Compiling a Lazy Language in 1,000 words

Posted on May 19, 2015
Tags: compilers, haskell

I’m a fan of articles like this one which set out to explain a really complicated subject in 600 words or less. I wanted to write one with a similar goal for compiling a language like Haskell. To help with this I’ve broken down what most compilers for a lazy language do into 5 different phases and spent 200 words explaining how they work. This isn’t really intended to be a tutorial on how to implement a compiler, I just want to make it less magical.

I assume that you know how a lazy functional language looks (this isn’t a tutorial on Haskell) and a little about how your machine works since I make a few references to how some lower level details are compiled. These will make more sense if you know such things, but they’re not necessary.

And the word-count-clock starts… now.


Our interactions with compilers usually involve treating them as a huge function from string to string. We give them a string (our program) and it gives us back a string (the compiled code). However, on the inside the compiler does all sorts of stuff to that string we gave it and most of those operations are inconvenient to do as string operations. In the first part of the compiler, we convert the string into an abstract syntax tree. This is a data structure in the compiler which represents the string, but in

  1. A more abstract way, it doesn’t have details such as whitespace or comments
  2. A more convenient way, it let’s the compiler perform the operations it wants efficiently

The process of going String -> AST is called “parsing”. It has a lot of (kinda stuffy IMO) theory behind it. This is the only part of the compiler where the syntax actually matters and is usually the smallest part of the compiler.


Type Checking

Now that we’ve constructed an abstract syntax tree we want to make sure that the program “makes sense”. Here “make sense” just means that the program’s types are correct. The process for checking that a program type checks involves following a bunch of rules of the form “A has type T if B has type T1 and C has type…”. All of these rules together constitute the type system for our language. As an example, in Haskell f a has the type T2 if f has the type T1 -> T2 and a has the type T1.

There’s a small wrinkle in this story though: most languages require some type inference. This makes things 10x harder because we have to figure the types of everything as we go! Type inference isn’t even possible in a lot of languages and some clever contortions are often needed to be inferrable.

However, once we’ve done all of this the program is correct enough to compile. Past type checking, if the compiler raises an error it’s a compiler bug.



Now that we’re free of the constraints of having to report errors to the user things really get fun in the compiler. Now we start simplifying the language by converting a language feature into a mess of other, simpler language features. Sometimes we convert several features into specific instances of one more general feature. For example, we might convert our big fancy pattern language into a simpler one by elaborating each case into a bunch of nested cases.

Each time we remove a feature we end up with a slightly different language. This progression of languages in the compiler are called the “intermediate languages” (ILs). Each of these ILs have their own AST as well! In a good compiler we’ll have a lot of ILs as it makes the compiler much more maintainable.

An important part of choosing an IL is making it amenable to various optimizations. When the compiler is working with each IL it applies a set of optimizations to the program. For example

  1. Constant folding, converting 1 + 1 to 2 during compile time
  2. Inlining, copy-pasting the body of smaller functions where they’re called
  3. Fusion, turning multiple passes over a datastructure into a single one


Spineless, Tagless, and Generally Wimpy IL

At some point in the compiler, we have to deal with the fact we’re compiling a lazy language. One nice way is to use a spineless, tagless, graph machine (STG machine).

How an STG machine works is a little complicated but here’s the gist

During this portion of the compiler, we’d transform out last IL into a C-like language which actually works in terms of pushing, popping, and entering closures.

The key idea here that makes laziness work is that a closure defers work! It’s not a value, it’s a recipe for how to compute a value when we need it. Also note, all calls are tail calls since function calls are just a special case of entering a closure.

Another really beautiful idea in the STG machine is that closures evaluate themselves. This means closures present a uniform interface no matter what, all the details are hidden in that bundled up code. (I’m totally out of words to say this, but screw it it’s really cool).


Code Generation

Finally, after converting to compiling STG machine we’re ready to output the target code. This bit is very dependent on what exactly we’re targeting.

If we’re targeting assembly, we have a few things to do. First, we have to switch from using variables to registers. This process is called register allocation and we basically slot each variable into an available register. If we run out, we store variables in memory and load it in as we need it.

In addition to register allocation, we have to compile those C-like language constructs to assembly. This means converting procedures into a label and some instructions, pattern matches into something like a jump table and so on. This is also where we’d apply low-level, bit-twiddling optimizations.



Okay, clock off.

Hopefully that was helpful even if you don’t care that much about lazy languages (most of these ideas apply in any compiler). In particular, I hope that you now believe me when I say that lazy languages aren’t magical. In fact, the worry of how to implement laziness only really came up in one section of the compiler!

Now I have a question for you dear reader, what should I elaborate on? With summer ahead, I’ll have some free time soon. Is there anything else that you would like to see written about? (Just not parsing please)

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