A baseline scrapscript compiler

June 1, 2024

Scrapscript is a small, pure, functional, content-addressable, network-first programming language.

fact 5
. fact =
  | 0 -> 1
  | n -> n * fact (n - 1)

My previous post introduced the language a bit and then talked about the interpreter that Chris and I built. This post is about the compiler that Chris and I built.

In the beginning, there was an interpreter

Writing a simple tree-walking interpreter is a great way to prototype a language implementation. It requires the minimal amount of moving parts and can be very compact. Our whole lexer, parser, and interpreter are altogether about 1300 lines of home-grown, dependency-free Python.

But then I took Olin Shivers’ graduate course on compiling functional programming languages and learned about continuation-passing style (CPS), common functional optimizations, k-CFA, webs, and more. It got me thinking: well, since I continue to describe Scrapscript as a “juiced-up lambda calculus”, maybe I should write a compiler for it.

I didn’t have time this past term to do it for the course project and I did not want to start by writing an optimizing compiler, so I decided to write a baseline compiler in a similar vein to the baseline interpreter: the minimal amount of code necessary to get something off the ground.

$ wc -l runtime.c compiler.py
  721 runtime.c
  514 compiler.py
 1235 total

Turns out, the compiler core is roughly the same order of magnitude as the interpreter core (sans parsing), and I suppose that makes sense since the tree-walking code structure looks very similar. We also bundle a small runtime to provide garbage collection and some other functions.

Let’s take a look inside.

Inside the compiler: expressions

The compiler analogue to the interpreter’s eval_exp function is Compiler.compile. It takes an environment and an expression and returns a string representing the C variable name that corresponds to the result of evaluating that expression.

class Compiler:
    def compile(self, env: Env, exp: Object) -> str:
        if isinstance(exp, Int):
            return self._mktemp(f"mknum(heap, {exp.value})")
        if isinstance(exp, Binop):
            left = self.compile(env, exp.left)
            right = self.compile(env, exp.right)
            if exp.op == BinopKind.ADD:
                # ...
                return self._mktemp(f"num_add({left}, {right})")
        # ...

    def gensym(self, stem: str = "tmp") -> str:
        self.gensym_counter += 1
        return f"{stem}_{self.gensym_counter-1}"

    def _mktemp(self, exp: str) -> str:
        temp = self.gensym()
        # append to the internal code buffer... more about handles later
        return self._handle(temp, exp)

The compiler generates a temporary variable to hold intermediate results. This turns code like 1 + 2 into something like:

struct object *tmp_0 = mknum(heap, 1);
struct object *tmp_1 = mknum(heap, 2);
struct object *tmp_2 = num_add(tmp_0, tmp_1);

and then the compiler will return the name of the last temporary variable, tmp_2. This is a little verbose, but it’s the simplest way to linearize Scrapscript’s expression tree structure into C statements.

This is perhaps the simplest part of the compiler because it looks like every other course project tree-walking procedural language compiler you might see. Handling the functional nature of Scrapscript is where things get more interesting.

Inside the compiler: functions

Functional languages encourage creating and using functions all over the place. This means that as we traverse the expression tree we also need to keep track of all of the top-level C functions that we need to create to store their code.

class Compiler:
    def compile_function(self, env: Env, exp: Function, name: Optional[str]) -> str:
        assert isinstance(exp.arg, Var)
        # Make a top-level C function
        fn = self.make_compiled_function(exp.arg.name, exp, name)
        # Push a new compilation context for the function
        cur = self.function
        self.function = fn
        funcenv = self.compile_function_env(fn, name)
        # Compile the function's body expression into it
        val = self.compile(funcenv, exp.body)
        fn.code.append(f"return {val};")
        # Pop back to the previous compilation context
        self.function = cur
        return self.make_closure(env, fn)

Functions are also values in Scrapscript, so they can be passed around just as any other data would be. In our compiler we call them closure objects because they are a function paired with an environment. This is because functions can also bind data.

