Archive for the 'I Made This' Category

No Compiler, part 3: A second, tiny language embedded inside Lua

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

In the last couple weeks I’ve been chasing this weird daydream of writing scripts that directly talk to the LLVM compiler backend library, thus making software without a compiler frontend. Each script would be its own tiny frontend. My plan was this would let me jump directly into the "interesting bits" of programming language development. I wrote a couple of blog posts about this project, but so far those posts have only been about me learning to use LLVM. I’ve sort of got a handle on that now, so it’s time for next steps.

Here’s what "next steps" means to me: Normally, if you were developing a programming language with LLVM, you’d design an "abstract syntax tree" that roughly captures the semantics of the language you are designing. You’d design a syntax that reduces to your AST, and then you’d write code to reduce your AST to the IR ("intermediate representation") that the LLVM library consumes. What I imagine is that in my not-a-compiler experiments, I’d still have an AST, just my program would be directly constructing the AST as a data structure in memory instead of building it from a textual representation (or in other words: a "programming language"). This would let me try out different programming language semantics without having to pick a syntax. Once I’ve settled on a semantics, I could grow a syntax around it.

Or… maybe not? The thing that makes this idea seem "weird" and not just developing a language compiler piecemeal is the thought that maybe I could never bother with the syntax and just do entire projects by writing these scripts that generate ASTs as data structures. In the Haskell world they have this very specific meaning to the word "DSL"— normally that’s short for "domain specific language" and refers to writing a little language as a helper for some task, but what Haskell users like to do is design little sub-languages entirely out of idiomatic Haskell. They inject a few functions and operators (in Haskell also functions) into a namespace and call only those, and because Haskell has flexible syntax and a weird compiler this is as good as writing a whole new language compiler. I think what I want to do is create a library that effectively constructs that kind of DSL within Lua. I’d be writing software and my "programming language" would be an idiomatic Lua that, when executed by the Lua interpreter, generates my program’s executable.

Housekeeping

What I’ve been doing so far is something a little similar— instead of designing an AST and constructing it in memory, I treat the in-memory representation of LLVM IR as if it were my "AST" and construct that in memory. This works okay, but it is clumsy. It’s clumsy first off because it is a clumsy thing to be doing— LLVM IR is basically assembly— and second off because my setup for calling the builder functions is a little clumsy. Whatever I build next will be based on the LLVM wrapper I’ve been using so far, so before I move on I should make my LLVM wrapper at least nice to use.

First things first: The version of LLVM I’ve been using doesn’t exist. I downloaded LLVM from MacPorts, and the newest version they had listed was 3.9, so I installed that. It turns out 3.9 hasn’t been released yet and I’m using code from LLVM’s development branch. (Jeremy is very thorough.) This is pretty bad for my purposes because apparently 3.9 still has significant API changes planned before official release, so if I check out this code on a new computer in two years and try to build it it won’t work. No good. Easy to fix though: I download a copy of LLVM 3.8, repeat the process of handmaking Lua bindings from my first blog post, and rename the 3.9 bindings to indicate it’s a particular beta version. When running the script you now have a choice of LLVM wrappers, 3_8 or 3_9-r259341.

Second off: again, these wrappers are clumsy. Here’s a stretch of code from my last blog post:

local valueDeref = LLVM.LLVMBuildLoad(builder.llvm.builder, value, "ValueDeref")
local divisorDeref = LLVM.LLVMBuildLoad(builder.llvm.builder, divisor, "DivisorDeref")

-- printf divisor
local printfArgs = ffi.new("LLVMValueRef [2]")
printfArgs[0] = LLVM.LLVMBuildGlobalStringPtr(builder.llvm.builder, "%d ", "tmpstring")
printfArgs[1] = divisorDeref
LLVM.LLVMBuildCall(builder.llvm.builder, printfFn, printfArgs, 2, "tmpcall");

There is a bunch of repetition and boilerplate here. LLVM.LLVM and builder.llvm.builder appear over and over. A lot of the vertical space is taken up by the ffi.new idiom, which I have to use over and over because the C functions accept C arrays, not Lua lists, and this ffi.new thing is how you make a C array in Lua. This all makes the code hard to read and therefore bugs hard to spot. There are some things I can do about this.

  1. LLVM.LLVM is annoying

    I’m using LLVM through the C interface. Because C has no namespacing, LLVM-C attempts to be a good citizen by prefixing every single symbol it exports (functions, structures, enums, everything) with "LLVM". Because Lua does have namespacing, it quarantines all the imported symbols inside the LLVM table. This means "LLVM.LLVM" is repeated endlessly throughout my code, like a constant background static.

    I can fix this using weird metatable magic. In Lua (unless you’re using the C FFI) the sole data structure is the table, which is a built-in dictionary backed by a hashtable or something. Object-like capabilities are offered using something called the "metatable"; each table may have an invisibly associated partner table containing a set of standardized functions, which get invoked when the interpreter hits an exceptional case while working with the real table. Functions that can be in the metatable include __index, which is called if a key is not found, or __newindex, which is called before adding a new key binding, or __add, which is called if you attempt to use arithmetic + on a table (normally illegal). The normal use of metatables is to emulate object-oriented programming; you can easily design a class system or prototype system and emulate it using the metatables. At core though an empty table with a custom metatable is basically a magical thing where a custom function gets called anytime you read from it, write to it, or do arithmetic on it.

    Here’s what I’m going to use this for:

    -- Pass this one of the metatables below
    function emptyWithMetatable(metatable)
        local table = {}
        setmetatable(table, metatable)
        return table
    end
    
    -- Transforms table.someCall into LLVM.LLVMSomeCall
    llvmMetatable = {
        __index = function(_, key)
            return LLVM["LLVM" .. capitalize(key)]
        end
    }
    
    llvm = emptyWithMetatable(llvmMetatable)

    The llvm object is empty, so every attempt to read from it invokes the __index function; the __index function capitalizes the lookup key and prepends "LLVM". In other words, saying llvm.int32Type is now equivalent to saying LLVM.LLVMInt32Type.

    Actually, I can do a little better than this— the code above means on every single LLVM function call we’ll be doing a string manipulation on the name, which is less efficient than it could be. But I can add a higher-order function and:

    -- Wrap an __index function in this and it will cache the results in the table,
    -- such that your __index function will only be called once per unique index.
    local function cacheAndReturn(fn)
        return function(table, key)
            local value = fn(table, key)
            table[key] = value
            return value
        end
    end
    
    -- Transforms table.someCall into LLVM.LLVMSomeCall
    llvmMetatable = {
        __index = cacheAndReturn(function(_, key)
            return LLVM["LLVM" .. capitalize(key)]
        end)
    }
    
    llvm = emptyWithMetatable(llvmMetatable)

    That might be a little harder to read, but now every time I look up a key in my magic llvm table, the metatable will cache the result in llvm. On the next attempt to read that key, Lua will just find the key, __index will not be called, and no function call or string manipulation will occur.

  2. Repetitive first argument

    The LLVM library was designed to be object-oriented; most functions act "on" an object, such as a "module" or a "builder". Again I am using the C interface, where the wrapper authors dealt with object methods by just always passing the relevant object as the first argument. In my scripts however I tend to create one module or one builder and use them the entire program, so passing builder.llvm.builder on every single function— as happens in the code snippet above— gets annoying.

    Again I can make this look a little prettier with metatables:

    -- Transforms table.key(input) into target.key(arg, input)
    -- In other words, this wraps a table while prebinding all function calls with one argument 
    function bind1Metatable(target, arg)
        return {
            __index = cacheAndReturn(function(table, key)
                local func = target[key]
                return function(...) return func(arg, ...) end
            end)
        }
    end
    
    builder = emptyWithMetatable(bind1Metatable(llvm, llvm.createBuilder()))

    I now have an object builder which holds an inner LLVM builder object, such that saying builder.buildBr(loop) is equivalent to saying LLVM.LLVMBuildBR(innerBuilder, loop). Again I’m using the cache wrapper, so every time I access a new function from builder it has to construct a prebound wrapper, but on future lookups it just regurgitates the wrapper from before. (Note that as a tiny, probably-inconsequential optimization I’m calculating the value of func outside of the constructed function, so that gets calculated only once, too).

  3. ffi.new is annoying

    This one doesn’t even require metatables to work around:

    function cArray(type, values)
        local arrayType = string.format("%s [%d]", type, #values)
        local array = ffi.new(arrayType)
        for i,v in ipairs(values) do
            array[i-1] = v
        end
        return array
    end

    With this helper function, cArray("int", {1,2,3}) gets me a C FFI array containing (1,2,3). Simple. Notice the index garbage since Lua is 1-indexed.

    Since I will almost always be using the types LLVMTypeRef and LLVMValueRef, I can simplify this a little further even:

    typeArray = func.bind1(cArray, "LLVMTypeRef") -- Uses Penlight 'func' library
    valueArray = func.bind1(cArray, "LLVMValueRef")

With these helpers, my snippet from above now looks like:

local valueDeref = builder.buildLoad(value, "ValueDeref")
local divisorDeref = builder.buildLoad(divisor, "DivisorDeref")

-- printf divisor
local printfArgs = valueArray {
    builder.buildGlobalStringPtr("%d ", "tmpstring"),
    divisorDeref
}
builder.buildCall(printfFn, printfArgs, 2, "tmpcall")

That is way more readable. In the adjusted code, most lines are half the length they were at the end of the last post. By the way, notice me saying valueArray { }; in Lua, if a function name is followed by curly brackets, Lua assumes you were trying to invoke the function with the table inside the { } as a single argument. I will be abusing this heavily later.

Here’s the code so far. Now I get to move on to the fun stuff.

Shadow language [A DSL]

It’s time to design my "DSL" (again: "domain-specific language") for specifying programs. After that last stretch, I’m pretty hyped up on lua metatable magic, so I wanna see how metatables can help me.

With empty tables with custom metatables (…ETCMs?), I have these magical semantic things that I can read from, assign to, treat like numbers, and treat like functions, all using the natural syntax for those things. It sure would be nice if reading variables, assigning fields, adding numbers and calling functions in my language could "look like" actually doing those things in normal syntax. I mean, who wants to write LISP? (LISP users, probably.) I imagine I could set up a world where I can say things like:

variables.x = 3
variables.y = variables.x + 5
functions.print( variables.y )

…where variables and functions are ETCMs; and the objects you get if you read from those tables are ETCMs; and when this code runs it might look like I’m assigning 3 to x, adding 5 to that to get y, and then calling print with the value of y, but I’m not actually doing any of these things. Instead, I’m implicitly calling custom metatable functions that are registering each of these actions as I perform them, and at the end I can extract the record of which metatable functions I called as the specification of my program. The final, real program would "shadow" the fake actions I performed in Lua program.

I decide I’m going to call this DSL "shadow language", and call the magical recording-interactions-only ETCMs you interact with in it "shadow objects", because referring to "the DSL" all the way through this blog post would get really confusing and "ETCM"s might be the worst piece of tech terminology I’ve ever heard.

Instead of trying to write a full spec for the shadow DSL, I decide to write a program in it. I rewrite my number-factoring program from the last blog post:

backend.module("main", function(e)
    e.fn.printf = e.fn(e.type.int32, {e.type.int8.ptr, e.type.vararg})
    
    e.fn.atoi = e.fn(e.type.int32, {e.type.int8.ptr})
    
    e.fn.printFactors = e.fn(nil, {e.type.int32}, function(e, input)
        e.var.value = input
        e.var.divisor = 2
        e.while(e.var.divisor > e.var.value, e.block(function(e)
            e.if(e.var.value % e.var.divisor == 0,
                e.block(function(e)
                    e.fn.printf:call("%d ", e.var.divisor)
                    e.var.value = e.var.value / e.var.divisor
                end),
                e.block(function(e)
                    e.var.divisor = e.var.divisor + 1
                end)
            )
        end))
    end)

    e.fn.main = e.fn(e.int32, {e.type.int32, e.type.int32.ptr}, function(e, argc, argv)
        e.if(argc == 2,
            e.block(function(e)
                e.fn.printFactors:call( e.fn.atoi( argv.idx(1) ) ) 
                e.return(0)
            end),
            e.block(function(e)
                e.fn.printf:call("Please enter exactly one number as argument")
                e.return(1)
            end)
        )
    end)
end)

There’s a few things happening here. I’ll break some of them down:

  • The environment: At all times, I’m working off of this "environment" variable e. e contains a container field var (previously variables), a container fn (previously functions), containers types and blocks, and some helpers like if and while. Each of the containers can be assigned to, to register or (for mutable things like variables) mutate a named item (a variable, function, type or block label). Containers can also be read from, to get a reference (maybe a forward reference) to a named item. Or containers can be called like a function, to create an item in place (for example notice I say e.fn.printFactors = e.fn(...).
  • Construction functions: When I ask a container to create a new function, or a new block, I pass in a lua function. This is because "code", in the shadow language, is encoded in a sequence of Lua statements. So if I want to nest a stretch of "code" inside another, I have to control the sequence of execution somehow. I do that by embedding the "inner" code in its own function, which will get passed its own environment, and will run when the DSL library is ready for it to run.
  • "call": One weird thing: In shadow language a function call doesn’t actually call the function but just returns a record of the idea that a function needs to be called to produce a particular value. When I say e.var.x = e.fn.atoi( "3" ) in the code above, the atoi( "3" ) isn’t a procedure that has an effect, it’s an item in an expression tree. This means if you called e.fn.aoti( "3" ) alone on a line it would have literally no effect, since you didn’t do anything that registers that particular expression tree as an instruction that needs to be emitted. So I need some way to tell the shadow language I want a standalone function call to be emitted, and the way I do this is the awkward :call on the handful of void-returning functions I call here. (If this paragraph confused you: This is my fault, not yours. This bit is confusing.)

So: I have a little DSL! Is it a good DSL? Well, the "printFactors" program is a lot shorter in this than it was in the last post, when I was writing out LLVM IR. I don’t really like how the new program looks, though: The e. everywhere is bugging me. That looks to me like boilerplate, and as previously insinuated, I don’t like boilerplate. When I see boilerplate my eyes start glazing over, and when my eyes glaze over I start missing bugs. Luckily this is something I can fix with more weirdo Lua magic! Lua has a ridiculously abusable-looking feature called setfenv(), which lets you take a function and, before you call it, change the global variables which that function perceives as existing. If I plan to use this, I can eliminate e entirely by making it implicit:

backend.module("main", function()
    fn.printf = fn(type.int32, {type.int8.ptr, type.vararg})
    
    fn.atoi = fn(type.int32, {type.int8.ptr})
    
    fn.printFactors = fn(nil, {type.int32}, function(input)
        var.value = input
        var.divisor = 2
        do.while(var.divisor > var.value, function()
            do.if(var.value % var.divisor == 0,
                function()
                    do.fn.printf("%d ", var.divisor)
                    var.value = var.value / var.divisor
                end,
                function()
                    var.divisor = var.divisor + 1
                end)
        end)
    end)

    fn.main = fn(int32, {type.int32, type.int32.ptr}, function(argc, argv)
        do.if(argc == 2,
            function()
                do.fn.printFactors( fn.atoi( argv.idx(1) ) )
                do.return(0)
            end,
            function()
                do.fn.printf("Please enter exactly one number as argument")
                do.return(1)
            end)
    end)
end)

Here the various members of efn, var, etc— are forcibly populated into each function’s scope before it’s executed. fn doesn’t exist before builder.module() gets called at the top, and it doesn’t exist afterward. It will only exist in the temporary global scope injected by setfenv(). To limit the number of variables I need to inject, I quarantine some of the helpers like if and while into a do object, implied to be the container for non-expression statements— which, conveniently, gives me a better way of handling that :call thing from before.

And once I have things set up like this, I… actually don’t mind this! This is sort of okay. I can read this code. It’s still a bit cumbersome, and the scattered function()s everywhere are more than a little odd, but I’d rather write this than COBOL. This is a good start.

So: I have now a program written in my little program-specification DSL. Can I get to a point where I can compile it?

Improvisational compiler-stage design

When I was originally daydreaming about the shadow DSL, I think I imagined that each of the metatable calls would translate directly into an LLVM Build invocation. If I said var.x + var.y, for example, that would call a metatable __add somewhere which every time it is invoked would just plain call builder.buildAdd( builder.buildLoad(x, ""), builder.buildLoad(y, "") ) and return the resulting LLVMValueRef. This would have been a bad idea even by the standards of this project. Besides being brittle, it wouldn’t work with the syntax in the "printFactors" sample; if I’m using the LLVM builder I need to alloca the variables first thing when generating the function, but with my current DSL I won’t know what variables a function uses until after I’ve executed the DSL code. I need to do something a little bit smarter. I need to create an AST.

Here, finally, I’m doing something normal that a normal compiler would do. There’s probably best practices for how to design an AST. I don’t know what those are so I decide to wing it. I try to imagine what simple structure could be easily constructed from the shadow DSL above, which could also be easily decomposed into LLVM IR.

I imagine I’ll have a tree made of objects of six types: AstModule, AstFn, AstBody, AstBlock, AstType, AstExpr. "Body" is separate from "Function" since external functions like printf don’t have bodies. And the spec for these objects… well, just writing out a sample and then assuming I can craft a library to fit it later seemed to work okay for the shadow language, so maybe it can work for prototyping the AST classes also. I sit down and write out code instantiating an AST for something like my printFactors program inline:

module = AstModule{name="main"}
int32 = AstType{literal=int32Type}
int8 = AstType{literal=int8Type}
void = AstType{}
int8ptr = AstType{ptr=int8}
int8ptrptr = AstType{ptr=int8ptr}
module.namedFns.printf = AstFn{ret=int32, args={int8ptr}, vararg=true}
module.namedFns.atoi = AstFn{ret=int32, args={int8ptr}}
module.namedFns.printFactors = AstFn{ret=void, args={int32}, body=AstBody{
    vars = { value=int32, divisor=int32 },
    namedBlocks={
        entry=AstBlock{
            exprs={
                AstExpr{op='store', var='value', value=AstExpr{op='getParam',idx=0}},
                AstExpr{op='store', var='divisor', value=AstExpr{op='literal',value=2}}
            },
            exit='loop'
        },
        loop=AstBlock{
            exprs={
                AstExpr{op='branch', cond=AstExpr{op='bin', op2='>=', value={
                    AstExpr{op='load', var='value'}, AstExpr{op='load', var='divisor'}
                }}, y='modulo', n='done'}
            }
        },
        modulo=AstBlock{
            exprs={
                AstExpr{op='branch', cond=AstExpr{op='bin', op2='==', value={
                    AstExpr{op='bin', op2='%', value={
                        AstExpr{op='load', var='value'}, AstExpr{op='load', var='divisor'}
                    }},
                    AstExpr{op='literal', value=0}, 
                }}, y='divide', n='increment'}
            }
        },
...

This… goes on, for quite a while. I’ll spare you pasting the entire thing. It’s actually kind of dreadful. The written-out AST turns out to be almost as long as the LLVM-assembly-written-out-in-lua blob from my last blog post, but is somehow less readable. I guess that’s probably okay— the AST isn’t designed to be human-readable or writable.

The job of my AST classes is going to be to hold the structure of the program and generate LLVM objects from that structure. They’re all going to inherit from an AstBase:

class.AstBase()
    function AstBase:_init(spec)
        self.spec = spec
    end

    function AstBase:llvm()
        if not self.cached then
            self.cached = self:render()
        end
        return self.cached
    end

The constructor here follows a pattern that I use in every single Lua program I write, but I’ve never seen anyone else do; the arguments to the constructor are taken as a structure, which I store as self.spec. Normally in OO programming when you write constructors you take an argument list and then your constructor assigns each positional argument to a named variable in the object. I hate writing these. It’s just the most tedious, unnecessary-feeling thing. So instead in Lua, where I’m allowed to do this, my constructors take a structure full of named fields— you’ll notice in my sample code above, the constructor invocations all use {} brackets instead of ()— and nothing needs to be unpacked. Notice that this means all the constructor arguments are effectively optional.

Ultimately what these AST classes exist for is to convert a spec structure into an LLVM primitive. You pass in the spec to the constructor, and you fetch back an LLVM primitive by calling llvm(). To implement an AST class you only need to implement render(), which llvm() calls (and caches the result of, to guarantee render() only gets called once even if a single object shows up multiple places in the tree).

I try implementing one of the classes— AstType, which I expect will be the simplest:

class.AstType(AstBase)
    function AstType:_init(spec) self:super(spec) end

    function AstType:render()
        if self.spec.literal then return self.spec.literal end
        if self.spec.ptr then
            return llvm.pointerType(self.spec.ptr:llvm(), 0)
        end
        return llvm.voidType()
    end

So AstType expects one of three different specs:

  • {literal=}, with a premade LLVM type object as literal; in this case llvm() returns the type object.
  • {ptr=}, with an AstType as ptr; in this case llvm() returns a pointer type of the child type.
  • Empty {}, in which case it returns the void type.

(The constructor in this code snippet is unnecessary, by the way, since the default behavior with Penlight classes is to call the super constructor. But it’s nice to have the constructor already pasted in.)

So this is pretty straightforward! I have a program written out as calls to the constructors of these AST classes; I have a class heirarchy; and now I just need to fill in those render() methods and I’ll be able to generate an entire LLVM module by calling llvm() once. Everything I’ve done in this project so far has proceeded really quickly, so I sit down on a Sunday morning and hope I’ll be able to finish implementing the AST classes that day.

Two weeks later…

Slightly less improvisational compiler-stage design

Okay. What am I actually doing here?

I want to be able to specify programs as data structures in memory. I want this so I can design programming interfaces that construct those data structures. At the moment I want this so that I can implement my shadow DSL, but that’s not the long term goal. I don’t really care about the shadow language; it’s an experiment for a silly blog post. But I believe I’ll be making more complicated things later, and when I do so I’ll be using this AST framework. Honestly what I’m probably going to do with the AST framework before too long is just plug LPEG into it, at which point— despite my protestations— I will have literally written a compiler.

At the moment, when you "render" this AST into a program, it does so using LLVM. But I could imagine, at some point, making a version of the AST framework that uses the same interface but generates (for example) Javascript instead of LLVM IR. (You can generate Javascript from LLVM IR, but it’s pretty ugly Javascript since LLVM IR’s model is simpler than Javascript is.) So it would be good to design this so it can easily be adapted to support code generation models that don’t look like LLVM’s.

At the moment the design doesn’t actually support even LLVM. Let’s talk for a moment about what LLVM does.

