[LLVMdev] [Caml-list] Ocaml(opt) & llvm

Jon Harrop jon at ffconsultancy.com
Mon Nov 26 12:19:56 PST 2007

Hi Basile,

Great to see you here as well! :-)

The OCaml developers are becoming increasing upset with the OCaml community 
picking holes in their implementation so I'd rather keep this discussion off 
the caml-list. I have quite strong personal views on this, of course, and 
would love to discuss them but not here.

I believe this will be of wider interest so I think it is ideal for the LLVM 

On Monday 26 November 2007 18:27, Basile STARYNKEVITCH wrote:
> As some might probably know, the LLVM compiler http://llvm.org/ has (at
> least in its latest SVN snapshot) a binding for Ocaml. This means that
> one could code in Ocaml some stuff (eg a JIT-ing compiler) which uses
> (and links with) LLVM libraries.
> http://lists.cs.uiuc.edu/pipermail/llvmdev/2007-November/011481.html
> http://lists.cs.uiuc.edu/pipermail/llvmdev/2007-November/011507.html

AFAIK, the current OCaml bindings do not yet support JIT but you can easily 
write a static compiler using them. As I'm sure you noticed, I've been 
working on this for a couple of days and the results are already incredibly 

> However, to generate code with LLVM for Ocamlopt, this is not enough,
> since while LLVM does have hooks to support garbage collection
> http://www.llvm.org/docs/GarbageCollection.html
> I don't know of any actual hooks to fit into the needs of Ocamlopt
> garbage colector (which AFAIK require some specific frame descriptors in
> the code, in some hashtables, which details are tricky and known to very
> few implementors, perhaps only Xavier Leroy & Damien Doligez).
> So is there any code to fit the Ocaml GC requirements into LLVM
> abilities, ie to use LLVM to generate (eg JIT) code which respect Ocaml
> GC requirements.
> Of course, I do know that there are some typing issues and theoritical
> points which I deliberately ignore here. I'm supposing the guy wanting
> to LLVM for Ocaml is knowing that he seeks trouble.
> And Metaocaml is (unfortunately) nearly dead: future (in ocaml 3.11 or
> 3.12) dynamic libraries ability is not a full replacement! Even if one
> might generate Ocaml code and compile & dlopen it in a future version of
> Ocaml.

OCaml's GC has many wonderful properties. However, it also has some 

. Strings and arrays of any type are limited to only 16Mb on 32-bit platforms.

. Integers are limited to 31- or 63-bits, or much slower boxed 
machine-precision integers, making it difficult to write efficient bitwise 

. Only certain types are unboxed (float arrays and all-float records but not 
char arrays, all-float tuples or complex arrays), e.g. I must manually unbox 
complex numbers in arrays to work around the ~5x performance hit that this 
causes in FFT routines.

. Insufficient run-time type information to provide safe marshalling and 

. Single threaded.

. Upstream is controlled by INRIA and cannot be contributed to by the 

. Restrictive license.

. Undocumented.

. Very complicated => unmaintainable according to the maintainers.

. Apparently LLVM cannot generate exceptions compatible with OCaml's run-time.

I want to build a better future for the OCaml community but without the 
requirement to adopt OCaml's baggage: wherever OCaml might be improved upon, 
I am interested in doing so. If you wish to remain run-time compatible then 
reusing OCaml's existing run-time is an obvious choice. However, I think 
there is a lot to be gained by not reusing it. In this context, LLVM already 
offers alternatives for things like exception handling.

My experience of this stems largely from using MLton and F#. The run-time 
affects the performance of heavily-allocating code, which means symbolic code 
and not numerical code but MLton is several times faster than OCaml for 
symbolic code and F# can be several times faster than OCaml for numerical 
code. So I think there is a lot of merit in keeping the practically-useful 
and now very popular OCaml language (i.e. make a compatible front-end) but 
drawing upon the designs of MLton and F# rather than OCaml.

MLton uses whole-program optimizations to provide elegant abstractions with no 
run-time overhead and F# leverages arbitrary unboxing and the CLR code 
generator to obtain excellent performance on numerical computations.

I would like to work towards these goals incrementally but I would like to 
create something of practical value sooner rather than later and start 
garnering a userbase.

Finally, I see no reason why the resulting run-time shouldn't be of wider 
interest to anyone wanting to implement a compiler for a functional 
programming language. Objectively, I think most people would much rather have 
something slower but documented.

Dr Jon D Harrop, Flying Frog Consultancy Ltd.

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