DCompute: Running D on the GPU

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Nicholas Wilson is a student at Murdoch University, studying for his BEng (Hons)/BSc in Industrial Computer Systems (Hons) and Instrumentation & Control/ Molecular Biology & Genetics and Biomedical Science. He just finished his thesis on low-cost defect detection of solar cells by electroluminescence imaging, which gives him time to work on DCompute and write about it for the D Blog.He plays the piano, ice skates, and has spent 7 years putting D to use on number bashing, automation, and anything else that he could make a computer do for him.


DCompute is a framework and compiler extension to support writing native kernels for OpenCL and CUDA in D to utilize GPUs and other accelerators for computationally intensive code. Its compute API drivers automate the interactions between user code and the tedious and error prone APIs with the goal of enabling the rapid development of high performance D libraries and applications.

Introduction

This is the second article on DCompute. In the previous article, we looked at the development of DCompute and some trivial examples. While we were able to successfully build kernels, there was no way to run them short of using them with an existing framework or doing everything yourself. This is no longer the case. As of v0.1.0, DCompute now comes with native wrappers for both OpenCL and CUDA, enabling kernel dispatch as easily as CUDA.

In order to run a kernel we need to pass it off to the appropriate compute API, either CUDA or OpenCL. While these APIs both try to achieve similar things they are different enough that to squeeze that last bit of performance out of them you need to treat each API separately. But there is sufficient overlap that we can make the interface reasonably consistent between the two. The C bindings to these APIs, however, are very low level and trying to use them is very tedious and extremely prone to error (yay void*).
In addition to the tedium and error proneness, you have to redundantly specify a lot of information, which further compounds the problem. Fortunately this is D and we can remove a lot of the redundancy through introspection and code generation.

The drivers wrap the C API, providing a clean and consistent interface that’s easy to use. While the documentation is a little sparse at the moment, the source code is for the most part straightforward (if you’re familiar with the C APIs, looking where a function is used is a good place to start). There is the occasional piece of magic to achieve a sane API.

Taming the beasts

OpenCL’s clGet*Info functions are the way to access properties of the class hidden behind the void*. A typical call looks like

enum CL_FOO_REFERENCE_COUNT = 0x1234;
cl_foo* foo = ...; 
cl_int refCount;
clGetFooInfo(foo, CL_FOO_REFERENCE_COUNT, refCount.sizeof, &refCount,null);

And that’s not even one for which you have to call, to figure out how much memory you need to allocate, then call again with the allocated buffer (and $DEITY help you if you want to get a cl_program’s binaries).

Using D, I have been able to turn that into this:

struct Foo
{
    void* raw;
    static struct Info
    {
        @(0x1234) int referenceCount;
        ...
    }
    mixin(generateGetInfo!(Info, clGetFooInfo));
}

Foo foo  = ...;
int refCount = foo.referenceCount;

All the magic is in generateGetInfo to generate a property for each member in Foo.Info, enabling much better scalability and bonus documentation.

CUDA also has properties exposed in a similar manner, however they are not essential (unlike OpenCL) for getting things done so their development has been deferred.

Launching a kernel is a large point of pain when dealing with the C API of both OpenCL and (only marginally less horrible) CUDA, due to the complete lack of type safety and having to use the & operator into a void* far too much. In DCompute this incantation simply becomes

Event e = q.enqueue!(saxpy)([N])(b_res, alpha, b_x, b_y, N);

for OpenCL (1D with N work items), and

q.enqueue!(saxpy)([N, 1, 1], [1 ,1 ,1])(b_res, alpha, b_x, b_y, N);

for CUDA (equivalent to saxpy<<<N,1,0,q>>>(b_res,alpha,b_x,b_y, N);)

Where q is a queue, N is the length of buffers (b_res, b_x & b_y) and saxpy (single-precision a x plus y) is the kernel in this example. A full example may be found here, along with the magic that drives the OpenCL and CUDA enqueue functions.

The future of DCompute

While DCompute is functional, there is still much to do. The drivers still need some polish and user testing, and I need to set up continuous integration. A driver that unifies the different compute APIs is also in the works so that we can be even more cross-platform than the industry cross-platform standard.

Being able to convert SPIR-V into SPIR would enable targeting cl_khr_spir-capable 1.x and 2.0 CL implementations, dramatically increasing the number of devices that can run D kernel code (there’s nothing stopping you using the OpenCL driver for other kernels though).

On the compiler side of things, supporting OpenCL image and CUDA texture & surface operations in LDC would increase the applicability of the kernels that could be written.
I currently maintain a forward-ported fork of Khronos’s SPIR-V LLVM to generate SPIR-V from LLVM IR. I plan to use IWOCL to coordinate efforts to merge it into the LLVM trunk, and in doing so, remove the need for some of the hacks in place to deal with the oddities of the SPIR-V backend.

Using DCompute in your projects

If you want to use DCompute, you’ll need a recent LDC built against LLVM with the NVPTX (for CUDA) and/or SPIRV (for OpenCL 2.1+) targets enabled and should add "dcompute": "~>0.1.0" to your dub.json. LDC 1.4+ releases have NVPTX enabled. If you want to target OpenCL, you’ll need to build LDC yourself against my fork of LLVM.

DMD, Windows, and C

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The ability to interface with C was baked into D from the beginning. Most of the time, it’s something that requires little thought – as long as the declarations on the D side match what exists on the C side, things will usually just work. However, there are a few corner-case gotchas that arise from the simple fact that D, though compatible, is not C.

An upcoming series of posts here on the D blog will delve into some of these dark corners and shine a light on the traps lying in wait. In these posts, readers will be asked to follow along by compiling and executing the examples themselves so they may more thoroughly understand the issues discussed. This means that, in addition to a D compiler, readers will need access to a C compiler.

