[llvm-dev] [RFC] DebugInfo: A different way of specifying variable locations post-isel

Jeremy Morse via llvm-dev llvm-dev at lists.llvm.org
Mon Feb 24 09:31:20 PST 2020

Hi debuginfo cabal,

tl;dr: I'd like to know what people think about an alternative to
DBG_VALUE instructions describing variable locations in registers,
virtual or real. Before instruction selection in LLVM-IR we identify
the _values_ of variables [0] by the instruction that computes the
value; I believe we should be able to do the same post-isel, and it
would avoid having to analyse register locations across regalloc and
numerous optimisations. Or written another way: why don't we track the
value of variables through backend codegen, and then determine a
register location very late?

This is just an idea with no solid proposal of work. IMO this would
reduce the amount of code and complexity involved in preserving
variable locations. It would also help eliminate debug instructions in
a far flung future.


In optimised LLVM-IR, we specify a variable location like so:

  %2 = someinst %1, %0
  call @llvm.dbg.value(metadata i32 %2, ...)

A dbg.value intrinsic call specifies two things about a variable:
 * The SSA-register / otherwise that is the value of the variable, and,
 * The position in the instruction stream where that SSA-register
becomes the variable location.

I'm using the term "machine location" and "program location"
throughout this email to mean the two items above, respectively. This
representation is good for LLVM-IR: the SSA-register machine location
entirely and uniquely identifies a computation, the value of which
should appear as the value of the variable in a debugger.

Post-isel, the same sequence is represented by:

  %2 = some-machine-inst %1, %0
  DBG_VALUE %2, ...

Which to a large extent means the same thing. However, there are some
subtle differences that manifest as the function proceeds through the
codegen pipeline:
 * The specified virtual register (%0) doesn't always contain the
value produced by "some-machine-inst". Once we leave SSA-form, there
can be multiple def's of the vreg after PHI-elimination / register
 * The vreg does not uniquely identify the value produced by
"some-machine-inst": COPY instructions introduced during SelectionDAG
/ PHI-elimination / other passes place the value into multiple vregs,
that can have different liveness ranges.

The problem:

Those two differences between dbg.value intrinsics and DBG_VALUE
instructions introduce some annoying artifacts that make handling
DBG_VALUEs harder than dbg.values:
 * Identical DBG_VALUEs at different program locations can result in
different variable values being presented (because their vreg operand
might refer to a different def),
 * There can be multiple ways to represent a dbg.value in DBG_VALUEs
(as you have a choice of vregs from COPY instructions), some with
different lifetimes.

Both of which make the movement and preservation of DBG_VALUEs much
more context-dependent than the LLVM-IR equivalent. It's a lot easier
to cause an incorrect value to appear in a debugger at this stage of
compilation, or limit the range over which we preserve a variable

There are currently three instruction scheduling passes in LLVM
(machine-scheduler, postra scheduler, SelectionDAG does some too)
which don't have any principled approach to preserving the correctness
of variable locations, and are vulnerable to the artifacts above. The
first two just glue DBG_VALUEs to the preceeding machine instruction
and move them around together (vulnerable to assignment reordering and
referring to the wrong {v,}reg def), the latter can re-order
assignments but also finds it hard to select the longest-living vreg,
which I wrote up in [1]. Correctly scheduling DBG_VALUEs to always:
 * refer to the correct vreg def,
 * With the longest lifetime,
 * without re-ordering assignments,
is sufficiently hard that no-one has attempted it to my knowledge, and
I believe it would be really difficult to get right. Additionally, if
we were to generate DBG_VALUE $noreg instructions when rescheduling
(to terminate earlier variable locations), and then a subsequent
scheduling pass undoes that rescheduling (or some part of it), we will
lose or shorten variable locations for no reason.

Finally, being forced to always specify both the machine location and
the program location at the same time (in a single DBG_VALUE)
introduces un-necessary burdens. In MachineSink, when we sink between
blocks an instruction that defines a vreg, we chose to sink DBG_VALUE
instructions referring to that vreg too to avoid losing the variable
location. This un-necessarily risks re-ordering assignments, and in
some circumstances [2] you would have to examine all the instructions
in the function to work out whether sinking a DBG_VALUE would be
legal. In SimpleRegisterCoalescing, when we merge two vregs,
DBG_VALUEs can only refer to the surviving vreg -- and at the
DBG_VALUEs location that vreg might not contain the right def. There
may be other machine locations where the correct value is available
(it may even be rematerialized later), but searching for it is hard;
right now we just drop variable location information in these cases.

A solution:

[To be clear, I haven't tried to implement this idea yet as I wanted feedback,]

I'd like to suggest that we can represent variable locations in the
codegen backend / MIR with three things:
 * The instruction that defines the value of the variable,
 * The operand of that instruction into which the value is written,
 * The position in the instruction stream where the assignment of this
value to the variable occurs

That's effectively modifying a machine location from being a {v,}reg,
into being a "defining instruction" and operand. This is closer to the
LLVM-IR form of a machine location, where the SSA Value and its
computation are synonymous. Exactly how this is represented in-memory
and in-printed-MIR I haven't thought a lot about; probably by
attaching metadata to instructions and having DBG_VALUE use a metadata
operand rather than referring to a vreg. Specifying machine locations
like this would have the following benefits:
 * Both DBG_VALUEs and defining instructions are independent and can
be moved within the function without loss of information, and without
needing to consider so much context,
 * Likewise, vregs can be rewritten / merged / deleted without the
need to update any debug metadata. Only instruction deletion /
morphing would need some sort of change,
 * We would never need to refer to COPYs, avoiding artifical liveness
 * Debug use before defs would become tolerable (see below), and
possibly even be a good way of describing locations after

This would not eliminate the risk of re-ordering variable assignments.

