PIRC Introduction

PIRC is a fresh implementation of the PIR language. It is being developed as a replacement for the current PIR compiler, IMCC. Somewhere in the future, we all hope to be able to finish it. However, some help is needed. Most of the tricky parts have been done for you, such as implement all sorts of weird features of the PIR language.

The basic workflow of PIRC is as follows. The lexer and parser are implemented with Flex and Bison specifications. During the parsing phase, a data structure is built that represents the input. To stick with compiler jargon, let's call this the Abstract Syntax Tree (AST). After the parse, this AST is traversed and for each instruction the appropriate bytecode is emitted. Registers are allocated by the built-in vanilla register allocator. This means that for the following code:

.sub main
  $S12 = "Hi there"
  print $S12
  $I44 = 42
  print $I44

$S12 and $I44 will be mapped to the registers S0 and I0 respectively (yes, you guessed it, it starts allocating from 0). As you would expect, the vanilla register allocator is pretty stupid, but the generated bytecode is not too bad, really. If you want to optimize the register usage (which saves runtime memory), you can activate the register optimizer. The register optimizer is based on a Linear Scan Register allocator. The original algorithm, as described in  this paper, assumes a fixed number of available registers. Since Parrot has a variable number of registers available per subroutine, the algorithm has been changed here and there. See the file [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pirregalloc.c] for the implementation.


While PIRC is an implementation of the PIR language which is specified in PDD19, there are some subtle differences with the current implementation, IMCC. In case you were wondering, IMCC stands for IMC Compiler, with IMC being the old name of the PIR language, standing for Intermediate Machine Code. The name was changed a long time ago.

  • "nested" heredocs, can be handled by PIRC, not by IMCC. Yes, it was very painful to implement which is why IMCC doesn't.
  • comments or whitespace in the parameter lists are accepted by PIRC, but not by IMCC. It sounds like an easy fix, but it isn't. Hence, PIRC!
  • reentrant: PIRC is, IMCC is not.
  • checks for improper use syntactic sugar with OUT arguments, such as "$S0 = print". PIRC checks for this, IMCC doesn't. Again, it sounds (and looks) like an easy fix, but it isn't.
  • PIRC handles macros in the lexer and parser; the syntax to define macros is defined in the parser. IMCC on the other hand implements macro's completely in the lexer.

Building and running PIRC

PIRC is located in compilers/pirc. In order to compile, do the following:

cd compilers/pirc
make test

At this point (August 5, 2009) some tests are failing, so don't be alarmed if you see them failing.

In order to run PIRC:

./pirc -h
./pirc -b test.pir # will generate a file a.pbc


PIRC Status

PIRC is not complete yet. All stages are implemented (lexer, parser, bytecode generator), but all of them need some additional work to complete them. See the section below for the specific items that need to be fixed. Once these are fixed, PIRC will be done about 98%.

PIRC Development Tasks

Shouldn't-be-too-hard tasks

  • ticket #43: autoheaderize all PIRC sources.
  • ticekt #55: decorate all function arguments with ARGIN macros etc.
  • write tests for the generated output.

Hardcore hacking tasks

  • Fix parser to "calculate" the right signature for ops such as:
    $P0 = new ['Integer']

Currently, the argument is encoded as "_ksc", for key, string-constant.

  • Convert all C strings in PIRC into STRINGs. All identifiers and strings that are scanned should be stored as STRING objects, not C strings.
  • Fix ticket #198. It seems that when there is a sequence of more than one instruction dealing with STRINGs or NUMs, the resulting bytecode segfaults. Apparently, PIRC is emitting the wrong bytecode. Bug #186 is related to this issue.
  • Fix ticket #173. Lexicals are not stored correctly in the generated bytecode. The code for storing the lexicals is taken from IMCC, and therefore it doesn't come as a complete surprise it's not working. However, I don't see what's wrong.
  • Fix ticket #14. Braced arguments to macros are not handled correctly. Nested macro expansion isn't correctly handled yet.
  • Fix ticket #163. Keyed multi types must be implemented

PIRC Data Flow

The data flow of PIRC is as follows. First, the [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l heredoc preprocessor] takes the PIR file and flattens all heredoc strings. The output is written to a temporary file, which is then parsed by the [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pir.l Flex based lexer] and the [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pir.y Bison based parser]. The parser create an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST); the AST nodes for that are defined in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.c]. If the parse was successful, control is passed on to the [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/piremit.c] module, which traverses the AST. During the traversal, bytecode is generated through the [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/bcgen.c] module. The output is written to a file named a.pbc; the name of the output file can be overridden with the -o[wi option.