That raises a potential snafu. On the systems that the DMD frontend groups under the version(Posix) umbrella, it’s a reliable assumption that a C compiler is easily available (if a D compiler is installed and functioning properly, the C compiler will already be installed). The concept of a system compiler is a long established tradition on those systems. On Windows… not so much.

So before diving into a series about C and D, a bit of a primer is called for. That’s where this post comes in. The primary goal is to help ensure a C environment is installed and working on Windows. It’s also useful to understand why things are different on that platform than on the others. Before we get to the why, we’ll dig into the how.

First, assume we have the following two source files in the same directory.

cfoo.c

#include <stdio.h>

void say_hello(void) 
{
    puts("Hello!");
}

dfoo.d

extern(C) void say_hello();

void main() 
{
    say_hello();
}

Now let’s see how to get the two working together.

DMD and C

The DMD packages for Windows ship with everything the compiler needs: a linker and other tools, plus a handful of critical system libraries. So on the one hand, Windows is the only platform where DMD has no external dependencies out of the box. On the other hand, it’s the only platform where a working DMD installation does not imply a C compiler is also installed. And these days, the out-of-the-box experience often isn’t the one you want.

On all the other platforms, the C compiler option is the system compiler, which in practice means GCC or Clang. The system linker to which DMD sends its generated object files might be ld, lld, ld.gold, or any ld-compatible linker. On Windows, there are currently two compiler choices, and neither can be assumed to be installed by default: the Digital Mars C and C++ compiler, dmc, or the Microsoft compiler, cl. We’ll look at each in turn.

DMD and DMC

The linker (Optlink) and other tools that ship with DMD are also part of the DMC distribution. DMD uses these tools by default (or when the -m32 switch is passed on the command line). To link any C objects or static libraries, they should be in the OMF format. Compilers that can generate OMF are a rare breed these days, and while something like Open Watcom may work, using DMC will guarantee 100% compatibility.

The DMC package (version 8.57 as I write) can be downloaded from digitalmars.com. It’s a 3 MB zip file that can be unzipped anywhere. Personally, since I only ever use it in conjunction with DMD, I keep it in C:\D so that the dm directory is a sibling of the dmd2 directory. Once it’s unzipped, it can be added to the path if desired. Be aware that some of the tools DMD and DMC ship with may conflict with tools in other packages if they are on the global path.

For example, both come with Digital Mars make and Optlink, which is named link.exe. The former might conflict with Cygwin, or a MinGW distribution that’s independent of MSYS2 (if mingw32-make has been renamed), and the latter with Microsoft’s linker (which generally shouldn’t be on the global path anyway). Some may prefer just to keep it all off the global path. In that case, it’s simple to configure a command prompt shortcut that sets the PATH when it launches. For example, create a batch file, that looks like this:

echo Welcome to your Digital Mars environment.
@set PATH=C:\D\dmd2\windows\bin;C:\D\dm\bin;%PATH%

Save it as C:\D\dmenv.bat. Right click an empty spot on the desktop and, from the popup menu, select New->Shortcut. In the location field, enter the following:

C:\System\Win32\cmd.exe /k C:\d\dmenv.bat

Now you have a shortcut that, when double clicked, will launch a command prompt that has both dmd and dmc on the path.

Once installed, documentation on the command-line switches for the tools is available at the Digital Mars site. The most relevant are the docs for DMC, Optlink, and Librarian (lib.exe). The latter two will come in handy even when doing pure D development with vanilla DMD, as those are the tools needed to when manually manipulating its object file output.

That’s all there is to it. As long as both dmc.exe and dmd.exe are on the path in any given command prompt, both compilers will find the tools they need via the default settings in their configuration files. For knocking together quick tests with both C and D on Windows, it’s a quick thing to launch a command prompt, compile & link, and execute:

dmc -c cfoo.c
dmd dfoo.d cfoo.obj
dfoo

Easy peasy. Now let’s look at the other option.

DMD and Microsoft’s CL

Getting DMD to work with the Microsoft toolchain requires installing the Microsoft build tools and the Windows SDK. The easiest way to get everything is to use one of the Community editions of Visual Studio. The installer will download and install all the tools and the SDK. The latest is always available from https://www/visualstudio.com. With VS 2017, the installer has been overhauled such that it’s possible to minimize the size of the install more than was possible with past editions. An alternative is to install the Microsoft Build Tools and the Windows SDK separately. However, this is still a large install that isn’t much of a win in light of the new VS 2017 installer options (for those on Windows 8.1 or 10).

Once the tooling is installed, DMD’s configuration file needs to be modified to point its environment variables to the proper locations. Rather than repeat all of that here, I’ll direct you to the DMD installation page at the D Wiki. One of the reasons to prefer the DMD installer over the zip archive is that it will detect any installation of Visual Studio or the Microsoft Build Tools and automatically modify the configuration as needed. This is more convenient than needing to remember to update the configuration every time a new version of DMD is installed. It also offers to install VS 2013 Community if the tooling isn’t found, can install Visual D (the D plugin for Visual Studio), and will add DMD to the system path if you want it to.

It’s a bit of an annoyance to launch Visual Studio for simple tests between C and D. Since it’s not recommended to put the MS tools on the system path, each VS and Microsoft Build Tools installation ships with a number of batch files that will set the path for you (like the one we created for DMC above). The installer sets up shortcuts in the Windows Start menu. There are several different options to choose from. To launch a 64-bit environment with VS 2017 (or the 2017 build tools), find Visual Studio 2017 in the Start menu and select x64 Native Tools Command Prompt for VS 2017. For VS 2015 (or the 2015 build tools), go to Visual Studio 2015 and click on VS 2015 x64 Native Build Tools Command Prompt. Similar options exist for 32-bit (where x86 replaces x64) and cross compiling.

From the VS-enabled 64-bit environment, we can run the following commands to compile our two files.

cl /c cfoo.c
dmd -m64 dfoo.d cfoo.obj
dfoo

In a 32-bit VS environment, replace -m64 with -m32mscoff.

The consequences of history

When a new programming language is born these days, it’s not uncommon for its tooling to be built on top of an existing toolchain rather than completely from scratch. Whether we’re talking about languages like Kotlin built on the JRE, or those like Rust using LLVM, reusing existing tools saves time and allows the developers to focus their precious man-hours on the language itself and any language-specific tooling they require.

When Walter Bright first started putting D together in 1999, that trend had not yet come around. However, he already had an existing toolchain in the form of the Digital Mars C and C++ compiler tools. So it was a no-brainer to make use of his existing tools and compiler backend and just focus on making a new frontend for DMD. There were four major side-effects of this decision, all of which had varying consequences in D’s future development.

First, the DMC tools were Windows-only, so the early versions of DMD would be as well. Second, the linker, Optlink, only supports the OMF format. That meant that DMD’s output would be incompatible with the more common COFF output of most modern C and C++ compilers on Windows. Third, the DMC tools do not support 64-bit, so DMD would be restricted to 32-bit output. Finally, Symantec had the legal rights to the existing backend, which meant their license would apply to DMD. While the frontend was open source, the backend license required one to get permission from Walter to distribute DMD (on a side note, this prevented DMD from being included in official Linux package repositories once Linux support was added, but Symantec granted permission to relicense the backend earlier this year and it is now freely distributable under the Boost license).

DMD 0.00 was released in December of 2001. The 0.63 release brought Linux support in May of 2003. Walter could have based the Linux version on the GCC backend, but as a business owner, and through a caution born from past experience, he was concerned about any legal issues that could arise from his working with GPL code on one platform and maintaining a proprietary backend on another. Instead, he modified the DMD backend to generate ELF objects and hand them off to the GCC tools. This decision to enhance the backend became the approach for all new formats going forward. He did the same when adding support for Mac OS X: he modified the backend to work with the Mach-O object format.

Along with the new formats, the compiler gained the ability to generate 64-bit binaries everywhere except Windows. In order to interface with C on Windows, it was usually necessary to convert COFF object files and static libraries to OMF, to use a tool like coffimplib to generate DLL import libraries in the OMF format, or to create dynamic bindings and load DLLs manually via LoadLibrary and GetProcAddress. Then Remedy Games decided to use D.

Quantum Break was the first AAA game title to ship with D as part of its development process. Remedy used it for their gameplay code, creating their own open source tool to bind with their C++ game engine. Before they could get that far, however, they needed 64-bit support in DMD on Windows. That was the motivator to get it implemented. It took a while (apparently, there are some undocumented quirks in Microsoft’s variant of COFF, a.k.a PECOFF, a.k.a. MS-COFF), but Walter eventually got it done, and support for 32-bit COFF along with it. Again, as he had on other platforms, he modified the backend to generate object files in the new format.

This is why it’s necessary to have the Microsoft toolchain installed in order to produce 64-bit binaries with DMD on Windows. Microsoft’s cl is as close to a system compiler as one is going to get on Windows. There is, however, an option that has not yet been fully explored. It’s a toolchain that can be freely distributed, packaged with a reasonable download size, supports 32-bit and 64-bit output, and is mostly compatible with PECOFF. There is a possibility that it may be investigated as an option for future DMD releases to be built upon.

Going from here

Now that this primer is out of the way, the short series on C is just about ready to go. It will kick off with a brief summary of existing material, showing how easy it is to get D and C to work together in the general case. That will be followed up by two posts on arrays and strings. This is where most of the gotchas come into play, and anyone using D and C in the same program should understand what they are and how to avoid them.

Unit Testing In Action

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Mario Kröplin is a developer at Funkwerk AG, a German company whose passenger information system is developed in D and was recently highlighted on this blog. That post describes Funkwerk’s use of third-party unit testing frameworks and says, “the team recently discovered a way to combine xUnit testing with D’s built-in unittest, which may lead to another transition in their unit testing.” That’s Mario’s subject in this post.


There and Back Again

Ten years ago, programming in D was like starting over in our company. And, of course, unit testing was part of it right from the beginning. D’s built-in simple support made it easy to quickly write lots of unit tests. Until some of them failed. And soon, the failure became the rule. There’s always someone else to blame: D’s simple unit-test support is too simple. A look at Python reveals that the modules doctest and unittest live side by side in the standard library. We concluded that D’s unit test support corresponds to Python’s doctest, which means that there must be something else for the real unit testing.

Even back then, we immediately found such a unit testing framework in DUnit [An old D1 unit testing framework that you can read about at the old dsource.org – Ed.]. Thanks to good advice for xUnit testing, we were happy and content with this approach. At the end of life of D1, a replacement library for D2 was soon found. After a bumpy start, I found myself in the role of the maintainer of dunit [A D2 unit-testing framework that is separate from DUnit – Ed].

During DConf 2013, I copied a first example use of user-defined attributes to dunit. This allowed imitating JUnit 4, where, for example, test methods are annotated with @Test. By now, dunit imitates JUnit 5. So if you want to write unit tests in Java style, dunit is a good choice. But which D programmers would want to do that?

Recently, we reconsidered the weaknesses of D’s unit test support. Various solutions have been found to bypass the blockers (described in the following). On the other hand, good guidelines are added, for example, to use attributes even for unittest functions. So we decided to return to making use of D’s built-in unit test support. From our detour we retain some ideas to keep the test implementation maintainable.

Expectations

Whenever a unit test fails at run time, the question is, why? The error message refers to the line number, where you find something like assert(answer == 42). But what is the value of answer if it isn’t 42? The irony is that this need is well understood. If you use a static assert instead, the error message reads like: static assert 54 == 42 is false. The fear of code bloat is the reason why you don’t get this automatically at run time.

If you look at the Language Reference, you will notice that the chapter Unit Tests covers primarily the special unittest function. It is assumed that assert is used for test verification, which is introduced in the chapter Contract Programming. In theory, it’s completely OK to reuse assert for test verification. Any failure reveals a programming error that must be fixed. In practice, however, test expectations are quite different from preconditions, postconditions, and invariants. While the expectations are usually specific (actual == expected) the contracts rather exclude specific values ​​(value != 0 or value !is null).

So there are lots of implementations of templates like assertEquals or test!"==". The problem shows up if you want to have the most helpful error messages: expected 42 but got 54. For this, assertEquals is too symmetrical. In fact, JUnit’s assertEquals(expected, actual) was turned into TestNG’s assertEquals(actual, expected). Even with UFCS (Uniform Function Call Syntax), it is not clear how a.assertEquals(b) should be used. From time to time, programmers don’t write the arguments in the intended order. Then the error messages are the opposite of helpful. They are misleading: expected 54 but got 42.

Fluent assertions avoid this symmetry problem: actual.should.eq(expected) or expect(actual).to.eq(expected) are harder to use incorrectly. Thanks to UFCS and lazy parameters, the implementation in D is no problem. The common criticism is “the natural language formulation is too verbose”, or just “too many dots”. Currently, however, this seems to be the only way to get the most helpful error messages.

The next problem is that string comparisons are seldom as simple as: expected foo but got bar. Non-printable characters or lengthy texts, such as XML or JSON representations, sabotage error messages that were meant to be helpful. This can be avoided by escaping special characters and by showing differences. Finally, this is what the fluent-asserts library does.

Test Execution

At large, we want to get as much information as possible from a failed test run. How many test cases fail? Which test cases fail? Does the happy path fail or rather edge cases? Is it worth addressing the failures, or is it better to undo the change? The approach of stopping on the first error is contrary to these needs. The original idea was to run the unit tests before the start of the actual program. By now, however, separate test runners are often used, which continue in case of a failure. To emphasize this, test expectations usually throw their own exceptions, instead of the unrecoverable AssertError. This change already shows how many test cases fail.

Finding out what’s tested in the failing test cases is more difficult. At best, there are corresponding comments for documented unit tests. But an empty DDoc comment, ///, is all that’s needed to include the body of the unittest function as an example in the documentation. In the worst case, the unit test goes on and on verifying this and that.

The idea of the Sentence Style For Naming Unit Tests is that the name of the test function describes the test case. In D, however, the unittest functions are anonymous. On the other hand, D has user-defined attributes so that you can even use strings for the test description instead of CamelCase names. unit-threaded, for example, shows these string attributes so that you get a good impression of the extent of the problem in case of a failure. In addition, unit-threaded satisfies the requirement to execute test cases selectively. For example, only the one problematic test case or all tests except those tagged as “slow”. It’s promising to use unit-threaded as needed. You let D run the unittest functions as long as they pass. Only for troubleshooting should you switch to unit-threaded. You have to be careful, however, to only use compatible features.

By the way: the parallel test execution (from it’s name, the main goal of unit-threaded) was quite problematic with the first test suite we converted. On the other hand, the speedup was just 10%.

Coverage

The D compiler has built-in code-coverage analysis. The ratio of the lines executed in the test is often used as an indicator for the quality of the tests. (See: Testing in the D Standard Library) A coverage of 100% cannot be achieved, for example, if you have an assert(0). Lower thresholds for the coverage can always be achieved by cheating. The fact that the unittest functions are also incorporated in the coverage is questionable. Imagine that a single line that has not yet been executed requires a lengthy unit test. As a consequence, this new unit test could significantly raise the coverage.

In order to avoid such measurement errors, we decided from the beginning to extract non-trivial unit tests to separate modules. We place these in parallel to the src tree in a unittest directory. Test utilities are also placed in the unittest directory, so that reading the actual code is not encumbered by large version (unittest) sections. (We also have test directories for customer tests.) For the coverage, we only count the modules under src. Code-coverage analysis creates a report file for each module. For a summary, which we output at the end of each successful test run, we have written a simple script. By now, covered is a ready-made solution.

In order to fully exploit the code-coverage analysis, an unusual formatting is required, for example, for the short-circuit evaluation of expressions with &&, ||, and ?:. We hope that dfmt can be changed to reformat the code temporarily.

Fixtures

What can you do to prevent the test implementation from getting out of control? After all, test code is also code that needs to be maintained. Sometimes the test implementation is more obscure than the code being tested.

As a solution the xUnit patterns suggest a structuring of the test implementation as a Four-Phase Test: fixture setup, exercise system under test, result verification, fixture teardown. The term fixture refers to the test context. For JUnit, this is the test class with attributes that are available to all test methods. A method with the annotation @BeforeEach initializes the attributes. This is the fixture setup. Another method with the annotation @AfterEach implements the fixture teardown. All methods annotated with @Test focus on exercise and verification.