For example, consider the following Scrapscript code that defines an anonymous function:

x -> y -> x + y

Since Scrapscript functions take one parameter each, “multi-parameter” functions are possible only by nesting functions. Here, the inner function only takes a y parameter but still has access to the x value that was bound when the outer function was called.

In order to determine what variables need to be stored in the closure—what variables are free in a function—we can re-use the existing free_in function from the interpreter. We use it in the interpreter to avoid making closure objects so big that they contain the entire environment, and it turns out to be really handy here too.

class Compiler:
    def make_closure(self, env: Env, fn: CompiledFunction) -> str:
        name = self._mktemp(f"mkclosure(heap, {fn.name}, {len(fn.fields)})")
        for i, field in enumerate(fn.fields):
            self._emit(f"closure_set({name}, {i}, {env[field]});")
        return name

The make_closure function allocates a closure object (a struct closure) and then sets the fields of the closure to the values of the free variables. They are laid out linearly in memory and the compiler stores a mapping of variable name to its index.

struct closure {
  struct gc_obj HEAD;
  ClosureFn fn;
  size_t size;
  struct object* env[];

This is not very optimized. It would be great if we could avoid allocating a closure object for every function, but that would require a more sophisticated analysis: we would need to determine that a function has no free variables (easy; done) and that it is not passed around as a value (not bad but requires more analysis than we do right now).

The bulk of the work in the compiler was spent on the other kind of function that we support: match functions.

Inside the compiler: pattern matching

Scrapscript supports pattern matching similar to OCaml’s match syntax:

| 0 -> 1
| [1, two, 3] -> two + 1
| [x, ...xs] -> x + sum xs
| { x = 1, y = z } -> z
| #tagged "value" -> 123

The above is a function that takes in some unnamed argument and immediately tries to match it against the given patterns, top to bottom. If none of the patterns match, the entire Scrapscript program aborts with an exception. (To avoid this, add a useless default or _ pattern at the end.)

Like OCaml and unlike Erlang1, variables bind names in the patterns, so two is bound to the middle element of the list. It also supports destructuring lists and records with the ... syntax.

Implementing pattern matching took me a while. Matching integers and variables was pretty easy but I got stuck on lists and records. Finally, I asked Chris if he had time to pair on it and luckily he said yes. After two hours, we figured it out.

It turns out that the key is writing the match function compiler exactly like the interpreted version. We had the logic right the first time. Fancy stuff like guaranteeing the minimal number of type checks can come later. To see what I mean, take a look at snippets of the interpreted match and compiled match side by side:

# Interpreted
def match(obj: Object, pattern: Object) -> Optional[Env]:
    if isinstance(pattern, Int):
        return {} if isinstance(obj, Int) and obj.value == pattern.value else None
    if isinstance(pattern, Var):
        return {pattern.name: obj}
    if isinstance(pattern, List):
        if not isinstance(obj, List):
            return None
        result: Env = {}
        use_spread = False
        for i, pattern_item in enumerate(pattern.items):
            if isinstance(pattern_item, Spread):
                use_spread = True
                if pattern_item.name is not None:
                    result.update({pattern_item.name: List(obj.items[i:])})
            if i >= len(obj.items):
                return None
            obj_item = obj.items[i]
            part = match(obj_item, pattern_item)
            if part is None:
                return None
        if not use_spread and len(pattern.items) != len(obj.items):
            return None
        return result

Gross, right? There are a bunch of edge cases for matching lists. It’s a little cleaner if you ignore the spread feature, but the basic structure looks like:

If there’s a no match, return None. If there’s a match but no bindings, return an empty environment {}. If there’s a match with bindings, propagate the bindings upward.

