surgical precision JIT compilers
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.gitignore sources and test cases Aug 6, 2012

Project Lancet: Surgical Precision JIT Compilers

Just-in-time compilation faces more optimization opportunities than offline compilation. Common JIT compilers rely on a limited set of dynamic properties (obtained e.g. by profiling) to guide optimizations. Unfortunately, their behavior is a black box, and in many cases, the achieved performance is highly unpredictable.

The goal of Project Lancet is to turn JIT compilation into a precision tool.

Leveraging recent results on staging, macros and partial evaluation, the aim of this project is to develop a JIT compiler framework that is tightly integrated with the running program itself. This will enable more deterministic performance and easy extensibility -- for example allowing library developers to supply domain-specific compiler optimizations.

A draft paper with more information and experimental results is available here:


Below are short examples of some of the planned functionality.

Explicit Compilation

JIT compilation of parts of the running program can be invoked manually. A common use case is to compile multiple specialized versions of a generic function. In the snippet below, method foo is partially applied to the value 6, and compile ensure that the result foo6 is specialized to that value:

  def foo(x: Int, y: Double) = ...
  val foo6 = compile(y => foo(6, y))
  foo6(7) // same as foo(6,7), but faster

Partial Evaluation / Symbolic Execution

To enable successful specialization, JIT compilers need to be able to perform elaborate symbolic execution. However, fully automatic partial evaluation is unrealistic for large programs; user annotations in key places are needed and desirable to communicate intent.

There are quite a few different ways these annotations can be realized. A simple yet powerful way is to introduce a special marker method frozen, which asserts that its argument be a compile-time constant:

  val x = ...
  val y = frozen(x) // fails if x is not a compile time constant

If the argument to frozen is not a constant, JIT compilation will fail with an error message.

In addition to the statement level, one can also put corresponding annotations on method parameters:

  def foo(@frozen x: Int, y: Double) = ...
  foo(...) // fails if argument is not known at compile time

The key benefit of frozen values is that programs can be reliably and deterministically simplified at (JIT) compile time:

  if (frozen(cond)) { ... } else { ... }

In this case, we obtain a guarantee that if JIT compilation succeeds, the conditional will be eliminated because the condition is static.

Speculative Optimizations

In addition to straight program specialization, we want to put the dynamic VM capabilities to good use, namely profiling, speculative optimization, and the facility to discard optimized code if it later turns out that compilation assumptions were too optimistic (deoptimization).

To start with a simple example, a method likely may tell the compiler to assume that a test will likely succeed:

  if (likely(cond)) { ... } else { ... }

In this case, the VM could come to the same conclusion by profiling the actual execution and recording the branches taken. However, profiling may not be accurate if it is done independently of the calling context, and even if it is, there is considerable utility in doing both: The use of likely can serve as a contract, and cause the VM to signal a warning if profiling suggests that the test is actually not likely.

To give the compiler even tougher guidelines, we introduce a method speculate:

  if (speculate(cond)) { ... } else { ... }

This will instruct the compiler to assume that the test will always succeed and optimize the method accordingly, replacing the conditional by its then branch. But of course the compiler cannot be certain that this assumption always holds so it must insert a guard that, if the check fails, takes a slow path and drops into interpreter mode for this particular execution.

A variant of this approach is stable:

  if (stable(cond)) { ... } else { ... }

The assumption here is that the condition may change permanently but infrequently. If the guard fails, the method is recompiled on the fly with the new value.

This concept of stable state applies not only to conditionals but can be generalized to arbitrary variables (the Graal/Truffle framework has something similar). Adding a @stable annotation to any variable will read the value at compile time and treat it as constant for the compilation

  class Foo {
    @stable var v = ...
  val foo: Foo = ...
  if (foo.v == 8) { ... }   // static test, conditional eliminated
  val w = frozen(foo.v)     // will never fail

The necessary guard checks will trigger recompilation if a change is detected.

