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Compiling and example

This describes how the compiler works using the following code snippet, saved in a file named example_goal.gc.

(defun factorial-iterative ((x integer))
(let ((result 1))
(while (!= x 1)
(set! result (* result x))
(set! x (- x 1))

;; until we load KERNEL.CGO automatically, we have to do this to
;; make format work correctly.
(define-extern _format function)
(define format _format)

(let ((x 10))
(format #t "The value of ~D factorial is ~D~%" x (factorial-iterative x))

To run this yourself, start the compiler and runtime, then run:

(asm-file "doc/example_goal.gc" :color :load)

And you should see:

The value of 10 factorial is 3628800


The code to read from the GOAL REPL is in Compiler.cpp, in Compiler::execute_repl. Compiling an asm-file form will call Compiler::compile_asm_file in CompilerControl.cpp, which is where we'll start.

I've divided the process into these steps:

  1. Read: Convert from text to a representation of Lisp syntax.
  2. IR-Pass: Convert the S-Expressions to an intermediate representation (IR).
  3. Register Allocation: Map variables in the IR (IRegisters) to real hardware registers
  4. Code Generation: Generate x86-64 instructions from the IR
  5. Object File Generation: Put the instructions and static data in an object file and generate linking data
  6. Sending: Send the code to the runtime
  7. Linking: The runtime links the code so it can be run, and runs it.
  8. Result: The code prints the message which is sent back to the REPL.


The reader converts GOAL/GOOS source into a goos::Object. One of the core ideas of lisp is that "code is data", so GOAL code is represented as GOOS data. This makes it easy for GOOS macros to operate on GOAL code. A GOOS object can represent a number, string, pair, etc. This strips out comments/whitespace.

The reader is run with this code:

auto code = m_goos.reader.read_from_file({filename});

If you were to code.print(), you would get:

(top-level (defun factorial-iterative ((x integer)) (let ((result 1)) (while (!= x 1) (set! result (* result x)) (set! x (- x 1))) result)) (define-extern _format function) (define format _format) (let ((x 10)) (format #t "The value of ~D factorial is ~D~%" x (factorial-iterative x))))

There are a few details worth mentioning about this process:

  • The reader will expand 'my-symbol to (quote my-symbol)
  • The reader will throw errors on syntax errors (mismatched parentheses, bad strings/numbers, etc.)
  • Using read_from_file adds information about where each thing came from to a map stored in the reader. This map is used to determine the source file/line for compiler errors.

IR Pass

This pass converts code (represented as a goos::Object) into intermediate representation. This is stored in an Env*, a tree structure. At the top is a GlobalEnv*, then an FileEnv for each file compiled, then a FunctionEnv for each function in the file. There are environments within FunctionEnv that are used for lexical scoping and the other types of GOAL scopes. The Intermediate Representation (IR) is a list per function that's built up in order as the compiler goes through the function. Note that the IR is a list of instructions and doesn't have a tree or more complicated structure. Here's an example of the IR for the example function:

Function: function-factorial-iterative
mov-ic igpr-2, 1
mov igpr-3, igpr-2
goto label-10
mov igpr-4, igpr-3
imul igpr-4, igpr-0
mov igpr-3, igpr-4
mov igpr-5, igpr-0
mov-ic igpr-6, 1
subi igpr-5, igpr-6
mov igpr-0, igpr-5
mov-ic igpr-7, 1
j(igpr-0 != igpr-7) label-3
ret igpr-1 igpr-3

Function: function-top-level
mov-fa igpr-0, function-factorial-iterative
mov 'factorial-iterative, igpr-0
mov igpr-1, '_format
mov 'format, igpr-1
mov-ic igpr-2, 10
mov igpr-3, igpr-2
mov igpr-4, '#t
mov-sva igpr-5, static-string "The value of ~D factorial is ~D~%"
mov igpr-6, 'factorial-iterative
mov igpr-8, igpr-3
call igpr-6 (ret igpr-7) (args igpr-8)
mov igpr-9, igpr-7
mov igpr-10, 'format
mov igpr-12, igpr-4
mov igpr-13, igpr-5
mov igpr-14, igpr-3
mov igpr-15, igpr-9
call igpr-10 (ret igpr-11) (args igpr-12 igpr-13 igpr-14 igpr-15)
mov igpr-16, igpr-11
ret igpr-17 igpr-16

The function-top-level is the "top level" function, which is everything not in a function. In the example, this is just defining the function, defining format, and calling format.

You'll notice that there are a ton of movs between igpr. The compiler inserts tons of moves. Because this is all done in a single pass, there's a lot of cases where the compiler can't know if a move is needed or not. But the register allocator can figure it out and will remove most unneeded moves. Adding moves can also prevent stack spills. For example, consider the case where you want to get the return value of function a, then call function b, then call function c with the return value of function a. If there are a lot of moves, the register allocator can figure out a way to temporarily stash the value in a saved register instead of spilling to the stack.

