I’ve been playing with LLVM (Low-Level Virtual Machine) lately and have produced a simple compiler for a simple language.

The LLVM compilation infrastructure (much more than a simple compiler or virtual machine), is a collection of libraries, methods and programs that allows one to create a simple, robust and very powerful compilers, virtual machines and run-time optimizations.

As GCC, it’s roughly separated into three layers: the front-end, which parses the files and produce intermediate representation (IR), the independent optimization layer, which acts on the language-independent IR and the back-end, which turns the IR into something executable.

The main difference is that, unlike GCC, LLVM is extremely generic. While GCC is struggling to fit broader languages inside the strongly C-oriented IR, LLVM was created with a very extensible IR, with a lot of information on how to represent a plethora of languages (procedural, object-oriented, functional etcetera). This IR also carries information about possible optimizations, like GCC’s but to a deeper level.

Another very important difference is that, in the back-end, not only code generators to many platforms are available, but Just-In-Time compilers (somewhat like JavaScript), so you can run, change, re-compile and run again, without even quitting your program.

The middle-layer is where the generic optimizations are done on the IR, so it’s language-independent (as all languages wil convert to IR). But that doesn’t mean that optimizations are done only on that step. All first-class compilers have strong optimizations from the time it opens the file until it finishes writing the binary.

Parser optimizations normally include useless code removal, constant expression folding, among others, while the most important optimizations on the back-end involve instruction replacement, aggressive register allocation and abuse of hardware features (such as special registers and caches).

But the LLVM goes beyond that, it optimizes during run-time, even after the program is installed on the user machine. LLVM holds information (and the IR) together with the binary. When the program is executed, it profiles automatically and, when the computer is idle, it optimizes the code and re-compile it. This optimization is per-user and means that two copies of the same software will be quite different from each other, depending on the user’s use of it. Chris Lattner‘s paper about it is very enlightening.

There are quite a few very important people and projects already using LLVM, and although there is still a lot of work to do, the project is mature enough to be used in production environments or even completely replace other solutions.

If you are interested in compilers, I suggest you take a look on their website… It’s, at least, mind opening.

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