Very late bitcode and data binder
C++ C Objective-C
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VLBDB: The Very Late Bitcode and Data Binder

The VLBDB aims to be a lightweight library that enables the runtime-specialisation of functions written in ``normal'' languages like C, C++ or Fortran. The latter goal is achieved by exploiting LLVM's infrastructure; the former is achieved by hiding all of LLVM behind a minimal interface.

WARNING this is extremely experimental code. I'm currently focusing on getting code generation and optimization right. Work on fast compilation, robustness, memory management, etc. will come later. Also, the C++ interface simply doesn't exist yet.

See pike-regex.c for an example: it takes Pike's tiny sub-regular-expression matcher, and compiles it very naively, and then a bit less naively, to native code. The naive compiler simply marks the regex argument as constant; the less naive compiler explicitly specializes the regex argument, in the spirit of compilation to closures (except that closures are further specialised and inlined in VLBDB).

Runtime Specialisation

VLBDB only supports a limited form of runtime specialisation: the first (few) arguments of functions can be specified to be constants. In other words, it only implements partial application with constants. However, unlike partial application in most functional languages, partial application in VLBDB is followed by a constant-folding and inlining pass. Thus, the result of partial application is a new native-code function, optimised to exploit the known arguments.

In addition to constant values, VLBDB also supports constant folding through pointers to constant data.

What does it do

In addition to the obvious constant propagation, dead code elimination, etc. that follows from known constant arguments, VLBDB automatically specializes and inlines calls.

Inlining is strongly restricted to ensure termination and avoid space explosions. Only calls originally in the function can be inlined (i.e., no recursive inlining). Moreover, only calls to functions that were constant-folded in can be inlined (i.e., calls that were known in the original remain out-of-line).

Automatic specialization is similarly restricted. With each function, a maximum number of autospecialised argument is associated. The (safe) default is 0, except for block functions, for which it's 1 (the environment argument). New specialisations are only recursively created for up to that many constant arguments. However, extent specialisations will always be exploited: the one with the most (corresponding) constant arguments is used. In particular, this means that recursive calls that preserve constant arguments are simplified into recursive calls to the specialized function.

Specialisations are keyed on all the constant arguments, not only the last set. This ensures that there is no difference between specializing a function's first argument, and then specialising the specialised function again, versus specialising the same function's arguments all at once. The additional sharing is doubly beneficial: it increases the set of compatible extant specialisations, and improves the effectiveness of the internal memoisation.

Using the library

Using VLBDB is currently a two-step process. First, bitcode must be generated; then, a C or C++ program, linked to VLBDB, loads the bitcode file and calls specialized versions of functions in the bitcode file.

Generating bitcode

Generating bitcode instead of object files is an essential element of LLVM's lifelong program analysis strategy. If you use clang, you can simply execute

clang [regular flags] -c -emit-llvm -o foo.bc

LLVM's link-time optimisations work with bitcode files. Under llvm-gcc, it's instead necessary to

llvm-gcc [...] -c -flto -o foo.bc


VLBDB revolves around the VLBDB binding unit. A VLBDB unit is very much like a compilation unit, but at runtime: functions or data in a given unit can be inlined, constant-folded, etc., while references leaving the current VLBDB unit can only be compiled naively.

Registering metadata

In order to maximise the unit's usefulness, it maps addresses and values in the program to constants or functions in the unit. Metadata for specialized functions is automatically generated to ensure that specialized functions can be specialized further.

Registering functions

However, the mapping must still be seeded with functions to specialize. register_function maps a pointer to the corresponding function in the unit's bitcode file, along with the number of arguments to auto-specialize. The last argument is the function's name; when NULL, VLBDB will use dynamic loading machinery to map the pointer to a name.

register_function_name is a convenience wrapper around register_function to register a function in the unit without associating a pointer with it.

Finally, register_all_functions will attempt to register all the functions in the bitcode file, using dynamic loading machinery, again, to map names to addresses.

Registering constant data

Constant arguments of primitive types are enough to go very far. However, particularly when working with circular structure, it's very useful to constant fold through pointers.

The recommended way to achieve this is with intern_range, which, given the beginning of a range of constant bytes and the number of bytes, will import it as a constant range of bytes in the unit. This isn't directly useful, but is used by bind_range to implement pointers to known constant address ranges. The advantage of intern_range and bind_range is that they will merge different address ranges that are identical in content, and that the address range can be modified or released once the function has been specialized.

In contrast, register_range marks a given address range in the program as constant-foldable. Loads from the range may be constant-folded away, but addresses will be preserved. The disadvantage of this option is that identical ranges in different addresses will not be merged, and that the range must not be released or modified.

Specializing functions

In order to hide LLVM's heavy machinery, specialized functions are constructed with an opaque VLBDB binder. A binder is created from an unit and a function (or block) pointer.

bind_uint marks the next not-yet-bound argument as equal to that unsigned integer (of any size). bind_int does the same for signed integers (coercing as needed), bind_fp for floating point values, bind_ptr for pointers, and bind_range for pointers to ranges that may be interned.

Once all the constant arguments have been bound, vlbdb_specialize returns a new function that's partially applied, and optimised.

Finally, the binder must be destroyed.

Block support

Apple introduced lexical closures for C, C++, and Objective-C, as blocks. They are implemented as pointers to self-describing structures. There is special support to parse these structures and treat blocks as functions; the structure is considered up for interning, and constant-folded away.