Lecture 2: A First Compiler – Neonate
1 The Big Picture
2 The Wrapper
3 Hello, x64
4 Hello, nasm
5 Hello, Compiler
6 Is that it?

Lecture 2: A First Compiler – Neonate

Today we’re going to implement a compiler. It will be called Neonate, because it’s fun to name things and the name will fit a theme in future weeks.

It’s not going to be terrifically useful, as it will only compile a very small language — integers. That is, it will take a user program (a number), and create an executable binary that prints the number. There are no files in this repository because the point of the lab is for you to see how this is built up from scratch. That way, you’ll understand the infrastructure that future assignments’ support code will use.

1 The Big Picture

The heart of each compiler we write will be an OCaml program that takes an input program and generates assembly code. That leaves open a few questions:

Our answer to the first question is going to be simple for today: we’ll expect that all programs are files containing a single integer, so there’s little “front-end” for the compiler to consider. Most of this lab is about the second question — how we take our generated assembly and meaningfully run it while avoiding both (a) the feeling that there’s too much magic going on, and (b) getting bogged down in system-level details that don’t enlighten us about compilers.

2 The Wrapper

(The idea here is directly taken from Abdulaziz Ghuloum).

Our model for the code we generate is that it will start from a C-style function call. This allows us to do a few things:

So, our wrapper will be a C program with a traditional main that calls a function that we will define with our generated code:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdint.h>

extern int64_t our_code_starts_here() asm("our_code_starts_here");

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
  int64_t result = our_code_starts_here();
  printf("%ld\n", result);
  return 0;

So right now, our compiled program had better return an integer, and our wrapper will handle printing it out for us. The syntax asm("our_code_starts_here") tells a compiler like gcc or clang to not do any platform-specific name-alterations, and to use the provided name exactly as it appears. This makes it so the names that the compiler tries to find in object files don’t vary across platforms (not something I’d recommended in general, but quite useful for our purposes).

We can put this in a file called main.c. If we try to compile it, we get an error:

$ clang -g -o main main.c
/tmp/main-498561.o: In function `main':
/home/blerner/compilers/neonate/main.c:7: undefined reference to `our_code_starts_here'

That’s because it’s our job to define our_code_starts_here. That’s what we’ll do next.

3 Hello, x64

Our next goal is to:

In order to write assembly, we need to pick a syntax and an instruction set. We’re going to generate 64-bit x64 assembly, and use the so-called Intel syntax (there’s also an AT&T syntax, for those curious), because I like a particular guide that uses the Intel syntax, and because it works with the particular assembler we’ll use.

Here’s a very simple assembly program, matching the above constraints, that will act like a C function of no arguments and return a constant number (37) as the return value:

section .text
global our_code_starts_here
  mov RAX, 37

The pieces mean, line by line:

We can put this in a file called our_code.s (.s is a typical extension for assembly code), and then we just need to know how to assemble and link it with the main we wrote.

4 Hello, nasm

We will be using a program called nasm as our assembler, because it works well across a few platforms, and is simple to use. The main way we will use it is to take assembly (.s) files and turn them into object (.o) files that traditional compilers like clang or gcc can work with. The command we’ll use to build with nasm is:

$ nasm -f elf64 -o our_code.o our_code.s

This creates a file called our_code.o in Executable and Linkable Format. We won’t go into detail (yet, depending on what we have time for in the course) about this binary structure. For our purposes, it’s simply a version of the assembly we wrote that our particular operating system understands.

If you are on OSX, you can use -f macho64 rather than -f elf64, which will produce an OSX-compatible object file.

With this in hand, and we ought to be able to compile it into a binary along with a C source file just like any other object file generated from C. For example:

$ clang -g -m64 -o our_code main.c our_code.o

Now we can run our code:

$ ./our_code

(If you get an error:

/usr/bin/ld: i386 architecture of input file `our_code.o' is incompatible with i386:x86-64 output
collect2: error: ld returned 1 exit status

You somehow are attempting to target 32-bit x86, but have input that’s 64-bit x64. Be sure to include the -m64 flag, and see if that helps.)

Note that I will almost always include the -g option on uses of clang, because it’s always handy to have debugging information turned on.

5 Hello, Compiler

With this pipeline in place, the only step left is to write an OCaml program that can generate assembly programs. Then we can automate the process and get a pipeline from user program all the way to executable.

A very simple compiler might just take the name of a file, and output the compiled assembly code on standard output. Let’s try that; here’s a simple compiler.ml that takes a file as a command line argument, expects it to contain a single integer on one line, and generates the corresponding assembly code:

open Printf

(* A very sophisticated compiler - insert the given integer into the mov
instruction at the correct place *)
let compile (program : int64) : string =
  sprintf "
section .text
global our_code_starts_here
  mov RAX, %Ld
  ret\n" program;;

(* Some OCaml boilerplate for reading files and command-line arguments *)
let () =
  let input_file = (open_in (Sys.argv.(1))) in
  let input_program = Int64.of_string (input_line input_file) in
  let program = (compile input_program) in
  printf "%s\n" program;;

Put this into compiler.ml, and create another file 87.int that contains just the number 87, then run:

$ ocaml compiler.ml 87.int

section .text
global our_code_starts_here
  mov RAX, 87

How exciting! We can redirect the output to a file, and get an entire pipeline of compilation to work out:

$ ocaml compiler.ml 87.int > 87.s
$ nasm -f elf64 -o 87.o 87.s
$ clang -g -m64 -o 87.run main.c 87.o
$ ./87.run

If we like, we could capture this set of dependencies with a make rule:

%.run: %.o
        clang -g -m64 -o \$@ main.c \$<

%.o: %.s
        nasm -f elf64 -o \$@ \$<

%.s: %.int
        ocaml compiler.ml \$< > \$@

If we put that in a Makefile, then we can just run:

$ make 87.run

and we have the definition of our compiler.

6 Is that it?

Of course, this is “just” a bunch of boilerplate. It got us to the point where we have an OCaml program that’s defining our translation from input program to assembly code. Our input programs are pretty boring, so those will need to get more sophisticated, and correspondingly the function compile will need to become more impressive. That’s where our focus will be in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, you have a little compiler to play with. Can you think of any other interesting input program formats to try, or tweaks to the generated output to play with?