When I call one of those LLVM build functions:

local two = llvm.constInt(int32Type, 2, false)
local three = llvm.constInt(int32Type, 3, false)

builder.buildAdd(two, three, "sum")

When I call builder.buildAdd, executing that call has a side effect. It’s writing a line of LLVM assembly into a ledger somewhere:

%sum = add i32 2, i32 3

Sometimes I use a value that a build function returns:

local value = builder.buildAdd(two, three, "sum")
builder.buildRet(value)

What does buildAdd return? Well, it returns %sum from the assembly snippet. This last bit of Lua is telling the builder to write in its ledger:

%sum = add i32 2, i32 3
ret i32 %sum

Since LLVM calls have side effects, it matters when you call LLVM functions. There are some things order matters for and some it doesn’t; you can construct a type or a function at any time, for example. LLVMConstInt likewise does not care about order. But it does matter the order you create blocks in, since the first block added to a function is always the entry. And it matters the order you build expressions/instructions in, because when you build an instruction its "name" gets added to the current block and if you write your instruction into the ledger for the wrong block you might not be able to reference it later.

So this means my first-attempt design for AstBase, where ast objects render their contents exactly once the first time you try to read them, isn’t very good. On my second attempt, render gets replaced with three functions: register(), render(), and emit().

In my second-attempt design, compiling happens in two passes. First, every object in the entire AST gets a register() call. This allows the AST to inspect itself and make sure things are correct, and if anything the AST does is time-sensitive it can use register() as an opportunity to note that down, so that in the second pass it knows to do things in the correct order. On the second pass, each object gets called with exactly one of emit() or render(). emit() and render() are actually the same thing, but render() is for things which return a value after emitting themselves and emit() is for things that don’t. When you emit() a module, there’s no point in returning the LLVM module object, but when you emit an add instruction you will tend to immediately need the LLVM object it returns.

The two passes are managed by the AstModule object, which is the top-level entry to everything else. It doesn’t have a register phase; to create a program you create an AstModule object and call module:emit(). AstModule‘s emit looks like:

-- Register all functions
for k,v in pairs(self.namedFns) do
    v.name = k
    v:register()
end

-- Emit all functions
for _,v in pairs(self.namedFns) do
    v:emit()
end

-- Process
backend:verify()
for _,v in pairs(self.namedFns) do
    backend:optimize(v.llvmObj)
end

-- Write
backend:debugDump()
backend:emitToFile()

What happens in the register phase? Well, functions register themselves with the module; function bodies build a list of their blocks and a list of their local variables; and expressions notify their function bodies which blocks and variables they use. Every leaf in the AST gets visited once while this is happening. If any particular node has references to other AstBase objects, then when it is register()ed it needs to call register() on those as well.

Here a bit of a problem comes up, and it requires me to make one more tweak to my model. If an AstExpr has to notify its AstBody about variables it uses, that means it needs to be able to find its AstBody. Actually, potentially, an expr might need to be able to get references to any one of (1) its module, (2) its function, (3) its body or (4) its block. I briefly consider passing all four of these down as arguments to every render() call, or maybe having each AstExpr keep a reference to all four. Both of these options sound miserable. I go with something that might not be as good software engineering, but works: I track a global "current" module, function, body and block. I give AstBase a function:

function AstBase:recur(label, fn)
    local prev = backend[label] -- Allow nesting
    backend[label] = self
    fn()
    backend[label] = prev
end

The generation process for modules and blocks nests nicely— each expression belongs to at most one block, each block belongs to at most one function, etc. When we call register() on an AstBody, we’ll be working with that body until the function completes. So we can use the shared global backend object to track the fact of, for example, which body we are currently working on. The "recur" function takes a function to execute, and is responsible for setting the tracked field before execution and then unsetting it afterward. (It saves and re-sets "prev" rather than just writing to nil at the end because later on I figured out that sometimes you might have to interrupt processing one block to look at another and then come back.) So for example an AstBody could call:

self:recur('currentBody', function()
    -- Any external functions called in this stretch of code
    -- will be able to find self at backend.currentBody
end)

Armed with these two tweaks— the two-pass tree traversal, and the ‘current’ tracking— my model works much better. There’s just one more idea I need to introduce, and then I’ll be able to show you the code. If you look at the AST sample above, you’ll notice I refer to variables and blocks by name. In practice once I start writing the render() functions it turns out to be a little bit awkward to look things up by name every time you use them. Also, it would be sort of cool if when I’m writing the AST structures I could "inline" small anonymous blocks. For example, toward the end of the full version of my sample AST I wound up writing:

AstExpr{op='branch',
    -- Condition: Verify that argc, the first argument to main(), is equal to 2
    cond=AstExpr{op='bin', op2='==', value={
        AstExpr{op='getParam',idx=0}, AstExpr{op='literal',value=2}
    }},

    -- Condition succeed block
    y=AstBlock{exprs={
        -- [[Snip]]
        -- Here I call printFactors, print a newline, and return 0
    }},

    -- Condition fail block
    n=AstBlock{exprs={
        AstExpr{op='call', fn='printf', args={
            AstExpr{op='literal',value="Please enter exactly one number as argument.\n"}
        }},
        AstExpr{op='return', value=AstExpr{op='literal', value=1}}
    }}
}

Instead of giving names to the blocks to the y and n branches of this branch statement, I just stuck AstBlock objects in there.

What I decide is that by the time emit()/render() is called, all "by name" references should be converted to plain object references— block names to AstBlocks, var names to a new AstVar structure. So for example later on when I implement register() for the branch-type AstExpr, it’s going to say something like:

for _,k in ipairs({"y", "n"}) do
    if self.spec[k] then
        self.spec[k] = backend.currentBody:registerBlock(self.spec[k])
    end
end

registerBlock() will be a "sanitizer" function that takes either an AstBlock or a name; if it’s an AstBlock it will just return it, if it’s a name it will look up the AstBlock for that name and return it. AstExpr:register() is expected to sweep through and replace any block references the expr has with references to whatever registerBlock() returns.

Now, at this point some of you might point out that once I perform this operation, the "AST" is no longer properly a "tree" because the references can reconverge and potentially even loop. WELL MAYBE IT IS SOME KIND OF FREAKY MUTANT LARRY NIVEN SPACE TREE AND YOU SHOULD JUST DEAL.

ast.lua

I am now finally ready to write some code. First off, here’s my AstBase class:

-- Base class for all AST objects
class.AstBase()
    function AstBase:_init(spec)
        self.spec = spec
    end

    function AstBase:llvm() -- Generate then return llvmObj
        if not self.llvmObj then
            self.llvmObj = self:render()
        end
        return self.llvmObj
    end

    function AstBase:render() -- Some objects do not support llvm()
        error("Could not render this object. You may need to call emit() first")
    end

    function AstBase:recur(label, fn) -- Temporarily register with backend and run function
        local prev = backend[label] -- Allow nesting
        backend[label] = self
        fn()
        backend[label] = prev
    end

All this code has already appeared in this post— the only new thing is the error-throwing default implementation for render(). Next comes the first of my actual AST object classes:

-- Representation for a module (ie, an object file). Call emit() to create program
class.AstModule(AstBase)
    function AstModule:_init(spec)
        self:super(spec)
        self.namedFns = self.spec.namedFns or {}
        self.spec.namedFns = nil
    end

    function AstModule:recur(fn) AstBase.recur(self, 'currentModule', fn) end

I give the individual classes personalized versions of recur() which have their "name" baked in. Here’s AstModule:emit() again, in its final form:

function AstModule:emit()
     -- Set a global for the duration of this function
    if backend then error("AstModule:emit called, but backend already exists") end
    backend = Backend("main")
    
    self:recur(function()
        -- Register all functions
        for k,v in pairs(self.namedFns) do
            v.name = k
            v:register()
        end

        -- Emit all functions
        for _,v in pairs(self.namedFns) do
            v:emit()
        end

        -- Process
        backend:verify()
        for _,v in pairs(self.namedFns) do
            backend:optimize(v.llvmObj)
        end

        -- Write
        backend:debugDump()
        backend:emitToFile()
    end)
    
    self.backend = backend
    backend = nil
end

Where most of the functions are only responsible for registering themselves with the global backend object, AstModule has to register the backend object itself. One more thing and then we’re done with AstModule:

-- Lookup/sanitization for functions
function AstModule:fn(name)
    -- Note it is assumed ALL modules are registered manually before emission starts
    if type(name) == 'string' then
        return self.namedFns[name]
    else
        return name -- Assume this is a function object already
    end
end

This is one of those "sanitizer" functions I mentioned, since the module object is responsible for managing functions.

AstFn is pretty simple:

-- Representation for a function
class.AstFn(AstBase)
    function AstFn:_init(spec) self:super(spec) end

    function AstFn:recur(fn) AstBase.recur(self, 'currentFn', fn) end

    function AstFn:register()
        if not self.llvmObj then
            self.llvmObj = backend.module.addFunction(self.name, self:type())
            if self.spec.body then
                self:recur(function() self.spec.body:register() end)
            end
        end
    end

    function AstFn:emit()
        if self.spec.body then
            self:recur(function() self.spec.body:emit() end)
        end
    end

Other than registering the function with the module during register(), AstFn pretty much just defers to its body object. The only real complexity is in the helper that calculates the function’s type in LLVM terms:

-- Fetch the LLVMFunctionType for this function
function AstFn:type()
    if not self.llvmType then
        local args = {}
        for i,v in ipairs(self.spec.args or {}) do
            table.insert(args, v:llvm())
        end
        self.llvmType = llvm.functionType(self.spec.ret and self.spec.ret:llvm() or llvm.voidType(),
            typeArray(args), #args, self.spec.vararg and true or false)
    end
    return self.llvmType
end

ret and args are AstType objects, so we need to call llvm() on them to get the representations LLVM consumes. Moving on to AstBody:

-- Representation for a function body
class.AstBody(AstBase)
    function AstBody:_init(spec)
        self:super(spec)
        self.spec.namedBlocks = self.spec.namedBlocks or {}
        self.anonBlocks = {}
        self.namedVars = {}
    end

    function AstBody:recur(fn) AstBase.recur(self, 'currentBody', fn) end

Notice the "or" statement specifying a default for namedBlocks if one isn’t in the spec already. (This implies a slightly wierd wrinkle on my convention of storing some fields inside of "spec"; the AST objects can mutate the spec objects, so you’d better not pass a single spec structure to multiple constructors.)

function AstBody:register()
    self:recur(function()
        self.llvmAllocaBlock = llvm.appendBasicBlock(backend.currentFn.llvmObj, "")

        for k,v in pairs(self.spec.namedBlocks) do
            v.name = k
            v:register()
        end

        if not self.spec.entry then error("Block without entry") end
        self.entry = self:registerBlock(self.spec.entry)
    end)
end

The body’s register() phase is mainly concerned with its blocks. Notice two blocks are special; the "alloca block" is the entry block where I register variables, so it must be registered with the function before anything else happens. The entry block is the block the alloca block transfers control to when it’s done. entry is mandatory for an AstBody spec, but it can be either a block object or a name, so registerBlock() is used.

-- Lookup/sanitization for a block during register phase. Accepts either a name or a block object.
function AstBody:registerBlock(b)
    if type(b) == 'string' then return self.spec.namedBlocks[b] end
    b:register()
    return b
end

-- Lookup/sanitization for a var during register phase. Accepts either a name or a var object.
function AstBody:registerVar(v, create)
    if type(v) == 'string' then
        if self.namedVars[v] then
            v = self.namedVars[v]
        else
            local name = v
            v = AstVar{}
            v.name = name
        end
    end
    if create then v.valid = true end
    v:register()
    return v
end

Here’s those sanitize functions I mentioned. Two things to notice: The work of actually registering is passed off to the register implementations for AstBlock and AstVar; also, registerVar takes a "create" argument which discriminates whether we are writing to or reading from a function. If a variable is ever read from in a function where it’s never written to, I’ll want that to be an error.

function AstBody:emit()
    self:recur(function()
        -- Instantiate vars
        backend.builder.positionBuilderAtEnd(self.llvmAllocaBlock)

        local function alloca(v)
            v.llvmObj = backend.builder.buildAlloca(int32Type, v.name or "anon")
        end

        for _,v in pairs(self.namedVars) do alloca(v) end
        for _,v in ipairs(self.anonVars) do alloca(v) end

        backend.builder.buildBr(self.entry.llvmObj)

        -- Run blocks
        for k,v in pairs(self.spec.namedBlocks) do
            v:emit()
        end
        for _,v in ipairs(self.anonBlocks) do
            v:emit()
        end
    end)
end

In its emission phase, a body generates the "alloca" block itself— again consisting only of the alloca instructions that reserve room for its variables on the stack, followed by a jump into the entry block— and then directs its blocks to emit themselves in no particular order. Notice that with both vars and blocks, there’s a split between "named" and "anonymous" items; "anonymous" blocks or vars wind up being those AstBlocks or AstVars that just sort of get discovered while traversing the AST without ever being assigned to a name. You can see this in action in AstBlock:register():

-- Representation for a block within a function
class.AstBlock(AstBase)
    function AstBlock:_init(spec)
        self:super(spec)
        self.spec.exprs = self.spec.exprs or {}
    end

    function AstBlock:register()
        if not self.llvmObj then
            if not self.name then table.insert(backend.currentBody.anonBlocks, self) end
            self.llvmObj = llvm.appendBasicBlock(backend.currentFn.llvmObj, self.name or "anon")
            for _,v in ipairs(self.spec.exprs) do
                v:register()
            end
            if self.spec.exit then
                self.exit = backend.currentBody:registerBlock(self.spec.exit)
            end
        end
    end

Named blocks are already present in namedBlocks, in the AstBody‘s spec, but blocks without names are apparently being found somewhere in the tree and need to be added to anonBlocks when they’re discovered. Notice something a little bit subtle here: since blocks can point at each other through AstExprs that branch, register() on a single block might get called more than once, so the method has to detect it’s already been run and silently return in that case. Once again, technically my "Abstract Syntax Tree" is more of a directed graph and the register() process is doing a DFS on that graph.

function AstBlock:emit()
    backend.builder.positionBuilderAtEnd(self.llvmObj)
    for i,v in ipairs(self.spec.exprs) do
        v:llvm()
    end
    if self.exit then
        backend.builder.buildBr(self.exit.llvmObj)
    end
end

Emission phase for a block is simple. The expressions (instructions) get rendered, and then as a convenience the AstBlock emits the jump out itself.

AstType and AstVar are also simple:

-- Representation for a variable type
class.AstType(AstBase)
    function AstType:_init(spec) self:super(spec) end

    function AstType:render()
        if self.spec.literal then return self.spec.literal end
        if self.spec.ptr then
            return llvm.pointerType(self.spec.ptr:llvm(), 0)
        end
        return llvm.voidType()
    end

-- Representation for a variable within a function
class.AstVar(AstBase)
    function AstType:_init(spec) self:super(spec) end

    function AstVar:register()
        if self.registered then return end
        self.registered = true
        if self.name then
            backend.currentBody.namedVars[self.name] = self
        else
            table.insert(backend.currentBody.anonVars, self)
        end
    end

AstType I’ve actually inlined in this post already, and AstVar is pretty much the same registration behavior as AstBlock (with the difference that the variable names aren’t already known at the time the register phase starts).

The final class, AstExpr, is the most complicated one by far. Here’s its register phase:

-- Representation for an expression or statement within a function
class.AstExpr(AstBase)
    function AstExpr:_init(spec) self:super(spec) end

    function AstExpr:register()
        if self.registered then return end
        self.registered = true

        local function registerValue()
            self.spec.value:register()
        end

        local switch = {
            bin = function()
                self.spec.value[1]:register()
                self.spec.value[2]:register()
            end,
            ['return'] = function()
                if self.spec.value then registerValue() end
            end,
            store = function()
                self.var = backend.currentBody:registerVar(self.spec.var, true)
                registerValue()
            end,
            load = function()
                self.var = backend.currentBody:registerVar(self.spec.var)
            end,
            deref = function()
                registerValue()
                if self.spec.idx then self.spec.idx:register() end
            end,
            branch = function()
                if self.spec.cond then self.spec.cond:register() end
                for _,k in ipairs({"y", "n"}) do
                    if self.spec[k] then
                        self.spec[k] = backend.currentBody:registerBlock(self.spec[k])
                    end
                end
                if not self.spec.y then error("Branch lacks a destination") end
                if self.spec.cond and not self.spec.n then
                    error("Conditional branch lacks a \"no\"")
                end
            end,
            call = function()
                for _,v in ipairs(self.spec.args) do
                    v:register()
                end
            end
        }
        local fn = switch[self.spec.op]
        if fn then fn() end
    end

AstExpr is complicated because it’s actually a bunch of different things. It has an op field which indicates what, exactly, this expression is doing. Someone more committed to OOP than me might have just made a different AstExpr for each op, but I just use a switch statement. Lua doesn’t have switch statements. I fake it with a table full of closures.

Other than a tiny amount of error checking, the register phase for an AstExpr is concerned only with furthering the DFS on the directed graph that is the "AST". Expressions, depending on what their op is, might reference a number of other AstExprs, AstVars or AstBlocks. Each of those needs to get their register() called.

AstExpr‘s render() is another big switch statement, so let’s take it a little bit at a time.

function AstExpr:render()
    local function literal(v)
        local t = type(v)
        if t == 'number' then -- Accept unwrapped numbers and strings
            return llvm.constInt(int32Type, v, false)
        elseif t == 'string' then
            return backend.builder.buildGlobalStringPtr(v, "")
        else     -- Otherwise assume we've been passed an LLVM object
            return v
        end
    end

    local switch = { -- Lookup table on op
        literal = function()
            return literal(self.spec.value)
        end,

The literal op, used to represent a inlined value in the AST, has its own little helper function. I don’t think I had a particularly good reason why.

bin = function() -- Binary expression
    local a = self.spec.value[1]:llvm()
    local b = self.spec.value[2]:llvm()
    local function build(kind) return function()
        return backend.builder['build'..capitalize(kind)](a, b, "")
    end end
    local function iCmp(kind) return function()
        return backend.builder.buildICmp(llvm[kind], a, b, "")
    end end
    local switch2 = {
        ['>'] = iCmp('intSGT'),  ['<'] = iCmp('intSLT'),
        ['>='] = iCmp('intSGE'), ['<='] = iCmp('intSLE'),
        ['=='] = iCmp('intEQ'),  ['!='] = iCmp('intNE'),
        ['+'] = build('add'),    ['-'] = build('sub'),
        ['*'] = build('mul'),    ['/'] = build('sDiv'),
        ['%'] = build('sRem')
    }
    return switch2[self.spec.op2]()
end,

bin has an op2 and its own inner switch. A fun thing about building a switch from a table of functions is that I can build the switch cases themselves using higher-order functions! This results in an incredibly clean looking switch statement at the cost of two nearly inscrutable helper functions. FUNCTIONAL PROGRAMMING.

Most of the ops there’s not much to say about— here, at last, I’m only doing a straightforward conversion from spec members to LLVM builder calls—

['return'] = function()
    if self.spec.value then
        local value = self.spec.value:llvm()
        backend.builder.buildRet(value)
    else
        return backend.builder.buildRetVoid()
    end
end,
getParam = function()
    return llvm.getParam(backend.currentFn.llvmObj, self.spec.idx)
end,
call = function()
    if not self.spec.fn then error("Function not found "..self.spec.fn) end
    local llvmArgs = {}                    -- map :llvm() on self.spec.args
    for _,v in ipairs(self.spec.args) do
        table.insert(llvmArgs, v:llvm())
    end
    local fn = backend.currentModule:fn(self.spec.fn)
    return backend.builder.buildCall(fn.llvmObj, valueArray(llvmArgs), #llvmArgs, "")
end,

—but a couple things stand out.

store, load and branch wind up accessing the .llvmObj of the blocks and variables they reference directly, since blocks and variables don’t have a render() and are required to have been constructed before the code reaches this point:

store = function()
    return backend.builder.buildStore( self.spec.value:llvm(), self.var.llvmObj )
end,
load = function()
    return backend.builder.buildLoad( self.var.llvmObj, "" )
end,
branch = function()
    if self.spec.cond then
        return backend.builder.buildCondBr(self.spec.cond:llvm(), self.spec.y.llvmObj, self.spec.n.llvmObj)
    else
        return backend.builder.buildBr(self.spec.y.llvmObj)
    end
end,

Finally, deref combines the slightly confusing LLVM getelementptr instruction and a load into a single operation, which is slightly more apt for my uses:

        deref = function() -- TODO: Allow idx to be a list
            local ptr = self.spec.value:llvm()
            if self.spec.idx then
                ptr = backend.builder.buildGEP(ptr, valueArray {self.spec.idx:llvm()}, 1, "")
            end
            return backend.builder.buildLoad(ptr, "")
        end
    }
    return switch[self.spec.op]()
end

…and that’s it! I run my printFactors-as-an-AST sample file:

luajit tests/printFactorsAst.lua && cc -o main main.o && ./main 543

And the result is 3 181.

It works! The AST version of the printFactors program is a little shorter than the version where I write out all the LLVM-C calls by hand (144 lines vs. 99), but it requires this 370 line AST library so maybe that’s a bit of a wash. Whatever. Here’s the code so far.

This two-week detour completed, I finally get to start on the shadow language.

shadow.lua

The DSL framework’s external interface will be two functions: shadowFn, which returns an AstFn, and shadowModule, which returns an AstModule. This means I could potentially mix functions defined with shadowFn into a module defined with the AST interface and vice versa.

shadowModule takes the name of the module, and the "construction function" for the module. Remember, a "construction function" is where the shadow language is written— it’s a function with no arguments which I’m planning to inject the shadow-language symbols into. shadowModule winds up being pretty simple. All it has to do is build the list of injected symbols and then call the construction function:

-- Create an AstModule given a name and a construction function
function shadowModule(name, gen)
    local module = AstModule{name=name}
    if gen then
        local env = {
            fn = emptyWithMetatable {
                __newindex = function(table, key, value)
                    module.namedFns[key] = value
                end,
                __call = function(func, ...)
                    return shadowFunction(...)
                end
            },
            type = shadowType
        }
        execWithEnv(gen, env)
    end
    return module
end

…and at the stage where you’re only defining modules, it doesn’t have much to inject. The only injected symbols in the module construction function are fn and type. Let’s consider fn first. You can only do two things with fn: assign to it to define a new function (__newindex), or call it to make an AstFn (__call). Since fn has the same interface as shadowFn I can just re-call shadowFn, and since the return value of shadowFn is already an AstFn I can just stick the return directly into the AstModule I’m building. type I’ll come back to in a moment.

execWithEnv isn’t something that exists in Lua, I had to build it:

-- Takes a function and a table, and executes fn with env as its _G.
-- Resets everything at completion, but does not use env's metatable during execution.
function execWithEnv(fn, env)
    local envOldMetatable = getmetatable(env)
    local fnOldEnv = getfenv(fn)

    -- Make fn's original env available as a parent scope
    local envMetatable = {__index=fnOldEnv}
    if (envOldMetatable) then setmetatable(env, nil) end -- Double-setting metatable not allowed
    setmetatable(env, envMetatable)

    -- Run fn
    setfenv(fn, env)
    fn()

    -- Restore original state
    setfenv(fn, fnOldEnv)
    setmetatable(env, envOldMetatable)
end

setfenv is a pretty blunt instrument; it doesn’t preserve the original scope of the function you’re mutating, and the effects on the function it acts on are permanent. execWithEnv is a bit easier to work with, but making it that way takes some work.

