The Amulet backend

Amulet is a small little language hydraz and I have been working on for a wee while. It’s syntactically pretty similar to most MLs, albeit with a type system closer to Haskell’s.

However, unlike most MLs or Haskell, Amulet is designed to compile to Lua - a lightweight, dynamically typed language commonly used for embedded scripting. Sadly, this transformation from Amulet into Lua is rather complex, and despite my well-meaning comments, the implementation is still quite opaque.

Any time I come to fix a bug, I’m still a little confuddled with what’s really going on, so I thought I’d put that to rest and explain the internals of Amulet’s codegen once and for all.

Some background

Let’s start with a little bit of background information about Amulet and the internals of the compiler. When using Amulet, you read and write a relatively high level language, which we internally refer to as “Syntax”. However, this language is quite complex, and trying to optimise it ends up being incredibly difficult.

Instead, we convert all Amulet code into an intermediate representation referred to as “Core”. This is a much simpler and more stable language, which makes the optimiser easier to maintain.

data Atom
  = Ref Var Type -- ^ x, y, z
  | Lit Literal -- ^ 0, true, "hello"

data Term
  = Atom Atom
  | App Atom Atom -- ^ f x
  | TyApp Atom Type -- ^ f {t} (Type application)
  | Lam Var Type Term -- ^ λ x, f x (Term and type application)
  | Let Binding Term -- ^ let x = y in z
  | Match Atom [(Pattern, Term)] -- ^ match x with | (y, Just z) -> ...
  | Values [Atom] -- ^ (| ... |) (Used to bundle multiple arguments together for uncurried functions.)

data Binding
  = One Var Term -- ^ Acyclic binding group
  | Many [(Var, Term)] -- ^ Mutually recursive binding

Core is, for all intents and purposes, in A-normal form. Instead of having a deeply nested tree of expressions, we have one long line of lets, each binding a single term. This is great for optimisation, as any intermediate computation is bound to a variable.

Let’s look at a small program, which just counts up from 1 to 5:

external val io_write : string -> unit = "io.write"
external val to_string : 'a -> string = "tostring"

let go n =
  if n > 5 then () else
  io_write(to_string n ^ "!\n")
  go (n + 1)

let () = go 1

We’ll only focus on the go function for now, it’s pretty simple to see how this will compile to Core:

let rec go : int -> unit = λ (n : int).
  let a : (| int, int |) = (| n, 5 |) in
  let b : bool = > a in
  match b {
   true -> unit;
   false ->
     let c : int -> string = to_string {int} in
     let d : string = c n in
     let e : (| string, string |) = (| d, "!\n" |) in
     let f : string = ^ e in
     let g : unit = io_write f in
     let h : (| int, int |) = (| n, 1 |) in
     let i : int = + h in
     go i
  }

It’s a bit much to take in, but we’ve got pretty much what you’d expect - a long chain of lets, bundling variables into our unboxed tuples, and then calling various functions.

The problem we’re faced with, is how to compile this to Lua? A simple, but naive system would be a very literal translation - each let becomes a local statement, match becomes an if-elseif chain. But that’s clearly a terrible idea - we’ll end up with unnecessarily verbose code.

Ideally1, we’d end up with something almost identical to the original input:

local function go(n)
  if n > 5 then
    return nil
  end
  io_write(to_string(n) .. "!\n")
  return go(n + 1)
end

A couple of musings

One interesting to note about the Amulet backend, is that it’s not really compiling source code2, but is closer to a decompiler - taking a rather low-level3 IR and converting it back into readable source code. Now, arguably the difference is moot. However, it turns out that a lot of research has been on how to decompile these sorts of IRs into idiomatic code, and so we’ve now got a whole wealth of inspiration to draw from.

First of all, like many compiler problems, we’ll start off with a graph. We want to convert every “leaf” term into a node on our graph, with the edges representing dependencies between the nodes:

Dependency graph for the go function.

In this image, we have two kinds of dependencies:

Within the actual compiler, both kinds of dependencies are treated the same.

The observant of you may have noticed that this graph is a directed acyclic graph. This is an important invariant to preserve throughout the compilation process - we must never introduce a loop into the graph. That’d mean an expression depends on itself, which is clearly impossible!