Another thing to notice is that GOAL nested function calls suck. Example:

(format #t "The value of ~D factorial is ~D~%" x (factorial-iterative x))

requires loading format, #t, the string, and x into registers, then calling (factorial-iterative x), then calling format. This has to be done this way, just in case the factorial-iterative call modifies the value of format, #t, or x.

IR Pass Implementation

An important type in the compiler is Val, which is a specification on how to get a value. A Val has an associated GOAL type (TypeSpec) and the IR Pass should take care of all type checking. A Val can represent a constant, a memory location (relative to pointer, or static data, etc), a spot in an array, a register etc. A Val representing a register is a RegVal, which contains an IRegister. An IRegister is a register that's not yet mapped to the hardware, and instead has a unique integer to identify itself. The IR assumes there are infinitely many IRegisters, and a later stage maps IRegisters to real hardware registers.

The general process starts with a compile function, which dispatches other compile_<thing> functions as needed. These generally take in goos::Object as a code input, emit IR into an Env/or modify things in the Env, and return a Val* describing the result.

In general, GOAL is very greedy and compile functions emit IR to do things, then put the result in a register, and return a RegVal.

However, there is an exception for memory related things. Consider

(-> my-object my-field) ;  my_object->my_field in C

This shouldn't return a Val for a register containing the value of my_object->my_field, but should instead return something that represents "the memory location of my_field in my_object". This way you can do

(set! (-> my-object my-field) val)
;; or
(& (-> my-object my-field)) ;; &my_object->my_field

and the compiler will have enough information to figure out the memory address.

If the compiler actually needs the value of something, and wants to be sure its a value in a register, it will use the to_reg method of Val. This will emit IR into the current function to get the value in a register, then return a Val that represents this register. Example to_reg implementation for integer constants:

RegVal* IntegerConstantVal::to_reg(Env* fe) {
auto rv = fe->make_gpr(m_ts);
fe->emit(std::make_unique<IR_LoadConstant64>(rv, m_value));
return rv;

Note that to_reg can emit code like reading from memory, where the order of operations really matters, so you have to be very careful.

It's extremely dangerous to let a memory reference Val propagate too far. Consider this example:

(let ((x (-> my-object my-field)))
(set! (-> my-object my-field) 12)

Where x should be the old value of my-field. The Val for x needs to be to_reged before getting inside the let. There's also some potential confusion around the order that you compile and to_gpr things. In a case where you need a bunch of values in gprs, you should do the to_gpr immediately after compiling to match the exact behavior of the original GOAL. For example

(+ (-> my-array (* x y)) (some-function))
;; like c++ my_array[x*y] + some_function()

When we compile the (-> my-array (* x y)), it will emit code to calculate the (*x y), but won't actually do the memory access until we call to_reg on the result. This memory access should happen before some-function is called.

In general, each time you compile something, you should immediately to_gpr it, before compileing the next thing. Many places will only accept a RegVal as an input to help with this. Also, the result for almost all compilation functions should be to_reged. The only exceptions are forms which deal with memory references (address of operator, dereference operator) or math.

Another important thing is that compilation functions should never modify any existing IRegisters or Vals, unless that function is set!, which handles the situation correctly. Instead, create new IRegisters and move into those. I am planning to implement a settable flag to help reduce errors.

For example:

  • RegVal storing a local variable: is settable, you can modify local variables by writing to the register they use.
  • RegVal storing the result of a memory dereference: not settable, you should set the memory instead.
  • RegVal containing the result of converting a xmm to gpr: not settable, you need to set the original xmm instead

The only settable RegVal is one corresponding to a local variable.

Following the Code

This pass runs from here:

auto obj_file = compile_object_file(obj_file_name, code, !no_code);

That function sets up a FileEnv*, then runs

compile_top_level_function("top-level", std::move(code), compilation_env));

which compiles the body of the function with:

auto result = compile_error_guard(code, fe.get());

The compile_error_guard function takes in code (as a goos::Object) and a Env*, and returns a Val representing the return value of the code. It calls the compile function, but wraps it in a try catch block to catch any compilation errors and print an error message. In the case where there's no error, it just does:

return compile(code, env);

The compile function is pretty simple:

* Highest level compile function
Val* Compiler::compile(const goos::Object& code, Env* env) {
switch (code.type) {
case goos::ObjectType::PAIR:
return compile_pair(code, env);
case goos::ObjectType::INTEGER:
return compile_integer(code, env);
case goos::ObjectType::SYMBOL:
return compile_symbol(code, env);
case goos::ObjectType::STRING:
return compile_string(code, env);
case goos::ObjectType::FLOAT:
return compile_float(code, env);
ice("Don't know how to compile " + code.print());
return get_none();