Anyway, type. This is where things start to get interesting. Wiring the fn container in the module construction scope was simple because its inputs and outputs were just the AstFn objects from earlier. But the members of type are going to be shadow objects— magical semantic things loaded up with however much metatable trickery I need to get the behavior I want in my DSL.

What’s the behavior I want? Looking back at the original "printFactors" sample, I fetched some int types (int8 and int32) from this type container, and I used a .ptr field on the returned types to get pointer versions. So the only special behavior I need on a type object is that .ptr field:

-- Convert AstType to shadow type
local function shadowTypeMake(v)
    local shadowTypeMetatable = {__index=cacheAndReturn(function(type, key)
        if key == 'ptr' then
            return shadowTypeMake(AstType{ptr=type.__astObject})
        end
        return nil
    end)}

    local t = {__astObject=v}
    setmetatable(t, shadowTypeMetatable)
    return t
end

A single shadow type has its AstType hidden inside as __astObject, and the ptr field is wired up to create and cache the pointer version on demand. So that’s a type object; now I need to make the type container.

-- Dispenser for shadow types, currently contains only int[number]s
shadowType = {
    fromAst = shadowTypeMake,
    vararg = {} -- Arbitrary object for comparing by reference
}

(shadowType.vararg is what you pass in as the final argument type if you have a function, like printf, which uses C vararg.)

shadowType has these two fixed members, and then a few more members are generated by the metatable:

setmetatable(shadowType, {__index=cacheAndReturn(function(_, k)
    local llvmType = nil

    -- Automatically look up int constructors in LLVM headers
    local _,_,intmatch = string.find(k, '^int(%d+)$') -- # of bits
    if intmatch then
        llvmType = llvm['int'..intmatch..'Type']()
    end

    if llvmType then
        return shadowTypeMake(AstType{literal=llvmType})
    end

    return nil
end)})

This is completely gratuitous. I need to make available six int types (1, 8, 16, 32, 64 and 128 bits); I could have just taken six lines to populate six members of shadowType, but instead I do eight lines of metaprogramming to make those six objects be generated on demand. Look, I write C all day at work. Let me have my fun.

Modules and types out of the way, it’s time to take on functions. A first pass at shadowFunction could look something like this:

-- Create an AstFn given a return shadow type, a list of arg shadow types, and a construction function
function shadowFunction(ret, args, gen)
    local astArgs = {}
    local vararg = false

    for _,v in ipairs(args) do
        if shadowType.vararg == v then -- Not a real argument, just denotes this fn is vararg
            vararg = true
        else
            table.insert(astArgs, v.__astObject)
        end
    end

    local fn = AstFn{ret=ret.__astObject, args=astArgs, vararg=vararg}
    if gen then
        -- TODO: RUN CONSTRUCTION FUNCTION
    end
    return fn
end

In this first pass I don’t actually call the construction function or create a function body— I just calculate the fn’s argument and return types and register the function as existing. (The types are accepted here as shadow objects, so "calculating" the types just means fetching the .__astObject fields out of the shadow types, then checking to see if the argument list ends with the magic vararg value.)

With exactly this code I’ve got so far and without filling in that TODO, I’ve got code that can generate a module, generate a function with no body, and generate types. This is actually enough to do a test (even a test that executes, since I can inject functions with bodies if I use AstFn). I decide to set a simple test up:

require("lib-lua/simple")
require("lib-lua/practice/shadow")

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.printf = fn(type.int32, {type.int8.ptr, type.vararg})
    
    fn.atoi = fn(type.int32, {type.int8.ptr})
end):emit()

And this gives me a working module!

; ModuleID = 'main'

declare i32 @printf(i8*, ...)

declare i32 @atoi(i8*)

…or, well, it gives me a working module once I fix five or eight typos, learn that if you don’t return nil at the end of a metatable __index function the default behavior is not what you expect, and then realize that I forgot to implement the vararg feature and go back and rewrite the last few paragraphs of this post to include it. Anyway! I’ve proven the shadow-language concept works.

Here’s the code so far.

Final lap

No more scaffolding. On the first post in this series, I daydreamed about writing a DSL in idiomatic Lua; now all I have to do to get that working is implement that TODO: RUN CONSTRUCTION FUNCTION from the last code stretch.

I decide to implement this one feature at a time, and write a small test for each feature I add. The simplest function body I could support here is:

require("lib-lua/simple")
require("lib-lua/practice/shadow")

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.main = fn(int32, {type.int32, type.int8.ptr.ptr}, function()
        go._return(3)
    end)
end):emit()

This snippet is a little different from the syntax I was using before. Something that didn’t occur to me when I wrote the original "printFactors" sample is that do, while, if and return are pure reserved words in Lua— they’re not even legal names for fields. To work around this I renamed do to go, and for while/if/return, I… couldn’t decide what to do, so I tacked on underscores for now.

TODO: RUN CONSTRUCTION FUNCTION now becomes:

local function nextBlock() return AstBlock{exprs={}} end
local block = nextBlock()
fn.spec.body = AstBody{entry = block}

-- Given a Lua value, return an AstExpr
local function literal(v) return AstExpr{op='literal', value=v} end

-- Given either a Lua value or an AstExpr, return an AstExpr
local function literalFilter(v)
    if astLiteralAllowed(v) then return literal(v) else return v end
end

execWithEnv(gen, {
    go = {
        _return = function(v)
            table.insert(block.spec.exprs, AstExpr{op='return', value=literalFilter(v)})
        end
    }
})

When a construction function is present, I create a body and a block for the fn being built, and then I run the construction function in execWithEnv like I did with modules. Right now the only thing I inject in the construction environment for fns is go, and all it needs to contain is _return. All _return does when you invoke it— all basically any line of "code" in the construction functions is going to do— is append an AstExpr object representing some instruction (in this case return) to the current block.

The literalFilter() helper is something I need because things lke _return() consume AST objects, but the argument I pass in might instead be a native Lua value like "3". I need to figure out what I have and convert it to an AST, and I delegate the task of figuring out what I have to a new function in ast.lua:

function astLiteralAllowed(v)
    local t = type(v)
    return t == 'number' or t == 'string' or t == 'cdata'
end

I assume native Lua values are numbers, strings, or LLVM objects (which are easy to identify because Lua knows they came from C).

This simple test program doesn’t output anything, but I can treat its UNIX return value as "output" and verify it works:

$ (luajit tests/returnValueShadow.lua && cc -o main main.o && ./main) 2> /dev/null
$ echo $?
3

My next test program, I add in variables:

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.main = fn(type.int32, {type.int32, type.int8.ptr.ptr}, function()
        var.x = 5
        var.x = 6
        go._return(var.x)
    end)
end):emit()

To make this test work this I inject var into the construction environment:

var = emptyWithMetatable({
    __index = function(_, key)
        return AstExpr{op='load', var=key}
    end,
    __newindex = function(_, key, value)
        table.insert(block.spec.exprs, AstExpr{op='store', var=key, value=literalFilter(value)})
    end
}),

When you write a value into var (__newindex) it writes a store instruction as an AstExpr to the end of the current block’s expr list; when you read a value it writes nothing to the expr list, but returns a load AST that a different, value-writing function (in this case _return) might use.

So far pretty simple. In the next test I add in arithmetic:

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.main = fn(type.int32, {type.int32, type.int8.ptr.ptr}, function()
        var.x = 5
        var.y = var.x + 4
        go._return(var.x + var.y)
    end)
end):emit()

Suddenly things are less simple.

I’ve been vaguely toying with this idea of "shadow" versions of values— for example, the "shadow type" objects I created earlier— which if you remember are tables with a hidden __astObject inside, and a tricked-out metatable to allow manipulating that AST object with Lua syntax. For + to work on the value returned by var.x, it’s going to need to be a shadow value. I’ll create that shadow value with shadowExprMake():

-- Convert AstExpr to shadow expr
local function shadowExprMake(v)
    local function binop(op2)
        return function(l, r)
            return shadowExprMake( AstExpr{op='bin', op2=op2, value={literalFilter(l), literalFilter(r)}} )
        end
    end
    local shadowExprMetatable = {
        __add = binop('+'), __sub = binop('-'), __mul = binop('*'), __div = binop('/'),
        __mod = binop('%'), __eq = binop('=='), __lt = binop('<'), __le = binop('<=')
    }

    local t = {__astObject=v}
    setmetatable(t, shadowExprMetatable)
    return t
end

Do you follow all the levels of indirection involved here? Calling shadowExprMake() constructs a metatable where __add is a function created by a higher order function binop(). When that __add function is invoked, it will "recursively" call shadowExprMake() to create a new shadow object which corresponds to whatever performing the + operation on the targets would logically result in. The code is at once compact, elegant and extremely difficult to follow!

I have to change the existing code for this to work: Before, _return, and the = operation on var, were expecting AST objects, and var.varname returned an AST object. But now I’m going to be working with shadow exprs instead of AstExprs directly, so I’m going to need to change var.varname to return shadow exprs:

__index = function(_, key)
    return shadowExprMake(AstExpr{op='load', var=key})
end

And I have to change literalFilter— which again, _return and operator-= on var filter everything they use through— to assume non-literal values are shadow exprs:

-- Given either a Lua value or shadow value, return an AstExpr
local function filterToAst(v)
    if astLiteralAllowed(v) then return literal(v) else return v.__astObject end
end

I rename literalFilter while I’m at it to something a little less vague.

Next feature is argument parameters:

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.main = fn(type.int32, {type.int32, type.int8.ptr.ptr}, function(argc,argv)
        var.x = argc        -- IE number of command-line arguments passed in
        var.y = var.x + 4
        go._return(var.x + var.y)
    end)
end):emit()

If a function takes arguments, the construction function will be passed in shadow-exprs for those arguments as the arguments to the construction function itself. This is pretty easy to implement because my AST already has a construct for "fetch the Nth parameter to the current function". I can modify shadowFunction, before it invokes the construction function, to create a table with one such AST object for each argument:

local genArgs = {}
for i=1,#args do
    table.insert(genArgs, shadowExprMake(AstExpr{op='getParam',idx=i-1}))
end

Then I can pass that in to my execWithArgs function, where it gets unpacked into the construction function invocation using weird Lua magic:

function execWithEnv(fn, env, args)
    -- [snip]

    -- Run fn
    setfenv(fn, env)
    fn(unpack(args or {}))

Shadow language code can now accept arguments when it defines a function. Next step is to allow the code to call functions. The test program for that would be:

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.atoi = fn(typ.int32, {typ.int8.ptr})

    fn.main = fn(typ.int32, {typ.int32, typ.int8.ptr.ptr}, function(argc,argv)
        var.x = fn.atoi("3")
        go._return(var.x + 1)
    end)
end):emit()

Somewhere at about this point I realized that one of the injected symbols in my shadow language is type, which isn’t a reserved word in Lua, but it is the name of a frightfully useful builtin function, so I renamed the type container to typ.

Anyway, to make this work I inject an fn into the construction environment:

fn = emptyWithMetatable({
    __index = function(_, key)
        return emptyWithMetatable({
            __call = function(_, ...)
                local args = {...}
                for i=1,#args do
                    args[i] = filterToAst(args[i])
                end
                return shadowExprMake(AstExpr{op='call', fn=key, args=args})
            end
        })
    end
}),

I already injected an fn in the environment for module construction functions, but the fn for function construction functions (…ugh, did I just write that?) is separate and behaves differently. With the new fn you can look up a key on it and it returns a shadow object which will imitate a function you can call.

This fn implementation makes the test work, but it isn’t enough. As described above, I need two versions of fn: the expression form I just implemented, and a statement form (go.fn). Once again, this is because the expression form only creates an AST and does not actually add that AST to the current block.

To make this work I unpack the meat of my initial attempt at fn into a higher-order function:

local function makeFnInvoke(key)
    return function(...)
        local args = {...}
        for i=1,#args do
            args[i] = filterToAst(args[i])
        end
        return shadowExprMake(AstExpr{op='call', fn=key, args=args})
    end
end

Once I’ve done this fn looks like:

_fn = emptyWithMetatable({
    __index = function(_, key)
        return makeFnInvoke(key)
    end
}),

In other words, makeFnInvoke takes a key and returns a callable entity that creates an AST for the given function using the args passed into it. I can also use this to make the go.fn:

fn = emptyWithMetatable({
    __index = function(_, key)
        local fn = makeFnInvoke(key)
        return function(...)
            table.insert(block.spec.exprs, fn(...).__astObject)
        end
    end
}),

fn(...).__astObject. I’m just going to sit here and savor that for a moment. …and also feel a bit guilty.

Functions are done. Next feature is indexing arrays. The test program for arrays runs its first command line argument through atoi and returns it as a UNIX status code:

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.atoi = fn(typ.int32, {typ.int8.ptr})

    fn.main = fn(typ.int32, {typ.int32, typ.int8.ptr.ptr}, function(argc,argv)
        var.x = fn.atoi( argv[1] )
        go._return(var.x + 10)
    end)
end):emit()

This, too, is very simple to implement. Most of these features have been very simple to implement. This one literally only requires three lines, a single field added to the shadow expr metatable:

__index = function(v, key)
    return shadowExprMake( AstExpr{op='deref', value=v.__astObject, idx=literalFilter(key)})
end

v is a shadow object; indexing it creates a shadow object that indexes the value inside it. Easy.

At about this point, things stop getting easy.

There’s only two features left to implement: if and while. These get interesting because they create not just values, but also blocks. Here’s my test for the if statement:

shadowModule("main", function()
    fn.printf = fn(typ.int32, {typ.int8.ptr, typ.vararg})

    fn.main = fn(typ.int32, {typ.int32, typ.int8.ptr.ptr}, function(argc,argv)
        go._if(argc >= 3,
            function()
                go.fn.printf("Argc %d less than 3\n", argc)
            end,
            function()
                go.fn.printf("Argc %d greater or equal to 3\n", argc)
            end)
        go.fn.printf("Done\n")
        go._return(0)
    end)
end):emit()

Up until now, there have only been construction functions in two places: Module construction when invoking shadowModule, and fn construction when invoking fn. But now we have construction functions nested inside the construction function of an single fn, constructing blocks within that fn.

Implementing that means a little bit of restructuring: For starters, I need to take my huge execWithEnv invocation I’ve been building and put it in a local function:

local function build(gen, genArgs)
    execWithEnv(gen, {
        -- All injected environment for an fn construction function goes here
    }, genArgs)
end

build(gen, genArgs)

This means if I’m inside one of the closures injected into the environment— for example, the one implementing _if— I will be able to recursively call build() from there if I want to invoke a construction function.

Before I can move on, I hit a really unpleasant oddity. I overloaded all of the normal operations you can perform on a table— +. -, >, ==. The idea of my overloads is that instead of performing whatever calculation the operator would normally describe, the overloaded version returns an AST describing the calculation. For + and - this works great. But the first time I try to run code using a comparison— the >= in the sample— it fails. The Lua interpreter claims that >= cannot be performed on a table.

It turns out, looking in the documentation, that comparison operators are different from other operators in Lua. First off, there are restrictions on when they even get invoked. There’s a semi-complicated algorithm Lua follows to decide whether to invoke a metatable comparison function and if so which one to invoke. One of the steps in the algorithm is that it only runs the comparison if the two tables have the same metatable. Here there’s an oddness. All of my shadow objects have the same metatable functionally. But they’re not the same in the VM memory, because I create a new copy of the metatable for every single shadow object I create. I rewrite that shadowExprMake so that only one metatable exists:

-- Go far out of way to define shadowExprMetatable outside closure so comparison operators work
local function binop(op2)
    return function(l, r)
        return shadowExprMake( AstExpr{op='bin', op2=op2, value={filterToAst(l), filterToAst(r)}} )
    end
end
local shadowExprMetatable = {
    -- Metatable members here
}

-- Convert AstType to shadow expr
function shadowExprMake(v)
    local t = {__astObject=v}
    setmetatable(t, shadowExprMetatable)
    return t
end

It still doesn’t work; my metatable comparison functions are now being invoked, but somehow they’re always evaluating to true. It turns out that apparently comparison operators in Lua coerce their return values to true and false. This doesn’t seem to be in the documentation. It’s just something that Lua and LuaJIT both do (a nice person on Twitter actually dug up the Lua 5 source code and confirmed this). I optimized my shadowExprMake() function for nothing!

Although the language forcing comparison operators to always return true or false probably fits most users’ expectations, it kind of kills my weird overloading idea. I’m forced to inject the comparison operators into the namespace as functions. The fn-construction context picks up a new symbol get:

get = {
    literal = filterToAst,
    lt = binop('<'), gt = binop('>'), lte = binop('<='), gte = binop('>=')
},

With that cleared up, I’m free to go ahead and implement the go._if function. This one’s complicated, so I’m going to go over it a little bit at a time.

_if = function(cond, y, n)
    local branchExpr = AstExpr{op='branch', cond=literalFilter(cond)}
    table.insert(block.spec.exprs, branchExpr)

We’ve been working with an existing "block"; we want to append to its end a conditional branch instruction. The conditional branch instruction I defined here has a condition, but it’s missing its y and n blocks; I’m not done editing it.

    local afterBlock = nextBlock()
    local yBlock = nextBlock()

This code creates a block for the code for the if’s "success" path, and a block for flow control to resume from after the if statement is completed.

    block = yBlock
    build(y)
    block.spec.exit = afterBlock

Notice something a bit weird: build is a local function, closure. It makes reference throughout to a variable block which is local to the shadowFunction() invocation that build exists inside. This makes block effectively a bit of shared state for one full run through shadowFunction(). So in this code I set block to a new value immediately before calling build(y); this means the y construction function will write its expressions into the block I specified.

After running, the y-block dumps into the afterblock.

    local nBlock = afterBlock
    if n then
        nBlock = nextBlock()
        block = nBlock
        build(n)
        block.spec.exit = afterBlock
    end

What’s happening in this code is that the "no" path is optional, so if the user specified an n construction function I want to branch to a new block for that, but if the user did not then a "no" result branches to the afterblock.

    branchExpr.spec.y = yBlock   branchExpr.spec.n = nBlock
    block = afterBlock
end

I have now created both the y and n blocks, so I can add links to them in the original branchExpr. The last thing I do before the function ends is set the shared block to the afterblock, so any statements post-_if will be written into that.

So that’s go._if. The go._while implementation— which I do not bother writing a test case for— is much similar:

_while = function(cond, loop)
    local branchBlock = nextBlock()
    local loopBlock = nextBlock()
    local afterBlock = nextBlock()

    block.spec.exit = branchBlock

    local branchExpr = AstExpr{op='branch', cond=filterToAst(cond), y=loopBlock, n=afterBlock}
    table.insert(branchBlock.spec.exprs, branchExpr)

    block = loopBlock
    build(loop)
    block.spec.exit = branchBlock

    block = afterBlock
end

This sets the current block to immediately enter into a "branch block"; the branch block contains only a conditional branch instruction, which jumps either to the loop body or to the block which follows the _while. Pretty straightforward.

I don’t write a test case for _while because at this point, I have enough features working together I can just use my original sample program— the printFactors program— as the test case! I pull it out again and try to run it. I run into three problems.

Problem #1: It’s ugly? It’s just. It’s really ugly. My attempts to avoid Lua keywords have left the syntax of the shadow language inconsistent. Some fields have underscores before them, some don’t. One symbol (typ) is misspelled rather than using an underscore, another switched to a slightly weird synonym (go). If I were writing this I’d never be able to remember what to use where.

I decide to change my symbol naming rules: If a field is "injected"— if it is part of the shadow language rather than being part of your computer program— it has an underscore before it. Period. This lets me avoid intentional misspelling, and it makes my syntax consistent. With the new rules, my "printFactors" program looks like this:

require("lib-lua/simple")
require("lib-lua/practice/shadow")

shadowModule("main", function()
    _fn.printf = _fn(_type.int32, {_type.int8.ptr, _type.vararg})
    
    _fn.atoi = _fn(_type.int32, {_type.int8.ptr})
    
    _fn.printFactors = _fn(nil, {_type.int32}, function(input)
        _var.value = input
        _var.divisor = 2
        _do._while( _get._gte(_var.value, _var.divisor), function()
            _do._if( _get._eq(_var.value % _var.divisor, 0),
                function()
                    _do._fn.printf("%d ", _var.divisor)
                    _var.value = _var.value / _var.divisor
                end,
                function()
                    _var.divisor = _var.divisor + 1
                end)
        end)
        _do._fn.printf("\n")
    end)

    _fn.main = _fn(_type.int32, {_type.int32, _type.int8.ptr.ptr}, function(argc, argv)
        _do._if( _get._eq(argc, 2),
            function()
                _do._fn.printFactors( _fn.atoi( argv[1] ) )
                _do._return(0)
            end,
            function()
                _do._fn.printf("Please enter exactly one number as argument\n")
                _do._return(1)
            end)
    end)
end):emit()

So _var has an underscore, and both _do and _if (i.e. _do._if) have underscores, because those are things installed by the language. But the value in _var.value doesn’t have an underscore because that is a user variable, and the lack of the underscore helps you tell that, and this means that the underscore actually serves a purpose and isn’t just a dodge on Lua’s reserved words list. int32 in _type.int32 does not have an underscore and I don’t know if that’s consistent or not.

This is all… not terrible! The new syntax is not as nice as the version I put earlier in this post, but if it’s a prototyping language rather than something I’d use day to day maybe it’s okay.

Problems #2 and #3 come in the form of fatal errors from LLVM’s verifier (which I figured out how to turn on between posts two and three in this series) when I try to run "printFactors". Both errors claim that I failed to end a block correctly— LLVM requires every block to end with either a branch statement or a return statement. (If the verifier hadn’t stopped me, this would have resulted in a crash when I tried to emit an object file.) The two errors turn out to have happened for different reasons.

