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Sat, 14 Mar 2015

Why is it hard to write a compiler for Perl 6?

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Russian translation available; Пост доступен на сайте Почему так трудно написать компилятор для Perl 6?.

Today's deceptively simple question on #perl6: is it harder to write a compiler for Perl 6 than for any other programming language?

The answer is simple: yes, it's harder (and more work) than for many other languages. The more involved question is: why?

So, let's take a look. The first point is organizational: Perl 6 isn't yet fully explored and formally specified; it's much more stable than it used to be, but less stable than, say, targeting C89.

But even if you disregard this point, and target the subset that for example the Rakudo Perl 6 compiler implements right now, or the wait a year and target the first Perl 6 language release, the point remains valid.

So let's look at some technical aspects.

Static vs. Dynamic

Perl 6 has both static and dynamic corners. For example, lexical lookups are statical, in the sense that they can be resolved at compile time. But that's not optional. For a compiler to properly support native types, it must resolve them at compile time. We also expect the compiler to notify us of certain errors at compile time, so there must be a fair amount of static analysis.

On the other hand, type annotations are optional pretty much anywhere, and methods are late bound. So the compiler must also support features typically found in dynamic languages.

And even though method calls are late bound, composing roles into classes is a compile time operation, with mandatory compile time analysis.

Mutable grammar

The Perl 6 grammar can change during a parse, for example by newly defined operators, but also through more invasive operations such as defining slangs or macros. Speaking of slangs: Perl 6 doesn't have a single grammar, it switches back and forth between the "main" language, regexes, character classes inside regexes, quotes, and all the other dialects you might think of.

Since the grammar extensions are done with, well, Perl 6 grammars, it forces the parser to be interoperable with Perl 6 regexes and grammars. At which point you might just as well use them for parsing the whole thing, and you get some level of minimally required self-hosting.

Meta-Object Programming

In a language like C++, the behavior of the object system is hard-coded into the language, and so the compiler can work under this assumption, and optimize the heck out of it.

In Perl 6, the object system is defined by other objects and classes, the meta objects. So there is another layer of indirection that must be handled.

Mixing of compilation and run time

Declarations like classes, but also BEGIN blocks and the right-hand side of constant declarations are run as soon as they are parsed. Which means the compiler must be able to run Perl 6 code while compiling Perl 6 code. And also the other way round, through EVAL.

More importantly, it must be able to run Perl 6 code before it has finished compiling the whole compilation unit. That means it hasn't even fully constructed the lexical pads, and hasn't initialized all the variables. So it needs special "static lexpads" to which compile-time usages of variables can fall back to. Also the object system has to be able to work with types that haven't been fully declared yet.

So, lots of trickiness involved.

Serialization, Repossession

Types are objects defined through their meta objects. That means that when you precompile a module (or even just the setting, that is, the mass of built-ins), the compiler has to serialize the types and their meta objects. Including closures. Do you have any idea how hard it is to correctly serialize closures?

But, classes are mutable. So another module might load a precompiled module, and add another method to it, or otherwise mess with it. Now the compiler has to serialize the fact that, if the second module is loaded, the object from the first module is modified. We say that the serialization context from the second module repossesses the type.

And there are so many ways in which this can go wrong.

General Featuritis

One of the many Perl 6 mottos is "torture the implementor on behalf of the user". So it demands not only both static and dynamic typing, but also functional features, continuations, exceptions, lazy lists, a powerful grammar engine, named arguments, variadic arguments, introspection of call frames, closures, lexical and dynamic variables, packed types (for direct interfacing with C libraries, for example), and phasers (code that is automatically run at different phases of the program).

All of these features aren't too hard to implement in isolation, but in combination they are a real killer. And you want it to be fast, right?

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