In our case, the code starts with (defun.., which is actually a GOOS macro. It throws away the docstring, creates a lambda, then stores the function in a symbol:

;; Define a new function
(defmacro defun (name bindings &rest body)
(if (and
(> (length body) 1) ;; more than one thing in function
(string? (first body)) ;; first thing is a string
;; then it's a docstring and we ignore it.
`(define ,name (lambda :name ,name ,bindings ,@(cdr body)))
;; otherwise don't ignore it.
`(define ,name (lambda :name ,name ,bindings ,@body))

The compiler notices this is a macro in compile_pair:

  if (head.is_symbol()) {
// ...

goos::Object macro_obj;
if (try_getting_macro_from_goos(head, &macro_obj)) {
return compile_goos_macro(code, macro_obj, rest, env);

// ...

The compile_goos_macro function sets up a GOOS environment and interprets the GOOS macro to generate more GOAL code:

Val* Compiler::compile_goos_macro(const goos::Object& o,
const goos::Object& macro_obj,
const goos::Object& rest,
Env* env) {
auto macro = macro_obj.as_macro();
Arguments args = m_goos.get_args(o, rest, macro->args);
auto mac_env_obj = EnvironmentObject::make_new(); // GOOS environment
auto mac_env = mac_env_obj.as_env();
mac_env->parent_env = m_goos.global_environment.as_env();
m_goos.set_args_in_env(o, args, macro->args, mac_env);
auto goos_result = m_goos.eval_list_return_last(macro->body, macro->body, mac_env); // evaluate GOOS macro
return compile_error_guard(goos_result, env); // compile resulting GOAL code

and the last line of that function compiles the result of macro expansion in GOAL.

As an example, I'm going to look at compile_add, which handles the + form, and is representative of typical compiler code for this part. We start by checking that the arguments look valid:

Val* Compiler::compile_add(const goos::Object& form, const goos::Object& rest, Env* env) {
auto args = get_va(form, rest); // get arguments to + in a list
if (!args.named.empty() || args.unnamed.empty()) {
throw_compile_error(form, "Invalid + form");

Then we compile the first thing in the (+ ... form, get its type, and pick a math mode (int, float):

auto first_val = compile_error_guard(, env);
auto first_type = first_val->type();
auto math_type = get_math_mode(first_type);

In the integer case, we first create a new variable in the IR called an IRegister that must be in a GPR (as opposed to an XMM floating point register), and then emit an IR instruction that sets this result register to the first argument.

auto result = env->make_gpr(first_type);
env->emit(std::make_unique<IR_RegSet>(result, first_val->to_gpr(env)));

Then, for each of the remaining arguments, we do:

      for (size_t i = 1; i < args.unnamed.size(); i++) {
IntegerMathKind::ADD_64, result,
to_math_type(compile_error_guard(, env), math_type, env)

which emits an IR to add the value to the sum. The to_math_type will emit any code needed to convert this to the correct numeric type (returns either a numeric constant or a RegVal containing the value).

An important detail is that we create a new register which will hold the result. This may seem inefficient in cases, but a later compile pass will try to make this new register be the same register as first_val if possible, and will eliminate the IR_RegSet.

Register Allocation

This step figures out how to match up IRegisters to real hardware registers. In the case where there aren't enough hardware registers, it figures out how to "spill" variables onto the stack. The current implementation is a very greedy one, so it doesn't always succeed at doing things perfectly. The stack spilling is also not handled very efficiently, but the hope is that most functions won't require stack spilling.

This step is run from compile_asm_function on the line:


void Compiler::color_object_file(FileEnv* env) {
for (auto& f : env->functions()) {
AllocationInput input;
for (auto& i : f->code()) {
input.max_vars = f->max_vars();
input.constraints = f->constraints();

// debug prints removed


The actual algorithm is too complicated to describe here, but it figures out a mapping from IRegisters to hardware registers. It also figures out how much space on the stack is needed for any stack spills, which saved registers will be used, and deals with aligning the stack.

Code Generation

This part actually generates the static data and x86 instructions and stores them in an ObjectGenerator. See CodeGenerator::do_function. It emits the function prologue and epilogue, as well as any extra loads/stores from the stack that the register allocator added. Each IR gets to emit instructions with:

ir->do_codegen(&m_gen, allocs, i_rec);

Each IR has its own do_codegen that emits the right instruction, and also any linking data that's needed. For example, instructions that access the symbol table are patched by the runtime to directly access the correct slot of the hash table, so the do_codegen also lets the ObjectGenerator know about this link:

// IR_GetSymbolValue::do_codegen

// look at register allocation result to determine hw register
auto dst_reg = get_reg(m_dest, allocs, irec);

// add an instruction
auto instr = gen->add_instr(IGen::load32u_gpr64_gpr64_plus_gpr64_plus_s32(
dst_reg, gRegInfo.get_st_reg(), gRegInfo.get_offset_reg(), 0x0badbeef), irec);

// add link info
gen->link_instruction_symbol_mem(instr, m_src->name());

here 0xbadbeef is used as a placeholder offset - the runtime should patch this to the actual offset of the symbol.

