BER MetaOCaml -- an OCaml dialect for multi-stage programming
Introduction to staging and MetaOCaml
BER MetaOCaml is a conservative extension of OCaml for ``writing programs that generate programs''. BER MetaOCaml adds to OCaml the type of code values (denoting ``program code'', or future-stage computations), and two basic constructs to build them: quoting and splicing. The generated code can be printed, stored in a file -- or compiled and linked-back to the running program, thus implementing run-time code optimization. A well-typed BER MetaOCaml program generates only well-scoped and well-typed programs: The generated code shall compile without type errors. The generated code may run in the future but it is type checked now. BER MetaOCaml is a complete re-implementation of the original MetaOCaml by Walid Taha, Cristiano Calcagno and collaborators.
A brief history of (BER) MetaOCaml
The standard example of meta-programming -- the running example of
A.P.Ershov's 1977 paper that begat partial evaluation -- is the
power function, computing x^n. In OCaml:
let square x = x * x
let rec power n x =
if n = 0 then 1
else if n mod 2 = 0 then square (power (n/2) x)
else x * (power (n-1) x)
In MetaOCaml, we may also specialize the power function to a particular value n, obtaining the code which will later receive x and compute x^n. We re-write power n x annotating expressions as computed `now' (when n is known) or `later' (when x is given).
let rec spower n x =
if n = 0 then .<1>.
else if n mod 2 = 0 then .<square .~(spower (n/2) x)>.
else .<.~x * .~(spower (n-1) x)>.;;
As MetaOCaml was being developed, new versions of the mainline OCaml were released with sometimes many fixes and improvements. The MetaOCaml team tracked new OCaml releases and merged the changes into MetaOCaml. (The MetaOCaml version number has as its base OCaml's release version.) The merge was not painless. For example, any new function in the OCaml compiler that dealt with Parsetree (AST) or Typedtree has to be modified to handle MetaOCaml extensions to these data structures. The merge process became more and more painful as the two languages diverged. For instance, native code compilation that first appeared in MetaOCaml 3.07 relied on SCaml, a large set of patches to OCaml by malc at pulsesoft.com to support dynamic linking. OCaml 3.08 brought many changes that were incompatible with SCaml. Therefore, in MetaOCaml 3.08 the native compilation mode was broken. The mode was brought back in the Summer 2005, by re-engineering the SCaml patch and implementing the needed parts of dynamic linking without any modification to the OCaml code. The revived native compilation has survived through the end.
BER MetaOCaml has been re-structured to minimize the amount of changes to the OCaml type-checker and to separate the `kernel' from the `user-level'. The kernel is a set of patches and additions to OCaml, responsible for producing and type-checking code values. The processing of built code values -- so-called `running' -- is user-level. Currently the user-level metalib supports printing, type-checking, and byte-compiling and linking of code values. Users have added other ways of running the code, for example, compiling it to machine code, C or LLVM -- without any need to hack into (Meta)OCaml or even recompile it.
By relying on attributes, the feature of OCaml 4.02, BER N102 has become much closer integrated with OCaml. It is instructive to compare the amount of changes BER MetaOCaml makes to the OCaml distribution. The previous version (BER N101) modified 32 OCaml files. The new BER N102 modifies only 7 (that number could be further reduced to only 2; the only file with nontrivial modifications is typing/typecore.ml). It is now a distinct possibility that -- with small hooks that may be provided in the future OCaml versions -- MetaOCaml becomes just a regular library or a plug-in, rather being a fork.