Problem #2 has to do with void functions. _fn.printFactors returns void, and in my sample program I don’t end the function with a _do._return() because any sensible language will do that implicitly for you. But I never implemented the part where it does it for you. I do that now.

I go back to ast.lua and add this helper function:

function AstBlock:unterminated()
    local exprCount = #self.spec.exprs
    if exprCount < 1 then return true end
    local finalOp = self.spec.exprs[exprCount].spec.op
    return not (finalOp == 'branch' or finalOp == 'return')
end

Which returns true if the block fails to follow LLVM’s termination rules. All it does is check the final instruction’s opcode. Once I have this helper, I can implement automatic-return-for-void-functions easily by adding this to the end of shadowFunction():

if not ret and block:unterminated() then
    table.insert(block.spec.exprs, AstExpr({op='return'}))
end

(To cover a couple of details: not ret in this context denotes "no return type"; and I only have to run this code once per function, not every block, because the rules that got us to this point will have already set spec.exit on every block except the final one.)

Problem #3 is a little more subtle than this, and is an accidental byproduct of the way I chain blocks in a do._if or do._while. In my sample, main() has a return type. It ends with a do._if, both branches of which end with an explicit return. But! When I run shadowFunction() to process all this, the do._if silently creates a block for the code following the do._if. But there is no code following the do._if, therefore nothing ever puts a return into the implicitly created block, therefore LLVM is unhappy.

This is, unambiguously, the fault of the shadow language code— it’s specifying an invalid block. However, wisely or unwisely, I decide to fix the problem in the AST code. The shadow language created a nonsensical situation here, but it created a detectably nonsensical situation.

The thing that’s weird about the blocks in the do._if is that they have spec.exit set (because do._if sets it unconditionally) but they also end with a do._return (because that’s what’s in the code). I decide to make it a rule that if a block ends with a branch or return, any redundant spec.exit is ignored. This literally requires nothing more than adding the words and self:unterminated() to the code in ast.lua that processes self.spec.exit:

if self.spec.exit and self:unterminated() then
    self.exit = backend.currentBody:registerBlock(self.spec.exit)
end

Problem solved; if the redundant self.spec.exit is not processed, the useless extra block is never registered, which means it’s not in the function, which means LLVM never finds out about it and has nothing to complain about.

These last two errors fixed, I can build my program—

$ luajit generate.lua 2> main.asm && cc -o main main.o
$ wc -l main.asm 
      63 main.asm
$ ./main 1024
2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 

The generated assembly is 63 lines, whereas the printFactors program in the shadow language is 36 lines— for the first time in this project, my code to generate a program is shorter than the assembly it generates!— and the program works.Implementing the "shadow language" completely took only three days; the writeup of it you’ve just finished reading took over a week.

Here’s the code so far; the "printFactors" program is in generate.lua and the test snippets are in tests. Since I showed you shadow.lua only in fragments, you can see its full final version here.

What did I just do here?

So: I now have something that looks a lot like source code in an invented language, can be written like source code, but is actually Lua that manually constructs a program.

Is this useful? Why did I do this?

I guess when I originally started this mini-project, I thought I was actually going to write programs in the shadow language. I thought implementing the shadow language would be easier than implementing a toy language, and that once I was done I’d be able to do cool things while writing code because I could harness the full power of Lua as a macro language. This Lua macro thing is something I can do with the shadow language I’ve got— I could dump this into one of my source files:

function swap(_var, f1, f2)
    _var.___TMP = _var[f1]
    _var[f1] = _var[f2]
    _var[f2] = _var.___TMP
end

And then anytime I’m in a construction function I could say swap(_var, 'x', 'y') and this would generate three lines of code to swap x and y. Neat, I guess?

In practice, none of this turns out to be compelling. The shadow language is just a little too ugly (both aesthetically and conceptually). The "printFactors" program is full of distracting meaningless functions and _s. The macro snippet above is neat but not particularly attractive, and is certainly not intuitive to read. The final shadow language is no better than any existing language, and even if I started adding features that justified the language’s existence I’d still be better off installing LPEG and writing a conventional language with a conventional parser to host those features. So that didn’t work out.

Still, I think what I made here turns out to be a useful stepping stone toward a larger project. Let’s say I next try to make an actual compiled programming language. Well, first off, I’ve now got a serviceable first-pass AST for it, so that’s cool. But even beyond that, I think the shadow language will be useful as a prototyping tool. As I go, I’ll want to design features— things to do with memory management or typechecking, maybe. I think adding interfaces to those features in the shadow language— which is just calling functions from Lua in a particular order, after all— will be a lot easier than fitting them into a "real" language syntax. And writing tests for my features in the shadow language will be easier than writing out ASTs by hand (since the ASTs are super easy to generate in code, but a total pain to write in a text editor).

With all this in mind, here’s what I think I’m going to work on next:

Yes, that’s right: I’m going to read the Legend of Zelda manga and eat Wheat Thins. Stay tuned!

Any code snippets in this post, or in the BitBucket revisions linked in this post, are available under the Creative Commons Zero license.

No Compiler

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

On LLVM, using C libraries from Lua, and writing software without a compiler

I’ve been working on a programming language. I make video games, and the languages that exist for this all have drawbacks that get in my way when I’m making stuff, so I decided to make a new one. I made an interpreter, and it works, which is pretty awesome! But it’s too slow. For what I want to be doing, I decided, rather than an interpreter I ought to be writing a compiler. Once I realized this my project stalled out, because I just really did not want to write a compiler. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of things I’ve never done before, and I wasn’t really sure where to start, and I just really really hate writing parsers.

Then last week I got this weird idea.

If you look in a book about compilers, you’re inevitably going to see a diagram like this:

This diagram is from "Modern Compiler Implementation in Java", the book they gave me in college, and it shows all the steps a compiler takes in turning source code into an executable program. This diagram is also out of date. The modern diagram looks like this:

LLVM is a compiler "backend"— these terms are fuzzy, but people like taking that first diagram and dividing it in half between the "frontend", which in this diagram is the first three boxes, and the "backend", which is the rest. LLVM is the backend for Clang, but LLVM predates Clang and can be used as a stand-alone library. This has lead to a sort of renaissance in homegrown programming languages since now you don’t need to write your own compiler, you can just write a frontend and plug it into LLVM.

And increasingly, this is what everyone does. You could write your own backend, but LLVM is a good backend, and it has about a zillion targets, and it has the combined engineering efforts of Apple and Google (and, now, Microsoft) improving it, and in practice you’re not going to write a better one. You might be able to write a backend which is in some way more apt for your particular use case, but you’re not going to write a better general one. And actually we’re now entering a world where at minimum supporting LLVM as a backend option is mandatory. Apple is aggressively moving to a model where you are no longer allowed to write your own compiler, and for certain platforms (the "Watch", and for a while they were trying to force this for the "TV" as well) you can’t actually create software, you just create bitcode (a binary representation of that "abstract syntax tree" from the diagram) and Apple compiles it for you with their copy of the LLVM backend. Which is sort of horrifying, and yet another example of how Apple’s burgeoning monopoly power f— um, anyway.

Where I’m going with this:

Many years ago, I used to write a lot of audio software. I was making music, and I’d make little programs to make music with— tiny instruments and such. My big dream for a long time was to eventually write a sequencer. I’d play my little homemade software instruments, and I’d play normal physical instruments, but then if I wanted to fit them together into a song I’d have to use sequencer software someone else wrote. This meant I never really had as much control over how things were timed or mixed together as I wanted, so I wanted to write my own sequencer. But that turned out to be hard. There was a lot of UX to design and a lot of lines of GUI to write. All my attempts failed. Eventually what I started doing instead was writing little single-song sequencer programs with no GUI. I’d write a tiny C program for each song, and each program would load the recorded tracks and samples from wav files in its directory, mix them together exactly however I’d described in the C code that it should, and spit out a wav file at the end. This worked really well! The songs sounded good and it was fun as heck. And because I was doing the mixing "by hand" instead of trying to express what I wanted to the intermediary of a sequencing program, I could direct my code on a whim to do complex things that would have been ridiculously difficult to represent in a GUI, things "wait until track 3 goes over this amplitude twice and then immediately cut in track 4".

Now, with Emily (my programming language project), I feel like I have a similar problem. I have things I want my games to do but which I have difficulty expressing elegantly to the tools I have. So I want to make a new tool— but this ultimately means I’m going to design a language that I can express complex ideas to, and then write a compiler that turns that language into LLVM ASTs, and then only after I’ve done all that do I get to start actually expressing my ideas to the language I designed. But I’m stuck on the difficulty of those first two steps— finding a good fixed medium through which to convey my thoughts to my compiler frontend, and then getting the frontend to translate that into LLVM. The "UX" part.

So here’s my weird idea: What if I just did what I did back when I was making music, and cut Emily and her compiler out of the loop completely, and wrote the LLVM ASTs myself? I could easily imagine writing a program that calls the LLVM AST construction functions until it’s described a program, and then directs LLVM to emit an exe. I would basically be writing software with no compiler. Or, maybe a different way of looking at it, is I’d be writing a lot of very small compilers, with no programming language, where each compiler emits only a single fixed program. Suddenly the diagram would look like this:

This sounds like a terrible idea. It also sounds hilarious. I’m gonna try it.

LLVM-C

In CS, we sometimes talk about "metaprogramming". This is a loose phrase for the idea that a language has exposed facilities for you to write code that will write other code for you. Sometimes this works pretty literally— if you look at C defines, or C++ templates, or LISP macros, what you’ve sort of got is a second programming language, semi-awkwardly embedded halfway into the first one, which generates code in the first language before the compiler/interpreter tries to run it. When I write my little not-compilers, I’ll be doing something like this; the language I write my not-compilers in will be my metalanguage, and the language itself will just not exist (or maybe, technically, be LLVM IR). The underlying language will be way too simplistic for writing anything meaningful at all in it to be convenient, so whichever metalanguage I pick had better be expressive enough to let me build within it all the abstractions I’d normally expect when writing software.

I picked Lua. Lua is my favoritestest programming language in the whole world, and nothing I’ve ever used beats it for flexibility. I don’t really use it anymore, because I kept running into practical problems when actually running my Lua programs (FFI/library support isn’t as convenient as it should be, GC is mandatory, it works badly with threading). But none of that is a problem here, because I won’t actually be running any Lua— Lua will only be a kind of build script.

One of the nice things about using Lua is LuaJIT, which is an interpreter implementation with a fairly unique FFI (i.e., its way of talking to software written in C). Usually talking to C libraries from a higher-level language like Lua is a pain where you use wrapper scripts, which generate copies of every single C function you want to call. These "wrapper functions" laboriously convert from however your language thinks about data and functions to the way that C does and, back. This is awkward, and bug-prone, and occasionally you’ll hit a point where C is using data in some way your language doesn’t even know how to describe and just get completely stuck. LuaJIT on the other hand does this completely different and sort of wild thing where it directly parses C header files at runtime, and then it just knows how to pack memory in such a way as to replicate C structs and calling conventions. This makes LuaJIT good for writing a script that mostly calls functions from a C library; LuaJIT can create C data items in memory and call C functions with them the same way a C compiler can, so using the LLVM libraries should be as easy as it would be in C.

There’s still a bit of a problem, which is that the LLVM libraries aren’t actually written in C. They’re written in C++. This is bad. C++ is basically total poison for language compatibility. C++ does not have what’s called an "ABI", which means there’s no standard for how functions call each other when you’re using libraries. Each compiler just kinda comes up with its own thing. This means not only is it impossible for languages that aren’t C++ to call C++ code, it’s not even possible for C++. Two C++ libraries using the same compiler can talk to each other, but if the person who wrote a library you want to use was using a different compiler than you (which on Windows, will happen frequently) there is nothing you can do.

Now, it does turn out— in part because they realized this was a problem— that the LLVM people also distribute a library named LLVM-C, which is a set of C wrappers to the underlying C++ API. Yay! Unfortunately, it’s sort of only half-supported. The LLVM-C documentation describes itself as "This module exposes parts of the LLVM library as a C API"— "parts of"? What the IRC channel explained to me is that LLVM-C is whatever parts of LLVM that somebody realized they needed and added to LLVM-C to scratch that momentary itch, piecemeal, at random times over the last thirteen years. Parts are missing, and the parts that are missing are totally random. Apparently there are still major projects using the LLVM-C interface, so this is not a reason to give up or anything, but this is still going to be a concern to be aware of moving forward. (Interestingly, the Rust people implemented their own equivalent of LLVM-C because they found LLVM-C wasn’t comprehensive enough— but, the Rust project LLVM C bindings are also a random set of whichever parts of LLVM the Rust people needed, it’s just a different subset from LLVM-C, so this does not help us here.)

Anyway, LLVM-C it is. I install version 3.9 (the latest) and download a copy of llvm-c-kaleidoscope— a C port of the program from the LLVM tutorial. I never do get llvm-c-kaleidoscope to compile, but that’s okay, it’s just for reference.

I’m now ready to start writing some Lua! I set up a little project:

config.lua
generate.lua
lib-ffi/
    import.lua
    llvm/
        3_9/
            (LLVM headers in here)
lib-lua/
    import.lua
    pl/
        (Penlight in here)

Unfortunately, Lua doesn’t have a very good story for libraries. Unlike languages like Python that are expected to have a runtime with various niceties already installed on the computer, Lua was designed to be embedded into larger programs (for example, games). The assumption was whoever was doing the embedding would set up whatever libraries are needed. So if you’re running a Lua script standalone (like I’m doing here), you kind of need to set up a little environment around it with the basics. Here "the basics" are provided by Penlight, a third party "standard library" for Lua which includes a lot of basic stuff, like classes (yes, in Lua object oriented programming is something you get from a library— like I said, it’s flexible). Even just getting Penlight into the program is a little awkward; lib-lua/import.lua contains:

-- Lets internal references in Penlight work
package.path = package.path .. ";./lib-lua/?.lua"

class = require("pl/class")
pretty = require("pl/pretty")

Yech.

Of more interest is the lib-ffi directory. This, too, is a little awkward. Like I said, LuaJIT consumes C header files, but it doesn’t do it the way a compiler does– there’s no include path, or anything. Instead you call a function named ffi.cdef with the header file contents passed in as a string. Except you can’t just put those contents in verbatim– LuaJIT doesn’t understand C preprocessor directives, so you have to strip those out first. Like I said, this is part of why I stopped using Lua– every time you bring in a new library there’s this labor-intensive process of massaging it so Lua can talk to it. In this case it doesn’t seem so bad though, because I only have to do it once, for the LLVM library (and maybe Clanglib at some point). Any libraries I use beyond that are going to be talking to my generated executable, not my Lua script.

I figure out which headers I’m going to need, and fill out lib-ffi/import.lua with:

ffi = require( "ffi" )

-- Libraries

local libExt = ({
   OSX     = "dylib",
   Windows = "dll",
   Linux   = "so", BSD = "so", POSIX = "so", Other = "so"
})[ffi.os]

local function libPath(name)
    return config.llvmLibPath .. "/" .. name .. "." .. libExt
end

LLVM = ffi.load( libPath("libLLVM") )

-- Headers

local llvmDir = "lib-ffi/llvm/" .. config.llvmVersion .. "/"

require(llvmDir .. "Types")
require(llvmDir .. "Target")            -- Requires Types
require(llvmDir .. "TargetMachine")     -- Requires Types, Target
require(llvmDir .. "ExecutionEngine")   -- Requires Types, Target, TargetMachine
require(llvmDir .. "ErrorHandling")
require(llvmDir .. "Core")              -- Requires ErrorHandling, Types
require(llvmDir .. "Transforms/Scalar") -- Requires Types

There are a couple of things going on here.

When you compile a C program, there’s a compile phase (which if you’re using a library, is when you interpret its headers) and a link phase (which if you’re using a library, is when you link the library binary in). LuaJIT does all of this at runtime, but it still needs the headers and the libraries. You feed it the headers as strings so it knows what memory layout to use, and then you give it the direct path of the library to dynamically load. It’s all manual and there’s nothing intelligent like a linker in play, so I have to do the legwork of figuring out things like what the file extension for a dynamic library is on the current operating system. There’s also absolutely no way for me to figure out where the LLVM libraries are installed, so I expect whoever runs this script to provide that path before running, in the config.lua file.

Then we get to the headers. I choose to version these, and make the user say which version they want in config.lua.

My goal is to create LLVM "abstract syntax trees". LLVM, as I understand it, has three ways to specify an AST: As LLVM IR, which is a textual representation of ASTs which changes with every version of LLVM; as bitcode, which is a binary representation which is standardized and compatible between LLVM versions; or by calling the functions in the LLVM or LLVM-C API. My understanding is that the LLVM-C API is stable— if you write a program targeting LLVM 3.6, you should be able to recompile with LLVM 3.9 and it should work. (If this is not true, please, somebody warn me now.) However, just because the 3.6 and 3.9 APIs are source compatible does not mean you can use the 3.9 headers with the 3.6 libraries. And I’m going to do something weird— I’m going to embed the 3.9 headers directly into my source repository, because I have to, because I’m loading my hand-massaged versions of the headers rather than the ones on disk.

Right now everything I’m doing is just a weird experiment— I’m not designing any of this to be convenient for other people to use. However, it seems like it would be pretty bad if I designed this in a way it literally only works on this one computer, with this one version of LLVM. Weird experiment or no I need to leave the door open for another human to run this, especially since anything that will trip up another human will also trip up my own future self. I open that door by leaving space for multiple versions of the "massaged" LLVM headers to be checked into this repository: I check in the 3.9-compatible headers I’ve got (in a folder awkwardly named 3_9, since the Lua loader can’t handle directory names containing periods), and expect that people using a different version of LLVM in future can at least do the conversion process on their own headers and check that in alongside 3_9.

With that established, I copy all the 3.9 LLVM-C headers into my 3_9 folder and check them in unchanged— I won’t be using them, but I want them around for future reference— and select the handful I need, the handful from import.lua, to convert to Lua. This process is mostly simple; I rename to .lua, delete the #if guards and #includes from the top and bottom, and stick ffi.cdef[[ at the top and ]] at the end. (The square brackets create a multi-line string.) Easy! Except:

  • Since I removed the #includes, I don’t get dependency management done for me. This means I have to work out the dependency tree by hand and make sure I include everything in the right order (hence the weird comments in import.lua).
  • Core.h contains some trickery with #define— some C metaprogramming. I have to run the C preprocessor manually on this file (making sure to do so after I remove the #includes at the top, because otherwise I’d get the entirety of stdlib pulled in to the file).
  • Target.h is even worse— it contains this strange repeated preprocessor construction:

    /* Declare all of the target-initialization functions that are available. */
    #define LLVM_TARGET(TargetName) \
      void LLVMInitialize##TargetName##TargetInfo(void);
    #include "llvm/Config/Targets.def"
    #undef LLVM_TARGET  /* Explicit undef to make SWIG happier */

    What is this? Well, apparently, when the LLVM libraries were installed on my computer, the install built these .def files containing per-system configuration information. If you look in Targets.def in the main LLVM headers, you find it’s full of lines like

    LLVM_TARGET(AArch64)
    LLVM_TARGET(AMDGPU)
    LLVM_TARGET(ARM)
    ...

    This is a problem. The reason I believe I can move my "massaged" 3.9 headers to another computer and have the code still work with the local dynamic libraries is I assume things like structure layouts don’t vary between any two compiled copies of a single version of LLVM. But, the .defs contents will vary from computer to computer! The only possible solution here is to leave the metaprogramming macro garbage in Target.lua, and instruct anyone who tries to compile this code to run the preprocessor themselves (thus getting the .def contents from their own computer). The project now has a README instructing users to run this monstrosity before running the not-compiler:

    gcc -I/opt/local/libexec/llvm-3.9/include -E -P -C -xc-header ./lib-ffi/llvm/3_9/Target.source.lua > ./lib-ffi/llvm/3_9/Target.lua

    That’s… really unsatisfying, so it looks like if I keep with this experiment, I’m going to eventually need something like a build script.

generate.lua

3,135 words into this blog post, I am finally ready to start writing code! I translate the most minimal chunk of the llvm-c-kaleidoscope project’s main file into Lua as can stand alone:

require("config")
require("lib-lua/import")
require("lib-ffi/import")

class.Builder()
function Builder:_init(moduleName)
    self.llvm = {
        module = LLVM.LLVMModuleCreateWithName(moduleName),
        builder = LLVM.LLVMCreateBuilder()
    }

    local enginePtr = ffi.new("LLVMExecutionEngineRef[1]")
    local msgPtr = ffi.new("char *[1]")
    if LLVM.LLVMCreateExecutionEngineForModule(enginePtr, self.llvm.module, msg) == 1 then
        local err = ffi.string(msgPtr[0])
        LLVM.LLVMDisposeMessage(msgPtr[0]);
        error("LLVMCreateExecutionEngineForModule error: " + err)
    end
    self.llvm.engine = enginePtr[0]

    self.llvm.passManager = LLVM.LLVMCreateFunctionPassManagerForModule(self.llvm.module)
    LLVM.LLVMAddTargetData(LLVM.LLVMGetExecutionEngineTargetData(self.llvm.engine), self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddPromoteMemoryToRegisterPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddInstructionCombiningPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddReassociatePass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddGVNPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddCFGSimplificationPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMInitializeFunctionPassManager(self.llvm.passManager);
end

function Builder:dump()
    LLVM.LLVMDumpModule(self.llvm.module)
end

function Builder:dispose()
    LLVM.LLVMDisposePassManager(self.llvm.pass_manager);
    LLVM.LLVMDisposeBuilder(self.llvm.builder);
    LLVM.LLVMDisposeModule(self.llvm.module);
end

builder = Builder("main")
builder:dump()

Here I create a single empty "module", and I dump the corresponding LLVM IR. I run it and:

; ModuleID = 'main'

It works! I don’t know what a module is yet— I assume it corresponds to an object file— but I’ve at least demonstrated I can talk to LLVM and not crash.

Here’s the project I’ve written so far. I want to go a little further than this, though. I want to make an executable.

Emitting to a file

Assuming a module is an object file, there are two things I need to do from here: I need to add a "main" function as entry point; and I need to write the object file to disk. I attempt the second thing first, since I assume it will be easier. This assumption is wrong.

The Kaleidoscope sample program doesn’t emit files— it uses JIT— so this is the first LLVM thing I’m left to do on my own. I investigate. Apparently the way you emit a module as an object file is LLVMTargetMachineEmitToFile(). This function is a bit of a monster. It takes two configuration arguments, one of which is a complex structure called a TargetMachine whose constructor takes seven arguments, many of which are magic strings.

