guile's reader, in guile

11 April 2021 7:51 PM (guile | scheme | bootstrapping | read | parsing)

Good evening! A brief(ish?) note today about some Guile nargery.

the arc of history

Like many language implementations that started life when you could turn on the radio and expect to hear Def Leppard, Guile has a bottom half and a top half. The bottom half is written in C and exposes a shared library and an executable, and the top half is written in the language itself (Scheme, in the case of Guile) and somehow loaded by the C code when the language implementation starts.

Since 2010 or so we have been working at replacing bits written in C with bits written in Scheme. Last week's missive was about replacing the implementation of dynamic-link from using the libltdl library to using Scheme on top of a low-level dlopen wrapper. I've written about rewriting eval in Scheme, and more recently about how the road to getting the performance of C implementations in Scheme has been sometimes long.

These rewrites have a quixotic aspect to them. I feel something in my gut about rightness and wrongness and I know at a base level that moving from C to Scheme is the right thing. Much of it is completely irrational and can be out of place in a lot of contexts -- like if you have a task to get done for a customer, you need to sit and think about minimal steps from here to the goal and the gut doesn't have much of a role to play in how you get there. But it's nice to have a project where you can do a thing in the way you'd like, and if it takes 10 years, that's fine.

But besides the ineffable motivations, there are concrete advantages to rewriting something in Scheme. I find Scheme code to be more maintainable, yes, and more secure relative to the common pitfalls of C, obviously. It decreases the amount of work I will have when one day I rewrite Guile's garbage collector. But also, Scheme code gets things that C can't have: tail calls, resumable delimited continuations, run-time instrumentation, and so on.

Taking delimited continuations as an example, five years ago or so I wrote a lightweight concurrency facility for Guile, modelled on Parallel Concurrent ML. It lets millions of fibers to exist on a system. When a fiber would need to block on an I/O operation (read or write), instead it suspends its continuation, and arranges to restart it when the operation becomes possible.

A lot had to change in Guile for this to become a reality. Firstly, delimited continuations themselves. Later, a complete rewrite of the top half of the ports facility in Scheme, to allow port operations to suspend and resume. Many of the barriers to resumable fibers were removed, but the Fibers manual still names quite a few.

Scheme read, in Scheme

Which brings us to today's note: I just rewrote Guile's reader in Scheme too! The reader is the bit that takes a stream of characters and parses it into S-expressions. It was in C, and now is in Scheme.

One of the primary motivators for this was to allow read to be suspendable. With this change, read-eval-print loops are now implementable on fibers.

Another motivation was to finally fix a bug in which Guile couldn't record source locations for some kinds of datums. It used to be that Guile would use a weak-key hash table to associate datums returned from read with source locations. But this only works for fresh values, not for immediate values like small integers or characters, nor does it work for globally unique non-immediates like keywords and symbols. So for these, we just wouldn't have any source locations.

A robust solution to that problem is to return annotated objects rather than using a side table. Since Scheme's macro expander is already set to work with annotated objects (syntax objects), a new read-syntax interface would do us a treat.

With read in C, this was hard to do. But with read in Scheme, it was no problem to implement. Adapting the expander to expect source locations inside syntax objects was a bit fiddly, though, and the resulting increase in source location information makes the output files bigger by a few percent -- due somewhat to the increased size of the .debug_lines DWARF data, but also due to serialized source locations for syntax objects in macros.

Speed-wise, switching to read in Scheme is a regression, currently. The old reader could parse around 15 or 16 megabytes per second when recording source locations on this laptop, or around 22 or 23 MB/s with source locations off. The new one parses more like 10.5 MB/s, or 13.5 MB/s with positions off, when in the old mode where it uses a weak-key side table to record source locations. The new read-syntax runs at around 12 MB/s. We'll be noodling at these in the coming months, but unlike when the original reader was written, at least now the reader is mainly used only at compile time. (It still has a role when reading s-expressions as data, so there is still a reason to make it fast.)

As is the case with eval, we still have a C version of the reader available for bootstrapping purposes, before the Scheme version is loaded. Happily, with this rewrite I was able to remove all of the cruft from the C reader related to non-default lexical syntax, which simplifies maintenance going forward.

An interesting aspect of attempting to make a bug-for-bug rewrite is that you find bugs and unexpected behavior. For example, it turns out that since the dawn of time, Guile always read #t and #f without requiring a terminating delimiter, so reading "(#t1)" would result in the list (#t 1). Weird, right? Weirder still, when the #true and #false aliases were added to the language, Guile decided to support them by default, but in an oddly backwards-compatible way... so "(#false1)" reads as (#f 1) but "(#falsa1)" reads as (#f alsa1). Quite a few more things like that.

All in all it would seem to be a successful rewrite, introducing no new behavior, even producing the same errors. However, this is not the case for backtraces, which can expose the guts of read in cases where that previously wouldn't happen because the C stack was opaque to Scheme. Probably we will simply need to add more sensible error handling around callers to read, as a backtrace isn't a good user-facing error anyway.

OK enough rambling for this evening. Happy hacking to all and to all a good night!

sign of the times

8 April 2021 7:09 PM (gnu | guile | libtool | ffi)

Hello all! There is a mounting backlog of things that landed in Guile recently and to avoid having to eat the whole plate in one bite, I'm going to try to send some shorter missives over the next weeks.

Today's is about a silly thing, dynamic-link. This interface is dlopen, but "portable". See, back in the day -- like, 1998 -- there were lots of kinds of systems and how to make and load a shared library portably was hard. You'd have people with AIX and Solaris and all kinds of weird compilers and linkers filing bugs on your project if you hard-coded a GNU toolchain invocation when creating loadable extensions, or hard-coded dlopen or similar to use them.

Libtool provided a solution to create portable loadable libraries, which involved installing .la files alongside the .so files. You could use libtool to link them to a library or an executable, or you could load them at run-time via the libtool-provided libltdl library.

But, the .la files were a second source of truth, and thus a source of bugs. If a .la file is present, so is an .so file, and you could always just use the .so file directly. For linking against an installed shared library on modern toolchains, the .la files are strictly redundant. Therefore, all GNU/Linux distributions just delete installed .la files -- Fedora, Debian, and even Guix do so.

Fast-forward to today: there has been a winnowing of platforms, and a widening of the GNU toolchain (in which I include LLVM as well as it has a mostly-compatible interface). The only remaining toolchain flavors are GNU and Windows, from the point of view of creating loadable shared libraries. Whether you use libtool or not to create shared libraries, the result can be loaded either way. And from the user side, dlopen is the universally supported interface, outside of Windows; even Mac OS fixed their implementation a few years back.

So in Guile we have been in an unstable equilibrium: creating shared libraries by including a probably-useless libtool into the toolchain, and loading them by using a probably-useless libtool-provided libltdl.

But the use of libltdl has not been without its costs. Because libltdl intends to abstract over different platforms, it encourages you to leave off the extension when loading a library, instead promising to try a platform-specific set such as .so, .dll, .dylib etc as appropriate. In practice the abstraction layer was under-maintained and we always had some problems on Mac OS, for example.

Worse, as ltdl would search through the path for candidates, it would only report the last error it saw from the underlying dlopen interface. It was almost always the case that if A and B were in the search path, and A/ failed to load because of a missing dependency, the error you would get as a user would instead be "file not found", because ltdl swallowed the first error and kept trucking to try to load B/ which didn't exist.

In summary, this is a case where the benefits of an abstraction layer decline over time. For a few years now, libltdl hasn't been paying for itself. Libtool is dead, for all intents and purposes (last release in 2015); best to make plans to migrate away, somehow.

In the case of the dlopen replacement, in Guile we ended up rewriting the functionality in Scheme. The underlying facility is now just plain dlopen, for which we shim a version of dlopen on Windows, inspired by the implementation in cygwin. There are still platform-specific library extensions, but that is handled easily on the Scheme layer.

Looking forward, I think it's probably time to replace Guile's use of libtool to create its libraries and executables. I loathe the fact that libtool puts shell scripts in the place of executables in build directories and stashes the actual executables elsewhere -- like, visceral revulsion. There is no need for that nowadays. Not sure what to replace it with, nor on what timeline.

And what about autotools? That, my friends, would be a whole nother blog post. Until then, & probably sooner, happy hacking!

here we go again

25 March 2021 12:22 PM (fsf | gnu | rms | fire | hackers)

Around 18 months ago, Richard Stallman was forced to resign from the Free Software Foundation board of directors and as president. It could have been anything -- at that point he already had a history of behaving in a way that was particularly alienating to women -- but in the end it was his insinuation that it was somehow OK if his recently-deceased mentor Marvin Minsky, then in his 70s or 80s, had sex with a 17-year-old on Jeffrey Epstein's private island. A weird pick of hill to stake one's reputation on, to say the least.

At the time I was relieved that we would finally be getting some leadership renewal at the FSF, and hopeful that we could get some mission renewal as well. I was also looking forward to the practical implications would be for the GNU project, as more people agreed that GNU was about software freedom and not about its founder.

But now we're back! Not only has RMS continued through this whole time to insist that he runs the GNU project -- something that is simply not the case, in my estimation -- but this week, a majority of a small self-selected group of people, essentially a subset of current and former members of the FSF board of directors and including RMS himself, elected to reinstate RMS to the board of the Free Software Foundation. Um... read the room, FSF voting members? What kind of message are you sending?

In this context I can only agree with the calls for the entire FSF board to resign. The board is clearly not fit for purpose, if it can make choices like this.


I haven't (yet?) signed the open letter because I would be in an inconsistent position if I did so. The letter enjoins people to "refuse to contribute to projects related to the FSF and RMS"; as a co-maintainer of GNU Guile, which has its origins in the heady 1990s of the FSF but has nothing to do any more with RMS, but whose copyrights are entirely held by the FSF, is hosted on FSF-run servers, and is even obliged (GPLv3 §5d, as referenced by LGPLv3) to print out Copyright (C) 1995-2021 Free Software Foundation, Inc. when it starts, I must admit that I contribute to a project that is "related to the FSF". But I don't see how Guile could continue this association, if the FSF board continues as it is. It's bad for contributors and for the future of the project.

It would be very tricky to disentangle Guile from the FSF -- consider hosting, for example -- so it's not the work of a day, but it's something to think about.

Of course I would rather that the FSF wouldn't allow itself to be seen as an essentially misogynist organization. So clean house, FSF!

on the nature of fire

Reflecting on how specifically we could have gotten here -- I don't know. I don't know the set of voting members at the FSF, what discussions were made, who voted what. But, having worked as a volunteer on GNU projects for almost two decades now, I have a guess. RMS and his closest supporters see themselves as guardians of the flame of free software -- a lost world of the late 70s MIT AI lab, reborn in a flurry of mid-80s hack, but since 25 years or so, slipping further and further away. These are dark times, in their view, and having the principled founder in a leadership role can only be a good thing.

(Of course, the environment in the AI lab was only good for some. The treatment of Margaret Hamilton as recounted in Levy's Hackers shows that not all were welcome. If this were just one story, I would discount it, but looking back, it does seem to be part of a pattern.)

But is that what the FSF is for today? If so, Guile should certainly leave. I'm not here for software as perfomative nostalgia -- I'm here to have fun with friends and start a fire. The FSF should look to do the same -- look at the world we are in, look where the energy is now, and engage in real conversations about success and failure and tactics. There is a world to win and doubling down on RMS won't get us there from here.

99% spam

8 March 2021 2:36 PM (spam | bayes | classifier | oh god | more spam | comments | meta)

Hey all, happy new year apparently! A quick service update on the old wingolog. For some time the site has been drowning in spam comments, despite my best efforts to point a bayesian classifier at the problem.

I don't keep logs of the number of attempts at posting comments that don't pass the classifier. But what I can say is that since I put in the classifier around 4 years ago, about 2500 comments a year made it through -- enough to turn the comment section into a bit of a dump. Icky, right??

At the same time of course, that's too many comments to triage manually, so I never got around to fixing the problem. So in fact I had two problems: lots 'o spam, and lots 'o incoming spam.

With regards to the existing spam, I took a heavyhanded approach. I took a look at all good emails and URLs that people had submitted for comments prior to 2017, assuming they were triaged. Then I made a goodlist of comments since 2017 that had those comments or emails. There were very few of those -- maybe 50 or 70 or so.

Then I took a look at when comments were made relative to the posts. Turns out, 98.3% of comments were made more than 21 days after their parent post was published -- and sometimes years afterwards. I used that as a first filter, that if a post wasn't from a known poster, and was made 3 weeks or more after the post, I just classified it as spam.

The list of comments made within 3 weeks of the parent post was small enough for me to triage manually, and there I was able to save a bit of wheat from the chaff. In the end, though, the result of winnowing was less than 1% of what went in.

As I don't really want to babysit this wobsite, I'll keep this policy in place in the future -- comments will be open for a while after articles are posted. Hopefully that should keep the ol' wingolog in tidy shape going forward, while still permitting people to comment -- something I have really appreciated in the past.

So happy 2021 to everybody, may the vaccine gods shine upon your shoulders, and happy hacking :)

on "binary security of webassembly"

15 October 2020 10:29 AM (webassembly | compilers | malloc | gc | llvm | emscripten | igalia | js | security | ocap | rust)


You may have seen an interesting paper cross your radar a couple months ago: Everything Old is New Again: Binary Security of WebAssembly, by Daniel Lehmann, Johannes Kinder and Michael Pradel. The paper makes some strong claims and I would like to share some thoughts on it.

reader-response theory

For context, I have been working on web browsers for the last 8 years or so, most recently on the JavaScript and WebAssembly engine in Firefox. My work mostly consists of implementing new features, which if you are familiar with software development translates as "writing bugs". Almost all of those bugs are security bugs, potentially causing Firefox to go from being an agent of the user to an agent of the Mossad, or of cryptocurrency thieves, or anything else.

Mitigating browser bug flow takes a siege mentality. Web browsers treat all web pages and their corresponding CSS, media, JavaScript, and WebAssembly as hostile. We try to reason about global security properties, and translate those properties into invariants ensured at compile-time and run-time, for example to ensure that a web page from site A can't access cookies from site B.

In this regard, WebAssembly has some of the strongest isolation invariants in the whole platform. A WebAssembly module has access to nothing, by default: neither functionality nor data. Even a module's memory is isolated from the rest of the browser, both by construction (that's just how WebAssembly is specified) and by run-time measures (given that pointers are 32 bits in today's WebAssembly, we generally reserve a multi-gigabyte region for a module's memory that can contain nothing else).

All of this may seem obvious, but consider that a C++ program compiled to native code on a POSIX platform can use essentially everything that the person running it has access to: your SSH secrets, your email, all of your programs, and so on. That same program compiled to WebAssembly does not -- any capability it has must have been given to it by the person running the program. For POSIX-like programs, the WebAssembly community is working on a POSIX for the web that standardizes a limited-capability access to data and functionality from the world, and in web browsers, well of course the module has access only to the capabilities that the embedding web page gives to it. Mostly, as the JS run-time accompanying the WebAssembly is usually generated by emscripten, this set of capabilties is a function of the program itself.

Of course, complex WebAssembly systems may contain multiple agents, acting on behalf of different parties. For example, a module might, through capabilities provided by the host, be able to ask flickr to delete a photo, but might also be able to crawl a URL for photos. Probably in this system, crawling a web page shouldn't be able to "trick" the WebAssembly module into deleting a photo. The C++ program compiled to WebAssembly could have a bug of course, in which case, you get to keep both pieces.

I mention all of this because we who work on WebAssembly are proud of this work! It is a pleasure to design and build a platform for high-performance code that provides robust capabilities-based security properties.

the new criticism

Therefore it was with skepticism that I started reading the Lehmann et al paper. The paper focusses on WebAssembly itself, not any particular implementation thereof; what could be wrong about WebAssembly?

I found the answer to be quite nuanced. To me, the paper shows three interesting things:

  1. Memory-safety bugs in C/C++ programs when compiled to WebAssembly can cause control-flow edges that were not present in the source program.

  2. Unexpected control-flow in a web browser can sometimes end up in a call to eval with the permissions of the web page, which is not good.

  3. It's easier in some ways to exploit bugs in a C/C++ program when compiled to WebAssembly than when compiled natively, because many common mitigations aren't used by the WebAssembly compiler toolchain.

Firstly, let's dicuss the control-flow point. Let's say that the program has a bug, and you have made an exploit to overwrite some memory location. What can you do with it? Well, consider indirect calls (call_indirect). This is what a compiler will emit for a vtable method call, or for a call to a function pointer. The possible targets for the indirect call are stored in a table, which is a side array of all possible call_indirect targets. The actual target is selected at run-time based on an index; WebAssembly function pointers are just indices into this table.

So if a function loads an index into the indirect call table from memory, and some exploit can change this index, then you can cause a call site to change its callee. Although there is a run-time type check that occurs at the call_indirect site to ensure that the callee is called with the right type, many functions in a module can have compatible types and thus be callable without an error.

OK, so that's not great. But what can you do with it? Well it turns out that emscripten will sometimes provide JavaScript's eval to the WebAssembly module. Usually it will be called only with a static string, but anything can happen. If an attacker can redirect a call site to eval instead of one of the possible targets from the source code, you can (e.g.) send the user's cookies to

There's a similar vulnerability regarding changing the operand to eval, instead. Strings are represented in linear memory as well, and there's no write protection on them, even if they are read-only data. If your write primitive can change the string being passed to eval, that's also a win for the attacker. More details in the paper.

This observation brings us to the last point, which is that many basic mitigations in (e.g.) POSIX deployments aren't present in WebAssembly. There are no OS-level read-only protections for static data, and the compiler doesn't enforce this either. Also WebAssembly programs have to bundle their own malloc, but the implementations provided by emscripten don't implement the "hardening" techniques. There is no addres-space layout randomization, so exploits are deterministic. And so on.

on mitigations

It must be said that for most people working on WebAssembly, security "mitigations" are... unsatisfactory. They aren't necessary for memory-safe programs, and they can't prevent memory-unsafe programs from having unexpected behavior. Besides, we who work on WebAssembly are more focussed on the security properties of the WebAssembly program as embedded in its environment, but not on the program itself. Garbage in, garbage out, right?

In that regard, I think that one answer to this paper is just "don't". Don't ship memory-unsafe programs, or if you do, don't give them eval capabilities. No general mitigation will make these programs safe. Writing your program in e.g. safe Rust is a comprehensive fix to this class of bug.

But, we have to admit also that shipping programs written in C and C++ is a primary goal of WebAssembly, and that no matter how hard we try, some buggy programs will get shipped, and therefore that there is marginal value to including mitigations like read-only data or even address space randomization. We definitely need to work on getting control-flow integrity protections working well with the WebAssembly toolchain, probably via multi-table support (part of the reference types extension; my colleague Paulo Matos just landed a patch in this area). And certainly Emscripten should work towards minimizing the capabilities set exposed to WebAssembly by the generated JavaScript, notably by compiling away uses of eval by embind.

Finally, I think that many of the problems identified by this paper will be comprehensively fixed in a different way by more "managed" languages. The problem is that C/C++ pointers are capabilities into all of undifferentiated linear memory. By contrast, handles to GC-managed objects are unforgeable: given object A, you can't get to object B except if object A references B. It would be great if we could bring some of the benefits of this more capability-based approach to in-memory objects to languages like C and C++; more on that in a future note, I think.


In the end, despite my initial orneriness, I have to admit that the paper authors point out some interesting areas to work on. It's clear that there's more work to do. I was also relieved to find that my code is not at fault in this particular instance :) Onwards and upwards, and until next time, happy hacking!

malloc as a service

13 October 2020 1:34 PM (webassembly | compilers | malloc | gc | llvm | emscripten | igalia | js)

Greetings, internet! Today I have the silliest of demos for you: malloc-as-a-service.

loading walloc...

The above input box, if things managed to work, loads up a simple bare-bones malloc implementation, and exposes "malloc" and "free" bindings. But the neat thing is that it's built without emscripten: it's a standalone C file that compiles directly to WebAssembly, with no JavaScript run-time at all. I share it here because it might come in handy to people working on WebAssembly toolchains, and also because it was an amusing experience to build.


The name of the allocator is "walloc", in which the w is for WebAssembly.

Walloc was designed with the following priorities, in order:

  1. Standalone. No stdlib needed; no emscripten. Can be included in a project without pulling in anything else.

  2. Reasonable allocation speed and fragmentation/overhead.

  3. Small size, to minimize download time.

  4. Standard interface: a drop-in replacement for malloc.

  5. Single-threaded (currently, anyway).

Emscripten includes a couple of good malloc implementations (dlmalloc and emmalloc) which probably you should use instead. But if you are really looking for a bare-bones malloc, walloc is fine.

You can check out all the details at the walloc project page; a selection of salient bits are below.

Firstly, to build walloc, it's just a straight-up compile:

clang -DNDEBUG -Oz --target=wasm32 -nostdlib -c -o walloc.o walloc.c

The resulting walloc.o is a conforming WebAssembly file on its own, but which also contains additional symbol table and relocation sections which allow wasm-ld to combine separate compilation units into a single final WebAssembly file. walloc.c on its own doesn't import or export anything, in the WebAssembly sense; to make bindings visible to JS, you need to add a little wrapper:

typedef __SIZE_TYPE__ size_t;

#define WASM_EXPORT(name) \
  __attribute__((export_name(#name))) \

// Declare these as coming from walloc.c.
void *malloc(size_t size);
void free(void *p);
void* WASM_EXPORT(walloc)(size_t size) {
  return malloc(size);

void WASM_EXPORT(wfree)(void* ptr) {

If you compile that to exports.o and link via wasm-ld --no-entry --import-memory -o walloc.wasm exports.o walloc.o, you end up with the walloc.wasm used in the demo above. See your inspector for the URL.

The resulting wasm file is about 2 kB (uncompressed).

Walloc isn't the smallest allocator out there. A simple bump-pointer allocator that never frees is the fastest thing you can have. There is also an alternate allocator for Rust, wee_alloc, which is said to be smaller than walloc, though I think it is less space-efficient for small objects. But still, walloc is pretty small.

implementation notes

When a C program is compiled to WebAssembly, the resulting wasm module (usually) has associated linear memory. It can be linked in a way that the memory is created by the module when it's instantiated, or such that the module is given a memory by its host. The above example passed --import-memory to the linker, allowing the host to bound memory usage for the module instance.