PIRC Internals

In this section, PIRC's guts are dissected in order to explain what exactly is going on under the hood. If you are interested in the nitty-gritty details, keep on reading. (Note that this is a work-in-progress and will take some time to be completed)

PIRC Lexer

Heredoc processor

The Heredoc processor has only one task: flattening heredoc strings. By "flattening", I mean the following. This string:

 $S0 = <<'EOS'
This is
 a multi-line
       on each line.

is "flattened" into:

 $S0 = "This is  a multi-line\n  heredoc\n   string\n    with\n     increasing\n      indention\n       on each line." 

Note that "newline" characters are inserted as well, so that the string is equivalent to the original heredoc string. Besides assigning heredoc strings to String registers, the PIR specification also allows you to use heredoc strings as arguments in subroutine invocations:

.sub main
This is a heredoc
string argument

.sub foo
 # ...

Again, the heredoc string (delimited by the string "A") will be flattened. According to the PIR specification, you can even pass multiple heredoc string arguments, like so:

.sub main
  foo(<<'A', 42, <<'B', 3.14, <<'C')
 I have a Parrot
 It is not a bird
 It is a virtual machine

Note that the heredoc arguments may be mixed with other, simple arguments such as integers and numbers. In the rest of this section, the implementation will be discussed.

Heredoc parsing implementation

The implementation of the Heredoc preprocessor can be found in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l]. It is a Lex/Flex lexer specification, which means you need the Flex program to generate the C code for this preprocessor. The preprocessor takes a PIR file that contains heredoc strings, and flattens out all heredoc strings. It writes a temporary file to disk that is exactly the same as the original PIR file, except that all heredoc strings are flattened.

For this discussion, it is assumed you have a basic understanding of the Flex program. For instance, you need to know what "state" means in Flex context. If you don't know, please refer to  the Flex documentation page.

In order to make the heredoc preprocessor reentrant, no global variables are used. Instead, lines [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L83 83 to 98] define a struct global_state. The comments in the code briefly describe what each field is for, but they will be discussed in more detail later if we walk through the actual processing of the heredocs. A new instance of this struct can be created by invoking [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L157 init_global_state]. For now, it is useful to know that this struct has a pointer to a Parrot interpreter object, the name of the file being processed, and a pointer to the output file.

The function [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L208 process_heredocs] is the main function of the heredoc preprocessor that the main compiler program (PIRC) invokes. This function opens the file to be processed, initializes the lexer, creates a new global_state struct instance, as described above, invokes the lexer to do the processing and cleans up afterwards.

We will now walk through two different scenarios, in order to simplify the discussion. Scenario 1 discussed the case of single heredoc parsing, and Scenario 2 discusses multiple heredoc parsing. Multiple heredoc parsing starts out with Scenario 1, but is a bit more advanced.

Scenario 1a: single heredoc string parsing

Consider the following input:

.sub main
  $S0 = <<'EOS'


The lexer starts out in the INITIAL state by default (as per Flex specification). When reading input such as <<'EOS', the rule on [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L306 line 306] is activated. The actual string ("EOS") is stored in the field state->delimiter, and an escaped newline character is stored in the heredoc buffer.

Since the preprocessor does not build a data structure representing the input, but instead writes the output directly (to a file), the "rest of the line" needs to be stored somewhere. This is because the <<'EOS' heredoc token is basically a placeholder for the actual (heredoc) string contents. Hence, the [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L318 activation of SAVE_REST_OF_LINE state].

The state SAVE_REST_OF_LINE has only one function, and that is to SAVE the REST OF the LINE :-). It will match all the text after the <<'EOS' heredoc marker up to and include the end-of-line character. This, including an additional "\n" character is stored in the linebuffer field, which always contains the "rest of the line". As you can see, in this scenario there is no "rest of the line", except for the end-of-line character ("\n", or "\r\n" on Windows). See Scenario 1b below for a variant on this, in which the "rest of the line" contains a closing parenthesis of a subroutine invocation.

After the heredoc marker the actual heredoc string must be scanned, hence the activation of the HEREDOC_STRING state on [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L331 line 331]. In the state HEREDOC_STRING, there are three different types of input:

  1. "end-of-line" characters, basically an empty line (see [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L357 line 357]). An escaped newline character ("\\n") will be stored as part of the heredoc string.
  1. "normal" heredoc string lines (see [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L376 line 376]. First the newline character is removed, because we may have found the heredoc string delimiter, that was stored earlier. In order to compare the strings, the newline character is chopped off (see [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L381 lines 381-384]). Then, a string comparison is done in order to see whether we just read the heredoc string delimiter. If so, then we need to continue scanning the "rest of the line" that was saved earlier. However, since we need to switch back later to the current buffer, we need to store this current buffer ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L395 line 395]). Also, the lexer's state is changed to SCAN_STRING, since we're going to scan a saved string. Then, the lexer's told to read the next input from the string buffer ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L406 line 406]). If however, we did not read the heredoc delimiter, then it's just a line that's part of the heredoc string, which needs to be stored. In that case, a new buffer is allocated to store the heredoc string so far, plus the new line that's just been scanned. The old buffer is released.
  1. End of file ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L423 line 423]). When the lexer encounters end-of-file, an error is printed to the screen, and the lexer terminates.

Once the heredoc string has been completely scanned, the SCAN_STRING state is activated. Again, there's a number of different input patterns that may be scanned:

  1. Another heredoc marker (<<{Q_STRING}, [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L428 line 428]). See Scenario 2 for a discussion of this.
  1. End of line ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L447 line 447]). Nothing is done.
  1. Any character ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L449 line 449]). The character (for instance, a parenthesis) is written to the output.
  1. End of file ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L451 line 451]). End of file, in this context, means end of string. So, we've finished scanning the "rest of line" string buffer, so now the lexer needs to switch back to read the next input from the file again. Also, the lexer's state is switched back to the default state (INITIAL).

This completes the processing of a single heredoc string.

Scenario 1b: single heredoc argument parsing

Scenario 1b is almost the same as Scenario 1a, except that instead of a heredoc string being assigned to some target (register), the heredoc string is an argument to a function. Consider the following input:

.sub main


The process of parsing this heredoc string is pretty much the same as in Scenario 1a, except that the "rest of the line" contains the closing parenthesis ")" to close the argument list of the invocation of foo.

Scenario 2: multiple heredoc parsing

Consider the following input:

.sub main
   foo(<<'A', 42, <<'B', <<C')
heredoc text a
heredoc text b
heredoc text c


Now, scanning up to and including the first heredoc marker:


is done exactly the same as described in Scenario 1. Assume that the lexer just found the heredoc delimiter for heredoc string A. The lexer's current state is HEREDOC_STRING, but as can be seen in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L404 line 404], the lexer will now switch to SCAN_STRING state in order to scan the "rest of the line". The rest of the line buffer contains:

   , 42, <<'B', <<'C')

First the comma and whitespace is scanned, handled by [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L449 line 449]. Then the argument "42" is matched ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L449 line 449], "any character") as well as the comma.

Then the heredoc marker for heredoc B is scanned ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L428 line 428]). This section of code is almost similar to the section that matches heredoc markers in the INITIAL state ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L306 line 306]). The difference is that instead of activating SAVE_REST_OF_LINE state, the SAVE_REST_AGAIN state is activated. SAVE_REST_AGAIN is almost the same to SAVE_REST_OF_LINE state. The difference is, that in SAVE_REST_OF_LINE, the lexer is still reading from the file buffer, whereas when the lexer is in SAVE_REST_AGAIN, it is scanning a string buffer. Therefore, the lexer must switch from the string buffer to reading the file buffer, which is done in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L350 line 350].

At this point, heredoc string B is scanned. After that, heredoc string C is scanned. It is left as the proverbial exercise to the reader to try to understand how this is done. The previous discussion of the involved lexer states should greatly help in this.