There's a ton of book-keeping to figure out the correct offsets for rip-relative addressing, or how to deal with jumps to/from IR which become multiple (or zero!) x86-64 instructions. It should all be handled by ObjectFileGenerator, and not in do_codegen or CodeGenerator.

Object File Generation

Once the CodeGenerator is done going through all functions and static data, it runs:

return m_gen.generate_data_v3().to_vector();

This actually lays out everything in memory. It takes a few passes because x86 instructions are variable length (may even change based on which registers are used!), so it's a little bit tricky to figure out offsets between different instructions or instructions and data. Finally it generates link data tables, which efficiently pack together links to the same symbols into a single entry, to avoid duplicated symbol names. The link table also contains information about linking references in between different segments, as different parts of the object file may be loaded into different spots in memory, and will need to reference each other.

This is the final result for top-level function (stored in top-level segment)

;; prologue
push rbx
push rbp
push r10
push r11
push rbx

;; load address of factorial-iterative function
lea rax,[rip+0x0]
;; convert to GOAL pointer
sub rax,r15
;; store in symbol table
mov DWORD PTR [r15+r14*1+0xbadbeef],eax

;; load _format value
mov eax,DWORD PTR [r15+r14*1+0xbadbeef]
;; store in format
mov DWORD PTR [r15+r14*1+0xbadbeef],eax

;; load constant 10 (the greedy regalloc does poorly here)
mov eax,0xa
mov rbx,rax

;; load format from symbol table
mov ebp,DWORD PTR [r15+r14*1+0xbadbeef]

;; load #t from symbol table
mov r10d,DWORD PTR [r15+r14*1+0xbadbeef]

;; get address of string
lea r11,[rip+0x0]
;; convert to GOAL pointer
sub r11,r15

;; get factorial-iterative from symbol table
mov ecx,DWORD PTR [r15+r14*1+0xbadbeef]
;; move 10 into argument register
mov rdi,rbx
;; convert factorial-iterative to a real pointer
add rcx,r15
;; call factorial
call rcx

;; move args into argument registers
mov rdi,r10
mov rsi,r11
mov rdx,rbx
mov rcx,rax

;; call format
add rbp,r15
call rbp

;; epilogue
pop rbx
pop r11
pop r10
pop rbp
pop rbx

and the factorial function (stored in main segment)

mov    eax,0x1
jmp 0x18
mul eax,edi
movsxd rax,eax
mov ecx,0x1
sub rdi,rcx
mov ecx,0x1
cmp rdi,rcx
jne 0xa

Sending and Receiving

The result of codegen_object_file is sent with:


which adds a message header then just sends the code over the socket.

The receive process is complicated, so this is just a quick summary

  • Deci2Server receives it
  • calls GoalProtoHandler in chunks, which stores it in a buffer (MessBuffArea)
  • Once fully received, WaitForMessageAndAck will return a pointer to the message. The name of this function is totally wrong, it doesn't wait for a message, and it doesn't ack the message.
  • The main loop in KernelCheckAndDispatch will see this message and run ProcessListenerMessage
  • ProcessListenerMessage sees that it has code, copies the message to the debug heap, and links it.
auto buffer = kmalloc(kdebugheap, MessCount, 0, "listener-link-block");
memcpy(buffer.c(), msg.c(), MessCount);
ListenerLinkBlock->value = buffer.offset + 4;
ListenerFunction->value = link_and_exec(buffer, "*listener*", 0, kdebugheap, LINK_FLAG_FORCE_DEBUG).offset;
  • The link_and_exec function doesn't actually execute anything because it doesn't have the LINK_FLAG_EXECUTE set, it just links things. It moves the top level function and linking data to the top of the heap (temporary storage for the kernel) and keep both the main segment and debug segment of the code on the debug heap. It'll move them together and eliminate gaps before linking. After linking, the ListenerFunction->value will contain a pointer to the top level function, which is stored in the top temp area of the heap. This ListenerFunction is the GOAL *listener-function* symbol.
  • The next time the GOAL kernel runs, it will notice that *listener-function* is set, then call this function, then set it to #f to indicate it called the function.
  • After this, ClearPending() is called, which sends all of the print messages with the Deci2Server back to the compiler.
  • Because the GOAL kernel changed ListenerFunction to #f, it does a SendAck() to send a special ACK message to the compiler, saying "I got the function, ran it, and didn't crash. Now I'm ready for more messages."