Cleverness of Compilers 2: How

The Cleverness of Compilers essay described the name of the hyperaggressive compilation game in broad, philosophical strokes. Here, I would like to walk through the Mandelbrot example in some detail, so that the interested reader may see one particular way to actually accomplish that level of optimization. There are of course other approaches to the same goal, and the present approach (as well as its implementation) leaves plenty of desiderata unfilled. It is, nevertheless, one way to do it.

As a reminder, the task is to turn this modular Mandelbrot program

;;; Complex arithmetic library
(define (c:+ z1 z2)
  (cons (+ (car z1) (car z2))
        (+ (cdr z1) (cdr z2))))

(define (c:* z1 z2)
  (cons (- (* (car z1) (car z2))
           (* (cdr z1) (cdr z2)))
        (+ (* (car z1) (cdr z2))
           (* (cdr z1) (car z2)))))

(define c:0 (cons (real 0) (real 0)))

(define (magnitude z)
  (sqrt (+ (* (car z) (car z))
           (* (cdr z) (cdr z)))))

;;; Iteration library
(define (iterate count f x)
  (if (<= count 0)
      (iterate (- count 1) f (f x))))

;;; Mandelbrot set membership test
(define ((step c) z)
  (c:+ (c:* z z) c))

(define (mandelbrot? c)
  (< (magnitude
      (iterate (real 400) (step c) c:0))

into this efficient, browser-executable one

function fol_program(stdlib, foreign, heap) {
  "use asm";
  var heap_view = new stdlib.Float32Array(heap);
  var sqrt = stdlib.Math.sqrt;
  function operation_231(count, f_env_1, f_env_2, x_1, x_2) {
    count = +count;
    f_env_1 = +f_env_1;
    f_env_2 = +f_env_2;
    x_1 = +x_1;
    x_2 = +x_2;
    if (count <= 0.0) {
      heap_view[0] = x_1;
      heap_view[1] = x_2;
    } else {
      return operation_231(count - 1.0, f_env_1, f_env_2,
                           ((x_1*x_1 - x_2*x_2) + f_env_1),
                           ((x_1*x_2 + x_2*x_1) + f_env_2));
  function __main__(c_1, c_2) {
    c_1 = +c_1;
    c_2 = +c_2;
    var ret_x = 0.0;
    var ret_y = 0.0;
    operation_231(400.0, c_1, c_2, 0.0, 0.0);
    ret_x = +heap_view[0];
    ret_y = +heap_view[1];
    return (+sqrt(ret_x*ret_x + ret_y*ret_y) < 2.0)|0;
  return __main__;

In the DysVunctional Language compiler, this task happens in four steps:

Flow analysis

converts the input program into a form where all the specialization is explicit, and the contextual information relevant to each specialized code point is immediately available. In keeping with an unfortunate tradition, both the process and the result is called an “analysis”.

Code generation

converts the result of flow analysis (without reference to the original program) into code in FOL, a First-Order intermediate Language, where all types and control flow are explicit (all function calls are to statically apparent targets).

Further optimization

optimizes the intermediate FOL program with (aggressive versions of) standard methods, to which FOL is well suited because of its restricted nature.

Backend translation

translates the optimized FOL program to asm.js syntax. FOL is sufficiently low-level for this not to be too complicated.

The plan for this essay is to walk through all four of these operations as they apply to this example program.

Flow Analysis

The flow analysis in DVL is an abstract interpretation of the input program.1 An abstract interpretation of a program consists of executing (interpreting) the program, except that instead of the variables and data structures holding the values the program actually computes, they hold abstract values—representations of sets of possible values that could occur during various runs of the program. The idea is that one abstract value or abstract program state captures some commonality of many possible actual values or program states but ignores (abstracts from) the residual variation among them.

Reusable code is written to be able to consume huge varieties of stuff, but any given use will only feed it some restricted diet.

