Draining the Swamp: Micro Virtual Machines as Solid Foundation for Language Development
Kunshan Wang, Yi Lin, Stephen Blackburn, Michael Norrish, Antony Hosking
Many of today's programming languages are broken. Poor performance, lack of features and hard-to-reason-about semantics can cost dearly in software maintenance and inefficient execution. The problem is only getting worse with programming languages proliferating and hardware becoming more complicated. An important reason for this brokenness is that much of language design is implementation-driven. The difficulties in implementation and insufficient understanding of concepts bake bad designs into the language itself. Concurrency, architectural details and garbage collection are three fundamental concerns that contribute much to the complexities of implementing managed languages. We propose the micro virtual machine, a thin abstraction designed specifically to relieve implementers of managed languages of the most fundamental implementation challenges that currently impede good design. The micro virtual machine targets abstractions over memory (garbage collection), architecture (compiler backend), and concurrency. We motivate the micro virtual machine and give an account of the design and initial experience of a concrete instance, which we call Mu, built over a two year period. Our goal is to remove an important barrier to performant and semantically sound managed language design and implementation.
Inside you will find the specification of an LLVM-inspired virtual instruction set with a memory model (enables proper GC support) including a specification of concurrent weak-memory operations (reusing C(++)11, a debatable choice), relatively rich control-flow primitive (complete stack capture enabling coroutines or JIT-style de-optimization), and live code update.
There is little public about Eve so far, no precise design documents, but the development team has a public monthly Development Diary that I found fairly interesting. It displays an interesting form of research culture, with in particular recurrent reference to academic works that are coming from outside the programming-language-research community: database queries, Datalog evaluation, distributed systems, version-control systems. This diary might be a good opportunity to have a look at the internals of a language design process (or really programming environment design) that is neither academic nor really industrial in nature. It sounds more representative (I hope!) of the well-educated parts of startup culture.
Eve is a functional-relational language. Every input to an Eve program is stored in one of a few insert-only tables. The program itself consists of a series of views written in a relational query language. Some of these views represent internal state. Others represent IO that needs to be performed. Either way there is no hidden or forgotten state - the contents of these views can always be calculated from the input tables.
Eve is designed for live programming. As the user makes changes, the compiler is constantly re-compiling code and incrementally updating the views. The compiler is designed to be resilient and will compile and run as much of the code as possible in the face of errors. The structural editor restricts partially edited code to small sections, rather than rendering entire files unparseable. The pointer-free relational data model and the timeless views make it feasible to incrementally compute the state of the program, rather than starting from scratch on each edit.
The public/target for the language is described as "non-programmers", but in fact it looks like their control group has some previous experience of Excel. (I would guess that experimenting with children with no experience of programming at all, including no Excel work, could have resulted in very different results.)
Posts so far, by Jamie Brandon:
- Eve so far (October 2014): a summary of the work from January to September 2014. The general vision; a move from a functional pidgin to a datalog-like language motivated by non-programmers testing; discussions of algorithms for incremental Datalog evaluation (ending with a poor-man solution).
- October: bootstrap editor, experiments, aggregates: the team picks five concrete use-cases and draws lessons for their language needs
- November: more experiments, better performance, integrity constraints, zztrees
- December: more zzjoin, communication, process spawning
- January / February: GUIs, time, joins and aggregates
- Version control, collaborative editing and undo
Some random quotes.
Excited, we presented our prototype to a small number of non-programmers and sat back to watch the magic. To our horror, not a single one of them could figure out what the simple example program did or how it worked, nor could they produce any useful programs themselves. The sticking points were lexical scope and data structures. Every single person we talked to just wanted to put data in an Excel-like grid and drag direct references. Abstraction via symbol binding was not an intuitive or well-liked idea.
Our main data-structure was now a tree of tables. Rather than one big top-level function, we switched to a pipeline of functions. Each function pulled data out of the global store using a datalog query, ran some computation and wrote data back. Having less nesting reduced the impact of lexical scope and cursor passing. Using datalog allowed normalising the data store, avoiding all the issues that came from hierarchical models.