The end state of the compiler version looks so similar:

class Compiler:
    def try_match(self, env: Env, arg: str, pattern: Object, fallthrough: str) -> Env:
        if isinstance(pattern, Int):
            self._emit(f"if (!is_num({arg})) {{ goto {fallthrough}; }}")
            self._emit(f"if (num_value({arg}) != {pattern.value}) {{ goto {fallthrough}; }}")
            return {}
        if isinstance(pattern, Var):
            return {pattern.name: arg}
        if isinstance(pattern, List):
            self._emit(f"if (!is_list({arg})) {{ goto {fallthrough}; }}")
            updates = {}
            the_list = arg
            use_spread = False
            for i, pattern_item in enumerate(pattern.items):
                if isinstance(pattern_item, Spread):
                    use_spread = True
                    if pattern_item.name:
                        updates[pattern_item.name] = the_list
                # Not enough elements
                self._emit(f"if (is_empty_list({the_list})) {{ goto {fallthrough}; }}")
                list_item = self._mktemp(f"list_first({the_list})")
                updates.update(self.try_match(env, list_item, pattern_item, fallthrough))
                the_list = self._mktemp(f"list_rest({the_list})")
            if not use_spread:
                # Too many elements
                self._emit(f"if (!is_empty_list({the_list})) {{ goto {fallthrough}; }}")
            return updates

I felt very silly after this. It’s a nice showcase, though, of the advice that people like to give about writing compilers: “just emit code that does what you would do if you were in the interpreter”.

The rest of the compiler is mostly code in a similar vein: translate a tree representation of an expression to a linear series of instructions. In some cases, lean heavily on the runtime to provide some functionality.

Speaking of the runtime…

Inside the runtime: garbage collection

I showed a little snippet of runtime code earlier. This struct closure is an example of a heap-allocated object in Scrapscript. Unlike in the interpreter where we rely on the host Python runtime to garbage collect objects, in the compiler we have to do it all by ourselves.

I adapted the initial semispace collector from Andy Wingo’s excellent blog post. The Wingo GC core provides a struct, an allocator function, and machinery for sweeping the heap:

struct gc_obj {
  uintptr_t tag;  // low bit is 0 if forwarding ptr
  uintptr_t payload[0];

struct gc_heap* make_heap(size_t size);
void destroy_heap(struct gc_heap* heap);

struct gc_obj* allocate(struct gc_heap* heap, size_t size);
void collect(struct gc_heap* heap);

and relies on the user of the “library” to provide three functions that are application-specific:

// How big is the given object in memory? Probably does dispatch on the `tag`
// field in `gc_obj`.
size_t heap_object_size(struct gc_obj* obj);
// For every object pointer in the given object, call the given callback. For
// lists, for example, visit every list item.
size_t trace_heap_object(struct gc_obj* obj, struct gc_heap* heap,
                         VisitFn visit);
// For every root pointer in the application, call the given callback. For our
// use case, this is the shadow stack/handles (more on this later).
void trace_roots(struct gc_heap* heap, VisitFn visit);

Let’s talk about closures as a sample of a heap-allocated object. Each object has a header struct gc_obj (which, due to the way that C compilers lay out memory, effectively inlines it into the outer object) and then its own fields.

In the case of closures, we have a C function pointer, a count of the number of free variables in the closure, and then a flexible-length in-line array of free variables.

struct closure {
  struct gc_obj HEAD;
  ClosureFn fn;
  size_t size;
  struct object* env[];

But not everything is heap-allocated and you may have noticed a discrepancy: we have both struct gc_obj and struct object. What’s up with that?

Well, not all pointers are pointers into the heap. Some pointers contain the entire object inside the 64 bits of the pointer itself. In order to distinguish the two cases in the code, we add some extra low bits to every pointer.

Inside the runtime: tagged pointers

In Scrapscript, numbers are arbitrary-size integers. Fortunately, most numbers are small [citation needed], and fortunately, 63 bits can represent a lot of them.

Yes, 63, not 64. One of the pointer tagging tricks we do is bias heap-allocated objects by 1. Since all heap allocations are multiples of 8 bytes (at least; that’s just the size of the tag), we know that the low three bits are normally 0. By setting the low bits of all heap-allocated objects to 001, and the low bit of all small integers to 0, we can distinguish between the two cases.

small int:   0bxxx...xx0
heap object: 0bxxx...001

Actually, we can do better. We still have two more bits to play with. Using those extra bits we can encode holes (()), empty lists (“nil” in other languages), and small strings (<= 7 bytes). There’s more to do here, probably, but that’s what we have so far.