At this point I’m starting to feel the limitations of the LLVM documentation. There’s no documentation for LLVM-C as such, so I wind up looking everything up twice, once in the LLVM-C reference to figure out what the corresponding C++ function is, then into the C++ documentation to find out what the function actually does. Once I find the function I want, the explanation is invariably limited to the strict function definition; questions like "but when do I call this?" or "but where does the TargetMachine come from?" are outside the scope of the reference document. But the reference document is the only document, so at that point I’m left searching StackOverflow. Meanwhile StackOverflow only helps when the thing I want to do is common; in the case of emitting an object file, apparently this is enough of a weird or at least power-usery thing that most entry-level LLVM users don’t attempt it. Apparently everyone else is using a command line tool called llc that converts LLVM IR to object files.

The arguments to LlvmCreateTargetMachine() are complicated because LLVM is a cross-compiler; it could compile for your machine you’re sitting at, or some arbitrary number of other machines. How do I get the specification for the machine I am sitting at? I decide to pull up the source code for llc and see what it did. And it turns out there are a bunch of functions for exactly this, returning defaults corresponding to your current machine! Things like getDefaultTargetTriple() and getFeaturesStr(). These functions are in sys.h and CommandFlags.h. Of the C++ headers. They’re not exposed to C. Um.

I need to specify eight things: a "target", a "triple", a "CPU", a "features" list, and four options related to optimization and what you’re building (library, executable, etc). The last four are thankfully enums, so those are easy to work out just from looking at the headers, and I find a function that can derive the "target" from the "triple", so now I’m down to three mysteries. I know how to look up the "triple" for my own machine, but again I don’t want this software bound to one computer. I wind up begging on IRC and Twitter for about 48 hours, and people who have done this before help me out. What I find out:

  • The "triple" is the same "what do I compile?" string all compilers use; you can get a sample from any one compiler on a given machine with clang -version or gcc -dumpmachine.
  • There is after all a C-exposed LLVM.LLVMGetDefaultTargetTriple(). (I apparently missed this in my first few scans of the five thousand lines of headers.)
  • "CPU" is the same as -march on a traditional compiler— it specifies microarchitecture. If you specify armv7 here, you’ll get optimizations that the armv6 can’t support, but your software also won’t run on armv6 anymore.
  • The "CPU" and "features" strings can be empty strings. If you do this, it gives you the most conservative possible microarchitecture for the triple you asked for. (Which might be closer to what you want anyway than the "defaults" sys.h would give you— after all, ask for the "default" on a brand new PC and you might get something no one else can run.)
  • The "target" is something weird and LLVM-internal, and refers to which LLVM backend you want to run. You’ll want to get this by using the function I mentioned that derives it from the triple. (You can also look up targets by name, but the names are pretty arcane— there’s no apparent consistency or correspondence to the outside world in the naming scheme, it was just up to whoever wrote that one LLVM add-on. For example there’s one x86 target that works with both x86 and x86-64, but the 32 and 64 bit ARM targets are separate.)

Armed with all of this, I’m able to put together an emission function which populates everything from the default triple (with overloading allowed via config.lua):

function Builder:emitToFile()
    local targetRefPtr = ffi.new("LLVMTargetRef [1]")
    compileTriple = config.compileTriple or LLVM.LLVMGetDefaultTargetTriple()
    compileCpu = config.compileCpu or ""
    compileFeatures = config.compileFeatures or ""

    if LLVM.LLVMGetTargetFromTriple (compileTriple, targetRefPtr, errPtr) == 1 then
        llvmErr("LLVMGetTargetFromTriple")
    end
    if LLVM.LLVMTargetMachineEmitToFile(
            LLVM.LLVMCreateTargetMachine(targetRefPtr[0], compileTriple, compileCpu, compileFeatures,
                LLVM.LLVMCodeGenLevelAggressive, LLVM.LLVMRelocDefault, LLVM.LLVMCodeModelSmall),
        self.llvm.module, cstring(self.moduleName .. ".o"), LLVM.LLVMObjectFile, errPtr) == 1 then
        llvmErr("LLVMTargetMachineEmitToFile")
    end
end

And then things get weird.

My first sign of trouble is a cryptic message Unable to find target for this triple (no targets are registered). I waste time assuming I fed the function a bad triple before realizing what this really means: there are no targets, at all. It turns out before LLVMGetTargetFromTriple() will work, you have to call a special function to initialize any targets you might want to hypothetically load. There is a different initialization function for each target— LLVMInitializeAArch64Target() for 64-bit ARM vs LLVMInitializeX86Target(), for example. They apparently did it this way because most users link LLVM into their program statically, and partitioning the target backends into functions like this means you don’t have to pack the support code for whatever "MSP430" is in to your binary if you don’t plan to support it. That makes sense, but I’m linking dynamically, and I don’t know which platforms I do or don’t support ahead of time.

What a user like me— using the dynamic LLVM, not really certain what they intend to support— usually does is call the LLVMInitializeAllTargets() function. Which is defined in Target.h

/** LLVMInitializeAllTargets - The main program should call this function if it
    wants to link in all available targets that LLVM is configured to
    support. */
static inline void LLVMInitializeAllTargets(void) {
#define LLVM_TARGET(TargetName) LLVMInitialize##TargetName##Target();
#include "llvm/Config/Targets.def"
#undef LLVM_TARGET  /* Explicit undef to make SWIG happier */
}

…as an inline function. And now I’m stuck. LuaJIT can’t call those— at all. Again, LuaJIT calls functions by loading them from a dynamic library, but inline functions aren’t in the dynamic library, they’re C code embedded directly in the header file.

I get around this by doing something truly horrible. LLVMInitializeAllTargets() is an inline function generated from Targets.def using C preprocessor. I’m already generating Target.lua by running the preprocessor on a Lua file, in order to clear out preprocessor directives inside the embedded C header string. So I just go ahead and, uh… generate some Lua… using the C preprocessor.

function LLVMInitializeAllTargets()
  #define LLVM_TARGET(TargetName) LLVM.LLVMInitialize##TargetName##Target()
  #include "llvm/Config/Targets.def"
  #undef LLVM_TARGET
end

After the preprocessor runs, this gives me a Lua function that calls each of the functions that the inaccessible C LLVMInitializeAllTargets() would have been calling. I make three more of these functions (in addition to initializing the "targets" themselves, you need to also initialize the "target infos", "target MCs", and "ASM printers" for each target, or you will get completely misleading error messages). And it works!

If I call my big combined LLVMInitializeAll() function first, emitToFile() prints no errors and I get a 200-byte main.o file which file claims to be Mach-O 64-bit.

Okay! Now can I actually do something?

Doing something

My module needs some code. Let’s do the simplest possible thing: Call printf.

LLVM modules keep a symbol table containing all known functions. When the operating system tries to run the exe I’m making, it will start by looking up a function named "main" in this symbol table and calling it.

local mainType = LLVM.LLVMFunctionType(LLVM.LLVMVoidType(), nil, 0, false)
local mainFn = LLVM.LLVMAddFunction(builder.llvm.module, "main", mainType)

I construct the type for a main function, then construct the function itself. AddFunction will add the function to the symbol table and then return the new function object.

local mainEntry = LLVM.LLVMAppendBasicBlock(mainFn, "entry")
LLVM.LLVMPositionBuilderAtEnd(builder.llvm.builder, mainEntry)

Since I will be adding code to the function, I need to create a "basic block" for the code to live in. "Basic block" is a standard term from compilers referring to a continuous section of code without any branches in it.

Earlier, I made a "builder object". This appears to be something like a text cursor. There’s a series of "Build" functions, and each inserts a bit of code at whatever point in the module the builder is positioned at. I add my new basic block to the function object, and then I position my builder at the end of the basic block. The basic block takes a name when you create it; as far as I can tell this name is arbitrary, and I assume it’s only there in case you want to direct a jump there from the end of some other basic block. I name it "entry".

Next I want to call printf. But first I have to tell LLVM what printf is:

local printfParams = ffi.new("LLVMTypeRef [1]")
printfParams[0] = LLVM.LLVMPointerType(LLVM.LLVMInt8Type(), 0) -- address space 0 (arbitrary)
local printfType = LLVM.LLVMFunctionType(LLVM.LLVMInt32Type(), printfParams, 1, true) -- vararg
local printfFn = LLVM.LLVMAddFunction(builder.llvm.module, "printf", printfType)

Again here I’m constructing a function and putting it in the symbol table. However, this time I am not going to be adding any code to it; I’m just putting it in the symbol table so LLVM knows it exists and what type it is. Later the linker will supply the implementation to go with that symbol table entry. The type on this one is a little more complicated than the one for the main function; it has arguments.

local printString = "LET'S MAKE A JOURNEY TO THE CAVE OF MONSTERS!\n"
local printfArgs = ffi.new("LLVMValueRef [1]")
printfArgs[0] = LLVM.LLVMBuildGlobalStringPtr(builder.llvm.builder, printString, "tmpstring")
LLVM.LLVMBuildCall(builder.llvm.builder, printfFn, printfArgs, 1, "tmpcall")

Now I’m ready to start using the builder. I Build a global string, and then I Build a call site. Both the string and the call site have "names". Like the basic block, the names appear to be arbitrary, although I cannot imagine a possible use for the names like I could with the basic block.

LLVM.LLVMBuildRetVoid(builder.llvm.builder)

Since I’m done, I cap off my basic block by returning void.

Thirteen lines of code. And that is actually all I need! My generator script spits out a new main.o and gives me a glimpse of what the code I just constructed looks like in LLVM IR:

; ModuleID = 'main'

@tmpstring = private unnamed_addr constant [47 x i8] c"LET'S MAKE A JOURNEY TO THE CAVE OF MONSTERS!\0A\00"

define void @main() {
entry:
  %tmpcall = call i32 (i8*, ...) @printf(i8* getelementptr inbounds ([47 x i8], [47 x i8]* @tmpstring, i32 0, i32 0))
  ret void
}

declare i32 @printf(i8*, ...)

That was straightforward, right? Let me take a moment to talk about what I had to do to get that thirteen lines of code.

Again, the LLVM documentation is not very helpful:

These reference documents I’ve been working with were created by Doxygen, which means unless someone went to the bother of commenting a particular function you get only these autogenerated blurbs. I mentioned that LLVMBuildCall() has a "Name" parameter and I don’t know what it does; well, what do I see if I check the documentation? Answer: The LLVMBuildCall() documentation is autogenerated and gives only a source line number. Well, but that’s LLVM-C documentation, right? What do I see if I check the "real" documentation, the C++ documentation? Answer: The IRBuilder::CreateCall() documentation is autogenerated and gives only a source line number. I never did figure out what the "Name" meant.

Now that I’ve finally got to generating ASTs I’ve encountered a new issue with the docs— many of the StackOverflow suggestions for things I need to do by this point are actually turning up as LLVM IR snippets. So now I get instructions given to me as LLVM IR, which I then have to figure out how to translate into C++, so that I can go from there to translating into C (so I can rewrite it in Lua). On the bright side though, LLVM IR turns out to be lavishly documented.

In the end, I figured out very little of the AST generation code by myself. The AST code above was constructed by consulting a mix of the llvm-c-kaleidoscope project, this tutorial written by IBM, and this sample code written by a French security researcher. The IBM and 0vercl0k samples do almost exactly the same things I’m trying to, and were tremendously helpful. But even coding with these great models to follow took some tinkering, since I still had to get past a problem I didn’t really talk about so far: LLVM reacts to most unexpected inputs by crashing. For example, LLVMCreateTargetMachine() above takes an empty string as a valid input; but pass in a NULL string and you get a crash.

A lot of these crashes are pretty easy to deal with. Early on in writing the above code, I was trying to use LLVMConstString() where I should have been using LLVMBuildGlobalStringPtr(), which meant I was passing in to printf the equivalent of a char[48] instead of the equivalent of a char *. The result was an assert:

This I could deal with. It’s not as specific as it could be, but the stack is clean, and the assert gave me a line number. I found out I could get MacPorts to show me the source code to my LLVM version (sudo port patch llvm-3.9 && `port work llvm-3.9`), and this let me look up the context, and after some testing with LLVMTypeOf()/LLVMDumpType() I understood what the problem was and where to start on fixing it.

The other problems I had were… not like that. I had a bug where I was trying to call LLVMBuildGlobalStringPtr() before creating the basic block and positioning the builder; the symptom was a segmentation fault deep inside the optimization pass manager when emitting the object file. I had a bug where I was failing to end my function with a ret void; the symptom was an assert failure, again deep in the optimization pass manager, with the totally mind-boggling assert error Assertion failed: (Val && "isa<> used on a null pointer"), function doit, file Casting.h. In both of these cases, there was basically nothing I could do to understand what went wrong or how to fix it, no breadcrumb trail back to my code. I got out of both of these situations by just checking to see if there was anything the IBM/0vercl0k samples did but I didn’t, and adding those things until the crashes went away.

The reason I’m going into all this is that these various issues taught me something: This is going to be a problem. The thirteen lines of code above are very simple, but constructing them took a full day and in the end was achieved only by following someone else’s example. A lot of the things I do next I will not have examples to follow. So this tells me if I want to make any progress I’m going to need to change how I’m doing things:

  • I need, at least at first, to stick to the heavily trafficked paths. There’s some entry points to this library that lots and lots of people have gone through, and some that are less heavily used. What I’m finding is whenever I veer into the second area things get difficult. As a user of LLVM-C rather than the standard libraries I’m already pushing it; I unfortunately probably can’t afford to be an outlier in other ways also. I’ll want to always code things the simple, standard way before trying anything clever, and I’m probably going to need to get used to testing LLVM IR before attempting things against the API.
  • I am going to need to get used to the internals of the LLVM code. I tried pulling the source code from MacPorts; that’s not enough. I’m going to need to build my own LLVM and get debug symbols (I might have been able to figure something out with the isa<> used on a null pointer error, for example, if I’d been able to inspect locals and find out what was null) and I’m probably going to need to read enough source code to understand the architecture of entire modules before I can understand some of the error messages I’m going to get. This is going to be, in other words, one of those libraries.

Linking

But, I now have a main.o file! Now I just have to link it and I’m done.

This part is obnoxious. My original goal was to write a program that does all the things a compiler does. But you sort of can’t write a linker. Linkers are more the domain of the operating system and its code loading system than they are the domain of language standards, and so effectively only the operating system vendor can really write one because only the OS vendor knows what the linker even does. Whatever your preferred C compiler is, it doesn’t actually link; it actually just finds the OS-supplied linker and invokes it as a command-line program. In other words, the chart I drew at the top of this post is not quite accurate. A more accurate chart would be:

To make my original claim of "no compiler" accurate I could maybe call the linker myself (thus leaving this post with instructions that only work on OS X), or maybe look into LLVM’s experimental linker lld which is someday supposed to be able to do the unthinkable and replace the OS linker. But why make things difficult? I take the cheap route:

cc main.o -o main

And my program works!

$ ./main 
LET'S MAKE A JOURNEY TO THE CAVE OF MONSTERS!

The Lua script that acts as this program’s "compiler" is less than a hundred lines long.

So this is pretty promising! If I can call printf, I’ve got a basis for generating programs that do much more complicated things. It’s only a couple more steps to add variables or flow control, and once I get that done I’ll be able to do fun things like making tiny DSLs out of idiomatic Lua, or maybe even prototype some low-level systems for Emily. Here‘s the source code for my final Lua scripts in this post, and I will definitely be posting more about this in future.

Any code snippets in this post, or in the BitBucket revisions linked in this post, are available under the Creative Commons Zero license.

On LLVM, using C libraries from Lua, and writing software without a compiler

I’ve been working on a programming language. I make video games, and the languages that exist for this all have drawbacks that get in my way when I’m making stuff, so I decided to make a new one. I made an interpreter, and it works, which is pretty awesome! But it’s too slow. For what I want to be doing, I decided, rather than an interpreter I ought to be writing a compiler. Once I realized this my project stalled out, because I just really did not want to write a compiler. It’s a lot of work, and a lot of things I’ve never done before, and I wasn’t really sure where to start, and I just really really hate writing parsers.

Then last week I got this weird idea.

If you look in a book about compilers, you’re inevitably going to see a diagram like this:

This diagram is from "Modern Compiler Implementation in Java", the book they gave me in college, and it shows all the steps a compiler takes in turning source code into an executable program. This diagram is also out of date. The modern diagram looks like this:

LLVM is a compiler "backend"— these terms are fuzzy, but people like taking that first diagram and dividing it in half between the "frontend", which in this diagram is the first three boxes, and the "backend", which is the rest. LLVM is the backend for Clang, but LLVM predates Clang and can be used as a stand-alone library. This has lead to a sort of renaissance in homegrown programming languages since now you don’t need to write your own compiler, you can just write a frontend and plug it into LLVM.

And increasingly, this is what everyone does. You could write your own backend, but LLVM is a good backend, and it has about a zillion targets, and it has the combined engineering efforts of Apple and Google (and, now, Microsoft) improving it, and in practice you’re not going to write a better one. You might be able to write a backend which is in some way more apt for your particular use case, but you’re not going to write a better general one. And actually we’re now entering a world where at minimum supporting LLVM as a backend option is mandatory. Apple is aggressively moving to a model where you are no longer allowed to write your own compiler, and for certain platforms (the "Watch", and for a while they were trying to force this for the "TV" as well) you can’t actually create software, you just create bitcode (a binary representation of that "abstract syntax tree" from the diagram) and Apple compiles it for you with their copy of the LLVM backend. Which is sort of horrifying, and yet another example of how Apple’s burgeoning monopoly power f— um, anyway.

Where I’m going with this:

Many years ago, I used to write a lot of audio software. I was making music, and I’d make little programs to make music with— tiny instruments and such. My big dream for a long time was to eventually write a sequencer. I’d play my little homemade software instruments, and I’d play normal physical instruments, but then if I wanted to fit them together into a song I’d have to use sequencer software someone else wrote. This meant I never really had as much control over how things were timed or mixed together as I wanted, so I wanted to write my own sequencer. But that turned out to be hard. There was a lot of UX to design and a lot of lines of GUI to write. All my attempts failed. Eventually what I started doing instead was writing little single-song sequencer programs with no GUI. I’d write a tiny C program for each song, and each program would load the recorded tracks and samples from wav files in its directory, mix them together exactly however I’d described in the C code that it should, and spit out a wav file at the end. This worked really well! The songs sounded good and it was fun as heck. And because I was doing the mixing "by hand" instead of trying to express what I wanted to the intermediary of a sequencing program, I could direct my code on a whim to do complex things that would have been ridiculously difficult to represent in a GUI, things "wait until track 3 goes over this amplitude twice and then immediately cut in track 4".

Now, with Emily (my programming language project), I feel like I have a similar problem. I have things I want my games to do but which I have difficulty expressing elegantly to the tools I have. So I want to make a new tool— but this ultimately means I’m going to design a language that I can express complex ideas to, and then write a compiler that turns that language into LLVM ASTs, and then only after I’ve done all that do I get to start actually expressing my ideas to the language I designed. But I’m stuck on the difficulty of those first two steps— finding a good fixed medium through which to convey my thoughts to my compiler frontend, and then getting the frontend to translate that into LLVM. The "UX" part.

So here’s my weird idea: What if I just did what I did back when I was making music, and cut Emily and her compiler out of the loop completely, and wrote the LLVM ASTs myself? I could easily imagine writing a program that calls the LLVM AST construction functions until it’s described a program, and then directs LLVM to emit an exe. I would basically be writing software with no compiler. Or, maybe a different way of looking at it, is I’d be writing a lot of very small compilers, with no programming language, where each compiler emits only a single fixed program. Suddenly the diagram would look like this:

This sounds like a terrible idea. It also sounds hilarious. I’m gonna try it.

LLVM-C

In CS, we sometimes talk about "metaprogramming". This is a loose phrase for the idea that a language has exposed facilities for you to write code that will write other code for you. Sometimes this works pretty literally— if you look at C defines, or C++ templates, or LISP macros, what you’ve sort of got is a second programming language, semi-awkwardly embedded halfway into the first one, which generates code in the first language before the compiler/interpreter tries to run it. When I write my little not-compilers, I’ll be doing something like this; the language I write my not-compilers in will be my metalanguage, and the language itself will just not exist (or maybe, technically, be LLVM IR). The underlying language will be way too simplistic for writing anything meaningful at all in it to be convenient, so whichever metalanguage I pick had better be expressive enough to let me build within it all the abstractions I’d normally expect when writing software.

I picked Lua. Lua is my favoritestest programming language in the whole world, and nothing I’ve ever used beats it for flexibility. I don’t really use it anymore, because I kept running into practical problems when actually running my Lua programs (FFI/library support isn’t as convenient as it should be, GC is mandatory, it works badly with threading). But none of that is a problem here, because I won’t actually be running any Lua— Lua will only be a kind of build script.

One of the nice things about using Lua is LuaJIT, which is an interpreter implementation with a fairly unique FFI (i.e., its way of talking to software written in C). Usually talking to C libraries from a higher-level language like Lua is a pain where you use wrapper scripts, which generate copies of every single C function you want to call. These "wrapper functions" laboriously convert from however your language thinks about data and functions to the way that C does and, back. This is awkward, and bug-prone, and occasionally you’ll hit a point where C is using data in some way your language doesn’t even know how to describe and just get completely stuck. LuaJIT on the other hand does this completely different and sort of wild thing where it directly parses C header files at runtime, and then it just knows how to pack memory in such a way as to replicate C structs and calling conventions. This makes LuaJIT good for writing a script that mostly calls functions from a C library; LuaJIT can create C data items in memory and call C functions with them the same way a C compiler can, so using the LLVM libraries should be as easy as it would be in C.

There’s still a bit of a problem, which is that the LLVM libraries aren’t actually written in C. They’re written in C++. This is bad. C++ is basically total poison for language compatibility. C++ does not have what’s called an "ABI", which means there’s no standard for how functions call each other when you’re using libraries. Each compiler just kinda comes up with its own thing. This means not only is it impossible for languages that aren’t C++ to call C++ code, it’s not even possible for C++. Two C++ libraries using the same compiler can talk to each other, but if the person who wrote a library you want to use was using a different compiler than you (which on Windows, will happen frequently) there is nothing you can do.