The linear memory has the usual data, stack, and heap segments. The data and stack are placed first. The heap starts at the &__heap_base symbol. (This symbol is computed and defined by the linker.) All bytes above &__heap_base can be used by the wasm program as it likes. So &__heap_base is the lower bound of memory managed by walloc.

                                              memory growth ->
| data and stack | alignment | walloc page | walloc page | ...
^ 0              ^ &__heap_base            ^ 64 kB aligned

Interestingly, there are a few different orderings of data and stack used by different toolchains. It used to even be the case that the stack grew up. This diagram from the recent "Everything Old is New Again: Binary Security of WebAssembly" paper by Lehmann et al is a good summary:

The sensible thing to prevent accidental overflow (underflow, really) is to have the stack grow down to 0, with data at higher addresses. But this can cause WebAssembly code that references data to take up more bytes, because addresses are written using variable-length "LEB" encodings that favor short offsets, so it isn't the default, right now at least.

Anyway! The upper bound of memory managed by walloc is the total size of the memory, which is aligned on 64-kilobyte boundaries. (WebAssembly ensures this alignment.) Walloc manages memory in 64-kb pages as well. It starts with whatever memory is initially given to the module, and will expand the memory if it runs out. The host can specify a maximum memory size, in pages; if no more pages are available, walloc's malloc will simply return NULL; handling out-of-memory is up to the caller.

Walloc has two allocation strategies: small and large objects.

big bois

A large object is more than 256 bytes.

There is a global freelist of available large objects, each of which has a header indicating its size. When allocating, walloc does a best-fit search through that list.

struct large_object {
  struct large_object *next;
  size_t size;
  char payload[0];
struct large_object* large_object_free_list;

Large object allocations are rounded up to 256-byte boundaries, including the header.

If there is no object on the freelist that can satisfy an allocation, walloc will expand the heap by the size of the allocation, or by half of the current walloc heap size, whichever is larger. The resulting page or pages form a large object that can satisfy the allocation.

If the best object on the freelist has more than a chunk of space on the end, it is split, and the tail put back on the freelist. A chunk is 256 bytes.

| page header | chunk 1 | chunk 2 | ... | chunk 255 |
^ +0          ^ +256    ^ +512                      ^ +64 kB

As each page is 65536 bytes, and each chunk is 256 bytes, there are therefore 256 chunks in a page. The first chunk in a page that begins an allocated object, large or small, contains a header chunk. The page header has a byte for each of the 256 chunks in the page. The byte is 255 if the corresponding chunk starts a large object; otherwise the byte indicates the size class for packed small-object allocations (see below).

| page header | large object 1    | large object 2 ...   |
^ +0          ^ +256    ^ +512                           ^ +64 kB

When splitting large objects, we avoid starting a new large object on a page header chunk. A large object can only span where a page header chunk would be if it includes the entire page.

Freeing a large object pushes it on the global freelist. We know a pointer is a large object by looking at the page header. We know the size of the allocation, because the large object header precedes the allocation. When the next large object allocation happens after a free, the freelist will be compacted by merging adjacent large objects.

small fry

Small objects are allocated from segregated freelists. The granule size is 8 bytes. Small object allocations are packed in a chunk of uniform allocation size. There are size classes for allocations of each size from 1 to 6 granules, then 8, 10, 16, and 32 granules; 10 sizes in all. For example, an allocation of e.g. 12 granules will be satisfied from a 16-granule chunk. Each size class has its own free list.

struct small_object_freelist {
  struct small_object_freelist *next;
struct small_object_freelist small_object_freelists[10];

When allocating, if there is nothing on the corresponding freelist, walloc will allocate a new large object, then change its chunk kind in the page header to the size class. It then goes through the fresh chunk, threading the objects through each other onto a free list.

| page header | large object 1    | granules=4 | large object 2' ... |
^ +0          ^ +256    ^ +512    ^ +768       + +1024               ^ +64 kB

In this example, we imagine that the 4-granules freelist was empty, and that the large object freelist contained only large object 2, running all the way to the end of the page. We allocated a new 4-granules chunk, splitting the first chunk off the large object, and pushing the newly trimmed large object back onto the large object freelist, updating the page header appropriately. We then thread the 4-granules (32-byte) allocations in the fresh chunk together (the chunk has room for 8 of them), treating them as if they were instances of struct freelist, pushing them onto the global freelist for 4-granules allocations.

           in fresh chunk, next link for object N points to object N+1
                                 |        |
granules=4: | (padding, maybe) | object 0 | ... | object 7 |
                               ^ 4-granule freelist now points here 

The size classes were chosen so that any wasted space (padding) is less than the size class.

Freeing a small object pushes it back on its size class's free list. Given a pointer, we know its size class by looking in the chunk kind in the page header.

and that's it

Hey have fun with the thing! Let me know if you find it useful. Happy hacking and until next time!

a baseline compiler for guile

3 June 2020 8:39 PM (guile | gnu | compilers | igalia | scheme | baseline | optimizing | guix)

Greets, my peeps! Today's article is on a new compiler for Guile. I made things better by making things worse!

The new compiler is a "baseline compiler", in the spirit of what modern web browsers use to get things running quickly. It is a very simple compiler whose goal is speed of compilation, not speed of generated code.

Honestly I didn't think Guile needed such a thing. Guile's distribution model isn't like the web, where every page you visit requires the browser to compile fresh hot mess; in Guile I thought it would be reasonable for someone to compile once and run many times. I was never happy with compile latency but I thought it was inevitable and anyway amortized over time. Turns out I was wrong on both points!

The straw that broke the camel's back was Guix, which defines the graph of all installable packages in an operating system using Scheme code. Lately it has been apparent that when you update the set of available packages via a "guix pull", Guix would spend too much time compiling the Scheme modules that contain the package graph.

The funny thing is that it's not important that the package definitions be optimized; they just need to be compiled in a basic way so that they are quick to load. This is the essential use-case for a baseline compiler: instead of trying to make an optimizing compiler go fast by turning off all the optimizations, just write a different compiler that goes from a high-level intermediate representation straight to code.

So that's what I did!

it don't do much

The baseline compiler skips any kind of flow analysis: there's no closure optimization, no contification, no unboxing of tagged numbers, no type inference, no control-flow optimizations, and so on. The only whole-program analysis that is done is a basic free-variables analysis so that closures can capture variables, as well as assignment conversion. Otherwise the baseline compiler just does a traversal over programs as terms of a simple tree intermediate language, emitting bytecode as it goes.

Interestingly the quality of the code produced at optimization level -O0 is pretty much the same.

This graph shows generated code performance of the CPS compiler relative to new baseline compiler, at optimization level 0. Bars below the line mean the CPS compiler produces slower code. Bars above mean CPS makes faster code. You can click and zoom in for details. Note that the Y axis is logarithmic.

The tests in which -O0 CPS wins are mostly because the CPS-based compiler does a robust closure optimization pass that reduces allocation rate.

At optimization level -O1, which adds partial evaluation over the high-level tree intermediate language and support for inlining "primitive calls" like + and so on, I am not sure why CPS peels out in the lead. No additional important optimizations are enabled in CPS at that level. That's probably something to look into.

Note that the baseline of this graph is optimization level -O1, with the new baseline compiler.

But as I mentioned, I didn't write the baseline compiler to produce fast code; I wrote it to produce code fast. So does it actually go fast?

