Some tricks from the Scrapscript compiler

July 10, 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 talked about the compiler that Chris and I built. This post is about some optimization tricks that we’ve added since.

Pretty much all of these tricks are standard operating procedure for language runtimes (OCaml, MicroPython, Objective-C, Skybison, etc). We didn’t invent them.

They’re also somewhat limited in scope; the goal was to be able to add as much as possible to the baseline compiler without making it or the runtime notably more complicated. A fully-featured optimizing compiler is coming soon™ but not ready yet.

Immediate objects

In the last post, I mentioned that we can encode small integers and some other objects inside pointers so that we don’t have to heap allocate them at all. In this post, I’ll explain a little bit more how we encode small strings and also now certain kinds of variants!

The compiler assumes we are compiling to a 64 bit machine1. This means that with every pointer, we have 8 bytes to play with. We already use some of the low byte for tagging, and I showed these patterns in the previous post:

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

But there are more that we use in the compiler that I did not explain. So here are the rest of the bit patterns:

0b000...00101  // empty list
0b000...00111  // hole
0bxxx...01101  // small string
0b000...01111  // immediate variant
// and four more other, unused tags

Immediate patterns have two constraints:

  1. The bit pattern must have the low bit set (to avoid conflicting with small integers)
  2. The bit pattern must not have 001 as the low bits (to avoid conflicting with heap objects)

Everything else is fair game. We technically could use as many of the high bits as we want and build in gigantic amounts of patterns but instead we are going to limit ourselves to eight kinds of immediates and reserve the high bits for use in those immediates2. For example, in small strings.

Small strings

Small strings are pretty neat. The idea is to use 7 bytes for the string data and one byte for the tag. Since the tag is only 5 bits long, we have 3 bits left over of the final remaining byte to encode… the length!

0bxxx...LLL01101  // small string

This all may sound kind of complicated and abstract but see if reading some Python code helps3. Instead of generating the full pointer value in Python code (which would mean the compiler has to have some magic constants in it), we generate a string of C code:

def small_string(value_str: str) -> str:
    value = value_str.encode("utf-8")
    length = len(value)
    value_int = int.from_bytes(value, "little")
    return f"(struct object*)(({hex(value_int)}ULL << kBitsPerByte) | ({length}ULL << kImmediateTagBits) | (uword)kSmallStringTag /* {value_str!r} */)"

# (struct object*)((0x0ULL << kBitsPerByte) | (0ULL << kImmediateTagBits) | (uword)kSmallStringTag /* '' */)
# (struct object*)((0x636261ULL << kBitsPerByte) | (3ULL << kImmediateTagBits) | (uword)kSmallStringTag /* 'abc' */)

Because the encoded version is illegible without knowing ASCII tables in your head (0x63==”c”, 0x62==”b”, 0x61==”a”, etc), we also helpfully print out the string representation to aid debugging.

It’s stored “backwards” if you print out the pointer MSB first but that’s because we store it little-endian. This lets us shift byte-by-byte to read from the start of the string to the end.

See also Mike Ash’s post about small strings in Objective-C. They go way further with encoding tables and stuff.


As a refresher, variants are kind of like a dynamically typed version of SML/OCaml variants. Whereas in OCaml and SML they are checked statically and (mostly) erased at compile-time, Scrapscript keeps the tags around at run-time. You can kind of think of it like adding one string’s worth of metadata to an object that you can match on.

eval =
| #int_lit x -> x
| #add [left, right] -> left + right

Until this past weekend, variants were all heap-allocated pairs of tag and value.

struct variant {
  struct gc_obj HEAD;
  size_t tag;
  struct object* value;

The tag is an index into the tag table which is generated at compile-time and contains all tags:

enum {
  // ...

It’s kind of unfortunate, because it means that writing something like #some_tag [a, b] allocates an object first for the list—several cons cells, in fact—and then also for the tagged wrapper object.

But I vaguely recalled something about OCaml encoding variants with only a couple of bits so I checked out their page on data representations. On it, they have something that says:

Foo | Bar variants are stored as ascending OCaml ints, starting from 0.