Explicit Staging

In addition to more implicit symbolic execution guided by marker methods, we can also employ explicit staging constructs. Below, we use a Lisp-style quote and unquote facility to explicitly combine code fragments:

  def power(b: Code[Int], x: Int): Code[Int] =  { // use `unquote`
    println("static: power " + x)
    if (x == 0) quote(1) else quote(unquote(b) * unquote(power(b, x-1)))
  println("--- static")
  val pow4 = compile { b: Code[Int] => power(b, 4) }
  println("--- dynamic")
  val y = pow4(2)

The key difference to partial evaluation as outlines above is that we can perform arbitrary computations at staging time (e.g. store pieces of code in a data structure), whereas partial evaluation always preserves the semantics and execution order of the program. In the example shown, the implementation of power prints a message to stdout, during compilation. This is achieved by unquote instantiating its argument closure at compile time and issuing a reflective call. Note that different types are used for staged and compile-times values (Code[T]).

JIT Macros

The ability to perform arbitrary computation at compile time can be put to use to implement a general macro facility, where given method calls are redirected to user-define code, which is invoked at compile-time to "fill in the blanks", i.e. compute a program fragment to be used in place of the original method call.

The primary use case for JIT macros are domain specific optimizations. A developer of a linear algebra library, for example, may want to provide a set of macros that optimize algebraic operations on vectors and matrices:

  abstract class Matrix[T] {
    def *(m: Matrix[T]): Matrix[T]
  object MatrixFactory {
    def id(n: Int): Matrix[T] = ...
  object MatrixMacros extends ClassMacros {
    val adaptedClasses = List(classOf[Matrix[_]], classOf[MatrixFactory])
    def *(x: Code[Matrix[T]], y: Code[Matrix[T]]): Code[Matrix[T]] = {
      // compile-time computation:
      //   inspect x,y, if one of them is id(..) just return the other
      //   otherwise return IR fragment that implements a BLAS call
  Compiler.compile {
    val id =
    val m = ...
    val m = m * id

Cross-Compiling to External Targets

Given the ability to reify pieces of the running program into Code[T] objects by decompiling byte code, it is possible to cross-compile program fragments to external targets (SQL, JavaScript, CUDA, C, VHDL, ...).


Project Lancet currently requires the Graal VM. Future versions may also provide some of the functionality on off-the-shelf HotSpot VMs.

How to build and run

  1. Install the simple build tool (SBT), version 0.12. Follow the installation instructions on the SBT website.

  2. Make sure the sbt launcher script honors the JAVA_HOME and JAVA_OPTS environment variables.

  3. Download and build the Graal VM anywhere on your file system. Follow the instructions on the Graal website. Get commit 11410:446a94461d53.

  4. Set JAVA_HOME and JAVA_OPTS environment variables.

  export JAVA_HOME="~/graal/jdk1.7.0/product/" # Graal build from step 3
  export JAVA_OPTS="-graal -Ddelite.home.dir=~/delite"  # Delite home

Alternatively, modify the gsbt file to reflect your paths and use that instead of the system-wide sbt.

  1. Install dependencies: LMS-Core and Delite

    • LMS-Core: branch wip-delite-develop (latest commit tested: 2190c9ad07cdf5aa63b138a73440050291b82699). Edit the build.sbt file and remove the scalaBinaryVersion key. Run sbt publish-local inside your local clone dir.
    • Delite: branch wip-clusters-lancet (latest commit tested: 9c0599dd60614811e48ad5d15e9a696bb9a3d76e). Run sbt publish-local and sbt delite-test/publish-local inside your local clone dir. There might be compile errors but that is OK.
    • Create a file in your local lancet clone (contents as described here).
  2. Run sbt to start the sbt console, then test to run the test suite.


For the time being, Project Lancet is licensed under the AGPLv3. More permissive licensing may be available in the future.


One or more authors are employees of Oracle Labs. The views expressed here are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle.