Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Essence of Closure Conversion

The interaction between lexical scoping of variables and first-class functions, as found in all functional programming languages, is rather subtle and interesting, especially if you want to compile the language to assembly code. For some reason, computer architects have yet to include first-class functions with lexical scoping in modern ISAs! ;) In this blog post, I'll try to capture the essence of compiling from a language with lexical scoping and first-class functions to a language without lexical scoping (but still with first-class functions). This kind of translation is usually referred to as closure conversion for reasons that will become apparent.

We take the Simply-Typed Lambda Calculus (STLC) as our first example of a language with lexical scoping and first-class functions. Unlike most treatments of closure conversion, we create a custom intermediate language (IL1) to be the target of closure conversion. IL1 is similar to the STLC except that lexical scoping does not apply to functions, that is, occurrences of variables inside functions may not refer to binders outside of the function. However, functions in IL1 are still first class in the sense that they can be passed to and returned from functions. Most presentations of closure conversion use a lower-level intermediate language. We do not take that approach here because it clouds the essence of closure conversion by bringing in data representation issues.

Both the source and target languages of the translation are statically typed, so it will be important for the translation to map well-typed programs to well-typed programs. The type-preserving aspect of the translation is inspired by Morrisett et al.'s work on the TIL compiler. For reference, see From System F to Typed Assembly Language in ACM TOPLAS, 1999. However, we avoid some of the complexity of their approach by our use of a custom intermediate language. In particular, the use of existential types is replaced by an existential at the meta-level, in the typing rule for closures.

In a later blog post, I'll move to a slightly richer language, the Polymorphic Lambda Calculus (System F). I'll make some modifications to IL1 to obtain IL2 and then present a translation from System F to IL2.

Warming up with an example

Consider the following program in the STLC. The outer function is applied to 40, so x is bound to 40. The outer function immediately returns the inner function, which is then applied to 2, so y is bound to 2. The inner function computes , so it returns 42. Note how the inner function referred to x, the parameter of the outer function. This is an example of lexical scoping.

Now let's try to translate the above program into an equivalent program (produces the same answer) but that does not rely on lexical scoping (except for global variables). Note that if functions are not lexically scoped, then they might as well be defined at the top of the program, and not be nested. Our first attempt adds an extra parameter to the inner function. However, the above is ill-formed because inside g, f is applied to one argument but it requires two. And unfortunately, the second argument is not available inside g, it doesn't come along until we return from g (the argument 2). Furthermore, we don't want to call f inside of g, we just want to bind the value for x.

The way out of this problem is to get creative with the target language of closure conversion. After all, the target language is just our private intermediate language, so we can do anything we want with it, as long as it helps us get closer to assembly code.

In the above example, what we need is some kind of function that can bind some of its arguments before being called. Focusing on the function f, it needs to bind the value of x inside of g. Only later f will be actually called, with y bound to 2. Let's use as the notation for our new kind of function in which all of the parameters except for the last are the early parameters. The notation is the closure operator. It binds all the early parameters of function to the arguments but it does not call the function.

With our new kind of function and closure operator, we can translate our example to the following. The first thing that happens is that g is trivially closed. Then it is called with the normal argument 40. Inside g, we close f, binding the value of x (which is 40) to parameter x of f. This closure is returned from g and called with normal parameter 2. The body of f is then evaluated, and gives us 42 as expected.

Next we move on to spell out all of the details of how this works. We first review the definition of the STLC and then present the definition of IL1, complete with the new functions. We then present closure conversion, the translation from STLC to IL1.

The Simply-Typed Lambda Calculus

To review, the following is the definition of the Simply-Typed Lambda Calculus.

Syntax The type B ranges over basic types such as Int and Bool. We restrict complete STLC programs to have a type in B. The expression c ranges over constants such as 0 and true. The operator op ranges over primitive operations such as arithmetic and logical operations. We use an overline to denote a sequence of things.

Type System Note: The appearance of in the antecedent of the typing rule for functions is what allows occurrences of variables inside a function to refer to bindings outside the function.

Substitution Note: Substitution goes inside of functions because there are variable occurrences inside the functions that refer to variables from outside the function.

Reduction Rules and Evaluation

An Intermediate Language (IL1) without Lexical Scoping

Now for the creative part of defining IL1. The type of a function will have the form , where are the types for the early parameters, is the type of the normal parameter, and is the return type. The result of applying the closure operator to a function is another kind of function, a function (otherwise known as a closure) which has stored away the values for its early parameter. Given a function of type , its closure will have type .


Type System Note: The antecedents of the typing rules for the and functions do not include !

Shallow Substitution Note: Shallow substitution does not go inside of values, particularly it leaves functions unchanged in contrast to substitution in the STLC.

We introduce the following notation for iterated substitution and shallow substitution.

Reduction Rules and Evaluation Note: Function application uses shallow substitution but for globals, we use normal (deep) substitution.

Translation from the Simply-Typed Lambda Calculus to IL1

With our source and target languages in place, we're ready to go into the details of closure conversion. The main ClosureConversion function takes as input a STLC program and outputs an IL1 program. It uses an auxiliary recursive function C that takes a STLC expression and returns two things, an IL1 expression and a list of functions, or more precisely, a list of bindings, where each binding consists of the function's name and the actual function. As we can see in the body of the ClosureConversion function, the functions returned from C become installed as global variables.

The way C processes expressions can be divided into three categories. For variables and constants, we just translate them to themselves and return an empty list of functions. For primitive and normal application, we apply C recursively to the subexpressions, create a new application from the resulting expressions and return the list of all the functions from the subexpressions. So that is it for the easy cases. All of the action is in the case for . After the recursive call, we compute the free variables (FV) of the body of the function and remove the parameter x. This gives us all of the variables (and their types) that are used inside the function but defined outside. We generate a fresh name g for this function, then return two things. First, we apply the closure operator to g, with the free variables as arguments. At runtime, these variables will evaluate to values, which will then be captured in the closure. Second, we return the list of functions from the recursive call, plus a new function for this , which we bind to g.

That's it! The essence of closure conversion is

  1. Converting from lexically-scoped functions to two-phase functions that support a closure operator to bind early parameters and an application operator to bind the late parameter and execute the body.
  2. Lifting all functions to become global variables.

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