At first glance, this approach seems to be incompatible with D’s unittest functions. The unittest functions do not get automatic access to the attributes of a class, even if they are defined in the context of a class. On the other hand, one can mimic the approach, for example, by implementing the fixtures next to the unittest functions as a struct:

unittest
{
    Fixture fixture;
    fixture.setup;
    scope (exit) fixture.teardown;
    (fixture.x * fixture.y).should.eq(42);
}

The test implementation can be improved by executing the fixture setup in the constructor (or in opCall(), since default constructors are disallowed in structs) and the fixture teardown in the destructor:

unittest
{
    with (Fixture())
        (x * y).should.eq(42);
}

The with (Fixture()) pulls the context, in which test methods are executed implicitly in JUnit, explicitly into the unittest function. With this simple pattern you can structure unit tests in a tried and trusted way without having to use a framework for test classes ever again.

Parameterized Tests

A parameterized test is a means to reuse a test implementation with different values ​​or with different types. Within a unittest function this would be no problem. Our goal, however, is to get as much information as possible from a failing test run. For which values ​​or which types does the test fail? unit-threaded provides support for parameterized tests with @Values ​​and @Types. If unit-threaded is not used to run the unittest functions, these test cases do not work at all.

With the new static foreach feature however, it is easy to implement parameterized tests without the support of a framework:

static foreach (i; 0 .. 2)
    static foreach (j; 0 .. 2)
        @(format!"%s + %s == 1"(i, j))
        unittest
        {
            (i + j).should.eq(1);
        }

And if you run the failing test with unit-threaded, the descriptions of the failing test cases reveal the problem without the need to take a look at the test implementation:

0 + 0 == 1: expected 1 but got 0
1 + 1 == 1: expected 1 but got 2

Conclusion

D’s built-in unit test support works best when there are no failures. As shown, however, you do not need to change too much to be able to work properly in situations where you rely on helpful error messages. The imitation of a solution from another programming language is often easy in D. Nevertheless, one should reconsider such solutions from time to time.

If we had a wish, we would want separate libraries for expectations and for test execution. Currently, you get frameworks where not all features are great, or they are overloaded with alternative solutions. Such a separation should probably be supported by the Phobos runtime library. Currently, each framework defines expectations with its own unit test exceptions. In order to combine them, ugly interdependencies are required to match the exceptions thrown in one library to the exceptions caught in another library. A unit test exception in Phobos could avoid this problem.

Go Your Own Way (Part Two: The Heap)

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This post is part of an ongoing series on garbage collection in the D Programming Language, and the second of two regarding the allocation of memory outside of the GC. Part One discusses stack allocation. Here, we’ll look at allocating memory from the non-GC heap.

Although this is only my fourth post in the series, it’s the third in which I talk about ways to avoid the GC. Lest anyone jump to the wrong conclusion, that fact does not signify an intent to warn programmers away from the D garbage collector. Quite the contrary. Knowing how and when to avoid the GC is integral to understanding how to efficiently embrace it.

To hammer home a repeated point, efficient garbage collection requires reducing stress on the GC. As highlighted in the first and subsequent posts in this series, that doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding it completely. It means being judicious in how often and how much GC memory is allocated. Fewer GC allocations means fewer opportunities for a collection to trigger. Less total memory allocated from the GC heap means less total memory to scan.

It’s impossible to make any accurate, generalized statement about what sort of applications may or may not feel an impact from the GC; such is highly application specific. What can be said is that it may not be necessary for many applications to temporarily avoid or disable the GC, but when it is, it’s important to know how. Allocating from the stack is an obvious approach, but D also allows allocating from the non-GC heap.

The ubiquitous C

For better or worse, C is everywhere. Any software written today, no matter the source language, is probably interacting with a C API at some level. Despite the C specification defining no standard ABI, its platform-specific quirks and differences are understood well enough that most languages know how to interface with it. D is no exception. In fact, all D programs have access to the C standard library by default.

The core.stdc package, part of DRuntime, is a collection of D modules translated from C standard library headers. When a D executable is linked, the C standard library is linked along with it. All that need be done to gain access is to import the appropriate modules.

import core.stdc.stdio : puts;
void main() 
{
    puts("Hello C standard library.");
}

Some who are new to D may be laboring under a misunderstanding that functions which call into C require an extern(C) annotation, or, after Walter’s Bright’s recent ‘D as a Better C’ article, must be compiled with -betterC on the command line. Neither is true. Normal D functions can call into C without any special effort beyond the presence of an extern(C) declaration of the function being called. In the snippet above, the declaration of puts is in the core.stdc.stdio module, and that’s all we need to call it.

(For a deeper dive into what extern(C) and -betterC actually do, see the extended content from this post at dblog-ext.info.)

malloc and friends

Given that we have access to C’s standard library in D, we therefore have access to the functions malloc, calloc, realloc and free. All of these can be made available by importing core.stdc.stdlib. And thanks to D’s slicing magic, using these functions as the foundation of a non-GC memory management strategy is a breeze.

import core.stdc.stdlib;
void main() 
{
    enum totalInts = 10;
    
    // Allocate memory for 10 ints
    int* intPtr = cast(int*)malloc(int.sizeof * totalInts);

    // assert(0) (and assert(false)) will always remain in the binary,
    // even when asserts are disabled, which makes it nice for handling
    // malloc failures    
    if(!intPtr) assert(0, "Out of memory!");

    // Free when the function exits. Not necessary for this example, but
    // a potentially useful strategy for temporary allocations in functions 
    // other than main.
    scope(exit) free(intPtr);

    // Slice the D pointer to get a more manageable length/pointer pair.
    int[] intArray = intPtr[0 .. totalInts];
}

Not only does this bypass the GC, it also bypasses D’s default initialization. A GC-allocated array of type T would have all of its elements initialized to T.init, which is 0 for int. If mimicking D’s default initialization is the desired behavior, more work needs to be done. In this example, we could replace malloc with calloc for the same effect, but that would only be correct for integrals. float.init, for example, is float.nan rather than 0.0f. We’ll come back to this later in the article.