If we do a good job of picking what commonality to represent and what variation to ignore, it is possible to compute a consistent model of all possible executions of the source program. This model then gives information about what values each part of the program may produce, and therefore what the consumers of that part may have to consume. Figuring that out is extremely valuable for optimization because general-purpose, reusable code is written to be able to consume huge varieties of stuff (that’s why it’s called “general-purpose”), but any given use will only feed it some restricted diet. For instance, the iterate in our Mandelbrot program is only ever told to iterate one specific type of function, namely (step c) for various complex numbers c, even though it was written to be able to iterate absolutely anything. Discovering this use pattern opens the door to a plethora of optimizations.

How do we do abstract interpretation on DVL? Since the DVL input language is functional,2 the state of execution of any program is completely determined by the expression being evaluated and the environment in which to evaluate it, or, alternately, by the procedure being invoked and the arguments with which to invoke it. We can represent a whole class of executions of a DVL program by allowing the values in such a state to be abstract; and we can simulate it with a suitably modified interpreter that respects and appropriately propagates the variation the abstract state permits, while deducing as much as possible from the commonalities among states that the abstraction exposes.

Without further ado, the following slideshow illustrates how flow analysis by abstract interpretation proceeds on (an interesting part of) our example mandelbrot? program.

At the end of the flow analysis process (it ends on the Mandelbrot example, but in general DVL relies on correct use of the real primitive to ensure that abstract evaluation terminates), we have an analysis data structure holding a bunch of information like this:

\[ \begin{eqnarray*} \exp{(iterate (real 400) (step c) c:0)}, \env{1} & \mapsto & \RR \\ \obj{iterate}, \R, \obj{closure1}, \RR & \mapsto & \RR \\ \exp{(<= count 0)}, \env{2} & \mapsto & \B \\ \obj{closure1}, \RR & \mapsto & \RR \\ \textrm{etc} & & \end{eqnarray*} \] These entries tell us that

  • The expression \(\exp{(iterate ...)}\), evaluated in any environment of the same shape3 as \(\env{1}\), should be treated as though it returns a pair of arbitrary real numbers;

  • The procedure \(\obj{iterate}\), when applied to any triple of arguments consisting of any real number, any procedure of the same shape as \(\obj{closure1}\), and any pair holding any two real numbers, should be treated as though it returns a pair of arbitrary real numbers;

  • The expression \(\exp{(<= count 0)}\), evaluated in any environment of the same shape as \(\env{2}\), should be treated as though it returns an arbitrary boolean;

  • etc.

Moreover, the entries tell us exactly the shapes of program points through which execution will pass, so they carry sufficient information to generate code that will do the same thing but with explicit data types and control flow, which will then be optimizable by standard methods.

Code Generation

Now that we have a flow analysis in hand, what do we do with it? The entries in the analysis cover all the shapes of all the program points that will be encountered during program execution. In particular, the entries like

\[ \obj{iterate}, \R, \obj{closure1}, \RR \mapsto \RR \] correspond to procedure applications, and cover all the function calls (in all the variations on the shapes of their arguments) that will occur at runtime.

We generate a procedure corresponding to each such entry. Since a given source procedure may lead to many entries if it is called with arguments of many different shapes, this is the place where we materialize the specialization that the flow analysis gave us. The body of each generated procedure is bascially a direct copy of the body of the closure being applied, with three important exceptions:

  • Any subexpressions whose concrete values are completely determined by what is known about the argument shapes get replaced by constants (in particular, a lot of the type tests that happen in the source language go away at this point).

  • To make sure the result is first-order, the code generator performs closure conversion; that is, every lambda form becomes a constructor for an explicit data structure, and every procedure accepts and deconstructs this structure to find the variables it was closed over. Note that we don’t need to keep track of the code pointer, because the abstract evaluation already computed where they flow.

  • Each application in the body becomes a call to the appropriate generated procedure. The resulting static control flow information is very precise because we always call exactly the specialization determined by the shapes of the arguments passed at that particular call site.

