Hi readers! Today I have a story about a recently-merged set of patches that allows MoarVM to use the on-stack return pointer to reduce the overhead of exception handling and other VM features for JIT compiled code. Maybe you'll find it interesting.
As you might know, MoarVM Is a bytecode interpreter. In some situations, MoarVM internals need to know the current position in the execution of the program. For instance in exception handling, all exception thrown within a block are caught by the associated CATCH block or propagated if no such block exists. Such blocks are indicated as a range within the bytecode, and we find the associated CATCH block by comparing the current position with the known ranges.
This is relatively straightforward to implement for the interpreter, because the interpreter must maintain a 'current position' pointer simply to function. (MoarVM stores a pointer to this pointer in a thread context object so that it is available throughout the VM). For the JIT that is another matter, because the control flow is handled implicitly by the CPU. The instruction pointer register (called %rip on amd64) cannot be read directly. Moreover, as soon as you enter a function that might want to use the current address (like the functions responsible for exception handling), you've left the 'program' code and entered VM code.
So what we used to do instead is take the address of a position within the bytecode (as indicated by a label in the bytecode, a somewhat involved process) and store that in a per-frame field called the jit_entry_label. This field is necessary to support another MoarVM feature - we use the interpreter as a trampoline (in the first or second sense of that definition). Because the interpreter is not recursive, JIT compiled code needs to return to the interpreter to execute a subroutine that was invoked (as opposed to calling an interpreter function, as perl5 does for exception handling). The primary purpose of this label is to continue where we left off after returning from another invoked program. But it can be used just as well for finding where we are in the execution of the program.
Only problem then is that we need to keep it up to date, which we did. On the entry of every basic block (uninterrupted sequence of code), we stored the current position in this field. This is quite common - every conditional statement, loop or other control flow change needs one, as well as every exception-handler scope change needed a little snippet storing the current position. This was annoying.
Furthermore, there are numerous MoarVM instructions that might change the control flow (or might not). For instance, the instruction responsible for converting an object to a boolean value might need to invoke the Bool method specific to that objects' class - or, if no such method exists, fallback to a default implementation. We call such instructions invokish. When compiling code that contains such invokish instructions, we installed 'control guards' to check if the VM had in fact invoked another routine, and if so, to return to the interpreter to execute that routine. This too added quite a bit of overhead.
I keep writing in the past tense because all of that is now gone, and that happened due to a simple realization. When we call a function (in C or assembly), we place the return address (the machine instruction after the call instruction) on the stack. We can read this value from the stack and use it wherever we want to know about the current position.
I initially had implemented that using a stack walker function similar to the one in the link, except that I implemented it in assembly instead. (When writing this post I learned of the GCC __builtin_return_address and MSVC _ReturnAddress intrinsic functions, which presumably do the same thing). Unfortunately, that strategy didn't really work - it relies on the frame base pointer (%rbp) being placed right 'on top' of the return address pointer on the stack. Even with special compiler flags intended to preserve that behaviour, this assumption turned out to be unreliable.
Fortunately I realized later that it was also unnecessary. Because the JIT compiler controls the layout of the compiled code frame, it also controls exactly where the return address will be stored when we compile a (C) function call. That means that we can simply take a pointer to this address and store that in the thread context structure. From that address, we can read exactly the current position in the compiled code, without having to explicitly store it so often. Furthermore, we can also write to this location, changing the address the function will return to. Effectively, this is a controlled 'on-stack goto', an idiom more often used for exploits than for good purposes - clearly this is an exception! We use this to force a return to the interpreter (with proper stack frame cleanup) for 'invokish' instructions that end up invoking. We can change control to go directly to an exception handler if it is in the same frame. This makes all the earlier control 'guard' fragments redundant, allowing us to remove them entirely. Thus, an invokish instruction that doesn't actually invoke now carries no extra cost.
How much does this save? It depends a lot on the exact program, but I estimate about 5% of compiled code size, and from a hopelessly optimal (and fairly unrealistic) benchmark which I lifted from this blog post, approximately 10% of runtime. In real code, the effect is definitely nowhere near what jnthn++ or samcv++ achieved lately, but it's still nice. Also nice is that the code is quite a bit simpler than it was before.
Anyway, that's all I have to tell today. Have fun hacking, and until next time!