Groups in EnTT are an incredibly powerful tool that allows for perfect SoA under certain circumnstances. However, they’ve also some limitations.
How far can we go to squeeze the best from them?

With this post, I’ll describe some tricks to get something more from a group. In fact, there are some groups that are on sale as a result of the definition of other groups. However, it’s not that obvious sometimes. At least, it is not if one doesn’t know how they work under the hood.
Because I’ve found this trick useful more than once, it’s worth sharing it.

Groups on sale

Suppose we have two components we want to group and to iterate sooner or later. They are named A and B (abounding with imagination). We can combine them in different ways to form a group (mainly changing the ownership model):

  • As a full-owning group:<A, B>().
  • As a partial-owning group:<A>(entt::get<B>).
  • As a non-owning group:<>(entt::get<A, B>).

Unfortunately, the last case is also the only one that doesn’t leave much room for optimizations and improvements, since the group doesn’t own any of the components. However, the other two cases give us some implicit groups that aren’t immediately obvious.
This is due to the fact that to own a component for a group means also to be allowed to reorder its elements in the underlying pool. Even though the way things are arranged depends mainly on some internals of the library, we can easily deduce it from the exposed API and exploit the way elements are laid out for our purposes.

Partial-owning groups

Let’s consider the following partial-owning group:

auto group =<A>(entt::get<B>);

We don’t know much about the free type B. The group relies on indirection to access it and the order for entities and components is imposed by another group, if any.
On the other hand, we know what is the size of the group. This tells us also how many instances of A are tightly packed at the top of the internal arrays. These same entities are those that are part of the group, that is the ones that have both A and B.

Interesting enough. If you get an array and move to one side all the elements that respect a given requirement, it means that on the other side there are all the elements that don’t respect the same requirement. In this case, it means that the packed arrays of entities and components for A are split in such a way that on one side there are the entities that have both A and B while on the other side there are the entities that have A only.

How can we exploit it?

Quite simple indeed, at least with the default pools. Remember that this type of pools allow to get a couple (T*, size) both for the entities and for the components for a given type T. The arrays thus obtained contain all the elements of the pool, not only those that are part of the group. Therefore, it’s a matter of knowing how to skip the second set.

First of all, we know that the following ranges are guaranteed to be valid and such that they contain the elements that are part of the group itself if the group owns the given component:

  • [<A>(),<A>() + group.size()]
  • [group.raw<A>(), group.raw<A>() + group.size()]

Moreover, the following ranges are guaranteed to contain all the elements that are part of the underlying pool, not only the ones that are owned by the group:

  • [<A>(),<A>() + group.size<A>()]
  • [group.raw<A>(), group.raw<A>() + group.size<A>()]

This is enough for our purposes. The elements for the component A are size() positions away from data<A>() and raw<A>(). In other terms, these are the ranges that contain them:

  • [<A>() + group.size(),<A>() + group.size<A>()]
  • [group.raw<A>() + group.size(), group.raw<A>() + group.size<A>()]

To iterate all the entities that have both A and B before those that have only A, this is therefore the resulting code:

std::for_each(<A>(),<A>() + group.size(), [raw = group.raw<A>()](auto entity) mutable {
    auto &component = *(raw++);
    // ...

std::for_each(<A>() + group.size(),<A>() + group.size<A>(), [raw = group.raw<A>() + group()](auto entity) mutable {
    auto &component = *(raw++);
    // ...

Note that all the arrays we are visiting are tightly packed and iterated in order. Therefore cache misses are reduced to a minimum. It’s more or less like iterating a single component view, but getting more out of it.
Of course, this example is certainly extreme, since nothing prevents us from using each or the built-in iterators to iterate the group. However, it gives an idea of how the data are actually organized behind the scenes and how we can get what remains if needed once we have done with the group.

Full-owning groups

What happens if the previous group is a full-owning one instead of a partial-owning group?

auto group =<A, B>();

In fact, all what have been said so far is still valid. The only difference is that the same reasoning applies also to the component B.
In other terms, this time all of these are for free with a sole group:

  • The entities that have both A and B and their components.
  • The entities that have A only and their components.
  • The entities that have B only and their components.

Nothing more, nothing less. We have three contiguous arrays of entities (and components) to iterate when needed. With the right code we can get the best from the group and iterate it as if we were iterating a plain single component view:

group.each([](auto &component_a, auto &component_b) {
    // ...

std::for_each(group.raw<A>() + group.size(), group.raw<A>() + group.size<A>(), [](auto &component) {
    // ...

std::for_each(group.raw<B>() + group.size(), group.raw<B>() + group.size<B>(), [](auto &component) {
    // ...

I’ve used a slightly different snippet this time to show yet another alternative approach. In this case, the components in the group are iterated directly by means of the each member function. On the other hand, what remains from the pools for A and B is iterated using the raw pointers only. This is an even faster approach to iterate only the components when we aren’t interested in the entity identifiers.
Remember that what remains from the pool for a given component are the elements that aren’t part of the group. As an example, when we iterate the elements from the pool of A, we are iterating the components assigned to entities that have not B.

What about larger groups?

Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t extend to larger groups. Or rather, it applies but only within certain limits. Consider as an example the following group:

auto group =<A, B, C>();

Obviously, the entities and components for the triplet A, B and C are still available, as a consequence of the definition of the group itself.
However, what remains from A are no longer the elements that have an instance of A only. Instead, they are a mix of the following:

  • The elements that have A only.
  • The elements that have both A and B.
  • The elements that have both A and C.

The only thing that is guaranteed is that there are no entities that have A, B and C at the same time in the range:

[<A>() + group.size(),<A>() + group.size<A>()]

This is due to the fact that all those elements are already tightly packed and part of the group. Because we are skipping all what is contained in the group, there is no chance we are going to iterate an entity that has the three components assigned.

I don’t know if this type of subgroups can be useful or not. It mainly depends on the type of application being developed. I can imagine some cases in which they might be useful, but they aren’t strictly necessary most of the times nor easy to use and therefore it’s likely that you won’t use them in any case.
However, it’s always good to know that something is possible, in case you find yourself having to use it sooner or later.

A real world example

Imagine we’ve reproduced via ECS a scenegraph with the most classic of the parent component associated with the transform component to handle parent-child relationships.
At first glance, the best bet is to have a group leaded by the parent component, mainly because that is the type that makes the difference:

auto group =<parent>(entt::get<transform>);

However, the following group already provides us with an implicit list of components that don’t have a parent and therefore it allows to have the best performance overall:

auto group =<transform, parent>();

In fact, the group works with a perfect SoA when iterating transform and parent:

group.each([](auto &transform, auto &parent) {
   // ...

While something like the following allows us to quickly iterate what remains of the list of the transform component:

const auto end = group.raw<transform>() + group.size<transform>();
const auto begin = group.raw<transform>() + group.size();

std::for_each(begin, end, [](auto &transform) {
    // ...

Just in case it’s not clear, in all cases we are iterating packed arrays, one element at a time and without jumps or indirection. Most likely we are close to the best we can get when it comes to iterating entities and components.
In this way, we can update all the transforms giving priority to those that have or don’t have a parent, to then iterate the others without having to sacrifice performance in any case.

Being able to order a group (as it happens in EnTT) or the ability to cleverly insert elements into a group can also allow us to iterate the transforms that have a parent by minimizing the jumps and the cache misses, but this is beyond the scope of this post and I won’t go into further details on the subject.

Let me know that it helped

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