather than the ones used by default (depending on the compiler in the toolchain being used).

Like any other configuration setting, this can also be specified via $EASYBUILD_OPTARCH, or by defining optarch in an EasyBuild configuration file (cfr. Consistency across supported configuration types).

For example, by specifying --optarch=march=core2, EasyBuild will use -march=core2 rather than the default flag --march=native (when using GCC compilers).

Likewise, to avoid using the default -xHost flag with the Intel compilers and using -xSSSE3 instead, you can define $EASYBUILD_OPTARCH to be equal to xSSSE3.


The first dash (-) is added automagically to the value specified to --optarch, because of technicalities with the current implementation.

The --optarch configuration option gives you flexibility to define the specific target architecture optimization flags you want, but requires that you take care of specifying different flags for different compilers and choose the right flags depending on your specific processor architecture.

Optimizing for a generic processor architecture via --optarch=GENERIC

To make EasyBuild optimize for a generic processor architecture, --optarch can be set to 'GENERIC'.

When this is the case, EasyBuild will use the right compiler flags to optimize for a generic processor architecture, i.e. avoid using machine instructions that are only supported by very recent processors.

The GENERIC keyword for --optarch is recognized since EasyBuild v2.5.0, and is supported for GCC and Intel compilers on x86-64 systems (Intel or AMD). For other compilers that can be used in toolchains and other system architectures, the necessary compiler flags will be defined in later EasyBuild versions.

Currently, using --optarch=GENERIC will result in the following target architecture optimization flags being used, (on a Linux x86-64 system):

  • for toolchains using GCC compilers: -march=x86-64 -mtune=generic
  • for toolchains using Intel compilers: -xSSE2

On other systems or for other compilers, you can check which compiler flags will be used via Extended dry run.

Setting architecture flags for different compilers via --optarch=<compiler:flags>;<compiler:flags>

Starting with version 3.1.0, EasyBuild supports specifying architecture flags on a per-compiler basis. This enables to "set and forget" the --optarch option for your compilers of interest, as opposed to change it depending on the compiler used on the packages to be installed.

The syntax is <compiler:flags>;<compiler:flags>, where : separates the compiler name from the compiler flags, and ; separates different compilers. This is an example for the Intel and GCC compilers: --optarch='Intel:xHost;GCC:march=x86-64 -mtune=generic'. As in the simple cases, EasyBuild adds one - to the flags specified, so the flags passed to the Intel and GCC compilers in this case are -xHost and -march=x86-64 -mtune=generic. Please note the quotes to escape the space in the GCC flags.

Additionally, GENERIC is also supported on a compiler basis, allowing to specify a generic compilation for the desired compilers. This is an example of this usage: --optarch=Intel:xHost;GCC:GENERIC. Of course, this is supported just for compiler toolchains that recognize GENERIC.

The options for each compiler are set independently. That means that if a GCC-based toolchain is used, but the only compiler specified is Intel (for example with --optarch=Intel:xCORE-AVX2), then EasyBuild will behave as if --optarch was not specified for this toolchain.

The compiler name corresponds to the value of the COMPILER_FAMILY constant of the toolchain. Two common examples are GCC and Intel.

Due to the special treatment of --optarch in Cray environments, this feature is not supported on this platform.