POD parsing

POD comments are filtered out from the input. This is implemented in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L287 lines 287 to 301]). Note that [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L287 line 287] is very important: it matches a "=cut" directive (which ends a POD comment) in the INITIAL state (so, when no previous POD comment was seen yet). If this pattern wouldn't be matched in the INITIAL state, the "=cut" directive would actually activate the POD state. This is because "=cut" starts with a "=", which is the first character of a POD directive ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L289 see line 289]).

include directives

The .include directive is logically a macro expansion directive. It takes one argument, which is the name of a file. If the .include directive is encountered, the lexer switches to the specified file, and starts reading from that file. Once the end of the file has been reached, the lexer switches back to the original file.

The .include directive is implemented in the heredoc preprocessor. This is necessary in order to be able to use heredoc strings in the included file. If the directive would have been implemented in the normal PIR lexer (that implements macro expansion), then the heredoc preprocessor would have to be invoked first on the included file.

Once the .include directive is read, the lexer switches state from INITIAL to INCLUDE ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L479 line 479]). This is done using the built-in state stack in the Flex-generated lexer. The INCLUDE state is pushed onto the state stack, and immediately activated. (Once the state is popped off, the lexer switches to the state that's then the new top-of-stack. Since an included file can include other files, a stack is used to keep track of this. Four different input patterns are distinguished:

  1. whitespace ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L483 line 483]). Whitespace is skipped.
  1. a quoted string, which is the name of the file to be included ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L485 line 485]). Once the quoted string is stripped from its quotes, the file is located and the lexer will start processing that file.
  1. end of line ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L528 line 528]). This would be the end-of-line after the quoted string that was included. Once this is encountered, the included file has already been completely processed. Therefore, the lexer's state is popped off the lexer state stack.
  1. any other character ([source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/hdocprep.l#L532 line 532]), resulting in an error message.

Macro layer

The macro layer is implemented in both the lexer and the scanner. The syntax to define and expand macros is defined in the parser. This is a fundamental difference from how macros are implemented in IMCC. In IMCC, the macro layer is completely implemented in the lexer.

Currently, basic macros work, but nested macros do not. This needs to be fixed.

PIRC Parser

The parser is implemented in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pir.y]. This is a parser specification that needs to be processed by the Bison program in order to generate the C file.

Symbol Management

Symbol management is implemented in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pirsymbol.c]. Symbols declared using the .local directive are stored in a symbol table. Whenever an identifier is parsed, it will be looked up in this symbol table.

All uses of PIR registers (e.g. $I42) are registered as well. The first time a PIR register is used, it is assigned a PASM register. This process is called "coloring". The word "color" is often used in the context of register allocation, since the "classic" algorithm to do so is called "graph-coloring". While the vanilla register allocator does not such algorithm, the field "color" is used for storing the actual PASM register number that was assigned.

Constant Folding

Strength Reduction

Abstract Syntax Tree

During the parsing phase, an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) is constructed. There are a number of different node types. There were two approaches for defining the node types:

  1. Define one node type, that contains all fields that could be needed. An advantage of this approach would be that it simplifies the code. On the other hand, it would probably make the code more obscure to read (since you can't really see what a node represents anymore), and also it would waste memory, since many fields would not be used by most of the instances. Furthermore, it would be easier to misuse certain fields for other purposes than the field was supposed to be used for.
  1. Define specialized types. This is the approach taken.

PIRC defines the following node types in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h]:

  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L162 constdecl], used for a .const or .globalconst declaration
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L172 constant], used to represent literal constants in the source code (e.g. 42, 3.14, "hello")
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L180 label], used to store a label and its instruction offset
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L196 expression], used to represent an instruction operand. Since there are many different AST node types, and an instruction can have various types of operands, the expression node type is used to wrap these.
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L216 key_entry], used to represent a key value; for instance the key [1;"hi"] has 2 entries: 1 and "hi".
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L225 key], used to represent a key; it has a pointer to the first key value, and keeps track of the total number of key entries ([1;"hi"] has 2 key entries)
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L238 target], used to represent a left-hand side (LHS) object. As such, it can be assigned a value (hence the name target), and it can be used as a right-hand side (RHS) value.
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L255 argument], used to represent argument values for subroutine invocations, or for return statements. It has a pointer to an expression node that is the actual value, an flags field that encodes any flags (such as :flat, and an alias field, if the argument is passed by name.
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L275 invocation], used to temporarily represent a subroutine invocation or a return statement. It is used only temporarily; invocation nodes are not stored in the AST. Instead, they are converted into a set of instructions after the subroutine invocation or return statement has been parsed.
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L288 instruction], used to represent a single instruction.
  • [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pircompunit.h#L354 subroutine], used to represent a subroutine definition.