For example, the entry

\[ \obj{iterate}, \R, \obj{closure1}, \RR \mapsto \RR \] becomes the following code (comments added):4

(define (operation-231  ; iterate-R-cl1-R.R would be a better name
         the-env        ; arg introduced by closure conversion
         count f-env x) ; original args, but proc now just env
  ;; The intermediate language has explicit type signatures
   env-226                    ; environment data type
   real env-235 (real . real) ; types of formal parameters
   (real . real))             ; return type
  (if (operation-234 ; application of <= to R and 0
       (env-226-g:<= the-env) ; the <= procedure is in my closure
       count 0)
      (operation-231 ; recursive application (same arg shapes)
       the-env       ; recursion means same closure
       (operation-24 ; application of - to R and 1
        (env-226-g:- the-env)
        count 1)
       (operation-23 ; the call (f x) from the source
                     ; the target is static, and itself specialized
        f-env x))))

Are we fast yet? No, I expect not. But though this may not be apparent by looking at it, this intermediate code is much more amenable to optimization by well-known methods than the

(define (iterate count f x)
  (if (<= count 0)
      (iterate (- count 1) f (f x))))

we started with. For instance, the minus procedure (spelled -) is not actually primitive in DVL, but defined in the standard library as a generic procedure that operates on arbitrary “vector-like” structures, including trees of dual numbers for automatic differentiation. But the generated procedure operation-24 is specialized to the case of applying minus to some real number and the constant 1. With further optimization, operation-24 will turn into a single machine instruction, even though minus was capable of an arbitrarily deep recursive computation. But perhaps even more important in this case is that the (f x) call from the source, which called a syntactically unknown function, now becomes a static call to a known procedure (namely, operation-23), which is itself specialized to its calling context.

Flow analysis removes obstacles to optimization by detecting which parts of the program don’t actually communicate with each other, so their interfaces need not remain compatible.

Why will this help us be fast later? The primary obstacle to optimization is the inability to alter interfaces, because to alter an interface one needs to adjust all the producers and consumers of that interface. Flow analysis reduces this obstacle by detecting which parts of the program don’t actually communicate with each other, so that their interfaces need not remain compatible. The generated FOL program captures this more accurate model of the source program’s communication flow, and is consequently very amenable to optimization by standard methods.

Further Optimization

Here is not the place to discuss in detail all of the optimization passes that operate on intermediate FOL programs. Suffice it to say that aggressive application of the following standard techniques produces quite pleasant results:

Procedure inlining

inserts (many) definitions of called procedures inline into their callers. Inlining is less critical for FOL than for other languages because those called procedures are already quite specialized, so copying them yields less benefit. Some later optimizations are still easier to spot after inlining than before, though.

Common subexpression elimination

replaces repeated computations by reuses of past results. This pass also applies algebraic simplifications like (car (cons x _)) => x and (* z 0) => 0.5 These activities are intermeshed in one pass because these optimizations cascade with each other.

Dead code elimination

deletes computations of values for unused variables. The intraprocedural version is simple and effective. The DVL compiler also implements an interprocedural version, which is mostly good for flushing stuff carried around but not used in recursive loops.

Scalar replacement of aggregates

converts compound data structures into sets of scalar variables when possible, reducing allocation and referencing.

Constant folding

is not necessary because the code generator already replaced computations of statically known values with those constants.

In the case of our running example, the result after applying these passes is the cleanest iteration for which one could wish:6

(define (operation-231
         f-env-1 ; The only variable content of the closure
         f-env-2 ; of f was two real numbers
   real real real real real
   (values real real)) ; Returns two values to avoid making a pair
  (if (<= count 0)     ; Primitive numeric <= now
      (values x-1 x-2)
      (operation-231   ; Loops still rely on tail recursion
       (+ count -1)    ; Primitive numeric +
       ;; Here is our elaborate arithmetic specialized to complex
       ;; numbers and inlined.  No allocation or generics here;
       ;; just floating adds and multiplies.
       (+ (- (* x-1 x-1) (* x-2 x-2))
       (+ (+ (* x-1 x-2) (* x-2 x-1))

All that remains is to print it out in the backend’s preferred syntax.