Well against the -O0 and -O1 configurations of the CPS compiler, it does excellently:

Here you can see comparisons between what will be Guile 3.0.3's -O0 and -O1, compared against their equivalents in 3.0.2. (In 3.0.2 the -O1 equivalent is actually -O1 -Oresolve-primitives, if you are following along at home.) What you can see is that at these optimization levels, for these 8 files, the baseline compiler is around 4 times as fast.

If we compare to Guile 3.0.3's default -O2 optimization level, or -O3, we see bigger disparities:

Which is to say that Guile's baseline compiler runs at about 10x the speed of its optimizing compiler, which incidentally is similar to what I found for WebAssembly compilers a while back.

Also of note is that -O0 and -O1 take essentially the same time, with -O1 often taking less time than -O0. This is because partial evaluation can make the program smaller, at a cost of being less straightforward to debug.

Similarly, -O3 usually takes less time than -O2. This is because -O3 is allowed to assume top-level bindings that aren't exported from a module can be transformed to lexical bindings, which are more available for contification and inlining, which usually leads to smaller programs; it is a similar debugging/performance tradeoff to the -O0/-O1 case.

But what does one gain when choosing to spend 10 times more on compilation? Here I have a gnarly graph that plots performance on some microbenchmarks for all the different optimization levels.

Like I said, it's gnarly, but the summary is that -O1 typically gets you a factor of 2 or 4 over -O0, and -O2 often gets you another factor of 2 above that. -O3 is mostly the same as -O2 except in magical circumstances like the mbrot case, where it adds an extra 16x or so over -O2.

worse is better

I haven't seen the numbers yet of this new compiler in Guix, but I hope it can have a good impact. Already in Guile itself though I've seen a couple interesting advantages.

One is that because it produces code faster, Guile's boostrap from source can take less time. There is also a felicitous feedback effect in that because the baseline compiler is much smaller than the CPS compiler, it takes less time to macro-expand, which reduces bootstrap time (as bootstrap has to pay the cost of expanding the compiler, until the compiler is compiled).

The second fortunate result is that now I can use the baseline compiler as an oracle for the CPS compiler, when I'm working on new optimizations. There's nothing worse than suspecting that your compiler miscompiled itself, after all, and having a second compiler helps keep me sane.

stay safe, friends

The code, you ask? Voici.

Although this work has been ongoing throughout the past month, I need to add some words on the now before leaving you: there is a kind of cognitive dissonance between nerding out on compilers in the comfort of my home, rain pounding on the patio, and at the same time the world on righteous fire. I hope it is clear to everyone by now that the US police are an essentially racist institution: they harass, maim, and murder Black people at much higher rates than whites. My heart is with the protestors. Godspeed to you all, from afar. At the same time, all my non-Black readers should reflect on the ways they participate in systems that support white supremacy, and on strategies to tear them down. I know I will be. Stay safe, wear eye protection, and until next time: peace.

understanding webassembly code generation throughput

14 April 2020 8:59 AM (igalia | compilers | firefox | spidermonkey | webassembly | bloomberg | v8 | javascriptcore)

Greets! Today's article looks at browser WebAssembly implementations from a compiler throughput point of view. As I wrote in my article on Firefox's WebAssembly baseline compiler, web browsers have multiple wasm compilers: some that produce code fast, and some that produce fast code. Implementors are willing to pay the cost of having multiple compilers in order to satisfy these conflicting needs. So how well do they do their jobs? Why bother?

In this article, I'm going to take the simple path and just look at code generation throughput on a single chosen WebAssembly module. Think of it as X-ray diffraction to expose aspects of the inner structure of the WebAssembly implementations in SpiderMonkey (Firefox), V8 (Chrome), and JavaScriptCore (Safari).

experimental setup

As a workload, I am going to use a version of the "Zen Garden" demo. This is a 40-megabyte game engine and rendering demo, originally released for other platforms, and compiled to WebAssembly a couple years later. Unfortunately the original URL for the demo was disabled at some point in late 2019, so it no longer has a home on the web. A bit of a weird situation and I am not clear on licensing either. In any case I have a version downloaded, and have hacked out a minimal set of "imports" that the WebAssembly module needs from the host to allow the module to compile and link when run from a JavaScript shell, without requiring WebGL and similar facilities. So the benchmark is just to instantiate a WebAssembly module from the 40-megabyte byte array and see how long it takes. It would be better if I had more test cases (and would be happy to add them to the comparison!) but this is a start.

I start by benchmarking the various WebAssembly implementations, firstly in their standard configuration and then setting special run-time flags to measure the performance of the component compilers. I run these tests on the core-rich machine that I use for browser development (2 Xeon Silver 4114 CPUs for a total of 40 logical cores). The default-configuration numbers are therefore not indicative of performance on a low-end Android phone, but we can use them to extract aspects of the different implementations.

Since I'm interested in compiler throughput, I'm not particularly concerned about how well a compiler will use all 40 cores. Therefore when testing the specific compilers I will set implementation-specific flags to disable parallelism in the compiler and GC: --single-threaded on V8, --no-threads on SpiderMonkey, and --useConcurrentGC=false --useConcurrentJIT=false on JSC. To further restrict any threads that the implementation might decide to spawn, I'll bind these to a single core on my machine using taskset -c 4. Otherwise the machine is in its normal configuration (nothing else significant running, all cores available for scheduling, turbo boost enabled).

I'll express results in nanoseconds per WebAssembly code byte. Of the 40 megabytes or so in the Zen Garden demo, only 23 891 164 bytes are actually function code; the rest is mostly static data (textures and so on). So I'll divide the total time by this code byte count.

I tested V8 at git revision 0961376575206, SpiderMonkey at hg revision 8ec2329bef74, and JavaScriptCore at subversion revision 259633. The benchmarks can be run using just a shell; see the pull request. I timed how long it took to instantiate the Zen Garden demo, ensuring that a basic export was callable. I collected results from 20 separate runs, sleeping a second between them. The bars in the charts below show the median times, with a histogram overlay of all results.

results & analysis

We can see some interesting results in this graph. Note that the Y axis is logarithmic. The "concurrent tiering" results in the graph correspond to the default configurations (no special flags, no taskset, all cores available).

The first interesting conclusions that pop out for me concern JavaScriptCore, which is the only implementation to have a baseline interpreter (run using --useWasmLLInt=true --useBBQJIT=false --useOMGJIT=false). JSC's WebAssembly interpreter is actually structured as a compiler that generates custom WebAssembly-specific bytecode, which is then run by a custom interpreter built using the same infrastructure as JSC's JavaScript interpreter (the LLInt). Directly interpreting WebAssembly might be possible as a low-latency implementation technique, but since you need to validate the WebAssembly anyway and eventually tier up to an optimizing compiler, apparently it made sense to emit fresh bytecode.

The part of JSC that generates baseline interpreter code runs slower than SpiderMonkey's baseline compiler, so one is tempted to wonder why JSC bothers to go the interpreter route; but then we recall that on iOS, we can't generate machine code in some contexts, so the LLInt does appear to address a need.

One interesting feature of the LLInt is that it allows tier-up to the optimizing compiler directly from loops, which neither V8 nor SpiderMonkey support currently. Failure to tier up can be quite confusing for users, so good on JSC hackers for implementing this.

Finally, while baseline interpreter code generation throughput handily beats V8's baseline compiler, it would seem that something in JavaScriptCore is not adequately taking advantage of multiple cores; if one core compiles at 51ns/byte, why do 40 cores only do 41ns/byte? It could be my tests are misconfigured, or it could be that there's a nice speed boost to be found somewhere in JSC.

JavaScriptCore's baseline compiler (run using --useWasmLLInt=false --useBBQJIT=true --useOMGJIT=false) runs much more slowly than SpiderMonkey's or V8's baseline compiler, which I think can be attributed to the fact that it builds a graph of basic blocks instead of doing a one-pass compile. To me these results validate SpiderMonkey's and V8's choices, looking strictly from a latency perspective.

I don't have graphs for code generation throughput of JavaSCriptCore's optimizing compiler (run using --useWasmLLInt=false --useBBQJIT=false --useOMGJIT=true); it turns out that JSC wants one of the lower tiers to be present, and will only tier up from the LLInt or from BBQ. Oh well!

V8 and SpiderMonkey, on the other hand, are much of the same shape. Both implement a streaming baseline compiler and an optimizing compiler; for V8, we get these via --liftoff --no-wasm-tier-up or --no-liftoff, respectively, and for SpiderMonkey it's --wasm-compiler=baseline or --wasm-compiler=ion.

Here we should conclude directly that SpiderMonkey generates code around twice as fast as V8 does, in both tiers. SpiderMonkey can generate machine code faster even than JavaScriptCore can generate bytecode, and optimized machine code faster than JSC can make baseline machine code. It's a very impressive result!

Another conclusion concerns the efficacy of tiering: for both V8 and SpiderMonkey, their baseline compilers run more than 10 times as fast as the optimizing compiler, and the same ratio holds between JavaScriptCore's baseline interpreter and compiler.

Finally, it would seem that the current cross-implementation benchmark for lowest-tier code generation throughput on a desktop machine would then be around 50 ns per WebAssembly code byte for a single core, which corresponds to receiving code over the wire at somewhere around 160 megabits per second (Mbps). If we add in concurrency and manage to farm out compilation tasks well, we can obviously double or triple that bitrate. Optimizing compilers run at least an order of magnitude slower. We can conclude that to the desktop end user, WebAssembly compilation time is indistinguishable from download time for the lowest tier. The optimizing tier is noticeably slower though, running more around 10-15 Mbps per core, so time-to-tier-up is still a concern for faster networks.

Going back to the question posed at the start of the article: yes, tiering shows a clear benefit in terms of WebAssembly compilation latency, letting users interact with web sites sooner. So that's that. Happy hacking and until next time!

multi-value webassembly in firefox: a binary interface

8 April 2020 9:02 AM (igalia | compilers | firefox | spidermonkey | webassembly | bloomberg)

Hey hey hey! Hope everyone is staying safe at home in these weird times. Today I have a final dispatch on the implementation of the multi-value feature for WebAssembly in Firefox. Last week I wrote about multi-value in blocks; this week I cover function calls.

on the boundaries between things

In my article on Firefox's baseline compiler, I mentioned that all WebAssembly engines in web browsers treat the function as the unit of compilation. This facilitates streaming, parallel compilation of WebAssembly modules, by farming out compilation of individual functions to worker threads. It also allows for easy tier-up from quick-and-dirty code generated by the low-latency baseline compiler to the faster code produced by the optimizing compiler.

There are some interesting Conway's Law implications of this choice. One is that division of compilation tasks becomes an opportunity for division of human labor; there is a whole team working on the experimental Cranelift compiler that could replace the optimizing tier, and in my hackings on Firefox I have had minimal interaction with them. To my detriment, of course; they are fine people doing interesting things. But the code boundary means that we don't need to communicate as we work on different parts of the same system.

Boundaries are where places touch, and sometimes for fluid crossing we have to consider boundaries as places in their own right. Functions compiled with the baseline compiler, with Ion (the production optimizing compiler), and with Cranelift (the experimental optimizing compiler) are all able to call each other because they actively maintain a common boundary, a binary interface (ABI). (Incidentally the A originally stands for "application", essentially reflecting division of labor between groups of people making different components of a software system; Conway's Law again.) Let's look closer at this boundary-place, with an eye to how it changes with multi-value.

what's in an ABI?

Among other things, an ABI specifies a calling convention: which arguments go in registers, which on the stack, how the stack values are represented, how results are returned to the callers, which registers are preserved over calls, and so on. Intra-WebAssembly calls are a closed world, so we can design a custom ABI if we like; that's what V8 does. Sometimes WebAssembly may call functions from the run-time, though, and so it may be useful to be closer to the C++ ABI on that platform (the "native" ABI); that's what Firefox does. (Incidentally here I think Firefox is probably leaving a bit of performance on the table on Windows by using the inefficient native ABI that only allows four register parameters. I haven't measured though so perhaps it doesn't matter.) Using something closer to the native ABI makes debugging easier as well, as native debugger tools can apply more easily.

One thing that most native ABIs have in common is that they are really only optimized for a single result. This reflects their heritage as artifacts from a world built with C and C++ compilers, where there isn't a concept of a function with more than one result. If multiple results are required, they are represented instead as arguments, typically as pointers to memory somewhere. Consider the AMD64 SysV ABI, used on Unix-derived systems, which carefully specifies how to pass arbitrary numbers of arbitrary-sized data structures to a function (§3.2.3), while only specifying what to do for a single return value. If the return value is too big for registers, the ABI specifies that a pointer to result memory be passed as an argument instead.

So in a multi-result WebAssembly world, what are we to do? How should a function return multiple results to its caller? Let's assume that there are some finite number of general-purpose and floating-point registers devoted to return values, and that if the return values will fit into those registers, then that's where they go. The problem is then to determine which results will go there, and if there are remaining results that don't fit, then we have to put them in memory. The ABI should indicate how to address that memory.

When looking into a design, I considered three possibilities.

first thought: stack results precede stack arguments

When a function needs some of its arguments passed on the stack, it doesn't receive a pointer to those arguments; rather, the arguments are placed at a well-known offset to the stack pointer.

We could do the same thing with stack results, either reserving space deeper on the stack than stack arguments, or closer to the stack pointer. With the advent of tail calls, it would make more sense to place them deeper on the stack. Like this:

The diagram above shows the ordering of stack arguments as implemented by Firefox's WebAssembly compilers: later arguments are deeper (farther from the stack pointer). It's an arbitrary choice that happens to match up with what the native ABIs do, as it was easier to re-use bits of the already-existing optimizing compiler that way. (Native ABIs use this stack argument ordering because of sloppiness in a version of C from before I was born. If you were starting over from scratch, probably you wouldn't do things this way.)

Stack result order does matter to the baseline compiler, though. It's easier if the stack results are placed in the same order in which they would be pushed on the virtual stack, so that when the function completes, the results can just be memmove'd down into place (if needed). The same concern dictates another aspect of our ABI: unlike calls, registers are allocated to the last results rather than the first results. This is to make it easy to preserve stack invariant (1) from the previous article.

At first I thought this was the obvious option, but I ran into problems. It turns out that stack arguments are fundamentally unlike stack results in some important ways.

While a stack argument is logically consumed by a call, a stack result starts life with a call. As such, if you reserve space for stack results just by decrementing the stack pointer before a call, probably you will need to load the results eagerly into registers thereafter or shuffle them into other positions to be able to free the allocated stack space.

Eager shuffling is busy-work that should be avoided if possible. It's hard to avoid in the baseline compiler. For example, a call to a function with 10 arguments will consume 10 values from the temporary stack; any results will be pushed on after removing argument values from the stack. If there any stack results, it's almost impossible to avoid a post-call memmove, to move stack results to where they should be before the 10 argument values were pushed on (and probably spilled). So the baseline compiler case is not optimal.

