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The Design of LLVM

LLVM is an umbrella project that hosts and develops a set of close-knit, low-level toolchain components (assemblers, compilers, debuggers, etc.), which are designed to be compatible with existing tools typically used on UNIX systems. The name "LLVM" was once an acronym, but is now just a brand for the umbrella project. While LLVM provides some unique capabilities and is known for some of its widely used tools (the Clang compiler, a C/C++/Objective-C compiler that provides a number of benefits over the GCC compiler), the main thing that sets LLVM apart from other compilers is its internal architecture.

From its beginning in December 2000, LLVM was designed as a set of reusable libraries with well-defined interfaces (LA04). At the time, open source programming language implementations were designed as special-purpose tools, which usually had monolithic executables. For example, it was very difficult to reuse the parser from a static compiler (such as GCC) for doing static analysis or refactoring. While scripting languages often provided a way to embed their runtime and interpreter into larger applications, this runtime was a single monolithic lump of code that was included or excluded. There was no way to reuse pieces, and very little sharing across language implementation projects.

Beyond the composition of the compiler itself, the communities surrounding popular language implementations were usually strongly polarized: an implementation usually provided either a traditional static compiler like GCC, Free Pascal, and FreeBASIC, or it provided a runtime compiler in the form of an interpreter or Just-In-Time (JIT) compiler. It was very uncommon to see language implementation that supported both, and if they did, there was usually very little sharing of code.

Over the last ten years, LLVM has substantially altered this landscape. LLVM is now used as a common infrastructure to implement a broad variety of statically and runtime compiled languages, including the family of languages supported by GCC, Java, .NET, Python, Ruby, Scheme, Haskell, D, as well as countless lesser known languages). It has also replaced a broad variety of special-purpose compilers, such as the runtime specialization engine in Apple's OpenGL stack and the image processing library in Adobe's After Effects product. Finally, LLVM has also been used to create a variety of new products, perhaps the best known of which is the OpenCL GPU programming language and runtime.

A Quick Introduction to Classical Compiler Design

The most popular design for a traditional static compiler (like most C compilers) is the three phase design whose major components are the front end, the optimizer, and the back end (see Figure 1). The front end parses source code, checking it for errors, and builds a language-specific Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) to represent the input code. The AST is optionally converted to a new representation for optimization, and the optimizer and back end are run on the code.

Figure 1: Three major components of a three-phase compiler.

The optimizer is responsible for doing a broad variety of transformations to try to improve the code's running time, such as eliminating redundant computations, and is usually more or less independent of language and target. The back end (also known as the code generator) then maps the code onto the target instruction set. In addition to making correct code, it is responsible for generating good code that takes advantage of unusual features of the supported architecture. Common parts of a compiler back end include instruction selection, register allocation, and instruction scheduling.

This model applies equally well to interpreters and JIT compilers. The Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is also an implementation of this model, which uses Java bytecode as the interface between the front end and optimizer.

Implications of this Design

The most important win of this classical design comes when a compiler decides to support multiple source languages or target architectures. If the compiler uses a common code representation in its optimizer, then a front end can be written for any language that can compile to it, and a back end can be written for any target that can compile from it, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Retargetablity.

With this design, porting the compiler to support a new source language (for example, Algol or BASIC) requires implementing a new front end, but the existing optimizer and back end can be reused. If these parts weren't separated, implementing a new source language would require starting over from scratch, so supporting N targets and M source languages would need N*M compilers.

Another advantage of the three-phase design (which follows directly from retargetability) is that the compiler serves a broader set of programmers than it would if it only supported one source language and one target. For an open source project, this means that there is a larger community of potential contributors to draw from, which naturally leads to more enhancements and improvements to the compiler. This is the reason why open source compilers that serve many communities (like GCC) tend to generate better optimized machine code than narrower compilers like FreePASCAL. This isn't the case for proprietary compilers, whose quality is directly related to the project's budget. For example, the Intel ICC Compiler is widely known for the quality of code it generates, even though it serves a narrow audience.

A final major win of the three-phase design is that the skills required to implement a front end are different than those required for the optimizer and back end. Separating these makes it easier for a "front-end person" to enhance and maintain their part of the compiler. While this is a social issue, not a technical one, it matters a lot in practice, particularly for open source projects that want to reduce the barrier to contributing as much as possible.

Existing Language Implementations

While the benefits of a three-phase design are compelling and well-documented in compiler textbooks, in practice, it is almost never fully realized. Looking across open source language implementations (back when LLVM was started), you'd find that the implementations of Perl, Python, Ruby and Java share no code. Further, projects like the Glasgow Haskell Compiler (GHC) and FreeBASIC are retargetable to multiple different CPUs, but their implementations are very specific to the one source language they support. There is also a broad variety of special purpose compiler technology deployed to implement JIT compilers for image processing, regular expressions, graphics card drivers, and other subdomains that require CPU intensive work.

That said, there are three major success stories for this model, the first of which are the Java and .NET Virtual Machines. These systems provide a JIT compiler, runtime support, and a very well defined bytecode format. This means that any language that can compile to the bytecode format, and there are dozens of them), can take advantage of the effort put into the optimizer and JIT as well as the runtime. The tradeoff is that these implementations provide little flexibility in the choice of runtime: they both effectively force JIT compilation, garbage collection, and the use of a very particular object model. This leads to suboptimal performance when compiling languages that don't match this model closely, such as C (for example, with the LLJVM project).

