Simon Peyton Jones elected into the Royal Society Fellowship

Simon Peyton Jones has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Royal Society biography reads:

Simon's main research interest is in functional programming languages, their implementation, and their application. He was a key contributor to the design of the now-standard functional language Haskell, and is the lead designer of the widely-used Glasgow Haskell Compiler (GHC). He has written two textbooks about the implementation of functional languages.

More generally, Simon is interested in language design, rich type systems, compiler technology, code generation, runtime systems, virtual machines, and garbage collection. He is particularly motivated by direct use of principled theory to practical language design and implementation -- that is one reason he loves functional programming so much.

Simon is also chair of Computing at School, the grass-roots organisation that was at the epicentre of the 2014 reform of the English computing curriculum.

Congratulations SPJ!

Performance Problems You Can Fix: A Dynamic Analysis of Memoization Opportunities

Performance Problems You Can Fix: A Dynamic Analysis of Memoization Opportunities
Luca Della Toffola, Michael Pradel, Thomas Gross

Performance bugs are a prevalent problem and recent research proposes various techniques to identify such bugs. This paper addresses a kind of performance problem that often is easy to address but difficult to identify: redundant computations that may be avoided by reusing already computed results for particular inputs, a technique called memoization. To help developers find and use memoization opportunities, we present MemoizeIt, a dynamic analysis that identifies methods that repeatedly perform the same computation. The key idea is to compare inputs and outputs of method calls in a scalable yet precise way. To avoid the overhead of comparing objects at all method invocations in detail, MemoizeIt first compares objects without following any references and iteratively increases the depth of exploration while shrinking the set of considered methods. After each iteration, the approach ignores methods that cannot benefit from memoization, allowing it to analyze calls to the remaining methods in more detail. For every memoization opportunity that MemoizeIt detects, it provides hints on how to implement memoization, making it easy for the developer to fix the performance issue. Applying MemoizeIt to eleven real-world Java programs reveals nine profitable memoization opportunities, most of which are missed by traditional CPU time profilers, conservative compiler optimizations, and other existing approaches for finding performance bugs. Adding memoization as proposed by MemoizeIt leads to statistically significant speedups by factors between 1.04x and 12.93x.

This paper was recommended by Asumu Takikawa. It is a nice idea, which seems surprisingly effective. The examples they analysed (sadly they don't really explain how they picked the program to study) have a mix of memoization opportunities in fairly different parts of the codebase. There are several examples of what we could call "peripheral communication logic", eg. date formatting stuff, which we could assume is not studied really closely by the programmers focusing more on the problem-domain logic. But there is also an interesting of subtle domain-specific memoization opportunity: an existing cache was over-pessimistic and would reset itself at times where it was in fact not necessary, and this observation corresponds to a non-trivial program invariant.

The authors apparently had some difficulties finding program inputs to exercise profiling. Programs should more often be distributed with "performance-representative inputs", not just functionality-testing inputs. In one example of a linting tool, the provided "standard test" was to feed the code of the linting tool to itself. But this was under a default configuration for which the tools' developers had already fixed all alarms, so the alarm-creating code (which actually had an optimization opportunity) was never exercised by this proposed input.

Note that the caching performed is very lightweight, usually not a full tabulation of the function. Most examples just add a static variable to cache the last (input, output) pair, which is only useful when the same input is typically called several times in a row, but costs very little space.

Compilers as Assistants

Designers of Elm want their compiler to produce friendly error messages. They show some examples of helpful error messages from their newer compiler on the blog post.

Compilers as Assistants

One of Elm’s goals is to change our relationship with compilers. Compilers should be assistants, not adversaries. A compiler should not just detect bugs, it should then help you understand why there is a bug. It should not berate you in a robot voice, it should give you specific hints that help you write better code. Ultimately, a compiler should make programming faster and more fun!

Optimizing Closures in O(0) time

Optimizing Closures in O(0) time, by Andrew W. Keep, Alex Hearn, R. Kent Dybvig:

The flat-closure model for the representation of first-class procedures is simple, safe-for-space, and efficient, allowing the values or locations of free variables to be accessed with a single memory indirect. It is a straightforward model for programmers to understand, allowing programmers to predict the worst-case behavior of their programs. This paper presents a set of optimizations that improve upon the flat-closure model along with an algorithm that implements them, and it shows that the optimizations together eliminate over 50% of run-time closure-creation and free-variable access overhead in practice, with insignificant compile-time overhead. The optimizations never add overhead and remain safe-for-space, thus preserving the benefits of the flat-closure model.

Looks like a nice and simple set of optimizations for probably the most widely deployed closure representation.

Xavier Leroy will receive the Royal Society's 2016 Milner Award

The Royal Society will award Xavier Leroy the Milner Award 2016

... in recognition of his research on the OCaml functional programming language and on the formal verification of compilers.

Xavier's replied:

It is very moving to see how far we have come, from Milner's great ideas of the 1970s to tools as powerful and as widely used as OCaml and Coq.

Reagents: Expressing and Composing Fine-grained Concurrency

Reagents: Expressing and Composing Fine-grained Concurrency, by Aaron Turon:

Efficient communication and synchronization is crucial for finegrained parallelism. Libraries providing such features, while indispensable, are difficult to write, and often cannot be tailored or composed to meet the needs of specific users. We introduce reagents, a set of combinators for concisely expressing concurrency algorithms. Reagents scale as well as their hand-coded counterparts, while providing the composability existing libraries lack.