Handling expressions

Now we’ve got this graph, our approach is quite simple - we’ll pick a node, and try to convert it into a Lua expression. The translation rules are pretty much what you’d expect, but there’s a couple of odd things going on:

Let’s step through how we’d translate the “Match arm” sub-graph in our above example. We’ll just work from top to bottom. Thankfully, we start off with something simple - type applications are entirely discarded.

Translating a type application

c is only used once, so can be emitted inline in d. As mentioned earlier, this is an unboxed tuple, so we emit of expressions.

Merging expressions

Likewise, d can be merged into e. We need to be careful to replace any dependencies on d. In the actual implementation, we just alias d and e within the graph.

Merging expressions again, and rewriting dependencies.

Let’s continue this for the rest of the “Match arm” sub-graph. We’ll finish off this expression, and also the call to go.

The whole of the match arm compiled to Lua

We’re sort of in the same place that we started off - we’ve a DAG of terms, with the dependencies between them. The crucial difference is that this graph is entirely composed of Lua code. We can trivially convert this into a program by performing a topological sort, and then stitching the statements together.

Preserving the invariant

Consider the slightly more complex Amulet program:

let with_file fn name =
  let file = input_file name
  let result = fn file
  close_in file
  result

Let’s convert this into a graph again.

with_file’s body as a Core graph

One mildly surprising part of this graph, is that our final result has a control-flow dependency on close_in file. As this term will be converted into a return statement, we need to ensure that every other term has executed before this one.

The first couple of Lua transformations are pretty simple. We can’t inline file, as it’s is used multiple times, so we convert it into a local binding instead:

The initial translation of with_file

Now, we only need to emit this final result. This should be pretty simple - it’s only used once, so we can simply inline it.

A malformed graph, due to merging result

Sadly, things aren’t this simple - our graph now has loops in it - we need to read from the file before closing it, and so cannot move it to the return point. Instead, we fall back to the default behaviour of variables - binding them and using it:

The final graph, ready for emitting.

Handling control flow

So far, we’ve only discussed how to compile long chains of lets. How do we handle control flow - namely match? Thankfully, the actual implementation is very simple:

  1. Bind the test to a variable.
  2. For each arm, treat the body as a fresh graph, and generate a sequence of statements as above.
  3. Convert each pattern to an expression, and generate an if-elseif chain.

Some additional complexity is introduced by trying to generate more idiomatic Lua, but most of it is just pattern matching against common cases (and/or/not expressions, guard-ifs, etc..).

One thing to consider, is how we treat the following code:

let x = if a then b else c
print x

It’s pretty simple to see what Lua code should be generated, but how do we get there?

local x
if a then x = b else x = c end
print(x)

Our solution is pretty simple: whenever we emit a graph, we provide “yield descriptor”. This effectively describes what we should do with the value that evaluating this term yields. There’s four possible options:

When we come to generate a match term, we push through our yield descriptor to the child arms. For instance, if the whole match expression is returned, this is equivalent to returning within each arm.

However, if we need to declare a variable, we can’t go declaring within each arm - otherwise it won’t be visible outside! Instead, we pre-declare our variable, and then store inside each arm.

Closing thoughts

Firstly, I must apologise. This article was very much written for the other developers of Amulet, in an attempt clarity how the backend works. I’m not sure I’ve even succeeded there. Amulet is full of theoretically well designed bits of code, which in practice end up being very confusing, and even harder to maintain. That said, if you do have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in contact!

There’s clearly a lot of work still to be done on the codegen. One obvious missing feature is that self-tail-recursive function are not compiled to loops. We’re still discussing whether this should be done directly, or by augmenting Core with join points or CwCwW’s \(\mathscr{C}\) operator, but it should hopefully appear in the next five years.


  1. Well, somewhat ideal. We still don’t convert tail-recursive functions into loops, and variable names are often terrible.↩︎

  2. Well, obviously it is. After all, we’re still converting from one representation to another.↩︎

  3. Low-level in the same way Java bytecode is. We’re not dealing with assembly here!↩︎