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An overview of the Parrot interpreter

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Simon Cozens
September 3, 2001 01:17
An overview of the Parrot interpreter
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Here's the first of a bunch of things I'm writing which should give you
practical information to get you up to speed on what we're going to be doing
with Parrot so we can get you coding away. :) Think of them as having a
Apocalypse->Exegesis relationship to the PDDs. 

I haven't yet finished writing the other documents this refers to yet, but
I'll do those as soon as I can.

As usual, this is a draft, this is not sacred or inviolate. If this raises
more questions than it answers, ask them, and I'll put the answers in the
next release.


=head1 An overview of the Parrot intepreter

This document is an introduction to the structure of and the concepts 
used by the Parrot shared bytecode compiler/interpreter system. We will
primarily concern ourselves with the interpreter, since this is the
target platform for which all compiler frontends should compile their

=head1 The Software CPU

Like all interpreter systems of its kind, the Parrot interpreter is
a virtual machine; this is another way of saying that it is a software
CPU. However, unlike other VMs, the Parrot interpreter is designed to
more closely mirror hardware CPUs.

For instance, the Parrot VM will have a register architecture, rather
than a stack architecture. It will also have extremely low-level
operations, more similar to Java's than the medium-level ops of Perl and
Python and the like.

The reasoning for this decision is primarily that by resembling the
underlying hardware to some extent, it's possible to compile down Parrot
bytecode to efficient native machine language. It also allows us to make
use of the literature available on optimizing compilation for hardware
CPUs, rather than the relatively slight volume of information on
optimizing for macro-op based stack machines.

To be more specific about the software CPU, it will contain a large
number of registers. The current design provides for four groups of 32
registers; each group will hold a different data type: integers,
floating-point numbers, strings, and PMCs. (Parrot Magic Cookies,
detailed below.)

Registers will be stored in register frames, which can be pushed and
popped onto the register stack. For instance, a subroutine or a block
might need its own register frame.

=head1 The Operations

The Parrot interpreter has a large number of very low level
instructions, and it is expected that high-level languages will compile
down to a medium-level language before outputting pure Parrot machine

Operations will be represented by several bytes of Parrot machine code;
the first C<IV> will specify the operation number, and the remaining
arguments will be operator-specific. Operations will usually be targeted
at a specific data type and register type; so, for instance, the
C<dec_i_c> takes two C<IV>s as arguments, and decrements contents of the
integer register designated by the first C<IV> by the value in the
second C<IV>. Naturally, operations which act on C<NV> registers will
use C<NV>s for constants; however, since the first argument is almost
always a register B<number> rather than actual data, even operations on
string and PMC registers will take an C<IV> as the first argument. 

As in Perl, Parrot ops will return the pointer to the next operation in
the bytecode stream. Although ops will have a predetermined number and
size of arguments, it's cheaper to have the individual ops skip over
their arguments returning the next operation, rather than looking up in
a table the number of bytes to skip over for a given opcode. 

There will be global and private opcode tables; that is to say, an area
of the bytecode can define a set of custom operations that it will use.
These areas will roughly map to compilation units of the original
source; each precompiled module will have its own opcode table.

For a closer look at Parrot ops, see L<opcodes>.

=head1 PMCs

PMCs are roughly equivalent to the C<SV>, C<AV> and C<HV> (and more
complex types) defined in Perl 5, and almost exactly equivalent to
C<PythonObject> types in Python. They are a completely abstracted data
type; they may be string, integer, code or anything else. As we will see
shortly, they can be expected to behave in certain ways when instructed
to perform certain operations - such as incrementing by one, converting
their value to an integer, and so on.

The fact of their abstraction allows us to treat PMCs as, roughly
speaking, a standard API for dealing with data. If we're executing Perl
code, we can manufacture PMCs that behave like Perl scalars, and the
operations we perform on them will do Perlish things; if we execute
Python code, we can manufacture PMCs with Python operations, and the
same underlying bytecode will now perform Pythonic activities.

=head1 Vtables

The way we achieve this abstraction is to assign to each PMC a set of
function pointers that determine how it ought to behave when asked to do
various things. In a sense, you can regard a PMC as an object in an
abstract virtual class; the PMC needs a set of methods to be defined in
order to respond to method calls. These sets of methods are called

A vtable is, more strictly speaking, a structure which expects to be
filled with function pointers. The PMC contains a pointer to the vtable
structure which implements its behaviour. Hence, when we ask a PMC for
its length, we're essentially calling the C<length> method on the PMC;
this is implemented by looking up the C<length> slot in the vtable that
the PMC points to, and calling the resulting function pointer with the
PMC as argument: essentially,


If our PMC is a string and has a vtable which implements Perl-like
string operations, this will return the length of the string. If, on the
other hand, the PMC is an array, we might get back the number of
elements in the array. (If that's what we want it to do.)

Similarly, if we call the increment operator on a Perl string, we should
get the next string in alphabetic sequence; if we call it on a Python
value, we may well get an error to the effect that Python doesn't have
an increment operator suggesting a bug in the compiler front-end. Or it
might use a "super-compatible Python vtable" doing the right thing
anyway to allow sharing data between Python programs and other languages
more easily.

At any rate, the point is that vtables allow us to separate out the
basic operations common to all programming languages - addition, length,
concatenation, and so on - from the specific behaviour demanded by
individual languages. Perl 6 will be Perl by passing Parrot a set of
Perlish vtables; Parrot will equally be able to run Python, Tcl, Ruby or
whatever by linking in a set of vtables which implement the behaviours
of values in those languages. Combining this with the custom opcode
tables mentioned anove, you should be able to see how Parrot is
essentially a language independent base for building runtimes for
bytecompiled languages.

One interesting thing about vtables is that you can construct them
dynamically. You can find out more about vtables in L<vtables>.

=head1 String Handling

Parrot provides a programmer-friendly view of strings. The Parrot string
handling subsection handles all the work of memory allocation,
expansion, and so on behind the scenes. It also deals with some of the
encoding headaches that can plague Unicode-aware languages. 

This is done primarily by a similar vtable system to that used by PMCs;
each encoding will specify functions such as the maximum number of bytes
to allocate for a character, the length of a string in characters, the
offset of a given character in a string, and so on. They will, of
course, provide a transcoding function either to the other encodings or
just to Unicode for use as a pivot.

The string handling API is explained in L<strings>.

=head1 Bytecode format

We have already explained the format of the main stream of bytecode;
operations will be followed by arguments packed in such a format as
the individual operations require. This makes up the third section of a
Parrot bytecode file; frozen representations of Parrot programs have the
following structure.

Firstly, a magic number is presented to identify the bytecode file as
Parrot code. Next comes the fixup segment, which contains pointers to
global variable storage and other memory locations required by the main
opcode segment. On disk, the actual pointers will be zeroed out, and
the bytecode loader will replace them by the memory addresses allocated
by the running instance of the interpreter.

Similarly, the next segment defines all string and PMC constants used in
the code. The loader will reconstruct these constants, fixing references
to the constants in the opcode segment with the addresses of the newly
reconstructed data.

As we know, the opcode segment is next. This is optionally followed by a
code segment for debugging purposes, which contains a munged form of the
original program file.

The bytecode format is fully documented in L<parrotbyte>.

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