June 8, 2011

Mapping the monkeysphere

Our PyPy friends (in FreeNode #pypy) saw the recent IonMonkey Q&A on InfoQ, but it lead to some confusion:

<Alex_Gaynor> verte: I swear, everytime a JS vendor opens their mouth I get more and more confused
<verte> Alex_Gaynor: indeed. isn't [an SSA-based IR] covered in Fisher Price' My First Compiler?

FreeNode #pypy, 2011-05-02

I figured if the PyPy folks — the folks who wrote a language system in which you can write interpreters such that those interpreters can be traced by construction — aren't sure what the JS team is up to, then some clarification couldn't hurt. Many thanks to Alex Gaynor for taking the time to chat about good topics for further discussion.

SpiderMonkey: primordial ooze

Back in the day, there was only one monkey.

The name SpiderMonkey was the very first monkey in the codebase, a name that was picked back when Brendan created the JavaScript engine implementation for Netscape 2. [*] I was told that the name was chosen because the spider monkey is the fastest of the monkeys, but I'm having trouble citing a reputable source — I feel the Internet Archive geocities page for user SpiderMonkeysRule3375 may have a tinge of bias.

Anyways, in the unimonkey era, it was clear that SpiderMonkey referred to "that chunk of code that runs JavaScript." That chunk of code had an interpreter component inside of it. Back in those days people said things like, "Duh, JavaScript is an interpreted language. Now pass me that anti-skip enabled CD-player because I just got the new Kris Kross album." Meanwhile, Chambers, Ungar, and Hölzle were getting so-called "interpreted" languages like Self compiling within 5x performance of optimized C code, [†] but that's a whole 'nother rant...

SpiderMonkey's interpreter-based development continued for many years. Then, with the release of Firefox 3.5, in a move generally regarded as epic, the JS engine folks decided to ship a trace compiler implementation to 90 million active daily users. The addition of this Just-In-Time (JIT) compilation capability was a large evolutionary step in the codebase, so in 2008 that evolutionary step in the Mozilla JS engine implementation became known as TraceMonkey.

So, to recap: the JS engine was still called SpiderMonkey, but the evolutionary step was called TraceMonkey. Think of it like a release version.

TraceMonkey: monkey two in the monkey sea

So, with the advent of TraceMonkey, the JS engine had two "execution modes": the interpreter and the tracer. Each "execution mode" has its own implementation of the JavaScript bytecode execution:

The tracer uses a compiler backend called NanoJIT. The observation that the tracer does, called recording, actually builds the NanoJIT compiler's primary data structure, known in compiler jargon as its intermediate representation (IR). When the tracer is done observing, it asks NanoJIT to turn the data structure that it built into native assembly code. See the MDC docs on the Tracing JIT for more info.

Along the way, NanoJIT does some of the alphabet soup compiler optimizations on this data structure: Common Subexpression Elimination (CSE), Dead Code Elimination (DCE), and local register allocation. More recently, with efforts on the part of nnethercote, it's capable of Loop Invariant Code Motion and distinction between alias groups. As I understand it, the tracer's NanoJIT compiler pipeline configuration does an incremental forwards pass as you emit instructions into the buffer, and then performs a subsequent backwards pass that does something I've heard called "destination driven code generation". Sorry that I'm short on details, but I haven't worked on NanoJIT.

NanoJIT's IR form is called linear Static Single Assignment (SSA). [‡] The term "SSA" is a piece of compiler jargon that sounds scary and inaccessible, but it's very simple when you whittle it down. If you think of instructions as producing values instead of writing to variables, then the sources of your instructions become other instructions. It's generally easier for a backend, like NanoJIT, to analyze instructions in the IR when they avoid sticking their results in a shared space (like a variable). Unfortunately, a full treatment of SSA form and why it's useful for optimizing compilers is future entry fodder.

I believe the term "linear SSA" refers to the fact that the tracer records a strictly linear sequence of instructions known as the trace. This recording process uses the instruction-as-producing-value model in building its data structure. The IR is qualified as "linear" because, in a linear sequence of instructions, there are no "joins", like you would deal with when compiling conditionals or loop headers.

Contrast linear and region-based IR.

There's been talk of adding a "join" instruction to the NanoJIT IR (jargon: phi instruction), which would permit the tracer to form simple branching operations in a trace; for example, computing the max of two numbers, coercing a number value that may be an integer to a double, or inlining a simple/tiny "else" block (jargon: alternate) of a conditional. From a cursory look at the NanoJIT source I don't think that's happened yet.

JägerMonkey: brushin' the monkey-fangs with a bottle of Jack

The tracer was optimized and stabilized through Firefox 3.6. Post FF 3.6, slightly before I arrived on the scene, the JS team decided that a baseline JIT should be implemented to increase performance in situations where the tracer was suboptimal — either because the record-and-compile process was taking too long to or because of trace instability.

In 2010, the team created JägerMonkey, the next evolutionary step in the SpiderMonkey engine. JägerMonkey added a whole-method compiler with miniscule compile times.

At this point we had three execution modes:

Conveniently, each of these modes corresponded to an evolutionary step in the engine, so the components were colloquially named:

Even though the components are referred to as such, the JS engine as a whole is named SpiderMonkey.

