The New CTFE Engine

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Stefan Koch is the maintainer of sqlite-d, a native D sqlite reader, and has contributed to projects like SDC (the Stupid D Compiler) and vibe.d. He was also responsible for a 10% performance improvement in D’s current CTFE implementation and is currently writing a new CTFE engine, the subject of this post.


For the past nine months, I’ve been working on a project called NewCTFE, a reimplementation of the Compile-Time Function Evaluation (CTFE) feature of the D compiler front-end. CTFE is considered one of the game-changing features of D.

As the name implies, CTFE allows certain functions to be evaluated by the compiler while it is compiling the source code in which the functions are implemented. As long as all arguments to a function are available at compile time and the function is pure (has no side effects), then the function qualifies for CTFE. The compiler will replace the function call with the result.

Since this is an integral part of the language, pure functions can be evaluated anywhere a compile-time constant may go. A simple example can be found in the standard library module, std.uri, where CTFE is used to compute a lookup table. It looks like this:

private immutable ubyte[128] uri_flags = // indexed by character
({

    ubyte[128] uflags;

    // Compile time initialize
    uflags['#'] |= URI_Hash;

    foreach (c; 'A' .. 'Z' + 1)
    {
        uflags[c] |= URI_Alpha;
        uflags[c + 0x20] |= URI_Alpha; // lowercase letters

    }

    foreach (c; '0' .. '9' + 1) uflags[c] |= URI_Digit;

    foreach (c; ";/?:@&=+$,") uflags[c] |= URI_Reserved;

    foreach (c; "-_.!~*'()") uflags[c] |= URI_Mark;

    return uflags;

})();

Instead of populating the table with magic values, a simple expressive function literal is used. This is much easier to understand and debug than some opaque static array. The ({ starts a function-literal, the }) closes it. The () at the end tells the compiler to immediately evoke that literal such that uri_flags becomes the result of the literal.

Functions are only evaluated at compile time if they need to be. uri_flags in the snippet above is declared in module scope. When a module-scope variable is initialized in this manner, the initializer must be available at compile time. In this case, since the initializer is a function literal, an attempt will be made to perform CTFE. This particular literal has no arguments and is pure, so the attempt succeeds.

For a more in-depth discussion of CTFE, see this article by H. S. Teoh at the D Wiki.

Of course, the same technique can be applied to more complicated problems as well; std.regex, for example, can build a specialized automaton for a regex at compile time using CTFE. However, as soon as std.regex is used with CTFE for non-trivial patterns, compile times can become extremely high (in D everything that takes longer than a second to compile is bloat-ware :)). Eventually, as patterns get more complex, the compiler will run out of memory and probably take the whole system down with it.

The blame for this can be laid at the feet of the current CTFE interpreter’s architecture. It’s an AST interpreter, which means that it interprets the AST while traversing it. To represent the result of interpreted expressions, it uses DMD’s AST node classes. This means that every expression encountered will allocate one or more AST nodes. Within a tight loop, the interpreter can easily generate over 100_000_000 nodes and eat a few gigabytes of RAM. That can exhaust memory quite quickly.

Issue 12844 complains about std.regex taking more than 16GB of RAM. For one pattern. Then there’s issue 6498, which executes a simple 0 to 10_000_000 while loop via CTFE and runs out of memory.

Simply freeing nodes doesn’t fix the problem; we don’t know which nodes to free and enabling the garbage collector makes the whole compiler brutally slow. Luckily there is another approach which doesn’t allocate for every expression encountered. It involves compiling the function to a virtual ISA (Instruction Set Architecture). This virtual ISA, also known as bytecode, is then given to a dedicated interpreter for that ISA (in the case in which a virtual ISA happens to be the same as the ISA of the host, we call it a JIT (Just in Time) interpreter).

The NewCTFE project concerns itself with implementing such a bytecode interpreter. Writing the actual interpreter (a CPU emulator for a virtual CPU/ISA) is reasonably simple. However, compiling code to a virtual ISA is exactly as much work as compiling it to a real ISA (though, a virtual ISA has the added benefit that it can be extended for customized needs, but that makes it harder to do JIT later). That’s why it took a month just to get the first simple examples running on the new CTFE engine, and why slightly more complicated ones still aren’t running even after 9 months of development. At the end of the post, you’ll find an approximate timeline of the work done so far.