At this point we realised we weren't building a functional language anymore. Most of the programs were just datalog queries on normalised tables with a little scalar computation in the middle. We were familiar with Bloom and realised that it fit our needs much better than the functional pidgin we had built so far - no lexical scoping, no data-structures, no explicit ordering. In late March we began work on a Bloom interpreter.
Where most languages express state as a series of changes ('when I click this button add 1 to the counter'), Eve is built around views over input logs ('the value of the counter is the number of button clicks in the log'). Thinking in terms of views makes the current language simple and powerful. It removes the need for explicit control flow, since views can be calculated in any order that is consistent with the dependency graph, and allows arbitrary composition of data without requiring the cooperation of the component that owns that data.
Whenever we have tried to introduce explicit change we immediately run into problems with ordering and composing those changes and we lose the ability to directly explain the state of the program without reference to data that no longer exists.
In a traditional imperative language, [context] is provided by access to dynamic scoping (or global variables - the poor mans dynamic scope) or by function parameters. In purely functional languages it can only be provided by function parameters, which is a problem when a deeply buried function wants to access some high up data and it has to be manually threaded through the entire callstack.
Eve processes can now spawn subprocesses and inject code into them. Together with the new communication API this allowed much of the IDE architecture to be lifted into Eve. When running in the browser only the UI manager lives on the main thread - the editor, the compiler and the user's program all live in separate web-workers. The editor uses the process API to spawn both the compiler and the user's program and then subscribes to the views it needs for the debugging interface. Both the editor and the user's program send graphics data to the UI manager and receiving UI events in return.
LtU generally is not appropriate venue for posting call-for-papers,
but there have been exceptions, if the CFP has an exceptionally wide
appeal. Hopefully FLOPS 2016 might qualify.
FLOPS has been established to promote cooperation between logic and
functional programmers, hence the name. This year we have taken the
name exceptionally seriously, to cover the whole extent of declarative
programming, which also includes program transformation, re-writing,
and extracting programs from proofs of their correctness. There is
another strong emphasis: on cross-fertilization among people
developing theory, writing tools and language systems using that
theory, and the users of these tools. We specifically ask the authors
to make their papers understandable by the wide audience of
declarative programmers and researchers.
As you can see from the Program Committee list, the members have done
first-rate theoretic work, and are also known for their languages,
tools and libraries. PC will appreciate the good practical
work. Incidentally, there is a special category, ``System
Descriptions'' that FLOPS has always been known for. We really want to
have more submissions in that category.
One can see even on LtU that there is some rift between theoreticians
and practitioners: Sean McDermid messages come to mind. He does have
many good points. We really hope that FLOPS will help repair this
Pycket: A Tracing JIT For a Functional Language
Spenser Bauman, Carl Friedrich Bolz, Robert Hirschfeld, Vasily Krilichev, Tobias Pape, Jeremy Siek, and Sam Tobin-Hochstadt
We present Pycket, a high-performance tracing JIT compiler for
Racket. Pycket supports a wide variety of the sophisticated
features in Racket such as contracts, continuations, classes, structures,
dynamic binding, and more. On average, over a standard suite of
benchmarks, Pycket outperforms existing compilers, both Racket’s
JIT and other highly-optimizing Scheme compilers. Further, Pycket
provides much better performance for proxies than existing systems,
dramatically reducing the overhead of contracts and gradual typing.
We validate this claim with performance evaluation on multiple
existing benchmark suites.
The Pycket implementation is of independent interest as an
application of the RPython meta-tracing framework (originally created
for PyPy), which automatically generates tracing JIT compilers
from interpreters. Prior work on meta-tracing focuses on bytecode
interpreters, whereas Pycket is a high-level interpreter based on the
CEK abstract machine and operates directly on abstract syntax trees.
Pycket supports proper tail calls and first-class continuations. In the
setting of a functional language, where recursion and higher-order
functions are more prevalent than explicit loops, the most significant
performance challenge for a tracing JIT is identifying which control
flows constitute a loop -- we discuss two strategies for identifying
loops and measure their impact.