(For more on handling failed memory allocations, see the extended content from this post.)

Of course, it would be more idiomatic to wrap both malloc and free and work with slices of memory. A minimal example:

import core.stdc.stdlib;

// Allocate a block of untyped bytes that can be managed
// as a slice.
void[] allocate(size_t size)
{
    // malloc(0) is implementation defined (might return null 
    // or an address), but is almost certainly not what we want.
    assert(size != 0);

    void* ptr = malloc(size);
    if(!ptr) assert(0, "Out of memory!");
    
    // Return a slice of the pointer so that the address is coupled
    // with the size of the memory block.
    return ptr[0 .. size];
}

T[] allocArray(T)(size_t count) 
{ 
    // Make sure to account for the size of the
    // array element type!
    return cast(T[])allocate(T.sizeof * count); 
}

// Two versions of deallocate for convenience
void deallocate(void* ptr)
{	
    // free handles null pointers fine.
    free(ptr);
}

void deallocate(void[] mem) 
{ 
    deallocate(mem.ptr); 
}

void main() {
    import std.stdio : writeln;
    int[] ints = allocArray!int(10);
    scope(exit) deallocate(ints);
	
    foreach(i; 0 .. 10) {
        ints[i] = i;
    }

    foreach(i; ints[]) {
        writeln(i);
    }
}

allocate returns void[] rather than void* because it carries with it the number of allocated bytes in its length property. In this case, since we’re allocating an array, we could instead rewrite allocArray to slice the returned pointer immediately, but anyone calling allocate directly would still have to take into account the size of the memory. The disassociation between arrays and their length in C is a major source of bugs, so the sooner we can associate them the better. Toss in some templates for calloc and realloc and you’ve got the foundation of a memory manager based on the C heap.

On a side note, the preceding three snippets (yes, even the one with the allocArray template) work with and without -betterC. But from here on out, we’ll restrict ourselves to features in normal D code.

Avoid leaking like a sieve

When working directly with slices of memory allocated outside of the GC heap, be careful about appending, concatenating, and resizing. By default, the append (~=) and concatenate (~) operators on built-in dynamic arrays and slices will allocate from the GC heap. Concatenation will always allocate a new memory block for the combined string. Normally, the append operator will allocate to expand the backing memory only when it needs to. As the following example demonstrates, it always needs to when it’s given a slice of non-GC memory.

import core.stdc.stdlib : malloc;
import std.stdio : writeln;

void main()
{
    int[] ints = (cast(int*)malloc(int.sizeof * 10))[0 .. 10];
    writeln("Capacity: ", ints.capacity);

    // Save the array pointer for comparison
    int* ptr = ints.ptr;
    ints ~= 22;
    writeln(ptr == ints.ptr);
}

This should print the following:

Capacity: 0
false

A capacity of 0 on a slice indicates that the next append will trigger an allocation. Arrays allocated from the GC heap normally have space for extra elements beyond what was requested, meaning some appending can occur without triggering a new allocation. It’s more like a property of the memory backing the array rather than of the array itself. Memory allocated from the GC does some internal bookkeeping to keep track of how many elements the memory block can hold so that it knows at any given time if a new allocation is needed. Here, because the memory for ints was not allocated by the GC, none of that bookkeeping is being done by the runtime on the existing memory block, so it must allocate on the next append (see Steven Schveighoffer’s ’D Slices article for more info).

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it’s the desired behavior, but anyone who’s not prepared for it can easily run into ballooning memory usage thanks to leaks from malloced memory never being deallocated. Consider these two functions:

void leaker(ref int[] arr)
{
    ...
    arr ~= 10;
    ...
}

void cleaner(int[] arr)
{
    ...
    arr ~= 10;
    ...
}

Although arrays are reference types, meaning that modifying existing elements of an array argument inside a function will modify the elements in the original array, they are passed by value as function parameters. Any activity that modifies the structure of an array argument, i.e. its length and ptr properties, only affects the local variable inside the function. The original will remain unchanged unless the array is passed by reference.

So if an array backed by the C heap is passed to leaker, the append will cause a new array to be allocated from the GC heap. Worse, if free is subsequently called on the ptr property of the original array, which now points into the GC heap rather than the C heap, we’re in undefined behavior territory. cleaner, on the other hand, is fine. Any array passed into it will remain unchanged. Internally, the GC will allocate, but the ptr property of the original array still points to the original memory block.

As long as the original array isn’t overwritten or allowed to go out of scope, this is a non-issue. Functions like cleaner can do what they want with their local slice and things will be fine externally. Otherwise, if the original array is to be discarded, you can prevent all of this by tagging functions which you control with @nogc. Where that’s either not possible or not desirable, then either a copy of the pointer to the original malloced memory must be kept and freeed at some point after the reallocation takes place, custom appending and concatenation needs to be implemented, or the allocation strategy needs to be reevaulated.

Note that std.container.array contains an Array type that does not rely on the GC and may be preferable over managing all of this manually.

Other APIs

The C standard library isn’t the only game in town for heap allocations. A number of alternative malloc implemenations exist and any of those can be used instead. This requires manually compiling the source and linking with the resultant objects, but that’s not an onerous task. Heap memory can also be allocated through system APIs, like the Win32 HeapAlloc function on Windows (available by importing core.sys.windows.windows. As long as there’s a way to get a pointer to a block of heap memory, it can be sliced and manipulated in a D program in place of a block of GC memory.

Aggregate types

If we only had to worry about allocating arrays in D, then we could jump straight on to the next section. However, we also need to concern ourselves with struct and class types. For this discussion, however, we will only focus on the former. In my previous post, I left out an example of allocating classes on the stack. Here, I’m also going to leave them out of the heap discussion. The next post will focus exclusively on classes and how to manage them with and without the GC.