Backend Translation

Translation from optimized intermediate code to the syntax of the desired backend is not actually completely trivial, because backends tend not to have exactly the same semantic model as the intermediate language. For example, the asm.js backend implements multiple value returns by writing to the global array that serves as heap (I am fortunate that I do not need it for anything else right now). That said, there isn’t that much enlightening content in backend translation as it currently exists in the DVL system. Getting from the optimized FOL in the previous section to the following asm.js is really pretty straightforward.

function operation_231(count, f_env_1, f_env_2, x_1, x_2) {
  count = +count;
  f_env_1 = +f_env_1;
  f_env_2 = +f_env_2;
  x_1 = +x_1;
  x_2 = +x_2;
  if (count <= 0.0) {
    heap_view[0] = x_1;
    heap_view[1] = x_2;
  } else {
    return operation_231(count - 1.0, f_env_1, f_env_2,
                         ((x_1*x_1 - x_2*x_2) + f_env_1),
                         ((x_1*x_2 + x_2*x_1) + f_env_2));

And that’s it. There you have it, folks: the anatomy of one compiler that’s too clever for its own good.


  1. For those who know the jargon, I can elaborate a bit. The trick in DVL is that the abstract value space is extremely fine-grained: the only actual abstraction is over unknown real numbers and unknown booleans (general sum types are on the roadmap but not implemented yet). In particular, the abstraction of a procedure is a closure with a definite code body, and only the contents of the environment are abstract. The second trick is that the analysis is polyvariant, and indeed there are no built-in bounds on the polyvariance—all imprecision is introduced manually. Eschewing polyvariance bounds buys a certain predictability, namely the generated code being exactly as specialized as the programmer intends. The cost this choice pays, of course, is possible overspecialization, including possible nontermination of the analysis.

  2. Actually, DVL includes a primitive nullary procedure named gensym, different dynamic invocations of which make distinct objects. This little bit of impurity is what puts the Dys- into DysVunctional Language. Some impurity is necessary to correctly implement automatic differentiation, and I chose generating unique objects because they can still be accommodated within the framework of flow analysis. How to actually accommodate them is beyond the scope of this footnote; but the program being described in this essay is preserved in the DVL source repository as Vunctional Language (VL).

  3. By “shape” I mean that \(\env1\) or \(\obj{closure1}\) are actually abstract, and may, for example, declare some variables bound to arbitrary real numbers rather than to specific values, allowing variation at those points. Note that in this system, abstract procedures like \(\obj{closure1}\) still have just one concrete procedure body, and admit variation only in the values of closed-over variables. This fine granularity is important, because application of an abstract procedure means branching to a specific piece of code: all variation in control flow caused by higher-order functions is at this point solved.

  4. Actually, if you look in the source, this output is somewhat simplified from what code generation produces, but not in any important way. I have post-processed the output to eliminate a few confusing and uninteresting artifacts of the choice of minimum primitive basis in the DVL language, and of the details of DVL macroexpansion into said minimum primitive basis. In particular, recursion is actually handled with a variant of the Y combinator rather than explicit implementation as this example would suggest. But that’s beside the point.

  5. Yes, yes, I know that converting (* z 0) to 0 does not preserve semantics strictly in the presence of floating point infinities and NaNs. This optimization is present in the prototype because it chains, and because the implementation of automatic differentiation in DVL introduces lots of multiplications by statically apparent zeroes. In the limit as DVL approaches actual production use, thought will need to be directed to the distinction between code expressing formulas over nice mathematical structures (where multiplying by zero always does produce zero) and code carefully written with floating point semantics in mind. This actually strikes me as a very deep issue, because it is the difference between specification and approximation.

  6. FOL currently has no explicit syntax for loops and represents them as tail recursions. This makes it difficult to implement loop optimizations over FOL; but my philosophy is to let the compiler targeted by the backend deal with that for now. FOL’s other optimizations are quite useful for making sure the code generated from FOL doesn’t violate any hidden assumptions of its targets, but optimizing loops inside FOL does not seem necessary for that. On the other hand, handling loops well may be a good idea if I get serious about targeting asm.js, because it may not optimize said loops for me.