Let’s go back to the heap and talk about how we know which objects are live.

Inside the runtime: handles

The usual thing to do in a Scheme-like compiler is to scan the stack and look for things that look like pointers. If you have full control over the compiler pipeline—in other words, you are compiling to assembly—you can do this pretty easily. The call stack is but an array and if you know where it begins, you can walk it to find pointers.

You run into some problems with that:

  1. Even if you are not emitting C, you are often beholden to the C calling convention. The usual C calling conventions involve passing arguments in registers, and fast code tends to use registers for everything.
  2. Hardware call or jump-and-link instructions push a return address onto the stack. This is not a pointer to a heap-allocated object but instead a pointer into the code stream.

The typical solution to the second problem is solved if you have tagged pointers and don’t mind aligning your code a little bit to make all return addresses look like small integers. It’s also fine if your garbage collector does not move pointers.

The first problem requires emitting code to save and restore registers so that the garbage collector knows the objects contained within are live—part of the root set. If your garbage collector doesn’t move pointers, you don’t even need to restore them.

If your GC does move pointers, both problems require fussier solutions. And it gets even worse if you are compiling to C: your C compiler might dump random variables onto the call stack. Whereas in assembly you have full control over your stack layout, in C you have none.

The GC I want to use—Andy Wingo’s—is a semispace collector and semispace collectors move pointers. Let’s take a look at an example to illustrate the problems we run into.

struct object* foo(struct object* x) {
  // point 0
  struct object* y = mknum(heap, kSomeBigNumber);  // point 1
  // point 2
  struct object* z = num_add(x, y);  // point 3
  return z;

At point 0 we’re good. Nothing has happened in the foo function and we can safely assume that the pointer x is valid.

Ad point 1, we allocate a number on the heap. We might have room in our current GC space or we might not. If we don’t, the collector will run and move all of our pointers around. We can’t predict at compile-time which will happen, so we assume that everything moves.

By point 2, the x has become invalid. While the object originally pointed to by x is still alive and well, we now have a stale/dangling/invalid pointer into the previous GC space.

This might be fine except for the fact that at point 3, we use x! We need it to still be a valid pointer. And num_add might cause a GC too, at which point y also becomes invalid. What is there to do?

The common solution is to use a “shadow stack” or “handles”. We used them in the Skybison Python runtime, Dart and V8 use them, several JVMs use them, and so on. There have been multiple papers (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, probably more) written about this topic so let’s use that research.

The basic idea is to have your own “stack” of pointers that you know are valid and that you can walk to find pointers into the heap. Right now it is implemented as a linked list of chunks of pointers—where each chunk corresponds to a C stack frame—but as I am writing this it strikes me that I could just as easily have mmaped one big linear chunk as a separate stack.

#define MAX_HANDLES 20

struct handles {
  // TODO(max): Figure out how to make this a flat linked list with whole
  // chunks popped off at function return
  struct object** stack[MAX_HANDLES];
  size_t stack_pointer;
  struct handles* next;

static struct handles* handles = NULL;

void pop_handles(void* local_handles) {
  handles = handles->next;

The current shadow stack frame is always stored in the global handles variable and is modified on function entry and exit. Each frame gets some fixed number of handles (20 right now) and if you exceed that number, the runtime aborts and the compiler developer should increase that number I guess. That problem would go away if either I switched to the entirely linear model or switched to a full linked list model (but I would still hold onto the previous top of stack so I could pop all the handles at once).