However, things get gnarlier with the Ion optimizing compiler. Like many other optimizing compilers, Ion is designed to compute the necessary stack frame size ahead of time, and to never move the stack pointer during an activation. The only exception is for pushing on any needed stack arguments for nested calls (which are popped directly after the nested call). So in that case, assuming there are a number of multi-value calls in a stack frame, we'll be shuffling in the optimizing compiler as well. Not great.

Besides the need to shuffle, stack arguments and stack results differ as regards ownership and garbage collection. A callee "owns" the memory for its stack arguments; it is responsible for them. The caller can't assume anything about the contents of that memory after a call, especially if the WebAssembly implementation supports tail calls (a whole 'nother blog post, that). If the values being passed are just bits, that's one thing, but with the reference types proposal, some result values may be managed by the garbage collector. The callee is responsible for making stack arguments visible to the garbage collector; the caller is responsible for the results. The caller will need to emit metadata to allow the garbage collector to see stack result references. For this reason, a stack result actually starts life just before a call, because it can become initialized at any point and thus needs to be traced during the entire callee activation. Not all callers can easily add garbage collection roots for writable stack slots, so the need to place stack results in a fixed position complicates calling multi-value WebAssembly functions in some cases (e.g. from C++).

second thought: pointers to individual stack results

Surely there are more well-trodden solutions to the multiple-result problem. If we encoded a multi-value return in C, how would we do it? Consider a function in C that has three 64-bit integer results. The idiomatic way to encode it would be to have one of the results be the return value of the function, and the two others to be passed "by reference":

int64_t foo(int64_t* a, int64_t* b) {
  *a = 1;
  *b = 2;
  return 3;
void call_foo(void) {
  int64 a, b, c;
  c = foo(&a, &b);

This program shows us a possibility for encoding WebAssembly's multiple return values: pass an additional argument for each stack result, pointing to the location to which to write the stack result. Like this:

The result pointers are normal arguments, subject to normal argument allocation. In the above example, given that there are already stack arguments, they will probably be passed on the stack, but in many cases the stack result pointers may be passed in registers.

The result locations themselves don't even need to be on the stack, though they certainly will be in intra-WebAssembly calls. However the ability to write to any memory is a useful form of flexibility when e.g. calling into WebAssembly from C++.

The advantage of this approach is that we eliminate post-call shuffles, at least in optimizing compilers. But, having to make an argument for each stack result, each of which might itself become a stack argument, seems a bit offensive. I thought we might be able to do a little better.

third thought: stack result area, passed as pointer

Given that stack results are going to be written to memory, it doesn't really matter where they will be written, from the perspective of the optimizing compiler at least. What if we allocated them all in a block and just passed one pointer to the block? Like this:

Here there's just one additional argument, no matter how many stack results. While we're at it, we can specify that the layout of the stack arguments should be the same as how they would be written to the baseline stack, to make the baseline compiler's job easier.

As I started implementation with the baseline compiler, I chose this third approach, essentially because I was already allocating space for the results in a block in this way by bumping the stack pointer.

When I got to the optimizing compiler, however, it was quite difficult to convince Ion to allocate an area on the stack of the right shape.

Looking back on it now, I am not sure that I made the right choice. The thing is, the IonMonkey compiler started life as an optimizing compiler for JavaScript. It can represent unboxed values, which is how it came to be used as a compiler for asm.js and later WebAssembly, and it does a good job on them. However it has never had to represent aggregate data structures like a C++ class, so it didn't have support for spilling arbitrary-sized data to the stack. It took a while staring at the register allocator to convince it to allocate arbitrary-sized stack regions, and then to allocate component scalar values out of those regions. If I had just asked the register allocator to give me one appropriate-sized stack slot for each scalar, and hacked out the ability to pass separate pointers to the stack slots to WebAssembly calls with stack results, then I would have had an easier time of it, and perhaps stack slot allocation could be more dense because multiple results wouldn't need to be allocated contiguously.

As it is, I did manage to hack it in, and I think in a way that doesn't regress. I added a layer over an argument type vector that adds a synthetic stack results pointer argument, if the function returns stack results; iterating over this type with ABIArgIter will allocate a stack result area pointer, either as a register argument or a stack argument. In the optimizing compiler, I added add a kind of value allocation coresponding to a variable-sized stack area, (using pointer tagging again!), and extended the register allocator to allocate LStackArea, and the component stack results. Interestingly, I had to add a kind of definition that starts life on the stack; previously all Ion results started life in registers and were only spilled if needed.

In the end, a function will capture the incoming stack result area argument, either as a normal SSA value (for Ion) or stored to a stack slot (baseline), and when returning will write stack results to that pointer as appropriate. Passing in a pointer as an argument did make it relatively easy to implement calls from WebAssembly to and from C++, getting the variable-shape result area to be known to the garbage collector for C++-to-WebAssembly calls was simple in the end but took me a while to figure out.

Finally I was a bit exhausted from multi-value work and ready to walk away from the "JS API", the bit that allows multi-value WebAssembly functions to be called from JavaScript (they return an array) or for a JavaScript function to return multiple values to WebAssembly (via an iterable) -- but then when I got to thinking about this blog post I preferred to implement the feature rather than document its lack. Avoidance-of-document-driven development: it's a thing!

towards deployment

As I said in the last article, the multi-value feature is about improved code generation and also making a more capable base for expressing further developments in the WebAssembly language.

As far as code generation goes, things are progressing but it is still early days. Thomas Lively has implemented support in LLVM for emitting return of C++ aggregates via multiple results, which is enabled via the -experimental-multivalue-abi cc1 flag. Thomas has also been implementing multi-value support in the binaryen WebAssembly toolchain component, used by the emscripten C++-to-WebAssembly toolchain. I think it will be a few months though before everything lands in a way that end users can take advantage of.

On the specification side, the multi-value feature is now at phase 4 since January, which basically means things are all done there.

Implementation-wise, V8 has had experimental support since 2017 or so, and the feature was staged last fall, although V8 doesn't yet support multi-value in their baseline compiler. WebKit also landed support last fall.

Unlike V8 and SpiderMonkey, JavaScriptCore (the JS and wasm engine in WebKit) actually implements a WebAssembly interpreter as their solution to the one-pass streaming compilation problem. Then on the compiler side, there are two tiers that both operate on basic block graphs (OMG and BBQ; I just puked a little in my mouth typing that). This strategy makes the compiler implementation quite straightforward. It's also an interesting design point because JavaScriptCore's garbage collector scans the stack conservatively; there's no need for the compiler to do bookkeeping on the GC's behalf, which I'm sure was a relief to the hacker. Anyway, multi-value in WebKit is done too.

The new thing of course is that finally, in Firefox, the feature is now fully implemented (woo) and enabled by default on Nightly builds (woo!). I did that! It took me a while! Perhaps too long? Anyway it's done. Thanks again to Bloomberg for supporting this work; large ups to y'all for helping the web move forward.

See you next time with a more general article rounding up compile-time benchmarks on a variety of WebAssembly implementations. Until then, happy hacking!

multi-value webassembly in firefox: from 1 to n

3 April 2020 10:56 AM (igalia | compilers | firefox | spidermonkey | webassembly | bloomberg)

Greetings, hackers! Today I'd like to write about something I worked on recently: implementation of the multi-value future feature of WebAssembly in Firefox, as sponsored by Bloomberg.

In the "minimum viable product" version of WebAssembly published in 2018, there were a few artificial restrictions placed on the language. Functions could only return a single value; if a function would naturally return two values, it would have to return at least one of them by writing to memory. Loops couldn't take parameters; any loop state variables had to be stored to and loaded from indexed local variables at each iteration. Similarly, any block that would naturally return more than one result would also have to do so via locals.