The three instruction scheduling passes would become significantly
easier to deal with: they would only have to replace DBG_VALUE
instructions in the correct order, not worry about their operands.
Various debug facilities in SimpleRegisterCoalescing, MachineSink, and
large amounts of LiveDebugVariables would become redundant, as we
wouldn't need to maintain a register location through optimisations.

Finally, this design could be extended to not having any instructions
in the instruction stream. Once machine locations aren't described
within a MachineOperand, the most important thing a DBG_VALUE
signifies is a position in the instruction stream, which could be
performed in some other way (i.e., more metadata) in the future.

How then do we translate this new kind of machine location into
DWARF/CodeView variable locations, which need to know which register
to look in? The answer is: LiveDebugValues [3]. We already perform a
dataflow analysis in LiveDebugValues of where values "go" after
they're defined: we can use that to take "defining instructions" and
determine register / stack locations. We would need to track values
from the defining instruction up to the DBG_VALUE where that value
becomes a variable location, after which it's no different from the
LiveDebugValues analysis that we perform today. LiveDebugValues'
ability to track values through stack spills and restores would become
a critical feature (it isn't today), as we would no longer generate
stack locations during register allocation.

I reckon debug-use-before-def's can be tolerated in this
representation, and even be well defined and useful, reducing the work
needed to be done earlier in the compiler. Under the model described
above, we can specify a program location before the corresponding
machine location containing the variable value machine location
becomes available. Consider this code:

  DBG_VALUE output-of-this-inst ---
  someinst1                        |
  someinst2                        |
  $rax = ADD32ri $rax, 0     <-----

Where the line from DBG_VALUE to ADD32ri represents some
as-yet-undetermined way of identifying the ADD32ri instruction from
the DBG_VALUE. We can interpret such a code sequence as the variable
having no location across someinst1 and someinst2, which are not
dominated by the defining instruction, then a location of $rax after
the ADD32ri. Essentially:
 * For an instruction dominated by a DBG_VALUE but not by the defining
instruction, the variable location is empty / undef / $noreg,
 * For an instruction dominated by both, the variable location is
defined as it is today.

This should work across control flow, and doesn't necessitate the
creation of DBG_VALUE $noreg's to explicitly describe unavailable
locations when instructions move. In theory, if we were to accept
debug use-before-defs in LLVM-IR, this would reduce analysis and mean
fewer dbg.value(undef,...)'s would need to be created earlier in the


The largest problem with this idea is that not all variable values are
defined by instructions: PHIs are values that are defined by control
flow. To deal with this pre-regalloc, we could move LiveDebugVariables
to run before phi-elimination. My understanding is that the register
allocation phase of LLVM starts there and ends after virtregrewriter,
and it'd be legitimate to say "we do special things for these passes".
After regalloc however, there would need to be some way of specifying
a block and a register, where entry to the block defines a variable
value in that register. This isn't pretty; but IMO is the
representation closest to the truth. Passes like tail duplication and
branchfolder might need to perform debuginfo maintenence when they
altered blocks -- however I believe these circumstances are rare, as
few control flow changes happen after regalloc. It (IMO) would be
worth it given the other benefits.

I also haven't considered the impact of this on -O0: one would imagine
it would be easier to deal with than optimised builds though.


I feel like this would be a better way of representing variable
locations in the codegen backend; my fear is that this is a lot of
work, and I don't know what appetite there is for change amongst other
interested parties. Thus I'd be interested in any kind of feedback as
to whether a) this is a good idea, b) whether this category of change
is what people want, and c) whether this is seen as being achievable.

Being able to introduce this change incrementally presents some
challenges: while the way of representing variable locations described
above is more expressive than the current way, converting between one
and the other requires running the LiveDebugValues analysis, which
makes moving transparently between the two hard to do. Moving
backwards through the backend, from emission towards the start might
be doable though.

This introduces some additional complexity into a pass
(LiveDebugValues) that's been difficult to understand and reason about
in the past. In my opinion, given that we have to perform this
dataflow analysis at the end of compilation to propagate variable
locations anyway, it would be worthwhile to harness it to remove the
need for complexity elsewhere. Some of the problems I've described
above need their own dataflow analyses to be both sound and complete:
IMO it would be better to record the bare minimum of facts and then
interpret them at the end of compilation.

Happily there are "only" 130 tests that input or output MIR in
llvm/test/DebugInfo, so this doesn't involve rewriting *every* single
test that there is.

[0] You could consider an SSA register a "location" too, my point is
that it's both a value and a location.
[1] https://bugs.llvm.org/show_bug.cgi?id=41583
[2] https://bugs.llvm.org/show_bug.cgi?id=44117
[3] You knew it was coming!


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