OCamlPro’s Contributions to OCaml 4.00.0

Date: 2012-08-20
Category: OCaml
Tags: ocaml, tooling

OCaml 4.00.0 has been released on July 27, 2012. For the first time, the new OCaml includes some of the work we have been doing during the last year. In this article, I will present our main contributions, mostly funded by Jane Street and Lexifi.

Binary Annotations for Advanced Development Tools

OCaml 4.00.0 has a new option -bin-annot (undocumented, for now, as it is still being tested). This option tells the compiler to dump in binary format a compressed version of the typed tree (an abstract syntax tree with type annotations) to a file (with the .cmt extension for implementation files, and .cmti for interface files). This file can then be used by development tools to provide new features, based on the full knowledge of types in the sources. One of the first tools to use it is the new version of ocamlspotter, by Jun Furuse.

This new option will probably make the old option -annot obsolete (except, maybe, in specific contextes where you don’t want to depend on the internal representation of the typedtree, for example when you are modifying this representation !). Generated files are much smaller than with the -annot option, and much faster to write (during compilation) and to read (for analysis).

New Options for ocamldep

As requested on the bug tracker, we implemented a set of new options for ocamldep:

ocamlopt -o my_program `ocamldep -sort *.ml *.mli

CFI Directives for Debugging

OCaml tries to make the best use of available registers and stack space, and consequently, its layout on the stack is much different from the one of C functions. Also, function names are mangled to make them local to their module. As a consequence, debugging native code OCaml programs has long been a problem with previous versions of OCaml:, since the debugger cannot print correctly the backtrace of the stack, nor put breakpoints on OCaml functions.

In OCaml 4.00.0, we worked on a patch submitted on the bug tracker to improve the situation: x86 and amd64 backends now emit more debugging directives, such as the locations in the source corresponding to functions in the assembly (so that you can put breakpoints at function entry), and CFI directives, indicating the correct stack layout, for the debugger to correctly unwind the stack. These directives are part of the DWARF debugging standard.

Unfortunately, line by line stepping is not yet available, but here is an example of session that was not possible with previous versions:

let f x y = List.map ( (+) x ) y
let _ = f 3 [1;2;3;4]
$ ocamlopt -g toto.ml
$ gdb ./a.out
(gdb) b toto.ml:1
Breakpoint 1 at 0x4044f4: file toto.ml, line 1.
(gdb) run
Starting program: /home/lefessan/ocaml-4.00.0-example/a.out

Breakpoint 1, 0x00000000004044f4 in camlToto__f_1008 () at toto.ml:1
1 let f x y = List.map ( (+) x ) y
(gdb) bt

0 0x00000000004044f4 in camlToto__f_1008 () at toto.ml:1
1 0x000000000040456c in camlToto__entry () at toto.ml:2
2 0x000000000040407d in caml_program ()
3 0x0000000000415fe6 in caml_start_program ()
4 0x00000000004164b5 in caml_main (argv=0x7fffffffe3f0) at startup.c:189
5 0x0000000000408cdc in main (argc=<optimized out>, argv=<optimized out>)
at main.c:56

Optimisation of Partial Function Applications

Few people know that partial applications with multiple arguments are not very efficient. For example, do you know how many closures are dynamically allocated in in the following example ?

let f x y z = x + y + z
let sum_list_offsets orig list = List.fold_left (f orig) 0 list
let sum = sum_list_offsets 10 [1;2;3]

Most programmers would reply one, f orig, but that’s not all (indeed, f and sum_list_offsets are allocated statically, not dynamically, as they have no free variables). Actually, three more closures are allocated, when List.fold_left is executed on the list, one closure per element of the list.

The reason for this is that Ocaml has only two modes to execute functions: either all arguments are present, or just one argument. Prior to 4.00.0, when a function would enter the second mode (as f in the previous example), then it would remain in that mode, meaning that the two other arguments would be passed one by one, creating a partial closure between them.

In 4.00.0, we implemented a simple optimization, so that whenever all the remaining expected arguments are passed at once, no partial closure is created and the function is immediatly called with all its arguments, leading to only one dynamic closure creation in the example.

Optimized Pipe Operators

It is sometimes convenient to use the pipe notation in OCaml programs, for example:

let (|>) x f = f x;;
let (@@) f x = f x;;
[1;2;3] |> List.map (fun x -> x + 2) |> List.map print_int;;
List.map print_int @@ List.map (fun x -> x + 1 ) @@ [1;2;3];;

However, such |> and @@ operators are currently not optimized: for example, the last line will be compiled as:

let f1 = List.map print_int;;
let f2 = List.map (fun x -> x + 1);;
let x = f2 [1;2;3;];;
f1 x;;

Which means that partial closures are allocated every time a function is executed with multiple arguments.

In OCaml 4.00.0, we optimized these operators by providing native operators, for which no partial closures are generated:

external (|>) : ‘a -> (‘a -> ‘b) -> ‘b = "%revapply";;
external ( @@ ) : (‘a -> ‘b) -> ‘a -> ‘b = "%apply"

Now, the previous example is equivalent to:

List.map print_int (List.map ( (+) 1 ) [1;2;3])

Bug Fixing

Of course, a lot of our contributions are not always as visible as the previous ones. We also spent a lot of time fixing small bugs. Although it doesn’t sound very fun, fixing bugs in OCaml is also fun, because bugs are often challenging to understand, and even more challenging to remove without introducing new ones !

About OCamlPro:

OCamlPro is a R&D lab founded in 2011, with the mission to help industrial users benefit from state-of-the art programming languages like OCaml and Rust.

We design, create and implement custom ad-hoc software for our clients. We also have a long experience in developing and maintaining open-source tooling for OCaml, such as Opam, TryOCaml, ocp-indent, ocp-index and ocp-browser, and we contribute to the core-development of OCaml, notably with our work on the Flambda optimizer branch.

Another area of expertise is that of Formal Methods, with tools such as our SMT Solver Alt-Ergo (check our Alt-Ergo Users'). We also provide vocational trainings in OCaml and Rust, and we can build courses on formal methods on-demand. Do not hesitate to reach out by email: contact@ocamlpro.com.