I was initially worried that OCaml could only do this because they have type inference and therefore the compiler knows much more about what type every AST/IR node is. Then I thought about it some more and realized that we still have that information—just at run-time, with the pointer tagging. If we combine our low-bits pointer tagging with the existing tag enum stuff, we’re set.

So I added a new kind of immediate to the compiler: immediate variants. They don’t support the full range of objects4, but they support any tagged hole

True and false

…like #true () and #false ()! These used to be heap-allocated, but now they are immediate objects, and with no compiler special-casing. It falls naturally out of the tag indexing and the pointer tagging.

This is pretty great, because it makes pattern matching on booleans—or any similar tag—much faster. Look at the code that the compiler can now generate:

| #true () -> 123

turns into:

if (tmp_0 != mk_immediate_variant(Tag_true)) { goto case_1; }
    2301:	48 8b 54 24 08       	mov    rdx,QWORD PTR [rsp+0x8]
    2306:	b8 f6 00 00 00       	mov    eax,0xf6
    230b:	48 83 fa 0f          	cmp    rdx,0xf
    230f:	74 0b                	je     231c <fn_1+0x4c>

(where tmp_0/[rsp+0x8]/rdx is the match argument, 0xf6 is the small int for 123, and 0xf is the tagged pointer for # true ()).

I want to emphasize that these small strings, small ints, and other immediates are available at run-time too. They are not just limited to compiler constants. This means we have smart constructors such as mkstring that dynamically dispatch to either encoding a small string or heap-allocating a large one.

This is great, but small strings and variants leave a lot still allocated. Sometimes in scraps there are entire constant data structures that get allocated at run-time, every time the parent closure is called. So we did something about that.

The const heap

Consider the list [1, 2, 3]. The compiler and its runtime system represent it as three cons cells, 1 -> 2 -> 3 -> nil. All of the cells contain data that is known constant—integer literals—and point to other constant data. It turns out that if we detect this at compile-time, we can allocate all of the cons cells as constant C globals.

class Compiler:
    def compile(self, env: Env, exp: Object) -> str:
        if self._is_const(exp):
            return self._emit_const(exp)
        # ...

    def _emit_const(self, exp: Object) -> str:
        if isinstance(exp, Int):
            # TODO(max): Bignum
            return f"_mksmallint({exp.value})"
        if isinstance(exp, List):
            items = [self._emit_const(item) for item in exp.items]
            result = "empty_list()"
            for item in reversed(items):
                result = self._const_cons(item, result)
            return result
        # ...

    def _const_cons(self, first: str, rest: str) -> str:
        return self._const_obj("list", "TAG_LIST", f".first={first}, .rest={rest}")

    def _const_obj(self, type: str, tag: str, contents: str) -> str:
        result = self.gensym(f"const_{type}")
        self.const_heap.append(f"CONST_HEAP struct {type} {result} = {{.HEAD.tag={tag}, {contents} }};")
        return f"ptrto({result})"

The const_heap is a list of structs that we emit at the top-level after traversing the whole AST for normal compilation. It’s meant to look similar to our garbage-collected heap, but without actually using any of the GC’s API. Instead of calling allocate, we emit the structs directly. See the before, where every time the function is called, it allocates:

struct object* scrap_main() {
  OBJECT_HANDLE(tmp_0, empty_list());
  OBJECT_HANDLE(tmp_1, list_cons(_mksmallint(3), tmp_0));
  OBJECT_HANDLE(tmp_2, list_cons(_mksmallint(2), tmp_1));
  OBJECT_HANDLE(tmp_3, list_cons(_mksmallint(1), tmp_2));
  return tmp_3;

and after our const heap changes:

#define CONST_HEAP const __attribute__((section("const_heap")))
CONST_HEAP struct list const_list_0 = {.HEAD.tag=TAG_LIST, .first=_mksmallint(3), .rest=empty_list() };
CONST_HEAP struct list const_list_1 = {.HEAD.tag=TAG_LIST, .first=_mksmallint(2), .rest=ptrto(const_list_0) };
CONST_HEAP struct list const_list_2 = {.HEAD.tag=TAG_LIST, .first=_mksmallint(1), .rest=ptrto(const_list_1) };
struct object* scrap_main() {
  return ptrto(const_list_2);

Hey presto, the main function just returns a pointer to constant data instead of allocating anything at run-time.