I’ll be giving a presentation at DConf 2017, where I’ll discuss my experience implementing the engine and explain some of the technical details, particularly regarding the trade-offs and design choices I’ve made. The current estimation is that the 1.0 goals will not be met by then, but I’ll keep coding away until it’s done.

Those interested in keeping up with my progress can follow my status updates in the D forums. At some point in the future, I will write another article on some of the technical details of the implementation. In the meantime, I hope the following listing does shed some light on how much work it is to implement NewCTFE 🙂

  • May 9th 2016
    Announcement of the plan to improve CTFE.
  • May 27th 2016
    Announcement that work on the new engine has begun.
  • May 28th 2016
    Simple memory management change failed.
  • June 3rd 2016
    Decision to implement a bytecode interpreter.
  • June 30th 2016
    First code (taken from issue 6498) consisting of simple integer arithmetic runs.
  • July 14th 2016
    ASCII string indexing works.
  • July 15th 2016
    Initial struct support
  • Sometime between July and August
    First switches work.
  • August 17th 2016
    Support for the special cases if(__ctfe) and if(!__ctfe)
  • Sometime between August and September
    Ternary expressions are supported
  • September 08th 2016
    First Phobos unit tests pass.
  • September 25th 2016
    Support for returning strings and ternary expressions.
  • October 16th 2016
    First (almost working) version of the LLVM backend.
  • October 30th 2016
    First failed attempts to support function calls.
  • November 01st
    DRuntime unit tests pass for the first time.
  • November 10th 2016
    Failed attempt to implement string concatenation.
  • November 14th 2016
    Array expansion, e.g. assignment to the length property, is supported.
  • November 14th 2016
    Assignment of array indexes is supported.
  • November 18th 2016
    Support for arrays as function parameters.
  • November 19th 2016
    Performance fixes.
  • November 20th 2016
    Fixing the broken while(true) / for (;;) loops; they can now be broken out of 🙂
  • November 25th 2016
    Fixes to goto and switch handling.
  • November 29th 2016
    Fixes to continue and break handling.
  • November 30th 2016
    Initial support for assert
  • December 02nd 2016
    Bailout on void-initialized values (since they can lead to undefined behavior).
  • December 03rd 2016
    Initial support for returning struct literals.
  • December 05th 2016
    Performance fix to the bytecode generator.
  • December 07th 2016
    Fixes to continue and break in for statements (continue must not skip the increment step)
  • December 08th 2016
    Array literals with variables inside are now supported: [1, n, 3]
  • December 08th 2016
    Fixed a bug in switch statements.
  • December 10th 2016
    Fixed a nasty evaluation order bug.
  • December 13th 2016
    Some progress on function calls.
  • December 14th 2016
    Initial support for strings in switches.
  • December 15th 2016
    Assignment of static arrays is now supported.
  • December 17th 2016
    Fixing goto statements (we were ignoring the last goto to any label :)).
  • December 17th 2016
    De-macrofied string-equals.
  • December 20th 2016
    Implement check to guard against dereferencing null pointers (yes… that one was oh so fun).
  • December 22ed 2016
    Initial support for pointers.
  • December 25th 2016
    static immutable variables can now be accessed (yes the result is recomputed … who cares).
  • January 02nd 2017
    First Function calls are supported !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • January 17th 2017
    Recursive function calls work now 🙂
  • January 23rd 2017
    The interpret3.d unit-test passes.
  • January 24th 2017
    We are green on 64bit!
  • January 25th 2017
    Green on all platforms !!!!! (with blacklisting though)
  • January 26th 2017
    Fixed special case cast(void*) size_t.max (this one cannot go through the normal pointer support, which assumes that you have something valid to dereference).
  • January 26th 2017
    Member function calls are supported!
  • January 31st 2017
    Fixed a bug in switch handling.
  • February 03rd 2017
    Initial function pointer support.
  • Rest of Feburary 2017
    Wild goose chase for issue #17220
  • March 11th 2017
    Initial support for slices.
  • March 15th 2017
    String slicing works.
  • March 18th 2017
    $ in slice expressions is now supported.
  • March 19th 2017
    The concatenation operator (c = a ~ b) works.
  • March 22ed 2017
    Fixed a switch fallthrough bug.

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