[LLVMdev] Union type, is it really used or necessary?

Neal N. Wang neal.wang at gmail.com
Tue Jul 20 19:51:35 PDT 2010

On Tue, Jul 20, 2010 at 2:46 PM, Talin <viridia at gmail.com> wrote:

> On Tue, Jul 20, 2010 at 8:34 AM, Chris Lattner <clattner at apple.com> wrote:
>> On Jul 20, 2010, at 1:36 AM, Anton Korobeynikov wrote:
>> >> used to make the code manipulating the union type "well typed". This
>> >> approach seems work very well, is there really a need to keep union
>> type in
>> >> LLVM?
>> > I think in its current state the unions should be removed from LLVM IR
>> > in next release. It's pretty much unfinished and noone is willing to
>> > work on them.
>> I agree.
>> Unfortunately I wasn't able to take the union stuff much farther than I
> did. Partly that was because my LLVM-related work has been on hiatus for the
> last 4 months or so due to various issues going on in my personal life. But
> it was also partly because I had reached the limit of my knowledge in this
> area, I wasn't able to delve deeply enough into the code generation side of
> LLVM to really understand what needed to be done to support unions.
> As far as converting a union into a C struct that is large enough to hold
> all possible types of the union, there are two minor problems associated
> with this approach:
> 1) For frontends that generate target-agnostic code, it is difficult to
> calculate how large this struct should be. (Which is larger, 3 int32s or two
> pointers? You don't know unless your frontend knows the size of a pointer.)
> In my case, I finally decided to abandon my goal of making my frontend
> completely target-neutral. While it's relatively easy to write a frontend
> that is 99% target-neutral with LLVM, that last 1% cannot be eliminated.

This is indeed a problem if a front-end or any pass has to compute the size
of a type.  For example, Sometimes I need to find out the size of a type in
my pass, I then call TargetData.getTypeStorageSize() to get the size of a
particular type.  This practice will introduce architecture-dependent LLVM
code.  IMHO, LLVM cannot avoid this problem anyway, unless such function is
removed or returns a ConstantExpr.  Probably, LLVM has a function that
returns a ConstantExpr type size, I'm just ignorant in this aspect.

Another thought is can you delay the computing of the maximum storage of a
union type by using a max operator?
Your example can be represented as "struct { max([3xi32], [2xi8*],...) }",
this approach will avoid deciding the size in front-ends. But again allowing
TargetData.getTypeStorageSize() can compromise the architecture-neutrality

> 2) Extracting the values from the union require pointer casting, which
> means that the union cannot be an SSA value - it has to have an address.
> This probably isn't a big issue in languages like C++ which use unions
> infrequently, but other languages which use algebraic type systems might
> suffer a loss of performance due to the need to store union types in memory.
Can mem2reg alleviate  this problem?

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