Pictoral representation of the MonkeySphere.

The JägerMonkey compiler loops over the bytecodes of a method, performing abstract interpretation to turn the stack-based bytecode program into register-based assembly. During abstract interpretation, the compiler performs a suite of local optimizations: copy propagation, constant propagation, arithmetic expression folding, and greedy local register allocation. However, because the JägerMonkey compiler is designed, in part, for efficient speed of compilation, it doesn't build an IR and doesn't perform any "global" (cross-basic-block) optimizations. In contrast to the tracer, as a whole-method JIT it has to deal with the full gamut of control flow, so it ends up dropping most of its optimization information at join points.

The method compiler also works on the JS execution stack directly, instead of forming its own side-stack for executing on "unboxed" values, like our trace-compiled code does. The performance impact of "falling off trace" and figuring out how to restore (jargon: reify) the latent JS stack state was one of the things that the baseline JägerMonkey compiler was designed to avoid.

IonMonkey: highly focused monkey energy

The most recent evolutionary step for the engine has been dubbed "IonMonkey". The IonMonkey compiler introduces a bushel of ideas we haven't seen in the SpiderMonkey engine before. It's designed as a whole-method compiler, but IonMonkey knows quite a few tricks that the JägerMonkey compiler was never taught.

The primary purpose of IonMonkey is perform whole-method (jargon: global) compiler optimizations on code with join points (jargon: regions), like loops and conditionals, using a full-fledged IR. Generally, this makes it a more powerful, modern compiler design, incorporating some of the "classical" compiler algorithms that you have in close-to-the-metal compiler suites like LLVM and GCC, except specialized to represent and work on higher-level JS semantics with minimal overhead.

Type specialization

You can significantly optimize JavaScript programs by specializing the generated code for the types of objects that actually flow through it. The IonMonkey compiler is designed to use type information from either static type-inference analysis or runtime type profiling to specialize the code it compiles. Each of these type-information gathering approaches has its own merits.

Type data collected over several runtime code executions is a promising alternative to the single-recording trace formation that we currently use in the tracer. For code that's identified as hot, runtime type profiling collects, over the course of several executions, the set of types observed at each program point. This set of types is used to bias the generated code — the compiler assumes the types runtime profiling has observed are the ones that matter, and guards that that assumption is correct in the generated code with branch instructions.

Static type inference, on the other hand, is known to produce a (conservatively) correct set of types that can flow through each point in the program — this is what's called a sound whole-program analysis. When it's used to complement run-time type profiling, type inference is all about giving you the knowledge to eliminate guards and unnecessary fallback code.

The IonMonkey compiler is capable of consolidating guards, but some guards defy consolidation, [§] and eliminating even very predictable guards can be important in hot loops. [¶] With type inference, the compiler knows things about a point in a JS program like:

The value in a is definitely a dense array of length 42 (with no "holes") that only contains integer values.

When you know a is full of integers and that idx is an integer, you don't have to guard that the value of a[idx] is an integer. You can also use interval analysis to avoid the length-check guard that establishes idx is less than 42.

Design space

Personally, I don't think the design space for whole-method compilation of dynamic languages is well explored at this point. Making a HotSpot analog for JS has a lot of open ended, how-will-it-work-best style questions. Here's a sampling:

Will there be a monkey king?

In the coming months the IonMonkey team will be answering an interesting question: do all of the existing execution modes have their place? The thing about adaptive compilation is just that... it's adaptive. Clearly, the fittest monkeys will survive.

An adaptive compiler can potentially subsume the roles of other execution modes. Yes, IonMonkey is being designed to whole-method optimize code that runtime profiling indicates is hot. However, despite the overhead of building an IR, it can potentially do quick block-local optimizations to make "baseline" generated code, like JägerMonkey did.

The IonMonkey backend can also potentially be used as the compiler for traces formed using the existing monitoring infrastructure — compilers that handle regions can work just as well on linear instruction sequences. Linear instruction sequences are generally easier to optimize, because you don't have to reconcile (jargon: meet) optimization information at join points.

The idea of a one-size-fits-all JS compiler platform is alluring, but, in my mind, it's not clear how feasible that really is. As the IonMonkey compiler comes online, the experimentation can start. The team will just have to bust out the range finders and measure the badassitude of the ion beam. We won't regress performance, so which monkeys remain standing has yet to be seen.

I suppose what I'm saying is that you can count on us to pit our vicious monkeys against each other in a deathmatch for your personal benefit.

Look at me, still talking, when there's science to do!



From the MDC wiki: "JS and NSPR have common roots in the dawn of time (Netscape 2)". Before that it had "prototype" names like Mocha and LiveScript.


Chambers, Ungar, Lee - An Efficient Implementation of SELF, 5. The Compiler. Also see the Oracle Labs SELF papers.


A name which I'd never heard of before working on the JS engine.


Either because they are loop-iteration dependent or because of the presence of code constructs that you can't consolidate across.


Microprocessor architecture perspective: even though modern microprocessors have loop buffer with pre-translated microcode and full branch prediction, you can't retire any of the guard's dependent instructions until you see that the guard has been predicted correctly.


The JVM's -server flag enables the highest optimization levels available in the JVM, a startup option typically reserved for more fixed, processing-intensive, server-class workloads.