Vanilla Register Allocator

PIRC has a built-in vanilla register allocator. The vanilla register allocator (or "register allocator" as we shall call it from now) maps PIR registers, such as $P44, $I9999, etc., to actual Parrot registers (or "PASM registers" as they are also referred to). Parrot allocates a variable number of registers per sub invocation. Some simple subs only need a few registers, whereas complex subroutines may need several tens of registers.

Now, how does this work? PIR registers should be considered as "pre-declared" symbols; they are just symbols that you can use without declaring them. If you want fancy names, you would use the .local directive to declare them, after which you can use symbolic names (which are more descriptive than PIR registers).

Basically, PIR registers and declared symbols are the same. The register allocator is reset for each subroutine. Whenever a new register is needed, it will start at 0, and increment a counter. PIR registers will always be allocated a PASM register, whereas declared symbols will only be assigned a PASM register if the symbol is actually used. This is because you could declare a bunch of .local symbols, but never use them. Allocating registers to them would be wasteful.

Register Usage Optimizer

The vanilla register allocator is pretty dumb, in the sense that it does not consider the lifetime of variables. Or, put in another way, it assumes that all registers' lifetime is the complete subroutine. However, in real life, a register is typically only used in a small part of the subroutine. Consider this example:

.sub main

  .local int a, b, c
  a = 1
  b = 2
  c = 3


The vanilla register will allocate registers 0 to 2 to these symbols a, b and c. However, as you can guess, since a is never used after the initial assignment, there is no need to assign a different register to b. Likewise for b, which can share the same register with c. So, in the above example, there is really only one register needed.

However, suppose we change the example into the following:

.sub main

  .local int a, b, c
  a = 1
  b = 2
  c = 3
  print a
  print b


In this case, the lifetime of a and b are extended, as both variables are used in the print statements. So, a cannot share a register with b nor with c. The rest of this subsection explains how this can be calculated.

The register optimizer is a variant of the Linear Scan Register allocation algorithm as described in  this paper. Since that algorithm assumes there's a fixed number of registers (which is the case for hardware processors), the algorithm is changed in a few places.

The implementation can be found in [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pirregalloc.c]. Whether or not to use the register optimizer depends on how your program is used. If you have a large program that you will run many times, and memory usage is important, then you should activate it. If, on the other hand, runtime performance (compilation time included) is important, you should not activate it, as it takes additional time to perform the register optimization. In order to activate the register optimizer, use the -r command line option when running PIRC.

For each symbol (PIR register or declared symbol), a [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pirregalloc.h#L29 live_interval struct] instance is allocated. Most important are the startpoint and endpoint fields, which keep track of the start and end point respectively of the live interval of the variable. Consider the following example:

  .sub main
0   $I10 = 1
1   $I11 = 2
2   print $I0
3   print $I1

In this code snippet, the numbers in front of the statements indicate the sequence of instructions. As you can see, $I0 lives from 0 to 2, whereas $I1 lives from 1 to 3. Since these live intervals are overlapping, this means that these variables cannot share a register. On the other hand, consider the following example:

   .sub main
0    $I0 = 1
1    print $I0
2    $I1 = 2
3    print $I1

In this case, $I0 lives from 0 to 1, whereas $1 lives from 2 to 3. Since they do not overlap, these variables can share a register. This can be calculated by the algorithm described in the above mentioned paper. These details will not be discussed here; instead the reader is referred to the paper.

Now you know the basic working and purpose of the register optimizer, let's look at the implementation. Following the design principle of PIRC to be as modular as possible, the register optimizer's state is stored in a struct. A new [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pirregalloc.h#L66 lsr_allocator] object (lsr stands for Linear Scan Register) can be created in the function [source:/trunk/compilers/pirc/src/pirregalloc.c#L85 new_linear_scan_register_allocator]. This constructor takes a pointer to the PIRC compiler struct instance. Yes, this does mean it is somewhat dependent on this other object, but it made the implementation somewhat easier. The struct keeps a list of all "active" live intervals (one for each variable that's alive).

Bytecode Generation

Running code at compile time: the :immediate flag