Now, it does turn out— in part because they realized this was a problem— that the LLVM people also distribute a library named LLVM-C, which is a set of C wrappers to the underlying C++ API. Yay! Unfortunately, it’s sort of only half-supported. The LLVM-C documentation describes itself as "This module exposes parts of the LLVM library as a C API"— "parts of"? What the IRC channel explained to me is that LLVM-C is whatever parts of LLVM that somebody realized they needed and added to LLVM-C to scratch that momentary itch, piecemeal, at random times over the last thirteen years. Parts are missing, and the parts that are missing are totally random. Apparently there are still major projects using the LLVM-C interface, so this is not a reason to give up or anything, but this is still going to be a concern to be aware of moving forward. (Interestingly, the Rust people implemented their own equivalent of LLVM-C because they found LLVM-C wasn’t comprehensive enough— but, the Rust project LLVM C bindings are also a random set of whichever parts of LLVM the Rust people needed, it’s just a different subset from LLVM-C, so this does not help us here.)

Anyway, LLVM-C it is. I install version 3.9 (the latest) and download a copy of llvm-c-kaleidoscope— a C port of the program from the LLVM tutorial. I never do get llvm-c-kaleidoscope to compile, but that’s okay, it’s just for reference.

I’m now ready to start writing some Lua! I set up a little project:

config.lua
generate.lua
lib-ffi/
    import.lua
    llvm/
        3_9/
            (LLVM headers in here)
lib-lua/
    import.lua
    pl/
        (Penlight in here)

Unfortunately, Lua doesn’t have a very good story for libraries. Unlike languages like Python that are expected to have a runtime with various niceties already installed on the computer, Lua was designed to be embedded into larger programs (for example, games). The assumption was whoever was doing the embedding would set up whatever libraries are needed. So if you’re running a Lua script standalone (like I’m doing here), you kind of need to set up a little environment around it with the basics. Here "the basics" are provided by Penlight, a third party "standard library" for Lua which includes a lot of basic stuff, like classes (yes, in Lua object oriented programming is something you get from a library— like I said, it’s flexible). Even just getting Penlight into the program is a little awkward; lib-lua/import.lua contains:

-- Lets internal references in Penlight work
package.path = package.path .. ";./lib-lua/?.lua"

class = require("pl/class")
pretty = require("pl/pretty")

Yech.

Of more interest is the lib-ffi directory. This, too, is a little awkward. Like I said, LuaJIT consumes C header files, but it doesn’t do it the way a compiler does– there’s no include path, or anything. Instead you call a function named ffi.cdef with the header file contents passed in as a string. Except you can’t just put those contents in verbatim– LuaJIT doesn’t understand C preprocessor directives, so you have to strip those out first. Like I said, this is part of why I stopped using Lua– every time you bring in a new library there’s this labor-intensive process of massaging it so Lua can talk to it. In this case it doesn’t seem so bad though, because I only have to do it once, for the LLVM library (and maybe Clanglib at some point). Any libraries I use beyond that are going to be talking to my generated executable, not my Lua script.

I figure out which headers I’m going to need, and fill out lib-ffi/import.lua with:

ffi = require( "ffi" )

-- Libraries

local libExt = ({
   OSX     = "dylib",
   Windows = "dll",
   Linux   = "so", BSD = "so", POSIX = "so", Other = "so"
})[ffi.os]

local function libPath(name)
    return config.llvmLibPath .. "/" .. name .. "." .. libExt
end

LLVM = ffi.load( libPath("libLLVM") )

-- Headers

local llvmDir = "lib-ffi/llvm/" .. config.llvmVersion .. "/"

require(llvmDir .. "Types")
require(llvmDir .. "Target")            -- Requires Types
require(llvmDir .. "TargetMachine")     -- Requires Types, Target
require(llvmDir .. "ExecutionEngine")   -- Requires Types, Target, TargetMachine
require(llvmDir .. "ErrorHandling")
require(llvmDir .. "Core")              -- Requires ErrorHandling, Types
require(llvmDir .. "Transforms/Scalar") -- Requires Types

There are a couple of things going on here.

When you compile a C program, there’s a compile phase (which if you’re using a library, is when you interpret its headers) and a link phase (which if you’re using a library, is when you link the library binary in). LuaJIT does all of this at runtime, but it still needs the headers and the libraries. You feed it the headers as strings so it knows what memory layout to use, and then you give it the direct path of the library to dynamically load. It’s all manual and there’s nothing intelligent like a linker in play, so I have to do the legwork of figuring out things like what the file extension for a dynamic library is on the current operating system. There’s also absolutely no way for me to figure out where the LLVM libraries are installed, so I expect whoever runs this script to provide that path before running, in the config.lua file.

Then we get to the headers. I choose to version these, and make the user say which version they want in config.lua.

My goal is to create LLVM "abstract syntax trees". LLVM, as I understand it, has three ways to specify an AST: As LLVM IR, which is a textual representation of ASTs which changes with every version of LLVM; as bitcode, which is a binary representation which is standardized and compatible between LLVM versions; or by calling the functions in the LLVM or LLVM-C API. My understanding is that the LLVM-C API is stable— if you write a program targeting LLVM 3.6, you should be able to recompile with LLVM 3.9 and it should work. (If this is not true, please, somebody warn me now.) However, just because the 3.6 and 3.9 APIs are source compatible does not mean you can use the 3.9 headers with the 3.6 libraries. And I’m going to do something weird— I’m going to embed the 3.9 headers directly into my source repository, because I have to, because I’m loading my hand-massaged versions of the headers rather than the ones on disk.

Right now everything I’m doing is just a weird experiment— I’m not designing any of this to be convenient for other people to use. However, it seems like it would be pretty bad if I designed this in a way it literally only works on this one computer, with this one version of LLVM. Weird experiment or no I need to leave the door open for another human to run this, especially since anything that will trip up another human will also trip up my own future self. I open that door by leaving space for multiple versions of the "massaged" LLVM headers to be checked into this repository: I check in the 3.9-compatible headers I’ve got (in a folder awkwardly named 3_9, since the Lua loader can’t handle directory names containing periods), and expect that people using a different version of LLVM in future can at least do the conversion process on their own headers and check that in alongside 3_9.

With that established, I copy all the 3.9 LLVM-C headers into my 3_9 folder and check them in unchanged— I won’t be using them, but I want them around for future reference— and select the handful I need, the handful from import.lua, to convert to Lua. This process is mostly simple; I rename to .lua, delete the #if guards and #includes from the top and bottom, and stick ffi.cdef[[ at the top and ]] at the end. (The square brackets create a multi-line string.) Easy! Except:

  • Since I removed the #includes, I don’t get dependency management done for me. This means I have to work out the dependency tree by hand and make sure I include everything in the right order (hence the weird comments in import.lua).
  • Core.h contains some trickery with #define— some C metaprogramming. I have to run the C preprocessor manually on this file (making sure to do so after I remove the #includes at the top, because otherwise I’d get the entirety of stdlib pulled in to the file).
  • Target.h is even worse— it contains this strange repeated preprocessor construction:

    /* Declare all of the target-initialization functions that are available. */
    #define LLVM_TARGET(TargetName) \
      void LLVMInitialize##TargetName##TargetInfo(void);
    #include "llvm/Config/Targets.def"
    #undef LLVM_TARGET  /* Explicit undef to make SWIG happier */

    What is this? Well, apparently, when the LLVM libraries were installed on my computer, the install built these .def files containing per-system configuration information. If you look in Targets.def in the main LLVM headers, you find it’s full of lines like

    LLVM_TARGET(AArch64)
    LLVM_TARGET(AMDGPU)
    LLVM_TARGET(ARM)
    ...

    This is a problem. The reason I believe I can move my "massaged" 3.9 headers to another computer and have the code still work with the local dynamic libraries is I assume things like structure layouts don’t vary between any two compiled copies of a single version of LLVM. But, the .defs contents will vary from computer to computer! The only possible solution here is to leave the metaprogramming macro garbage in Target.lua, and instruct anyone who tries to compile this code to run the preprocessor themselves (thus getting the .def contents from their own computer). The project now has a README instructing users to run this monstrosity before running the not-compiler:

    gcc -I/opt/local/libexec/llvm-3.9/include -E -P -C -xc-header ./lib-ffi/llvm/3_9/Target.source.lua > ./lib-ffi/llvm/3_9/Target.lua

    That’s… really unsatisfying, so it looks like if I keep with this experiment, I’m going to eventually need something like a build script.

generate.lua

3,135 words into this blog post, I am finally ready to start writing code! I translate the most minimal chunk of the llvm-c-kaleidoscope project’s main file into Lua as can stand alone:

require("config")
require("lib-lua/import")
require("lib-ffi/import")

class.Builder()
function Builder:_init(moduleName)
    self.llvm = {
        module = LLVM.LLVMModuleCreateWithName(moduleName),
        builder = LLVM.LLVMCreateBuilder()
    }

    local enginePtr = ffi.new("LLVMExecutionEngineRef[1]")
    local msgPtr = ffi.new("char *[1]")
    if LLVM.LLVMCreateExecutionEngineForModule(enginePtr, self.llvm.module, msg) == 1 then
        local err = ffi.string(msgPtr[0])
        LLVM.LLVMDisposeMessage(msgPtr[0]);
        error("LLVMCreateExecutionEngineForModule error: " + err)
    end
    self.llvm.engine = enginePtr[0]

    self.llvm.passManager = LLVM.LLVMCreateFunctionPassManagerForModule(self.llvm.module)
    LLVM.LLVMAddTargetData(LLVM.LLVMGetExecutionEngineTargetData(self.llvm.engine), self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddPromoteMemoryToRegisterPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddInstructionCombiningPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddReassociatePass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddGVNPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMAddCFGSimplificationPass(self.llvm.passManager);
    LLVM.LLVMInitializeFunctionPassManager(self.llvm.passManager);
end

function Builder:dump()
    LLVM.LLVMDumpModule(self.llvm.module)
end

function Builder:dispose()
    LLVM.LLVMDisposePassManager(self.llvm.pass_manager);
    LLVM.LLVMDisposeBuilder(self.llvm.builder);
    LLVM.LLVMDisposeModule(self.llvm.module);
end

builder = Builder("main")
builder:dump()

Here I create a single empty "module", and I dump the corresponding LLVM IR. I run it and:

; ModuleID = 'main'

It works! I don’t know what a module is yet— I assume it corresponds to an object file— but I’ve at least demonstrated I can talk to LLVM and not crash.

Here’s the project I’ve written so far. I want to go a little further than this, though. I want to make an executable.

Emitting to a file

Assuming a module is an object file, there are two things I need to do from here: I need to add a "main" function as entry point; and I need to write the object file to disk. I attempt the second thing first, since I assume it will be easier. This assumption is wrong.

The Kaleidoscope sample program doesn’t emit files— it uses JIT— so this is the first LLVM thing I’m left to do on my own. I investigate. Apparently the way you emit a module as an object file is LLVMTargetMachineEmitToFile(). This function is a bit of a monster. It takes two configuration arguments, one of which is a complex structure called a TargetMachine whose constructor takes seven arguments, many of which are magic strings.

At this point I’m starting to feel the limitations of the LLVM documentation. There’s no documentation for LLVM-C as such, so I wind up looking everything up twice, once in the LLVM-C reference to figure out what the corresponding C++ function is, then into the C++ documentation to find out what the function actually does. Once I find the function I want, the explanation is invariably limited to the strict function definition; questions like "but when do I call this?" or "but where does the TargetMachine come from?" are outside the scope of the reference document. But the reference document is the only document, so at that point I’m left searching StackOverflow. Meanwhile StackOverflow only helps when the thing I want to do is common; in the case of emitting an object file, apparently this is enough of a weird or at least power-usery thing that most entry-level LLVM users don’t attempt it. Apparently everyone else is using a command line tool called llc that converts LLVM IR to object files.

The arguments to LlvmCreateTargetMachine() are complicated because LLVM is a cross-compiler; it could compile for your machine you’re sitting at, or some arbitrary number of other machines. How do I get the specification for the machine I am sitting at? I decide to pull up the source code for llc and see what it did. And it turns out there are a bunch of functions for exactly this, returning defaults corresponding to your current machine! Things like getDefaultTargetTriple() and getFeaturesStr(). These functions are in sys.h and CommandFlags.h. Of the C++ headers. They’re not exposed to C. Um.

I need to specify eight things: a "target", a "triple", a "CPU", a "features" list, and four options related to optimization and what you’re building (library, executable, etc). The last four are thankfully enums, so those are easy to work out just from looking at the headers, and I find a function that can derive the "target" from the "triple", so now I’m down to three mysteries. I know how to look up the "triple" for my own machine, but again I don’t want this software bound to one computer. I wind up begging on IRC and Twitter for about 48 hours, and people who have done this before help me out. What I find out:

  • The "triple" is the same "what do I compile?" string all compilers use; you can get a sample from any one compiler on a given machine with clang -version or gcc -dumpmachine.
  • There is after all a C-exposed LLVM.LLVMGetDefaultTargetTriple(). (I apparently missed this in my first few scans of the five thousand lines of headers.)
  • "CPU" is the same as -march on a traditional compiler— it specifies microarchitecture. If you specify armv7 here, you’ll get optimizations that the armv6 can’t support, but your software also won’t run on armv6 anymore.
  • The "CPU" and "features" strings can be empty strings. If you do this, it gives you the most conservative possible microarchitecture for the triple you asked for. (Which might be closer to what you want anyway than the "defaults" sys.h would give you— after all, ask for the "default" on a brand new PC and you might get something no one else can run.)
  • The "target" is something weird and LLVM-internal, and refers to which LLVM backend you want to run. You’ll want to get this by using the function I mentioned that derives it from the triple. (You can also look up targets by name, but the names are pretty arcane— there’s no apparent consistency or correspondence to the outside world in the naming scheme, it was just up to whoever wrote that one LLVM add-on. For example there’s one x86 target that works with both x86 and x86-64, but the 32 and 64 bit ARM targets are separate.)

Armed with all of this, I’m able to put together an emission function which populates everything from the default triple (with overloading allowed via config.lua):

function Builder:emitToFile()
    local targetRefPtr = ffi.new("LLVMTargetRef [1]")
    compileTriple = config.compileTriple or LLVM.LLVMGetDefaultTargetTriple()
    compileCpu = config.compileCpu or ""
    compileFeatures = config.compileFeatures or ""

    if LLVM.LLVMGetTargetFromTriple (compileTriple, targetRefPtr, errPtr) == 1 then
        llvmErr("LLVMGetTargetFromTriple")
    end
    if LLVM.LLVMTargetMachineEmitToFile(
            LLVM.LLVMCreateTargetMachine(targetRefPtr[0], compileTriple, compileCpu, compileFeatures,
                LLVM.LLVMCodeGenLevelAggressive, LLVM.LLVMRelocDefault, LLVM.LLVMCodeModelSmall),
        self.llvm.module, cstring(self.moduleName .. ".o"), LLVM.LLVMObjectFile, errPtr) == 1 then
        llvmErr("LLVMTargetMachineEmitToFile")
    end
end

And then things get weird.

My first sign of trouble is a cryptic message Unable to find target for this triple (no targets are registered). I waste time assuming I fed the function a bad triple before realizing what this really means: there are no targets, at all. It turns out before LLVMGetTargetFromTriple() will work, you have to call a special function to initialize any targets you might want to hypothetically load. There is a different initialization function for each target— LLVMInitializeAArch64Target() for 64-bit ARM vs LLVMInitializeX86Target(), for example. They apparently did it this way because most users link LLVM into their program statically, and partitioning the target backends into functions like this means you don’t have to pack the support code for whatever "MSP430" is in to your binary if you don’t plan to support it. That makes sense, but I’m linking dynamically, and I don’t know which platforms I do or don’t support ahead of time.

What a user like me— using the dynamic LLVM, not really certain what they intend to support— usually does is call the LLVMInitializeAllTargets() function. Which is defined in Target.h

/** LLVMInitializeAllTargets - The main program should call this function if it
    wants to link in all available targets that LLVM is configured to
    support. */
static inline void LLVMInitializeAllTargets(void) {
#define LLVM_TARGET(TargetName) LLVMInitialize##TargetName##Target();
#include "llvm/Config/Targets.def"
#undef LLVM_TARGET  /* Explicit undef to make SWIG happier */
}

…as an inline function. And now I’m stuck. LuaJIT can’t call those— at all. Again, LuaJIT calls functions by loading them from a dynamic library, but inline functions aren’t in the dynamic library, they’re C code embedded directly in the header file.

I get around this by doing something truly horrible. LLVMInitializeAllTargets() is an inline function generated from Targets.def using C preprocessor. I’m already generating Target.lua by running the preprocessor on a Lua file, in order to clear out preprocessor directives inside the embedded C header string. So I just go ahead and, uh… generate some Lua… using the C preprocessor.

function LLVMInitializeAllTargets()
  #define LLVM_TARGET(TargetName) LLVM.LLVMInitialize##TargetName##Target()
  #include "llvm/Config/Targets.def"
  #undef LLVM_TARGET
end

After the preprocessor runs, this gives me a Lua function that calls each of the functions that the inaccessible C LLVMInitializeAllTargets() would have been calling. I make three more of these functions (in addition to initializing the "targets" themselves, you need to also initialize the "target infos", "target MCs", and "ASM printers" for each target, or you will get completely misleading error messages). And it works!

If I call my big combined LLVMInitializeAll() function first, emitToFile() prints no errors and I get a 200-byte main.o file which file claims to be Mach-O 64-bit.

Okay! Now can I actually do something?

Doing something

My module needs some code. Let’s do the simplest possible thing: Call printf.

LLVM modules keep a symbol table containing all known functions. When the operating system tries to run the exe I’m making, it will start by looking up a function named "main" in this symbol table and calling it.

local mainType = LLVM.LLVMFunctionType(LLVM.LLVMVoidType(), nil, 0, false)
local mainFn = LLVM.LLVMAddFunction(builder.llvm.module, "main", mainType)

I construct the type for a main function, then construct the function itself. AddFunction will add the function to the symbol table and then return the new function object.

local mainEntry = LLVM.LLVMAppendBasicBlock(mainFn, "entry")
LLVM.LLVMPositionBuilderAtEnd(builder.llvm.builder, mainEntry)

Since I will be adding code to the function, I need to create a "basic block" for the code to live in. "Basic block" is a standard term from compilers referring to a continuous section of code without any branches in it.

Earlier, I made a "builder object". This appears to be something like a text cursor. There’s a series of "Build" functions, and each inserts a bit of code at whatever point in the module the builder is positioned at. I add my new basic block to the function object, and then I position my builder at the end of the basic block. The basic block takes a name when you create it; as far as I can tell this name is arbitrary, and I assume it’s only there in case you want to direct a jump there from the end of some other basic block. I name it "entry".

Next I want to call printf. But first I have to tell LLVM what printf is:

local printfParams = ffi.new("LLVMTypeRef [1]")
printfParams[0] = LLVM.LLVMPointerType(LLVM.LLVMInt8Type(), 0) -- address space 0 (arbitrary)
local printfType = LLVM.LLVMFunctionType(LLVM.LLVMInt32Type(), printfParams, 1, true) -- vararg
local printfFn = LLVM.LLVMAddFunction(builder.llvm.module, "printf", printfType)

Again here I’m constructing a function and putting it in the symbol table. However, this time I am not going to be adding any code to it; I’m just putting it in the symbol table so LLVM knows it exists and what type it is. Later the linker will supply the implementation to go with that symbol table entry. The type on this one is a little more complicated than the one for the main function; it has arguments.

local printString = "LET'S MAKE A JOURNEY TO THE CAVE OF MONSTERS!\n"
local printfArgs = ffi.new("LLVMValueRef [1]")
printfArgs[0] = LLVM.LLVMBuildGlobalStringPtr(builder.llvm.builder, printString, "tmpstring")
LLVM.LLVMBuildCall(builder.llvm.builder, printfFn, printfArgs, 1, "tmpcall")

Now I’m ready to start using the builder. I Build a global string, and then I Build a call site. Both the string and the call site have "names". Like the basic block, the names appear to be arbitrary, although I cannot imagine a possible use for the names like I could with the basic block.

LLVM.LLVMBuildRetVoid(builder.llvm.builder)

Since I’m done, I cap off my basic block by returning void.

Thirteen lines of code. And that is actually all I need! My generator script spits out a new main.o and gives me a glimpse of what the code I just constructed looks like in LLVM IR:

; ModuleID = 'main'

@tmpstring = private unnamed_addr constant [47 x i8] c"LET'S MAKE A JOURNEY TO THE CAVE OF MONSTERS!\0A\00"

define void @main() {
entry:
  %tmpcall = call i32 (i8*, ...) @printf(i8* getelementptr inbounds ([47 x i8], [47 x i8]* @tmpstring, i32 0, i32 0))
  ret void
}

declare i32 @printf(i8*, ...)

That was straightforward, right? Let me take a moment to talk about what I had to do to get that thirteen lines of code.

Again, the LLVM documentation is not very helpful:

These reference documents I’ve been working with were created by Doxygen, which means unless someone went to the bother of commenting a particular function you get only these autogenerated blurbs. I mentioned that LLVMBuildCall() has a "Name" parameter and I don’t know what it does; well, what do I see if I check the documentation? Answer: The LLVMBuildCall() documentation is autogenerated and gives only a source line number. Well, but that’s LLVM-C documentation, right? What do I see if I check the "real" documentation, the C++ documentation? Answer: The IRBuilder::CreateCall() documentation is autogenerated and gives only a source line number. I never did figure out what the "Name" meant.

Now that I’ve finally got to generating ASTs I’ve encountered a new issue with the docs— many of the StackOverflow suggestions for things I need to do by this point are actually turning up as LLVM IR snippets. So now I get instructions given to me as LLVM IR, which I then have to figure out how to translate into C++, so that I can go from there to translating into C (so I can rewrite it in Lua). On the bright side though, LLVM IR turns out to be lavishly documented.

In the end, I figured out very little of the AST generation code by myself. The AST code above was constructed by consulting a mix of the llvm-c-kaleidoscope project, this tutorial written by IBM, and this sample code written by a French security researcher. The IBM and 0vercl0k samples do almost exactly the same things I’m trying to, and were tremendously helpful. But even coding with these great models to follow took some tinkering, since I still had to get past a problem I didn’t really talk about so far: LLVM reacts to most unexpected inputs by crashing. For example, LLVMCreateTargetMachine() above takes an empty string as a valid input; but pass in a NULL string and you get a crash.

A lot of these crashes are pretty easy to deal with. Early on in writing the above code, I was trying to use LLVMConstString() where I should have been using LLVMBuildGlobalStringPtr(), which meant I was passing in to printf the equivalent of a char[48] instead of the equivalent of a char *. The result was an assert:

This I could deal with. It’s not as specific as it could be, but the stack is clean, and the assert gave me a line number. I found out I could get MacPorts to show me the source code to my LLVM version (sudo port patch llvm-3.9 && `port work llvm-3.9`), and this let me look up the context, and after some testing with LLVMTypeOf()/LLVMDumpType() I understood what the problem was and where to start on fixing it.

