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Chapter: Compilers : Principles, Techniques, & Tools : Introduction

The Science of Building a Compiler

Compiler design is full of beautiful examples where complicated real-world problems are solved by abstracting the essence of the problem mathematically.

The Science of Building a Compiler


Compiler design is full of beautiful examples where complicated real-world problems are solved by abstracting the essence of the problem mathematically. These serve as excellent illustrations of how abstractions can be used to solve problems: take a problem, formulate a mathematical abstraction that captures the key characteristics, and solve it using mathematical techniques. The problem formulation must be grounded in a solid understanding of the characteristics of computer programs, and the solution must be validated and refined empirically.


A compiler must accept all source programs that conform to the specification of the language; the set of source programs is infinite and any program can be very large, consisting of possibly millions of lines of code. Any transformation performed by the compiler while translating a source program must preserve the meaning of the program being compiled. Compiler writers thus have influence over not just the compilers they create, but all the programs that their compilers compile. This leverage makes writing compilers particularly rewarding; however, it also makes compiler development challenging.



Modeling in Compiler Design and Implementation


The study of compilers is mainly a study of how we design the right mathematical models and choose the right algorithms, while balancing the need for generality and power against simplicity and efficiency.


Some of most fundamental models are finite-state machines and regular expressions, which we shall meet in Chapter 3. These models are useful for de-scribing the lexical units of programs (keywords, identifiers, and such) and for describing the algorithms used by the compiler to recognize those units. Also among the most fundamental models are context-free grammars, used to de-scribe the syntactic structure of programming languages such as the nesting of parentheses or control constructs. We shall study grammars in Chapter 4. Sim-ilarly, trees are an important model for representing the structure of programs and their translation into object code, as we shall see in Chapter 5.



The Science of Code Optimization


The term "optimization" in compiler design refers to the attempts that a com-piler makes to produce code that is more efficient than the obvious code. "Op-timization" is thus a misnomer, since there is no way that the code produced by a compiler can be guaranteed to be as fast or faster than any other code that performs the same task.


In modern times, the optimization of code that a compiler performs has become both more important and more complex. It is more complex because processor architectures have become more complex, yielding more opportunities to improve the way code executes. It is more important because massively par-allel computers require substantial optimization, or their performance suffers by orders of magnitude. With the likely prevalence of multicore machines (com-puters with chips that have large numbers of processors on them), all compilers will have to face the problem of taking advantage of multiprocessor machines.


It is hard, if not impossible, to build a robust compiler out of "hacks." Thus, an extensive and useful theory has been built up around the problem of optimizing code. The use of a rigorous mathematical foundation allows us to show that an optimization is correct and that it produces the desirable effect for all possible inputs. We shall see, starting in Chapter 9, how models such as graphs, matrices, and linear programs are necessary if the compiler is to produce well optimized code.


On the other hand, pure theory alone is insufficient. Like many real-world problems, there are no perfect answers. In fact, most of the questions that we ask in compiler optimization are undecidable. One of the most important skills in compiler design is the ability to formulate the right problem to solve. We need a good understanding of the behavior of programs to start with and thorough experimentation and evaluation to validate our intuitions.


Compiler optimizations must meet the following design objectives:


       The optimization must be correct, that is, preserve the meaning of the compiled program,


•  The optimization must improve the performance of many programs,


•  The compilation time must be kept reasonable, and


•  The engineering effort required must be manageable.


It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of correctness. It is trivial to write a compiler that generates fast code if the generated code need not be correct! Optimizing compilers are so difficult to get right that we dare say that no optimizing compiler is completely error-free! Thus, the most important objective in writing a compiler is that it is correct.


The second goal is that the compiler must be effective in improving the performance of many input programs. Normally, performance means the speed of the program execution. Especially in embedded applications, we may also wish to minimize the size of the generated code. And in the case of mobile devices, it is also desirable that the code minimizes power consumption. Typically, the same optimizations that speed up execution time also conserve power. Besides performance, usability aspects such as error reporting and debugging are also important.


Third, we need to keep the compilation time short to support a rapid devel-opment and debugging cycle. This requirement has become easier to meet as machines get faster. Often, a program is first developed and debugged without program optimizations. Not only is the compilation time reduced, but more importantly, unoptimized programs are easier to debug, because the optimiza-tions introduced by a compiler often obscure the relationship between the source code and the object code. Turning on optimizations in the compiler sometimes exposes new problems in the source program; thus testing must again be per-formed on the optimized code. The need for additional testing sometimes deters the use of optimizations in applications, especially if their performance is not critical.


Finally, a compiler is a complex system; we must keep the system sim-ple to assure that the engineering and maintenance costs of the compiler are manageable. There is an infinite number of program optimizations that we could implement, and it takes a nontrivial amount of effort to create a correct and effective optimization. We must prioritize the optimizations, implementing only those that lead to the greatest benefits on source programs encountered in practice.


Thus, in studying compilers, we learn not only how to build a compiler, but also the general methodology of solving complex and open-ended problems. The approach used in compiler development involves both theory and experimenta-tion. We normally start by formulating the problem based on our intuitions on what the important issues are.

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