A second success story is perhaps the most unfortunate, but also most popular way to reuse compiler technology: translate the input source to C code (or some other language) and send it through existing C compilers. This allows reuse of the optimizer and code generator, gives good flexibility, control over the runtime, and is really easy for front-end implementers to understand, implement, and maintain. Unfortunately, doing this prevents efficient implementation of exception handling, provides a poor debugging experience, slows down compilation, and can be problematic for languages that require guaranteed tail calls (or other features not supported by C).

A final successful implementation of this model is GCC (a "backronym" that now stands for "GNU Compiler Collection"). GCC supports many front ends and back ends, and has an active and broad community of contributors. GCC has a long history of being a C compiler that supports multiple targets with hacky support for a few other languages bolted onto it. As the years go by, the GCC community is slowly evolving a cleaner design. As of GCC 4.4, it has a new representation for the optimizer (known as "GIMPLE Tuples"), which is closer to being separate from the front-end representation than before. Also, its Fortran and Ada front ends use a clean AST.

While very successful, these three approaches have strong limitations to what they can be used for because they are designed as monolithic applications. As one example, it is not realistically possible to embed GCC into other applications, to use GCC as a runtime/JIT compiler, or extract and reuse pieces of GCC without pulling in most of the compiler. People who have wanted to use GCC's C++ front end for documentation generation, code indexing, refactoring, and static analysis tools have had to use GCC as a monolithic application that emits interesting information as XML, or write plugins to inject foreign code into the GCC process.

There are multiple reasons why pieces of GCC cannot be reused as libraries, including rampant use of global variables, weakly enforced invariants, poorly designed data structures, sprawling code base, and the use of macros that prevent the codebase from being compiled to support more than one front-end/target pair at a time. The hardest problems to fix, though, are the inherent architectural problems that stem from its early design and age. Specifically, GCC suffers from layering problems and leaky abstractions: the back end walks front-end ASTs to generate debug info, the front ends generate back-end data structures, and the entire compiler depends on global data structures set up by the command line interface.

LLVM's Code Representation: LLVM IR

With the historical background and context out of the way, let's dive into LLVM: The most important aspect of its design is the LLVM Intermediate Representation (IR), which is the form it uses to represent code in the compiler. LLVM IR is designed to host mid-level analyses and transformations that you find in the optimizer section of a compiler. It was designed with many specific goals in mind, including supporting lightweight runtime optimizations, cross-function/interprocedural optimizations, whole program analysis, and aggressive restructuring transformations, etc. The most important aspect of it, though, is that it is itself defined as a first class language with well-defined semantics. To make this concrete, here is a simple example of a .ll file:

define i32 @add1(i32 %a, i32 %b) {
  %tmp1 = add i32 %a, %b
  ret i32 %tmp1

define i32 @add2<i32 %a, i32 %b) {
  %tmp1 = icmp eq i32 %a, 0
  br i1 %tmp1, label %done, label %recurse

  %tmp2 = sub i32 %a, 1
  %tmp3 = add i32 %b, 1
  %tmp4 = call i32 @add2(i32 %tmp2, i32 %tmp3)
  ret i32 %tmp4

  ret i32 %b

This LLVM IR corresponds to this C code, which provides two different ways to add integers:

unsigned add1(unsigned a, unsigned b) {
  return a+b;

// Perhaps not the most efficient way to add two numbers.
unsigned add2(unsigned a, unsigned b) {
  if (a == 0) return b;
  return add2(a-1, b+1);

As you can see from this example, LLVM IR is a low-level RISC-like virtual instruction set. Like a real RISC instruction set, it supports linear sequences of simple instructions like add, subtract, compare, and branch. These instructions are in three address form, which means that they take some number of inputs and produce a result in a different register. (This is in contrast to a two-address instruction set, like X86, which destructively updates an input register, or one-address machines that take one explicit operand and operate on an accumulator or the top of the stack on a stack machine.) LLVM IR supports labels and generally looks like a weird form of assembly language.

Unlike most RISC instruction sets, LLVM is strongly typed with a simple type system (for example, i32 is a 32-bit integer, i32** is a pointer to pointer to 32-bit integer) and some details of the machine are abstracted away. For example, the calling convention is abstracted through call and ret instructions and explicit arguments. Another significant difference from machine code is that the LLVM IR doesn't use a fixed set of named registers, it uses an infinite set of temporaries named with a % character.

Beyond being implemented as a language, LLVM IR is actually defined in three isomorphic forms: the textual format above, an in-memory data structure inspected and modified by optimizations themselves, and an efficient and dense on-disk binary "bitcode" format. The LLVM Project also provides tools to convert the on-disk format from text to binary: llvm-as assembles the textual .ll file into a .bc file containing the bitcode goop and llvm-dis turns a .bc file into a .ll file.

The intermediate representation of a compiler is interesting because it can be a "perfect world" for the compiler optimizer: unlike the front end and back end of the compiler, the optimizer isn't constrained by either a specific source language or a specific target machine. On the other hand, it has to serve both well: it has to be designed to be easy for a front end to generate and be expressive enough to allow important optimizations to be performed for real targets.

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