GHC and LLVM: A status update

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  • ghc
  • llvm
  • arm

GHC and LLVM have had a long and somewhat tumultuous relationship. At this point David Terei’s lovely LLVM code generation backend has been with us now for almost five years and nine LLVM releases. GHC has benefited significantly from its use of LLVM; LLVM has enabled us to support new platforms, given us access to a state-of-the-art low-level optimizer, and enabled support for SIMD instructions all with very little man-power.

But it’s not all rosy…

As always there are also challenges; LLVM is a rather tricky project to target, offering very little in the way of compatibility guarantees between versions. While this allows the project to adapt quickly, it does mean that simultaneously supporting more than a couple of versions quickly becomes painful.

There is also a bit of an impedance mismatch between GHC and LLVM’s intermediate language: while GHC’s C– representation is largely un-typed, LLVM requires types on nearly everything… to the point of blatant redundancy. While this makes LLVM’s parser straightforward, it does mean the GHC LLVM backend must engage in some rather involved gymnastics to ensure that the code it produces passes LLVM’s type checker.

LLVM also lacks the expressiveness to allow GHC to control the code layout with the granularity necessary to implement [tables-next-to-code][tntc], one of GHC’s more significant optimizations. For this reason, GHC currently calls LLVM with code explicitly placing each symbol in its own section of the object file. LLVM takes this code, applies its magic and returns well-optimized pile of assembler. GHC then sends this assembler through a mangler, which picks apart the symbol sections and reorders them, placing each info table before its associated symbol. While this all works fairly well, it should be possible to achieve this through less heavy-handed means.

Finally, while LLVM has an incredibly sophisticated optimizer, all of that analysis comes at the expense of compile time. Moreover, GHC already passes LLVM fairly well-optimized code, making many of these optimizations redundant. While LLVM provides plenty of tools to allow the user to specify which optimization passes should be run, GHC doesn’t currently take advantage of these. The reasons for this are partially the increase in maintenance load that this would bring (especially since the optimizer passes change over LLVM releases) and partially due to the fact that no one has tried mapping out what passes are actually useful for our code.

Where do we stand today?

As of GHC 7.8, we have fair support for LLVM 3.2 through 3.4 on most architectures, supporting tables-next-to-code and dynamic linking on x86_64 and ARM (and possibly others). For the reasons stated above, this is actually quite an achievement.

The astute reader will notice that the latest release, 3.5, is notably missing from this list. As of 3.5 the LLVM team decided that the aliases that we used to fool LLVM into thinking our code is well-typed (even when the C– doesn’t tell us a type) were no longer acceptable. One can’t really fault them for this change as our usage essentially relied on the optimizer to resolve aliases to proper symbol references in order to produce valid object code.

GHC Differential D155 reworks our use of aliases reflect the newly enforced rules concerning their usage. In principle this patch should allow us to produce code that will compile with LLVM 3.2 through 3.5 at the expense of producing a few extra symbols. In practice these symbols should pose no trouble whatsoever as we can simply mark them as having internal linkage. Unfortunately, LLVM 3.4 appear to forget which section internal symbols belong to causing massive breakage. If this weren’t the second-to-newest release I would say we should ignore this; unfortunately it’s very likely that 3.4 will be the most commonly encountered release in the wild for some time to come. For this reason, we will most likely be forced to mark these symbols as external in GHC 7.10. If you see object files filled with symbols ending in $def in GHC 7.8.4, this is the reason.

Moreover, the LLVM 3.5 rework appears to uncover new optimization opportunities for LLVM on ARM. Usually I would be elated to report this but sadly said opportunities uncover a bug in LLVM’s implementation GHC calling convention. This will hopefully be fixed in an LLVM bugfix release (update this fix is present in LLVM 3.5.1 and later).

Below is a table describing the current support matrix on ARM and x86-64. “GHC 7.8” denotes the current state of the 7.8 branch (7.8.3 tested). “alias rework, internal” denotes the 7.8 branch with D155 applied and $def symbols marked as internal. “alias rework, external” denotes the same with these symbols marked as externally visible. See the test results article for the raw test-suite results.

GHC release LLVM 3.2 LLVM 3.3 LLVM 3.4 LLVM 3.5 LLVM 3.6
pre-GHC 7.8 ok? ok? ok? bad, aliases bad, syntax
GHC 7.8 ok ok ok bad, aliases bad, syntax
GHC 7.8, alias rework, internal ok, ARM bad? ok, ARM bad? bad, sections ok, ARM bad bad, syntax
GHC 7.8, alias rework, external ok, ARM bad ok, ARM bad ok, ARM bad ok, ARM bad bad, syntax
GHC 7.10 ok, ARM bad ok, ARM bad ok, ARM bad ok bad, syntax
GHC 7.11 bad, syntax bad, syntax bad, syntax bad, syntax ok!

Outcome legend

  • ok: Tested to work
  • ok?: Assumed to work, not tested
  • ok, ARM bad: Works on x86_64, fails on ARM due to GHC calling convention bug
  • bad, aliases: LLVM 3.5 rejects aliases to symbols defined outside of the current compilation unit
  • bad, sections: LLVM 3.4 appears to forget which section internal symbols should be defined
  • bad, syntax: LLVM 3.6 changed the syntax of alias definitions to be consistent with other definition types

The plan for GHC 7.10

The above is clearly a bit of a mess. Moreover, this is only x86_64. It would be nice to say that by the time of the 7.10 release we have a nice clear path forward. LLVM 3.6 could almost be this path: it has no critical bugs on either ARM or x86-64. Moreover, I have a patch adding a prefix data facility to the LLVM intermediate language which GHC could use to cleanly implement tables-next-to-code. In fact, a first cut of this rework has already been completed.

Unfortunately, the release schedules of GHC and LLVM unfortunately align quite closely and looming on the horizon. It’s not clear whether LLVM 3.6 will be released before or after GHC 7.10, much less whether the prefix data patch will be merged in time.

  1. Release with only the alias rework: This will enable us to run against LLVM 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5 on the x86-64. ARM support will suffer until the next LLVM 3.5 bugfix is released.

  2. Release with the llvm-3.6 rework: This would only enable us to run against 3.6 on both ARM and x86-64. There might be a gap between the time when the GHC 7.10 release is cut and when LLVM 3.6 is released.

Requiring users to run a brand-new (or, worse, unreleased) compiler isn’t terribly responsible. For this reason, 7.10 will likely ship with option A. It’s not great, but things could be worse.

Future directions

This above mess is largely due to the fact that we try to make use of whatever LLVM release the user can give us. Given the lack of backwards-compatibility offered by LLVM and the lack of GHC developer-hours, this isn’t terribly sustainable. Austin Seipp recently introduced a proposal to address this. Probably starting with GHC 7.12, GHC will have an officially sanctioned LLVM release. Moreover, LLVM builds for common platforms will be offered for download alongside GHC binaries. We will work with distributions currently offering GHC packages to ensure that they can offer an officially supported LLVM.

Not only will this step reduce our support surface and hopefully improve the reliability of the LLVM backend, it also enables GHC to make better use of the services that LLVM provides. If we can focus on a single release, it will be possible for us to request only those optimization passes that GHC will actually benefit from. Moreover, we can introduce optimization passes to address the areas where GHC’s code has traditionally been weak. I’ve started a repository to collect LLVM analyses for GHC, starting with Max Bolingbroke’s work on alias analysis.

If you feel like this is an effort that you would like to contribute to, drop by #ghc on Freenode or ghc-devs. We need all of the help we can get.