The other problems I had were… not like that. I had a bug where I was trying to call LLVMBuildGlobalStringPtr() before creating the basic block and positioning the builder; the symptom was a segmentation fault deep inside the optimization pass manager when emitting the object file. I had a bug where I was failing to end my function with a ret void; the symptom was an assert failure, again deep in the optimization pass manager, with the totally mind-boggling assert error Assertion failed: (Val && "isa<> used on a null pointer"), function doit, file Casting.h. In both of these cases, there was basically nothing I could do to understand what went wrong or how to fix it, no breadcrumb trail back to my code. I got out of both of these situations by just checking to see if there was anything the IBM/0vercl0k samples did but I didn’t, and adding those things until the crashes went away.

The reason I’m going into all this is that these various issues taught me something: This is going to be a problem. The thirteen lines of code above are very simple, but constructing them took a full day and in the end was achieved only by following someone else’s example. A lot of the things I do next I will not have examples to follow. So this tells me if I want to make any progress I’m going to need to change how I’m doing things:

  • I need, at least at first, to stick to the heavily trafficked paths. There’s some entry points to this library that lots and lots of people have gone through, and some that are less heavily used. What I’m finding is whenever I veer into the second area things get difficult. As a user of LLVM-C rather than the standard libraries I’m already pushing it; I unfortunately probably can’t afford to be an outlier in other ways also. I’ll want to always code things the simple, standard way before trying anything clever, and I’m probably going to need to get used to testing LLVM IR before attempting things against the API.
  • I am going to need to get used to the internals of the LLVM code. I tried pulling the source code from MacPorts; that’s not enough. I’m going to need to build my own LLVM and get debug symbols (I might have been able to figure something out with the isa<> used on a null pointer error, for example, if I’d been able to inspect locals and find out what was null) and I’m probably going to need to read enough source code to understand the architecture of entire modules before I can understand some of the error messages I’m going to get. This is going to be, in other words, one of those libraries.

Linking

But, I now have a main.o file! Now I just have to link it and I’m done.

This part is obnoxious. My original goal was to write a program that does all the things a compiler does. But you sort of can’t write a linker. Linkers are more the domain of the operating system and its code loading system than they are the domain of language standards, and so effectively only the operating system vendor can really write one because only the OS vendor knows what the linker even does. Whatever your preferred C compiler is, it doesn’t actually link; it actually just finds the OS-supplied linker and invokes it as a command-line program. In other words, the chart I drew at the top of this post is not quite accurate. A more accurate chart would be:

To make my original claim of "no compiler" accurate I could maybe call the linker myself (thus leaving this post with instructions that only work on OS X), or maybe look into LLVM’s experimental linker lld which is someday supposed to be able to do the unthinkable and replace the OS linker. But why make things difficult? I take the cheap route:

cc main.o -o main

And my program works!

$ ./main 
LET'S MAKE A JOURNEY TO THE CAVE OF MONSTERS!

The Lua script that acts as this program’s "compiler" is less than a hundred lines long.

So this is pretty promising! If I can call printf, I’ve got a basis for generating programs that do much more complicated things. It’s only a couple more steps to add variables or flow control, and once I get that done I’ll be able to do fun things like making tiny DSLs out of idiomatic Lua, or maybe even prototype some low-level systems for Emily. Here‘s the source code for my final Lua scripts in this post, and I will definitely be posting more about this in future.

Any code snippets in this post, or in the BitBucket revisions linked in this post, are available under the Creative Commons Zero license.

I designed a programming language and it looks like this.

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

For reasons I talk about here, I’m going to try to create a programming language. So far I’ve got basically a first-draft design.

There is a specific idea I decided I want to explore, when I do this: Programming languages duplicate too much. Programming languages often have multiple syntaxes that do very similar things, or multiple underlying concepts that do very similar things. It is sometimes possible to collapse these similar things into one thing, and when we do, I usually like the results better.

For example, many languages (Perl, Python, PHP) have both a dictionary type and an object type, but the two are used in effectively the same way; on the other hand Lua collapses dictionaries and objects into one type (tables), and makes an object field lookup identical to a dictionary string lookup. Or most object oriented languages distinguish objects and classes, but prototype based languages show that you can get by with just objects; if objects can inherit from other objects, then a “class” is just a pattern for a particular kind of object. When you collapse ideas together like this, or build language features on top of existing features rather than adding new primitives, you reduce both the amount of mental overhead in thinking about code implementation and also the amount of redundant syntax. There’s usually a lot of redundant syntax. C++ uses . to access a field from a reference, and -> to access a field from a pointer. Most languages use (x) to indicate an argument to a function, and [x] to indicate an index to an array. Why? If pointers and references were just special cases of one underlying concept, or if arrays and functions were, you could use one syntax for each pair and you wouldn’t have to mentally track what each variable is, you wouldn’t have to do all the obnoxious manual refactoring when you suddenly decide to replace a reference with a pointer somewhere or vice versa.

In the language I’ve been thinking about, I started with Lua’s “Table” idea– what if i built objects out of dictionaries?– and decided to take it one step further, and build both objects and dictionaries out of functions. In this language, there’s one underlying data structure that functions, objects, dictionaries, and some other stuff besides are just special cases of– design patterns of.

Taking a cue from Smalltalk, I’m going to call this underlying structure “blocks”.

Blocks are just functions

A block, for purposes of this blog post, is a unary function. It takes exactly one argument, and it returns a value. Anywhere in this blog post I say “blocks”, I could have just written “functions”. I’m going to mostly use the “block” jargon instead of saying “functions” because some blocks will be “used like” functions and some very much will not be.

In my language, you’ll define a function just with “=”:

    addOne ^x = x + 1

The ^x is an argument binding. The ^ signals to the language that the right side of the = needs to be a function body (a closure). If on the next line you just said

    y = addOne 3

That would just assign 4 to the variable “y”, it would not create a function.

Blocks are pattern-matched functions

A big part of this project is going to be that I really like the ideas in functional languages like ML or Haskell, but I don’t actually enjoy *writing* in those languages. I like OO. I want a language that gives me the freedom and expressiveness of FP, but comfortably lets me code in the OO style I use in Python or Lua or C++. So I’m going to steal as many ideas from FP languages as I can. Three really important ideas I’m going to steal are closures, currying, and pattern matching.

In case you don’t know those languages, let me stop and explain pattern matching real quick. You know how C++ lets you function overload?

    // In C++
    void addOneHour(int &k) { k = (k + 1) % 12; }
    void addOneHour(float &k) { k = fod(k + 1.0, 12); }

Well, pattern matching is as if you could switch not just on type, but also on value:

    // In hypothetical-C++
    void addOneAbsolute(int &k where k > 0) { k = k + 1; }
    void addOneAbsolute(int &k where k < 0) { k = k - 1; } void addOneAbsolute(0) { } // Do nothing

That last line– the one demonstrating we could write a function whose pattern matches only *one single value*– is going to be important to this language. Why?

Blocks are dictionaries

In my language, if I want to assign more than one pattern to a single block, I just use = multiple times:

    factorial ^x = x * factorial (x - 1)
    factorial 0 = 1

“Factorial” is a block. The way I’m looking at it, a block is just a data structure which maps patterns to closures. It’s like a dictionary, but some of the keys (the ones with bound variables) match multiple values.

However we could not bother assigning any bound-variable patterns, and then we’d just have a dictionary or an array:

    nameOfMonth 1 = "January"
    nameOfMonth 2 = "February"
    nameOfMonth 3 = "March"
    ...

Blocks are objects

Here I want to introduce a data type called an “atom”. This is an idea stolen from Erlang (and possibly Ruby?). Technically an atom is an “interned string”. It’s something that the programmer sees as a string, but the compiler sees as an integer (or a pointer, or something which has a constant-time comparison). You get at the atom by putting a . before a symbol; the symbol is the name of the atom:

    x = .atomname

It’s cheaper to compare atoms than strings (.atomname == .atomname is cheaper than “atomname” == “atomname”) and cheaper to use them as dictionary lookup keys. This means atoms work well as keys for fields of an object. Objective-C for example actually uses atoms as the lookup keys for its method names, although it calls them “selectors”. In my language, this looks like:

    constants.pi = 3.14
    constants.e = 2.71
    constants.phi = 1.61

Notice this looks like normal object syntax from any number of languages. But formally, what we’re doing is adding matching patterns to a function. What’s cool about that is it means we’ll eventually be able to use machinery designed for functions, on objects. Like to skip ahead a bit, eventually we’ll be able to do something like

    map constants [.pi, .e, .phi]

and this will evaluate to an array [3.14, 2.71, 1.61].

What’s up with the square brackets? Oh, right. well, I think all this “constants.” nonsense is gonna get kinda tiresome. So let’s say there’s a syntax like:

    constants = [ pi = 3.14, e = 2.71, phi = 1.61 ]

Notice I say “pi” and not “.pi”– on the left side of an =, the initial “.” is implicit. More on that in a moment.

One other thing. Inside of the [ ], there exists an implicit “this” variable, corresponding to the object the [ ] creates. so if you say

    counter = [
        count = 0
        increment ^x = { this.count = this.count + x }
        decrement ^x = { this.count = this.count - x }
    ]
    counter.increment 1
    counter.increment 3

Then at the end of this string of code “counter.count” is equal to four.

Blocks are prototypes

What if we want more than one counter object? Well, you’ll notice an interesting consequence of our pattern matching concept. Let’s say I said:

    counter = [
        init ^x = { this.count = x }
        increment ^x = { this.count = this.count + x }
        decrement ^x = { this.count = this.count - x }
    ]

    counter_instance ^x = counter x
    counter_instance.init 3
    counter_instance.increment 5

When we say “counter_instance.whatever”, the language interprets this as calling the block counter_instance with the argument .whatever. So if counter_instance is defined to just re-call “counter”, then on the next line saying “counter_instance.init 3” will fetch the block stored in counter.init, and then that block gets called with the argument 3. The way the “this” binding works is special, such that counter_instance.init gets invoked “on” counter_instance– “this” is equal to counter_instance, not counter.

The syntax we used to make counter_instance “inherit” is pretty ugly, so let’s come up with a better one:

    counter_instance.ditch = counter

I haven’t explained much about how = works, but when we say “counter_instance ^x = “, what we’re really doing is taking a closure with an argument binding and adding it to counter_instance’s implementation-internal key-value store, with the key being a pattern object that matches “anything”. “.ditch” is a shortcut for that one match-anything key slot. In other words, by setting counter_instance.ditch to counter, we are saying that counter is counter_instance’s “prototype”.

Something to make clear here: the lines inside a [ ] aren’t “magic”, like C++ inside a struct declaration or anything. They’re just normal lines of code, like you’d find inside a { }. The difference is the insides of [ ] are using a specially prepared scope with access to a “this” and a “super”, and at the end of the [ ] the [ ] expression returns the scope into which all these values are being assigned (“this”). The upshot is you could easily have the first line of your [ ] be something like an “inherit counter;” call that sets the ditch and does some various other fix-up to make this prototype system act more like some other kind of object system, like a class system (I like classes). This sort of thing is possible because

Blocks are scopes

Like most languages, this one has a chain of scopes. You’ll notice above I offhandedly use both ( ) and { } ; these are the same thing, in that they’re a series of statements which evaluate to the value of the final statement:

    x = ( 1; 2; 3 )

…sets x equal to 3. The 1; and 2; are noops. (Semicolon is equivalent, in the examples I’ve given here, to line-ending. There’s also a comma which is effectively a semicolon but different and the difference is not worth explaining right now.)

The one difference between { } and ( ) is that { } places its values into a new scope. What is a scope? A scope is a block. When you say

    a = 4

The unbound variable a is atom-ized, and fed into the current scope block. In other words “a” by itself translates to “scope.a”. When you create a new inner scope, say by using { }, a new scope block is created, and its ditch is set to the block for the enclosing scope. The scope hierarchy literally uses the same mechanism as the prototype chain.

Block constituents are properties (or: blocks are assignment statements)

Non-language geeks may want to skip this section.

I’ve been pretty vague about what = does, and that’s because it has to do several layers of things (matching items that already exist, binding variables, wrapping closures, and actually performing assignment). However, ultimately = must write [pattern, closure] pairs into one or more blocks. = cannot, however, actually write anything by itself. Ultimately, when = decides it needs to assign something, it is calling a “set” method.

    a = 4

Is ultimately equivalent to

    scope.set .a 4

That = is sugar for .set is a small detail, but it has some neat consequences. For one thing, since everything that happens in this language is curryable, it means you can trivially make a function:

    a_mutator = set.a

…which when called will reassign the “a” variable within this current scope (remember, “set” by itself will just be “scope.set”). For another thing, this means you can create a “property” for a particular variable:

    set.a ^x = ( b = x + 1 )
    a = 3

After this code runs, “b” will be equal to 4 (and “a” will still be equal to a function that mutates “b”).

The existence of .set will also have some interesting effects once we have types and therefore a type checker. I’ve been kinda vague about whether = has “set” or “let” semantics– that is, if you assign to a variable does it auto-instantiate or must you predeclare it, if there is a variable by the assigned name in the ditch does assignment shadow in the assigned block or reassign in the parent block, etc. And the answer is it doesn’t much matter for purposes of this post, because any of the possible things that happen when you set a field (“not declared” error thrown, assigned to top-level block, assigned to a parent block) could just be all things that could and do happen in different blocks, depending on what that block’s .set is set to. For example, it would probably make sense for object blocks and scope blocks to have a different last-ditch “.set” behavior, or be sensible to allow different source files to have different “.set”s for their file-level scopes (“use strict”).

On that note, let’s talk about types. There’s a lot of very exciting stuff happening in the study of types in programming languages right now, both types as used in languages and types as used in extra-lingual static analysis tools. I don’t understand a lot of this research yet (and I want to learn) but I think I understand enough to have an idea of what’s possible with types right now, and that means I know how I want types in this language to work.

Blocks are types

Let’s say we have a syntax variable:type that we can use to constrain the arguments of a function.

    factorial ^x : int = x - 1

When this function is called, there will be a runtime check, if “x” is not an int, it will be a runtime failure. Let’s say we can use the a:b construct inside expressions too:

    square ^x = ( x * x:float ) :: stateless

Let’s say that :: instead of : indicates that the type is being applied not to the value returned by that parenthesis, but to the implicit “function” defined by the parenthesis itself. “stateless” is a type that applies to functions; if we assert a function is “stateless” we assert that it has no side-effects, and its resulting value depends only on its inputs. (In other words, it is what in another language might be called “pure”.)

There’s some kind of a inferred typing system in place. There’s a compile time type checker, and when it looks at that “square” function it can tell that since “x” is a float in one place inside the expression, that the “x” passed into square must itself be a float. It can also tell that since the only code executed in “square ^x” is stateless, that the function “square ^x” is also stateless. Actually the “stateless” is from the checker’s perspective unnecessary, since if the checker has enough information about x to know the * in (x * x) is a stateless operation– which, if it knows x is a float, it does know that– then square ^x would be stateless anyway.

There’s some kind of a gradual typing system in place. There is a compile-time step which, everywhere square ^x is called, tries to do some kind of a type-proving step and determine if the argument to square is a float. If it can prove the argument is a float, it actually omits the runtime check to save performance. If it *can’t* prove the argument is a float, or it can prove the argument *isn’t* a float, it adds the check and maybe prints some kind of compile-time warning. (To stress: some of these properties, like “stateless”, might be in many cases *impossible* to prove, in which case the checker is conservative and treats “can’t prove” as a failure.) Besides omitting safety checks, there are some other important kinds of optimizations that the type checker might be able to enable. Critically, and this will become important in a moment, if a function is stateless then it can be potentially executed at runtime.

So what are types? Well, they’re just functions. “int” and “stateless” are language-builtin functions that return true if their arguments are an int, or a provably stateless function, respectively. (For purposes of a type function, if the type *doesn’t* match, then either a runtime failure or a return false are okay.) Types are values, so you can construct new ones by combining them. Let’s say that this language has the || and && short-circuit boolean operators familiar from other languages, but it also has & and | which are “function booleans”– higher level functions, essentially, such that a | b returns a function f(x) which is true if either a(x) or b(x) is true. So if “stateless” and “nogc” are two of the builtin type functions, then we can say:

    inlineable = stateless | nogc

And if we want to define a totally unique type? Well, you just define a function:

    positive ^x = x > 0
    sqrt ^x : positive = x / x    # Note: There might be a bug here

Obviously you can’t use just any function here– there would have to be some specific type condition (probably something like the “inlineable” I describe above) that any function used as a type in a pattern would be required to conform to. This condition would begin and end with “whatever the type checker can efficiently prove to apply or not at compile-time”.

Let’s finally say there’s some sugar for letting you define these “type condition” functions at the same time you define the function to whose parameters they apply; we could reduce that last block down to

    sqrt (^x >= 0) = x / 2    # Square root implementation, WIP 2

One other bit of sugar that having a type system makes easy:

Blocks are argument lists

So everything so far has been a unary function, right? There’s only so much we can do with those. This language is set up for currying– that’s how method lookup works, after all– and I would like to offer explicit sugar for curry:

    curryadd ^x ^y = x + y

But ehh, I don’t actually like using currying for everything. I like argument lists. And I really, *really* like named arguments, like Python uses. Let’s say we have this syntax:

    divide [^numerator, ^denominator = 1] = numerator / denominator

The “parameters” block there? Is totally just a block. But there’s some kind of block wiring such that:

    divide [4, 2]           # Evaluates to 2
    divide [4]              # Evaluates to 4-- "denominator" has a default argument
    divide [9, denominator=3]                       # Evaluates to 3
    divide [denominator = 4, numerator = 16]        # Evaluates to 4
    divide [ ]       # Compile-time error -- assignment for "numerator" not matched

There’s some sort of block “matching” mechanism such that if the argument block can be wired to the parameter block, it will be. I don’t have an exact description handy of how the wiring works, but as long as blocks remember the order in which their (key, value) pairs are assigned, and as long as they can store (key, value) pairs where exactly one of key and value is (no value), then such a matching mechanism is at least possible.

My expectation is that almost all functions in this language will use the argument blocks for their parameters, and almost all invocations will have an argument block attached.

Blocks are macros

I wanna go back here and look at something closer: We’ve defined that there’s some subset of this language which can be run at compile time, and that the type checker can identify which functions are in that category. I think this is a pretty powerful concept, because it means the language can use *itself* as its macro language.

So far in this post, you’ve seen three main kinds of syntax in the code samples: Unary function application (again, a field lookup like a.b.c is really just a bunch of currying), “=”, and little extra operators like “+”. What I’m going to assert is that the extra operators– and also maybe =, and maybe even [ ]– are actually just rewrite rules. So for the line:

    3 + square 4

Before actually being executed, this line is transformed into

    3 .plus ( scope .square 4 )

“3”, like anything else, is a block. Like in Io or Self, adding three to four is just invoking a particular method on the 3 object. In this language “+”, the symbol, is just a shortcut for .plus, with parser rules to control grouping and precedence. (If we actually just wrote “3 .plus square 4”, then the currying would try to interpret this as “(3 .plus square) 4”, which is not what we want.)

There’s some kind of a syntax for defining line-rewrite rules, something like:

    op [ symbol = "!", precedence = 6, replace = .not, insert = .unary_postfix, group = .right_inclusive ]
    op [ symbol = "*", precedence = 5, replace = .times, insert = .infix, group = .both ]
    op [ symbol = "+", precedence = 4, replace = .plus, insert = .infix, group = .both ]
    op [ symbol = "==", precedence = 3, replace = .eq, insert = .infix, group = .both ]
    op [ symbol = "&&", precedence = 2, replace = .and, insert = .infix, group = .both ]
    op [ symbol = "||", precedence = 1, replace = .or, insert = .infix, group = .both ]

Which means for something like

    result = 12 * 2 + 9 == 3 + 8 * 4
    result = !parser.valid 34 && result

Ultimately what’s actually being executed is:

    scope .set .result ( ( ( 12 .times 2 ) .plus 9 ) .eq ( 3 .plus ( 8 .times 4 ) ) )
    scope .set .result ( ( ( scope .parser .valid 34 ) .not ) .and ( scope .result ) )

So this is fine for symbols like + and – which operate on two clearly-defined values, but what about something more complicated like “=”? Well, there ought to be some kind of way to pass “op” a .custom function, which takes in a list of lexed tokens representing a line and returns a transformed list of tokens. At that point you can do pretty much anything. “=” might be the *one* thing that you can’t implement this way because = does special things involving adding bindings. But short of that, custom “op”s would be sufficient even for things like, I don’t know, flow control:

    if ( a == 4 ) { k.x = 3 } else { k.x = 4 }

I may be getting into the language-geek weeds again here but I’m gonna walk through this: Let’s say I have a higher order function “if ^pred ^exec” which takes functions “pred” and “exec”, executes “pred” (pred is probably nullary… which I haven’t decided what that means in this language yet), if the result is true it executes “exec” and returns the void combinator (v ^x = v), if the result is false it returns a function which expects as argument either .elsif (in which case it returns if) or .else (in which case it returns a function that takes a nullary function as argument and evaluates it). We’ve now defined the familiar if…elsif…else construct entirely in terms of higher order functions, but actually *using* this construct would be pretty irritating, because the “pred” and “exec” blocks couldn’t just be ( ) or { } as people expect from other languages, they’d have to be function-ized (which means annoying extra typing, toss some ^s in or however lambdas are made in this language). But, we can declare “if”, “else” and “elsif” rewrite ops: “if” ^-izes the next two tokens and then replaces itself with just “if” again; “else” and “elsif” ^-ize the next one token each and then replace themselves with .else or .elsif. If we do this, then the familiar if… else syntax above just *works*.

…why am I going into all this, about “if” “else”? Well, because I want to stress that it means *flow control constructs can be implemented in the language itself*, and they will be truly first-class equals with builtins like “if” or “while”. In my eventual vision of this language, the *only* language-level syntactical elements are

    .
    ^
    ( )
    [ ]
    { }
    ;

And *everything* else, including comment indicators and the end-of-line statement-terminator, is just rewrite rules, ideally rewrite rules written in the language itself. Which implies if you don’t like the language’s syntax much, you could just unload the builtin “stdops” module that contains things like “+” and “if”, and substitute your own. “op” rules are local to scopes, so syntax could vary hugely file to file. Which… well, shouldn’t it? I know people who avoid entire languages because they don’t like one or two things about the syntax. Say, people who go “well, Objective-C has a neat object model, but I can’t get used to all those square brackets”. Or I in my last blog post specifically said that although they both have lots of features I like, I personally won’t use LISP because I can’t make visual sense of S-expressions, I won’t use Javascript because of the casting rules. None of this makes any sense! Languages should be about *features*. They should be models of computation, and we should be evaluating them based on how expressive that model is, based on the features of the underlying flow control or object model or type system or whatever. Syntax shouldn’t have to be part of the language selection process, and if languages let us put the sugar on ourselves instead of pre-sugaring everything then it wouldn’t have to be. I’m probably getting carried away here. What was I talking about? Did I say something just now about casting rules? Let’s talk about casting rules.