In order of appearance, here are some of the confusing parts of the code:

CONST_HEAP is macro that directs the linker to put the attached object into our custom section, const_heap. We also mark this data const so that the C compiler can optimize references to it. I should probably also mark it static and add some kind of __attribute__((aligned(8))) to make sure that we get the same heap object tagging support.

_mksmallint is a macro that generates a small integer by shifting it left 1 bit.

empty_list is a macro that generates a tagged pointer to the empty list.

ptrto takes the address of constant data and then tags with 0b1 so that it looks like a normal heap object. This means that there might be a bunch of references to constant data flying around our garbage-collected heap. That’s a big problem because our GC attempts to write to the data and then update references to it, so we have to be catch this:

// NEW
extern char __start_const_heap[];
extern char __stop_const_heap[];

bool in_const_heap(struct gc_obj* obj) {
  return (uword)obj >= (uword)__start_const_heap &&
         (uword)obj < (uword)__stop_const_heap;

void visit_field(struct object** pointer, struct gc_heap* heap) {
  if (!is_heap_object(*pointer)) {
  struct gc_obj* from = as_heap_object(*pointer);
  // NEW
  if (in_const_heap(from)) {
  // END NEW
  struct gc_obj* to = is_forwarded(from) ? forwarded(from) : copy(heap, from);
  *pointer = heap_tag((uintptr_t)to);

We do this by using the linker-provided symbols __start_const_heap and __stop_const_heap to get the bounds of the const_heap section. Then we can see if a pointer is within those bounds before trying to forward it.

We support pretty much all constant versions of objects, including:

Yes, we also support constant closures. For now, this is only available for closures that don’t capture any variables. We could support closures that capture only constant data, but that would require a little bit of finessing to keep a record of which variables are constant and which aren’t. I want to figure out a way to do this in only 1 or 2 extra lines of code if possible.

. fact =
| 0 -> 1
| n -> n * fact (n - 1)
#define ptrto(obj) ((struct object*)((uword)&(obj) + 1))
CONST_HEAP struct closure const_closure_5 = {.HEAD.tag=TAG_CLOSURE, .fn=fact_1, .size=0 };
struct object* scrap_main() {
  return ptrto(const_closure_5);


Have suggestions?

I’m always interested in using Scrapscript as a compiler and runtime playground. Send ideas or full implementations my way please.

I’m currently looking at immediate doubles based on the OpenSmalltalk. We don’t use them often in Scrapscript but it could be fun. I’m also looking at how ChakraCore did it.

Playing with the compiler

Try running ./ 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.

We also now have a compiler web REPL if you don’t want to download anything.

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. This isn’t a hard constraint and we would only need to do a little bit of refactoring to support 32 bit architectures. To simplify the development process, though, we’re sticking with 64 bits. 

  2. We could have an “escape hatch” where we have one low-bits encoding that says “look at the rest of the high bits to figure out what this is” but we’re trying to avoid a two-step decoding situation. 

  3. In fact, I used some similar code to obfuscate programs that I wrote for a malware course. Instead of encoding stack strings by hand, I wrote a crappy program to generate them for me for use in C programs.

    uint64_t stack_strings[9] = {
    stack_strings[8] = 1337;
    char* str_Hello__ = (char*)&stack_strings[0];
    char* str_this_is_a_message_from_ = (char*)&stack_strings[1];
    char* str_your_friendly_Scrapscript_team = (char*)&stack_strings[4];

    That gross blob is the result of encoding three strings:

    • "Hello, ",
    • "this is a message from ",
    • "your friendly Scrapscript team",

  4. I wonder if it would be possible to find a tagging scheme that supports immediate variants of any scrapscript object. Depending on the machine, we might run out of bits to encode the tag.