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.
Resourceable, Retargetable, Modular Instruction Selection Using a Machine-Independent, Type-Based Tiling of Low-Level Intermediate Code
Ramsey and Dias have a series of papers about making it ever easier to generate compiler backends, and the claim is that they produce decent code to boot. I wonder if this stuff has/will show up in compilers I can use? (Or, do you think it not actually matter, for some pragmatic reason or other?)
Abstract: We present a novel variation on the standard technique of selecting instructions by tiling an intermediate-code tree. Typical compilers use a different set of tiles for every target machine. By analyzing a formal model of machine-level computation, we have developed a set of tiles that is machine-independent while retaining the expressive power of machine code. Using this tileset, we reduce the number of tilers required from one per machine to one per architectural family (e.g., register architecture or stack architecture). Because the tiler is the part of the instruction selector that is most difficult to reason about, our technique makes it possible to retarget an instruction selector with significantly less effort than standard techniques. Retargeting effort is further reduced by applying an earlier result which generates the machine-dependent implementation of our tileset automatically from a declarative description of instructions' semantics. Our design has the additional benefit of enabling modular reasoning about three aspects of code generation that are not typically separated: the semantics of the compiler's intermediate representation, the semantics of the target instruction set, and the techniques needed to generate good target code.
These are sad news indeed. I am sure almost everyone here read at least one paper by Paul and many knew him personally. When I just started thinking about programming languages I was fascinated by DSLs and his work was simply inspiring. His voice will be missed.
Discussions of Paul Hudak's work
Update:There is some confusion about the situation. Please see the comments for further information.
Everything old is new again: Quoted Domain Specific Languages, by Shayan Najd, Sam Lindley, Josef Svenningsson, Philip Wadler:
We describe a new approach to domain specific languages (DSLs), called Quoted DSLs (QDSLs), that resurrects two old ideas: quotation,
from McCarthy’s Lisp of 1960, and the subformula property, from Gentzen’s natural deduction of 1935. Quoted terms allow the DSL to share the syntax and type system of the host language. Normalising quoted terms ensures the subformula property, which guarantees that one can use higher-order types in the source while guaranteeing first-order types in the target, and enables using types to guide fusion. We test our ideas by re-implementing Feldspar, which was originally implemented as an Embedded DSL (EDSL), as a QDSL; and we compare the QDSL and EDSL variants.
Neat paper first posted here by Blaisorblade that formalizes the properties needed for using quotation to implement DSLs. Most embedded DSLs use custom operators and lifted conditionals to make embedded programs seem more natural, but quoting enables the use of native operators and conditions, and might lead to more natural expressions of lightweight (possibly heterogenous) staged computations.
The Next Stage of Staging, by Jun Inoue, Oleg Kiselyov, Yukiyoshi Kameyama:
This position paper argues for type-level metaprogramming, wherein types and type declarations are generated in addition to program terms. Term-level metaprogramming, which allows manipulating expressions only, has been extensively studied in the form of staging, which ensures static type safety with a clean semantics with hygiene (lexical scoping). However, the corresponding development is absent for type manipulation. We propose extensions to staging to cover ML-style module generation and show the possibilities they open up for type specialization and overhead-free parametrization of data types equipped with operations. We outline the challenges our proposed extensions pose for semantics and type safety, hence offering a starting point for a long-term program in the next stage of staging research. The key observation is that type declarations do not obey scoping rules as variables do, and that in metaprogramming, types are naturally prone to escaping the lexical environment in which they were declared. This sets next-stage staging apart from dependent types, whose benefits and implementation mechanisms overlap with our proposal, but which does not deal with type-declaration generation. Furthermore, it leads to an interesting connection between staging and the logic of definitions, adding to the study’s theoretical significance.
A position paper describing the next logical progression of staging to metaprogramming over types. Now with the true first-class modules of 1ML, perhaps there's a clearer way forward.