Blocks are language machinery

Some syntactical elements, like [ ] and =, might be too complex for the programmer to plausibly implement themselves. The programmer should still have a fair amount of control over these builtins work. One way to do this would be to have things like [ ] and = implicitly call functions that exist in the current scope. For example, instead of calling .set, = might call a function “assign” that exists in current scope; this would allow individual scopes to make policy decisions such as the variable auto-instantiation rules I mentioned earlier. [ ], at the moment it instantiates the new block, might call a function “setup” that exists in the current scope, allowing the programmer to do things like change the default ditch (base class) or the exact meaning of “inherit”. There might be a function that defines the default type constraints for numbers, or strings, or lines of code. Maybe somewhere there’s a Haskell fan who wants to be able to have every ( ) wrapped up to be ^-ized and every line wrapped in ( ) :: stateless, so that any code *they* write winds up being effectively lazy-evaluated and side-effect-free and they can only communicate with the rest of the language using unsafe monads. They should be able to do that.

One thing I definitely want in is for there to be something like a “fallback” function which, if a particular block is called with an argument whose type doesn’t fit any pattern the block has defined, attempts to map the argument to one of the patterns the block *can* handle. In other words questions about whether different but intraconvertable types like ints and floats can be converted between without a cast would be a decision made on a per-project or per-file basis. Or for example if there’s a function

    square ^x:int = x*x

and one of the patterns on the fallback block is

    fallback ^fn : function( ^type, _ ) [^x : type] = fn x    # Follow all that?

(Let’s assume “function” is a higher-order type function such that function(a,b) is the type of a function a -> b, and let’s assume _ has the magic property of “match anything, but don’t capture it” when used in a pattern.)

…then even though the function is only defined for (square x) we could totally get away with calling square[ x ], because the fallback function could match [ x ] to x.

Uh, incidentally, I’m not totally sure this thing with the fallback function is actually in general possible or possible to make performant. But as with most of the stuff in this language, I think it would be fun to try!

Blocks are C++ or Javascript objects in disguise, potentially

There’s one last thing I want to talk about here, although it’s one of the most important features from my perspective. The model we have here– where formally speaking all field accesses execute functions, all field assignments execute functions, and there’s some kind of type checker at work capable of tracking fine detail about what kinds of operations get performed on individual blocks– means that the underlying language-level implementation of “a block” could differ from block to block.

The model I’ve described here for blocks is extremely dynamic and flexible– *too* flexible, such that it would be very difficult to make code using all these dynamic features performant. Except not every block will be using all of the features blocks have. Some blocks will only contain “value” keys (i.e. never a ^var:type pattern), and the type inferrer will be able to prove this the case. The compiler/interpreter could represent this one block internally as a plain hashtable, rather than taking the overhead to enable executing arbitrary code on every access. Some blocks, despite being mutable, will have a fixed known set of keys; the language could maybe represent these in memory as plain structs, and translate atoms to fixed memory offsets at compile time.

And some blocks, at the programmer’s direction, might be doing something else altogether. It’s easy to imagine a “proxy object” where each invocation of an atom and an argument on the block is actually copying the atom and argument and shipping them into another thread or across a network, and the type checker ensures the contract is followed and objects are actually copyable; you could build an Erlang style messaging system this way.

Of particular interest to me, some blocks might actually be guests from some totally other system, say a different language with its own object model. An FFI for some other language could make wrapper blocks for that language’s objects, and put in place type guarantees that the programmer does not interact with those blocks in any way the guest language does not support. The two languages I’d personally really like to be able to interface with this way are C++ and Javascript, because these languages have valuable platform and library support, but also are languages I do not actually want to *write*.

C++ in particular interests me, because I’m not aware of any languages which are “higher level” in the sense that interests me but which can currently adequately interface with C++. C++ is actually pretty tricky to interface with– the big problem here, to my mind, being that method calling conventions (name mangling) vary from compiler to compiler. Actually, on some platforms (by which I mean “Windows”) it’s the case that shared libraries (DLLs) can’t be shared between compilers even if you are writing in C++ yourself. It would probably be necessary, if making a C++ FFI, to target one particular compiler (I’d vote Clang, because it’s extensible and has good platform support). Choosing to target one particular compiler would have a neat side effect: With some knowledge of the compiler’s implementation details, it *ought* to be possible to make blocks that inherit from C++ classes, and have those blocks actually construct fake vtables at runtime that jump into the compiled code for (or interpreter for) my language. Since in my language “classes” and “objects” get constructed by calling functions whose execution could be potentially deferred to runtime, it would be essentially invisible to the programmer when they say [ inherit QObject; objectName = “Block” ] whether a normal block or a pseudo-C++ class is being constructed.

Okay?

Anyway, here’s what I think I’ve got here. I started with one single idea (pattern-matched unary functions that remember the order in which their patterns were assigned), and asked the question “how much of what a language normally does could I collapse into this one concept?”. The answer turns out to be “very nearly EVERYTHING”, including stuff (like type specifications, macros and FFIs) that most languages would wind up inventing effectively an entire sub-language just to support (templates… ugh). I actually *do* want a new programming language, mostly because of that thing I mentioned with not liking any existing language’s C++ interop, and I actually do intend to at least attempt this project. I’m basically just gonna download the Clang source at some point and see how far I get. One thing in my favor is that since this language is based on a small number of simple things that interact in complex ways, I could probably get a minimal implementation going without too much difficulty (especially if I don’t go for types on the first pass).

Oh, one very final thing: I never said what all of this is called. In my head I’m planning to name this language either Emily, because despite being fundamentally OO it strikes me as a fairly “ML-y” language; or Emmy, after Emmy Noether. I’ll decide which later.

That’s all.

Note to commenters: Harsh criticisms are very much welcomed. Criticisms based on demographics or assumptions about my background are not. Thanks.

Sweet Nothings

Thursday, January 31st, 2013

A collection of small art/music toys I’ve made over the last six months. Some are interactive, some are not. Included are “Brainfarm”, “CS/1”, “Devil’s Chord”, “A Cube for You”, “pxswap()” and “Sun Sets”.

Download

All of these are improved versions of things previously posted on my anti-games page. I made the collection to submit to something called the “Experimental Gaming Workshop”.

Customer testimonials

“WHAT IS THIS MACHINE” — Porpentine, Rock Paper Shotgun

“I wonder if second one is broken; I’m not sure what the expected behavior is but the sound is static and only part of the screen animates…” — Hannah Greenwood

“Please turn that off, it’s really loud.” — Diana Heideman

Responsibilities

Monday, December 17th, 2012

This is a game I made with Liz Ryerson. I programmed and Liz did all the actual work. We made this for Ludum Dare 25, the 72-hour jam; the theme was “You Are The Villain”. I shall leave it up to you if it fits that theme or not. It is very mysterious. Only Liz knows what it means for sure.

Download

You can find the Ludum Dare competition entry page for the game here.

This game requires an OpenGL 2.0 compatible computer to run.

The World Hates You

Monday, August 27th, 2012

Made in 48 hours for the Ludum Dare 24 competition– theme: “evolution”. Accordingly, this game uses an evolutionary algorithm to generate the hardest platformer levels possible. As you play, the game reports back your progress over the internet to a server which breeds the hardest levels together and sends the results out to future players.

The game does not have a win condition. The purpose of this game is not to be won. The purpose of this game is to get progressively better at killing you.

Download

You can find the Ludum Dare competition entry page for the game here.

This game requires an OpenGL 2.0 compatible computer to run.

Polyconsole: This is how I make games now

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

About a year ago, Ivan Safrin released his personal game engine under the name Polycode. I was impressed enough I began adopting the engine for all my personal game projects. However, a year after the release, it’s clear to me that although Polycode is a promising, powerful engine, it’s very hard to get started with. In hopes of doing something about this, I’ve got my own variant of the Polycode tools, which I would like to share with you. Using the tools below in place of the official Polycode distribution hopefully will make it easier to get started; make it easier to integrate Lua and C++ in a single game; and give you a much more up-to-date copy of Polycode than the (fairly out of date) one on the official website.

Below are three options– depending on exactly how dirty you want your hands to get– for using Polyconsole (my toolset). Each option includes support for Mac, Windows and Linux game development (although with options 2 and 3, there are currently complications for Windows users).

What’s this now?

Polycode is a general game engine with support for C++ and Lua. It supports a broad range of features out of the box, including pixel shaders, 2D and 3D physics via Box2D and Bullet, and the standard niceties like resource management and xml serialization. Support for networking, mobile devices, and a Stencyl-like IDE are being worked on and hopefully will be eventually added.

Polyconsole is my personal toolset for using Polycode– technically Polyconsole is an alternative to the “Polycode Player”, which is the official way to write Lua programs with Polycode. Polyconsole basically just loads a game written in Lua and runs it, along with a realtime Lua console for testing stuff out while you play:

If you run your game in Polyconsole you’ll also have access to some utilities I added that aren’t in standard Polycode, like a 2D scene loader for SVG files which you can make in Inkscape:

Here completely within Inkscape I’ve drawn a little 2D physics scene, set weights and such for the various objects, and in the case of the one red ball at the top I added a Lua collision handler (it prints “Bang!”). On the right you can see the aftermath where Polyconsole has loaded all this up.

These are simple examples, but I’ve used this basic framework to make some complex and varied things very rapidly. Here’s some stuff I’ve made with Polycode and Polyconsole this year:


So, how does one use this?

Option 1: I don’t know what “compiling” is, I just want to make games

Below you can download prebuilt versions of Polyconsole for Mac, Windows and Linux, and just start writing games with Lua:

How to use this

Polyconsole loads the game it’s running out of a file named “media.pak” (actually a zip file) in its internal resources. It has a mod system though, whereby if it sees a file named “mod.zip” or a directory named “mod” in the same directory with it, it will selectively replace the files in media.pak with the “mod” files.

The version of Polyconsole above is set up so you can just write a whole game in the “mod” directory. In this package, the “mod” directory is preloaded with the contents of the sample program in media.pak. The package also has two extra magic files set up for you: “settings.xml” and “debug.xml”. The settings.xml lets you set the size of the window Polyconsole runs in. (Without this file, the game will just run full screen.) The debug.xml on the other hand, just by being there, causes Polyconsole to run in debug mode. This means you can access the Lua console, by hitting tab and then typing (you can hit tab again to hide it). Also in debug mode if you hit “esc”, all the current scripts, textures, images etc will be reloaded immediately from disk.

If you open up the mod/media directory included along with this Polyconsole, you’ll find the following:

init.txt: This describes the initial “room” that Polyconsole loads.
example.svg: This is the little sample physics scene in the demo.
material/: This directory contains textures and shaders, and the basic.mat xml file that describes them.
overlay/: This directory contains all your Lua.

Games in Polyconsole are made up of what I call “overlays” and “rooms”. An “overlay” is just a little package of Lua code– it contains one Lua script to run when the overlay loads, one Lua script to run when the overlay is closed, and one Lua script that runs once per frame as long as the overlay is up. A “room” on the other hand is a list of overlays and SVG files which Polyconsole loads all in a bunch. So for example in an average game I might have one room for the title screen, one room for the game over screen, and one room for the game itself. Alternately I could make each level its own room, if that makes more sense for the game. The sample Polyconsole program linked above contains only one room, which (as you can see if you look in init.txt) loads an overlay named “game” containing the code for the demo, the example.svg that describes the 2D scene, and standard “startup” and “shutdown” overlays. (You’ll always want to make the standard startup overlay the first thing in a room spec and the shutdown overlay the last thing in a room spec, because these are used by Polyconsole’s memory management.)

So to very quickly get started with Polyconsole you can download one of the above packages; open the exe; and while it’s running, open the mod/media/overlay/game folder and edit the onLoad and onUpdate scripts included within. Then whenever you change a line, you can go back to the program and hit “esc” to see your changes. (If it didn’t work, you can hit “tab” to see the console, where any errors will be printed.)

If you want to know how to write Polyconsole code, the following documentation should be helpful:

There’s also a rudimentary help system built into Polyconsole if you type help() at the console prompt.

You can find examples of Polyconsole code by looking at any of my games since “Markov Space”, or skimming of my in-development games I haven’t finished yet. They’re all built with this framework, and they all come with source code (and even if they weren’t, you could pull out the lua source just by pulling out the media.pak and unzipping it). Some of these are under no-commercial-use licenses, but if there’s something you want to copy out of one of my games just let me know and I can relicense it.

When you’re done

If you decide to write a game as a mod folder, once you’ve completed your game you can do the following to make something releaseable:

  • Zip up the mod folder into a “mod.zip” file, and remove the “mod” folder itself
  • Remove the settings.xml and debug.xml files
  • Change the names in the Readme
  • Rename “Polyethylene” to something not stupid

And you’ve got a game! You can then port your game to [Mac, Windows, Linux] by downloading one of the other two packages above that you didn’t install, and dropping the mod.zip in.

Option 2: I want to combine C++ and Lua in a single program

Writing these Lua mods will only get you so far, though. To me the entire appeal of Polycode in the first place is that I could write a game in Lua, getting the ease of use of something like Flashpunk– but if I really *needed* the power of C++, I could write C++ extensions that did whatever strange thing I wanted. I’m not restricted by what the developers of the VM or the browser plugin or whatever thought to put in, because Polyconsole is the Lua “VM” effectively and I control that. If you want to do this too, you’ll need to compile your own copy of Polyconsole.

To make that easier, here’s the source code to Polyconsole, packaged in each case with a complete build of the Polycode library. (The source is identical between the three versions, the difference between the three versions is which version of Polycode is included.)

With complications? Wait, what’s that about? Well, there’s a problem with the Windows version right now. Most people writing C++ software for Windows use Microsoft Visual Studio. But I don’t have a copy of Windows, so I don’t use Visual Studio. Instead, I use MinGW, which is an open source compiler that makes Windows exes and can be run on any operating system you like.

But: It turns out that if you have a library built with MinGW, it can’t be used with Visual Studio, or vice versa. Worse, not only are MinGW and Visual Studio incompatible, but each individual version of MinGW is incompatible with every other! So, the Windows Polycode I have linked above was made with MinGW32 version 4.3.0. That means you can only compile that version of Polyconsole with MinGW32 4.3.0– nothing else. (The actual, final .exe games made with this system will run on any Windows machine.)

So I’ve got a list of instructions I wrote up for how to install MinGW, MSYS and Python so you can compile Polyconsole on Windows, but when I got someone to test them, they didn’t work– because you can’t get an installer for MinGW32 4.3.0 on Windows anymore, and the versions accessible with their snazzy new mingw-get system aren’t compatible with 4.3.0. I’m working very hard on trying to find a solution for this– I need to either get a modern version of MinGW32 that runs on Mac or Linux, or I need to get an installer of MinGW32 4.3.0 for Windows I can give you, or I need to get a copy of Windows so I can just build the darn thing with MSVC. When I’ve figured out a solution, I’ll come back here and post it– any suggestions you might have are welcome. But I don’t have a solution yet. Sorry.

In the meantime, hilariously, you can build a Windows version of Polyconsole with the Windows package linked above– if you have a Macintosh. You just have to run the MinGW-for-Mac installer linked here. (This is what I do with my own games.)

How to use this

The first and most important thing I can tell you is use version control. Take that whole package you just downloaded and add all the files to a hg or git repository. Otherwise, the game bits you wrote will get all mixed in with the Polyconsole code, and it will be really, really hard to remember what you changed or upgrade to a different version of Polyconsole if you want to do that later. If you don’t know how to use hg or git, on Windows you can make this really really easy by downloading the Tortoise programs. On Mac or Linux, you can just go to the Polyconsole directory in the Terminal and run: hg init .; hg add .; hg commit -m "Initial"

With that out of the way, assuming you can even install the appropriate compiler, the rest is pretty easy. If you’re on a mac, open PolycodeTemplate.xcodeproj and build and run. If you’re in the Windows version, navigate to package/win and run make. If you’re in the Linux version, navigate to package/lin and run make.

The one other thing you do need to know is how to add C++ functions that are callable from Lua. When you build Polyconsole, it will run a script that’s part of Polycode called create_lua_library that will suck out parts of your program and make them visible to Lua. You need to tell it which parts of the program are supposed to be Lua-visible. To do this, you need to edit the file lua_visible.txt in the base of the repository to add the names of every header file you want the script to look in, and also edit media/project_classes.txt to add the names of any classes you want Lua to be able to use. You don’t want to just add all your header files to lua_visible.txt, by the way, because create_lua_library can sometimes get confused if you try to feed it overly fancy stuff.

Mostly, I don’t mess with that and I just add methods to the one class that’s already set up in there to be visible to lua– “project_bridge”. This is found in source/bridge.cpp and source/bridge.h; at startup, Polyconsole sets up an object of type project_bridge visible to Lua under the name “bridge”. So you can just add a new method void arglebarf() {} to bridge.h, recompile, and suddenly Lua code will be able to call bridge:arglebarf().

When you’re done

The makefiles attached to these packages make complete finished versions of Polyconsole, so there you’re pretty much done. On mac though you’ll want to run ./package/pkg_mac.sh from the project root to make a “Release” version with a readme and pretty stuff.

You also might want, before you compile, to run this magical perl oneliner which will rename the sample program from “Polyethylene” to something more sensible:

perl -p -i -e 's/Polyethylene/YourGameNameHere/g' * */* */*/* */*/*/* */*/*/*/*

Option 3: I want to do everything myself

What I originally intended with Polyconsole was that instead of writing a mod to this “Polyethylene” example program, or having to download a whole compiled version of Polycode from me, was that Polyconsole should just download and compile Polycode for you for all the different operating systems you want to support. You can still get this, if you download Polyconsole from the Bitbucket page.

There’s rather a lot of documentation at the Bitbucket page explaining how this works, but basically, I wrote a little program called manage.py that automates building Polycode; and makes it easy to make your own modifications to Polycode by keeping a binary cache of Polycode versions you’ve previously built, and keeping track of which Polycode version goes with which SCM checkin. Unfortunately, in practice the script wasn’t nearly as easy to use as I’d hoped, and when people tried to run it on their own computers unexpected things went wrong. (Also, it doesn’t work at all on Windows right now, although I think someday it will.) So unless you think you’re willing to tinker a bit and debug CMake problems if something goes wrong, you might be better off downloading one of the Option 2 packages above.

TODOs and alternatives

So: This is still all in progress. This is all a little jumbled. I’ll be continuing to make improvements to this. Here are the things at the top of my To Do list:

  1. I need better Windows support.
  2. This should all be documented more cleanly than it is.
  3. Rooms should be able to include 3D physics scenes– not just 2D ones.
  4. A lot of little features and cleanup are needed. Right now Polycode programs crash when you run them on a computer with an OpenGL 1.x video card; these should be supported, or at give you a polite error message. There should be an onClick handler for overlays. I think vsync is broken on Windows. There should be an option to use PortAudio for sound or at least do realtime-generated sound with OpenAL. And so on.

If you’re interested in helping push along Polycode development yourself, Polycode’s github page is here (my fork is the one marked “mcclure”) and as linked above I have a BitBucket project for Polyconsole here.

My goal here is to make something people can actually sit down with and use for development. So if you feel what’s linked above isn’t enough to be a usable development starting point in your view, feel free to post below and let me know what you think is missing.

In the meanwhile, you also may want to be aware of these alternatives to Polycode:

  • Gameplay3D— Haven’t used this but this is something RIM released, it seems to have many of the same features as Polycode including Lua scripting support and it supports mobile.
  • Panda3D— Haven’t used this either, again offers about the same features as Polycode, seems a lot more heavyweight than either Polycode or Gameplay3D but also very complete.
  • Unity3D— This is the gold standard in this kind of engine right now, and unlike Gameplay3D or Panda3D I’ve actually seen indie games using it. It is a little larger in scale, it comes with a VM so that you can run code written in C# or Javascript in it and it has a fancy IDE with a built in scene and 3D model editor. However, unlike everything else on this page, it is closed source and costs MONEY.
  • Love— This is a 2D-only, Lua-only game engine. I’ve heard really good things about it, and it will definitely be simpler than Polycode.
  • Jumpcore— This doesn’t much resemble the other items on this list, I link it only because I made it. This was what I used to make games before Polycode. It’s a really stripped-down, C++-only library that’s really more just a wrapper for porting SDL games to iPhone/Android, but if you are looking for a simple C++ starting point this might be useful for you.
  • Flashpunk and Flixel— These are some great 2D gaming Flash libraries. They offer programming interfaces like Polycode’s, but they’re really mature and have really strong communities. Since they’re Flash, you’re limited to what Flash can do and where Flash can run, but that’s increasingly “everything” and “everywhere”. I’ve got some brief experience with FlashPunk and liked it.
  • Pixie— Also a little different from the other listed items, but: These guys wrote a Stencyl-style editor for HTML5 games, in HTML5, so you can make a tiny game on their website and upload it right there. It seems really cool.

That’s all I’ve got

Luanauts

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

This is a video game where the only way to interact with it is to write and execute Lua source code.

Download


I made this back at the beginning of the year for a Super Friendship Club event, but at the time didn’t release it because I was trying to decide whether to expand on it. I think I’ve decided it’s done. The game requires an OpenGL 2.0 compatible computer to run.

I’ve been circulating this game in indie circles since I first wrote it, and to my knowledge no one has ever beat it. I got reports of a couple of people getting to level two.

Breathe

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Made in 48 hours for the Ludum Dare 23 competition. The game is over when the music stops.

Download

You can find the Ludum Dare competition entry page for the game here.

The game is based on this cellular automata. It requires an OpenGL 2.0 compatible computer to run.

My Own Footsteps

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

Ludum Dare is a periodically held competition to make a game in 48 hours. For this weekend’s Ludum Dare (theme: “Alone”), I waited until the last minute, started a game Sunday morning, and over about seven hours banged out the first and only 3D game I have ever made. It’s called My Own Footsteps and sound is recommended.

Thanks to amon26, Mark and Stephen for playtesting.

You can find the Ludum Dare competition entry page for the game here.