Allocating an array of struct types, or a single instance of one, is often no different than when the type is int.

struct Point { int x, y; }
Point* onePoint = cast(Point*)malloc(Point.sizeof);
Point* tenPoints = cast(Point*)malloc(Point.sizeof * 10);

Where things break down is when contructors enter the mix. malloc and friends know nothing about constructing D object instances. Thankfully, Phobos provides us with a function template that does.

std.conv.emplace can take either a pointer to typed memory or an untyped void[], along with an optional number of arguments, and return a pointer to a single, fully initialized and constructed instance of that type. This example shows how to do so using both malloc and the allocate function template from above:

struct Vertex4f 
{ 
    float x, y, z, w; 
    this(float x, float y, float z, float w = 1.0f)
    {
        this.x = x;
        this.y = y;
        this.z = z;
        this.w = w;
    }
}

void main()
{
    import core.stdc.stdlib : malloc;
    import std.conv : emplace;
    import std.stdio : writeln;
    
    Vertex4f* temp1 = cast(Vertex4f*)malloc(Vertex4f.sizeof);
    Vertex4f* vert1 = emplace(temp1, 4.0f, 3.0f, 2.0f); 
    writeln(*vert1);

    void[] temp2 = allocate(Vertex4f.sizeof);
    Vertex4f* vert2 = emplace!Vertex4f(temp2, 10.0f, 9.0f, 8.0f);
    writeln(*vert2);
}

Another feature of emplace is that it also handles default initialization. Consider that struct types in D need not implement constructors. Here’s what happens when we change the implementation of Vertex4f to remove the constructor:

struct Vertex4f 
{
    // x, y, z are default inited to float.nan
    float x, y, z;

    // w is default inited to 1.0f
    float w = 1.0f;
}

void main()
{
    import core.stdc.stdlib : malloc;
    import std.conv : emplace;
    import std.stdio : writeln;

    Vertex4f vert1, vert2 = Vertex4f(4.0f, 3.0f, 2.0f);
    writeln(vert1);
    writeln(vert2);    
    
    auto vert3 = emplace!Vertex4f(allocate(Vertex4f.sizeof));
    auto vert4 = emplace!Vertex4f(allocate(Vertex4f.sizeof), 4.0f, 3.0f, 2.0f);
    writeln(*vert3);
    writeln(*vert4);
}

This prints the following:

Vertex4f(nan, nan, nan, 1)
Vertex4f(4, 3, 2, 1)
Vertex4f(nan, nan, nan, 1)
Vertex4f(4, 3, 2, 1)

So emplace allows heap-allocated struct instances to be initialized in the same manner as stack allocated struct instances, with or without a constructor. It also works with the built-in types like int and float. There’s also a version that’s specialized for class references, but we’ll look at that in the next post. Just always remember that emplace is intended to initialize and construct a single instance, not an array of instances.

std.experimental.allocator

The entirety of the text above describes the fundamental building blocks of a custom memory manager. For many use cases, it may be sufficient to forego cobbling something together by hand and instead take advantage of the D standard library’s std.experimental.allocator package. This is a high-level API that makes use of low-level techniques like those described above, along with Design by Introspection, to facilitate the assembly of different types of allocators that know how to allocate, initialize, and construct arrays and type instances. Allocators like Mallocator and GCAllocator can be used to grab chunks of memory directly, or combined with other building blocks for specialized behavior. See the emsi-containers library for a real-world example.

Keeping the GC informed

Given that it’s rarely recommended to disable the GC entirely, most D programs allocating outside the GC heap will likely also be using memory from the GC heap in the same program. In order for the GC to properly do its job, it needs to be informed of any non-GC memory that contains, or may potentially contain, references to memory from the GC heap. For example, a linked list whose nodes are allocated with malloc might contain references to classes allocated with new.

The GC can be given the news via GC.addRange.

import core.memory;
enum size = int.sizeof * 10;
void* p1 = malloc(size);
GC.addRange(p1, size);

void[] p2 = allocate!int(10);
GC.addRange(p2.ptr, p2.length);

When the memory block is no longer needed, the corresponding GC.removeRange can be called to prevent it from being scanned. This does not deallocate the memory block. That will need to be done manually via free or whatever allocator interface was used to allocate it. Be sure to read the documentation before using either function.

Given that one of the goals of allocating from outside the GC heap is to reduce the amount of memory the GC must scan, this may seem self-defeating. That’s the wrong way to look at it. If non-GC memory is going to hold references to GC memory, then it’s vital to let the GC know about it. Not doing so can cause the GC to free up memory to which a reference still exists. addRange is a tool specifically designed for that situation. If it can be guaranteed that no GC-memory references live inside a non-GC memory block, such as a malloced array of vertices, then addRange need not be called on that memory block.

A word of warning

Be careful when passing typed pointers to addRange. Because the function was implemented with the C like approach of taking a pointer to a block of memory and the number of bytes it contains, there is an opportunity for error.

struct Item { SomeClass foo; }
auto items = (cast(Item*)malloc(Item.sizeof * 10))[0 .. 10];
GC.addRange(items.ptr, items.length);

With this, the GC would be scanning a block of memory exactly ten bytes in size. The length property returns the number of elements the slice refers to. Only when the type is void (or the element type is one-byte long, like byte and ubyte) does it equate to the size of the memory block the slice refers to. The correct thing to do here is:

GC.addRange(items.ptr, items.length * Item.sizeof);

However, until DRuntime is updated with an alternative, it may be best to implement a wrapper that takes a void[] parameter.

void addRange(void[] mem) 
{
	import core.memory;
	GC.addRange(mem.ptr, mem.length);
}

Then calling addRange(items) will do the correct thing. The implicit conversion of the slice to void[] in the function call will mean that mem.length is the same as items.length * Item.sizeof.