This restruction is lifted with the multi-value proposal. Function types now map from result type to result type, where a result type is a sequence of value types. That is to say, just as functions can take multiple arguments, they can return multiple results. Similarly, with the multi-value proposal, block types are now the same as function types: loops and blocks can take arguments and return any number of results. This change improves the expressiveness of WebAssembly as a compilation target; a C++ program compiled to multi-value WebAssembly can be encoded in fewer bytes than before. Multi-value also establishes a base for other language extensions. For example, the exception handling proposal builds on multi-value to pass multiple values to catch blocks.

So, that's multi-value. You would think that relaxing a restriction would be easy, but you'd be wrong! This task took me 5 months and had a number of interesting gnarly bits. This article is part one of two about interesting aspects of implementing multi-value in Firefox, specifically focussing on blocks. We'll talk about multi-value function calls next week.

multi-value in blocks

In the last article, I presented the basic structure of Firefox's WebAssembly support: there is a baseline compiler optimized for low latency and an optimizing compiler optimized for throughput. (There is also Cranelift, a new experimental compiler that may replace the current implementation of the optimizing compiler; but that doesn't affect the basic structure.)

The optimizing compiler applies traditional compiler techniques: SSA graph construction, where values flow into and out of graphs using the usual defs-dominate-uses relationship. The only control-flow joins are loop entry and (possibly) block exit, so the addition of loop parameters means in multi-value there are some new phi variables in that case, and the expansion of block result count from [0,1] to [0,n] means that you may have more block exit phi variables. But these compilers are built to handle these situations; you just build the SSA and let the optimizing compiler go to town.

The problem comes in the baseline compiler.

from 1 to n

Recall that the baseline compiler is optimized for compiler speed, not compiled speed. If there are only ever going to be 0 or 1 result from a block, for example, the baseline compiler's internal data structures will use something like a Maybe<ValType> to represent that block result.

If you then need to expand this to hold a vector of values, the naïve approach of using a Vector<ValType> would mean heap allocation and indirection, and thus would regress the baseline compiler.

In this case, and in many other similar cases, the solution is to use value tagging to represent 0 or 1 value type directly in a word, and the general case by linking out to an external vector. As block types are function types, they actually appear as function types in the WebAssembly type section, so they are already parsed; the BlockType in that case can just refer out to already-allocated memory.

In fact this value-tagging pattern applies all over the place. (The jit/ links above are for the optimizing compiler, but they relate to function calls; will write about that next week.) I have a bit of pause about value tagging, in that it's gnarly complexity and I didn't measure the speed of alternative implementations, but it was a useful migration strategy: value tagging minimizes performance risk to existing specialized use cases while adding support for new general cases. Gnarly it is, then.

control-flow joins

I didn't mention it in the last article, but there are two important invariants regarding stack discipline in the baseline compiler. Recall that there's a virtual stack, and that some elements of the virtual stack might be present on the machine stack. There are four kinds of virtual stack entry: register, constant, local, and spilled. Locals indicate local variable reads and are mostly like registers in practice; when registers spill to the stack, locals do too. (Why spill to the temporary stack instead of leaving the value in the local variable slot? Because locals are mutable. A local.get captures a local variable value at its point of execution. If future code changes the local variable value, you wouldn't want the captured value to change.)

Digressing, the stack invariants:

  1. Spilled values precede registers and locals on the virtual stack. If u and v are virtual stack entries and u is older than v, then if u is in a register or is a local, then v is not spilled.

  2. Older values precede newer values on the machine stack. Again for u and v, if they are both spilled, then u will be farther from the stack pointer than v.

There are five fundamental stack operations in the baseline compiler; let's examine them to see how the invariants are guaranteed. Recall that before multi-value, targets of non-local exits (e.g. of the br instruction) could only receive 0 or 1 value; if there is a value, it's passed in a well-known register (e.g. %rax or %xmm0). (On 32-bit machines, 64-bit values use a well-known pair of registers.)

Results of WebAssembly operations never push spilled values, neither onto the virtual nor the machine stack. v is either a register, a constant, or a reference to a local. Thus we guarantee both (1) and (2).
pop() -> v
Doesn't affect older stack entries, so (1) is preserved. If the newest stack entry is spilled, you know that it is closest to the stack pointer, so you can pop it by first loading it to a register and then incrementing the stack pointer; this preserves (2). Therefore if it is later pushed on the stack again, it will not be as a spilled value, preserving (1).
When spilling the virtual stack to the machine stack, you first traverse stack entries from new to old to see how far you need to spill. Once you get to a virtual stack entry that's already on the stack, you know that everything older has already been spilled, because of (1), so you switch to iterating back towards the new end of the stack, pushing registers and locals onto the machine stack and updating their virtual stack entries to be spilled along the way. This iteration order preserves (2). Note that because known constants never need to be on the machine stack, they can be interspersed with any other value on the virtual stack.
return(height, v)
This is the stack operation corresponding to a block exit (local or nonlocal). We drop items from the virtual and machine stack until the stack height is height. In WebAssembly 1.0, if the target continuation takes a value, then the jump passes a value also; in that case, before popping the stack, v is placed in a well-known register appropriate to the value type. Note however that v is not pushed on the virtual stack at the return point. Popping the virtual stack preserves (1), because a stack and its prefix have the same invariants; popping the machine stack also preserves (2).
Whereas return operations happen at block exits, capture operations happen at the target of block exits (the continuation). If no value is passed to the continuation, a capture is a no-op. If a value is passed, it's in a register, so we just push that register onto the virtual stack. Both invariants are obviously preserved.

Note that a value passed to a continuation via return() has a brief instant in which it has no name -- it's not on the virtual stack -- but only a location -- it's in a well-known place. capture() then gives that floating value a name.

Relatedly, there is another invariant, that the allocation of old values on block entry is the same as their allocation on block exit, so that all predecessors of the block exit flow all values via the same places. This is preserved by spilling on block entry. It's a big hammer, but effective.

So, given all this, how do we pass multiple values via return()? We don't have unlimited registers, so the %rax strategy isn't going to work.

The answer for the baseline compiler is informed by our lean into the stack machine principle. Multi-value returns are allocated in such a way that a capture() can push them onto the virtual stack. Because spilled values must precede registers, we therefore allocate older results on the stack, and put the last result in a register (or register pair for i64 on 32-bit platforms). Note that it's possible in theory to allocate multiple results to registers; we'll touch on this next week.

Therefore the implementation of return(height, is straightforward: we first pop register results, then spill the remaining virtual stack items, then shuffle stack results down towards height. This should result in a memmove of contiguous stack results towards the frame pointer. However because const values aren't present on the machine stack, depending on the stack height difference, it may mean a split between moving some values toward the frame pointer and some towards the stack pointer, then filling in by spilling constants. It's gnarly, but it is what it is. Note that the links to the return and capture implementations above are to the post-multi-value world, so you can see all the details there.

that's it!

In summary, the hard part of multi-value blocks was reworking internal compiler data structures to be able to represent multi-value block types, and then figuring out the low-level stack manipulations in the baseline compiler. The optimizing compiler on the other hand was pretty easy.

When it comes to calls though, that's another story. We'll get to that one next week. Thanks again to Bloomberg for supporting this work; I'm really delighted that Igalia and Bloomberg have been working together for a long time (coming on 10 years now!) to push the web platform forward. A special thanks also to Mozilla's Lars Hansen for his patience reviewing these patches. Until next week, then, stay at home & happy hacking!