This is a pretty neat approach to writing concurrent code, which lies somewhere between manually implementing low-level concurrent algorithms and STM. Concurrent algorithms are expressed and composed semi-naively, and Reagents automates the retries for you in case of thread interference (for transient failure of CAS updates), or they block waiting for input from another thread (in case of permanent failure where no input is available).

The core seems to be k-CAS with synchronous communication between threads to coordinate reactions on shared state. The properties seem rather nice, as Aaron describes:

When used in isolation, reagents are guaranteed to perform only the CASes that the hand-written algorithm would, so they introduce no overhead on shared-memory operations; by recoding an algorithm use reagents, you lose nothing. Yet unlike hand-written algorithms, reagents can be composed using choice, tailored with new blocking behavior, or combined into larger atomic blocks.

The benchmarks in section 6 look promising. This appears to be work towards Aaron's thesis which provides many more details.

STABILIZER : Statistically Sound Performance Evaluation

My colleague Mike Rainey described this paper as one of the nicest he's read in a while.

STABILIZER : Statistically Sound Performance Evaluation
Charlie Curtsinger, Emery D. Berger

Researchers and software developers require effective performance evaluation. Researchers must evaluate optimizations or measure overhead. Software developers use automatic performance regression tests to discover when changes improve or degrade performance. The standard methodology is to compare execution times before and after applying changes.

Unfortunately, modern architectural features make this approach unsound. Statistically sound evaluation requires multiple samples to test whether one can or cannot (with high confidence) reject the null hypothesis that results are the same before and after. However, caches and branch predictors make performance dependent on machine-specific parameters and the exact layout of code, stack frames, and heap objects. A single binary constitutes just one sample from the space of program layouts, regardless of the number of runs. Since compiler optimizations and code changes also alter layout, it is currently impossible to distinguish the impact of an optimization from that of its layout effects.

This paper presents STABILIZER, a system that enables the use of the powerful statistical techniques required for sound performance evaluation on modern architectures. STABILIZER forces executions to sample the space of memory configurations by repeatedly re-randomizing layouts of code, stack, and heap objects at runtime. STABILIZER thus makes it possible to control for layout effects. Re-randomization also ensures that layout effects follow a Gaussian distribution, enabling the use of statistical tests like ANOVA. We demonstrate STABILIZER's efficiency (< 7% median overhead) and its effectiveness by evaluating the impact of LLVM’s optimizations on the SPEC CPU2006 benchmark suite. We find that, while -O2 has a significant impact relative to -O1, the performance impact of -O3 over -O2 optimizations is indistinguishable from random noise.

One take-away of the paper is the following technique for validation: they verify, empirically, that their randomization technique results in a gaussian distribution of execution time. This does not guarantee that they found all the source of measurement noise, but it guarantees that the source of noise they handled are properly randomized, and that their effect can be reasoned about rigorously using the usual tools of statisticians. Having a gaussian distribution gives you much more than just "hey, taking the average over these runs makes you resilient to {weird hardward effect blah}", it lets you compute p-values and in general use statistics.

mbeddr: an Extensible C-based Programming Language and IDE for Embedded Systems

Markus Voelter, Bernd Kolb1, Daniel Ratiu, and Bernhard Schaetz, "mbeddr: an Extensible C-based Programming Language and IDE for Embedded Systems", SplashCON/Wavefront 2012.

Although embedded systems are an increasingly large part of our lives, and despite the fact that embedded software would undoubtedly benefit from the kind safety guarantees provided by more advanced type systems, most embedded software development is still done in C. That's partly a result of toolchain availability, and partly because many more advanced languages typically impose requirements on memory, dynamic memory allocation, and other runtime infrastructure that simply aren't supportable on a lot of resource-constrained microcontrollers or acceptable in a risk-averse environment. Mbeddr seems to be seeking a middle ground between C, and creating a whole new language. From the paper:

While the C programming language provides very good support for writing efficient, low-level code, it does not offer adequate means for defining higher-level abstractions relevant to embedded software. In this paper we present the mbeddr technology stack that supports extension of C with constructs adequate for embedded systems. In mbeddr, efficient low-level programs can be written using the well-known concepts from C. Higher level domain-specific abstractions can be seamlessly integrated into C by means of modular language extension regarding syntax, type system, semantics and IDE. In the paper we show how language extension can address the challenges of embedded software development and report on our experience in building these extensions. We show that language workbenches deliver on the promise of significantly reducing the effort of language engineering and the construction of corresponding IDEs. mbeddr is built on top of the JetBrains MPS language workbench. Both MPS and mbeddr are open source software

It appears that mbeddr allows multiple DSLs to be built on top of C to provide greater safety and more domain-specific expressions of typical embedded software patterns. Additionally, it provides integration with various analysis tools including model-checkers. Another paper, "Preliminary Experience of using mbeddr for Developing Embedded Software", provides a look at how all of these things fit together in use.

The mbeddr approach seems similar in concept to Ivory and Tower, although mbeddr uses JetBrains MPS as the platform for creating DSLs instead of building an embedded DSL in Haskell.

Don Syme receives a medal for F#

Don Syme receives the Royal Academy of Engineering's Silver Medal for his work on F#. The citation reads:

F# is known for being a clear and more concise language that interoperates well with other systems, and is used in applications as diverse asanalysing the UK energy market to tackling money laundering. It allows programmers to write code with fewer bugs than other languages, so users can get their programme delivered to market both rapidly and accurately. Used by major enterprises in the UK and worldwide, F# is both cross-platform and open source, and includes innovative features such as unit-of-measure inference, asynchronous programming and type providers, which have in turn influenced later editions of C# and other industry languages.


Draining the Swamp: Micro Virtual Machines as Solid Foundation for Language Development

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.
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