The GC series marches on

This post has covered the very basics of using the non-GC heap in D programs. One glaring omission, in addition to class types, is what to do about destructors. I’m saving that topic for the post about classes, where it is highly relevant. That’s the next scheduled post in the GC series. Stay tuned!

Thanks to Walter Bright, Guillaume Piolat, Adam D. Ruppe, and Steven Schveighoffer for their valuable feedback on a draft of this article.

The Evolution of the accessors Library

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Ronny Spiegel is a developer at Funkwerk AG, a German company whose passenger information system is developed in D and was recently highlighted on this blog. In this post, Ronny tells the story of the company’s open source accessors library, which provides a mechanism for users to automatically generate property getters and setters using D’s robust compile-time features.


A little bit of history.

We’ve always used UML tools to visualize the internal structure and document details of software. That’s true for me not only at Funkwerk, but also in the companies I worked before I joined the team here in Karlsfeld. One of the major issues of documentation is that at some point in time it will diverge from the actual implementation and become outdated. Additionally, if you have to support old versions of your components you will have to take care of old versions of your documentation as well.

The first approach to connecting code and model is to generate code from the model, which requires the model to reflect the current implementation. When I joined Funkwerk we were using ArgoUML to manage class diagrams which were used as input to generate code. Not only class or struct skeletons were generated (existing code was kept), but also methods to access members which were not even part of the model. In order to control whether a member should be accessible, annotations, similar to UDAs (User-Defined Attributes), were used as part of the member documentation. So it was very common for us to annotate a member with @Read or @Write even though it was only in the documentation. The tool which we used to generate code was powerful enough to create the implementation of these field accessor methods supported by annotations to synchronize access, or to automatically use invariants for pre- and post-conditions as well.

Anyway, the approach of using the model as a base for code generation always suffers from the same problem: it is very hard to merge models!

So we reversed the whole thing and decided to create documentation from code. We could still use code which had been generated before, but all the new classes had to be supplied with accessor functions. You can imagine that this was very annoying.

public class Journey
{
    private Leg[] legs_;

    public Leg[] legs()
    {
	return this.legs_.dup;
    }

...
}

(Yes, we’ve been writing Java and compiling as D.)

Code which was generated before still had these @Read and @Write annotations next to the fields. So I thought, “These look like UDAs. Why not just use those to generate the methods automatically?” I’d always wanted to use mixins and compile-time introspection in order to move forward with a more D-like development approach.

A first draft…

The very first version of the accessors library was able to generate basic read- and write-accessor methods using the allMembers trait, filtering by UDAs, and generating some basic code like:

public final Leg[] legs() { return this.legs_.dup; }

It works… Yes, it does.

We did not replace all existing accessor methods at once, but working on a large project at that time we introduced many of them. The automated generation of accessor methods was really a simplification for us.

…always has some issues.

The first implementation looked so simple – there must have been issues. And yes, there were. I cannot list all of them because I do not remember anymore, but some of these issues were:

Explicitly defined properties suppressed generated ones

We ran into a situation where we explicitly defined a setter method (e.g. because it had to notify an observer) but wanted to use the generated getter method. The result was that the defined setter method could be used but accessing the generated getter method (with the same name) was impossible.

According to the specification, the compiler places mixins in a nested scope and then imports them into the surrounding scope. If a function with the same name already exists in the surrounding scope, then this function overwrites the function from the mixin. So if there is a field with a @Read annotation and another explicitly defined mutating field accessor, then the @Read accessor is overwritten by the defined one.

The solution to this issue was rather simple. We had to use a string mixin to import the generated code into the class where it shall be used.

Flags

We have a guideline to avoid magic bools wherever possible and use much more verbose flags instead. So a simple attribute like:

private bool isExtraJourney_;

Becomes:

private Flag!”isExtraJourney” isExtraJourney_;

This approach has two advantages. Providing a value with Yes.isExtraJourney is much more verbose than just a true, and it creates a type. When there are two or more flags as part of a method signature, you cannot change the order of the flags (by accident) as you could with bools.

To generate the type of the return value (or in case of mutable access of the parameter) we used T.stringof, where T is the type of the field. Unfortunately, this does not work as expected for Flags.

Flag!”foo” fooFlag;

static assert(`Flag!”foo”`, typeof(fooFlag).stringof); // Fails!
static assert(`Flag`, typeof(fooFlag).stringof); // Succeeds!

Unit Tests

When using the mixin in private types defined in unit tests, a similar issue arose. Classes defined in unittest blocks have a prefix like __unittestL526_8. It was necessary to strip this prefix from the used type string.

Private Classes

While iterating over members of private classes, we stumbled across the issue that the allMembers (or derivedMembers) trait returns, in addition to __ctor, an unaccessible member called this. This issue remains unsolved.

The current implementation…

The currently released version covers the aforementioned issues, although there is still room for new features.

An example might be to provide a predicate which is then used for synchronizing access to the field. That was possible using the old version of the code generator by annotating it with @GuardedBy(“this”). Fortunately, we’ve advanced in our D coding skills and have moved away from Java code compiled with DMD to a more D-like style by using structs wherever we need value semantics (and we don’t have to deal with thousands of copies of that value). So at the moment, this doesn’t really hurt that much.

Another interesting (and still open issue) is to create accessors for aliased imported types. The generated code still refers to the real name of the type, which is then unknown to the compile unit where the code is mixed in.

…has room for improvement!

If you’re interested in dealing with this kind of problem and want to dive into CTFE and compile-time introspection, we welcome contributions!