To make all of this a little easier to use, I added some macros to the runtime:

#define HANDLES()                                                             \
  struct handles local_handles                                                \
      __attribute__((__cleanup__(pop_handles))) = {.next = handles};          \
  handles = &local_handles

#define GC_PROTECT(x)                                                         \
  assert(local_handles.stack_pointer < MAX_HANDLES);                          \
  local_handles.stack[local_handles.stack_pointer++] = (struct object**)(&x)

#define GC_HANDLE(type, name, val)                                            \
  type name = val;                                                            \

#define OBJECT_HANDLE(name, exp) GC_HANDLE(struct object*, name, exp)

This means that the compiler can generate code that looks semi-readable:

struct object* foo(struct object* x) {
  OBJECT_HANDLE(y, mknum(heap, kSomeBigNumber));
  OBJECT_HANDLE(z, num_add(x, y));
  return z;

The HANDLES thing is a little weird pseudo-RAII trick that a) reduces code duplication and b) hopefully reduces errors in case of early function exits. I trust the C compiler to correctly insert calls to pop_handles more than I trust myself to.

The core idea here is to store pointers to the local struct object* variables so that the C compiler is forced to read from and write to memory any time there could be side effects. Then, when a collect happens, all the right pointers in the shadow stack are visible to the garbage collector.

void trace_roots(struct gc_heap* heap, VisitFn visit) {
  for (struct handles* h = handles; h; h = h->next) {
    for (size_t i = 0; i < h->stack_pointer; i++) {
      visit(h->stack[i], heap);

It’s neat that we can add reasonably usable handles to Andy’s GC in such a small amount of code.

Cosmopolitan and WebAssembly

While we already got Scrapscript working in the browser using the Python interpreter and Pyodide, we can also get Scrapscript programs working—and much smaller—by compiling the generated C code to WebAssembly. Right now it needs access to mmap because of the GC but the WASI SDK provides that as long as you specify the right compiler flags.

It’s the same state of affairs with Cosmopolitan: while we used to have to bundle the entire Python interpreter with the Scrapscript program, we can now use cosmocc to compile the generated C code to produce tiny and fast cross-platform executables. As I write this I wonder how mmap works on Windows. Perhaps Cosmopolitan libc provides a mmap implementation that calls VirtualAlloc.

Future projects

Right now the compiler generates handles for every local variable. This is not efficient, but it is correct. In the future, I would like to do a liveness analysis and only generate handles for variables that are live across a function that might cause a GC.

I would also like to build an intermediate representation instead of going straight to C. This would make it easier to do local and interprocedural optimizations. While we can do a decent amount of analysis and optimization directly on the AST, I think it’s much easier to do it on a more linear IR.

With this IR, I would like to do a mix of classic Scheme/ML and other SSA optimizations. Ideally we can make Scrapscript fly.

The previous post mentioned a notion of “platforms” like the web platform. Compiling Scrapscript to C would make for pretty easy interoperation with existing libraries… for example, say, a little web server. I’m on the hunt for a small, fast, and easy-to-use web server library that I can bundle with a compiled Scrapscript program and have Scrapscript interact with the outside world.

Playing with the compiler

Try running ./scrapscript.py compile --compile examples/0_home/factorial.scrap which will produce both output.c and a.out. Then you can run ./a.out to see the result of your program.

Thanks for reading

Want to learn more? Well first, play with the web REPL. Then take a look at the repo and start contributing! Since we don’t have a huge backlog of well-scoped projects just yet, I recommend posting in the discourse group first to get an idea of what would be most useful and also interesting to you.

  1. What I mean about Erlang is that I sometimes miss the feature where you can use a variable in a pattern to check that it matches the existing value. For example, if ThreadId contains the name of the current thread, you can match against messages that are only for the current thread by writing {ThreadId, msg_contents}

  2. C-—: A portable assembly language that supports garbage collection (PDF) 

  3. Accurate Garbage Collection in an Uncooperative Environment (PDF) 

  4. Supporting Precise Garbage Collection in Java Bytecode- to-C Ahead-of-Time Compiler for Embedded Systems (PDF) 

  5. Accurate garbage collection in uncooperative environments with lazy pointer stacks (PDF) 

  6. Precise Garbage Collection for C (PDF) 

  7. Handles Revisited: Optimising Performance and Memory Costs in a Real-Time Collector (PDF)