Monthly Archives: June 2013

Building GCC Plugins – Part 2: Introduction to GCC Internals

Once the basic scaffolding is in place for a GCC Plugin, the next step is to analyze and perhaps modify the Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) created by GCC as a result of parsing the source code.  GCC is truly a marvel of software engineering, it is the de-facto compiler for *nix environments and supports a variety of front ends for different langauages (even Ada…).  That said, the GCC AST is complex to navigate for a number of reasons.  First, parsing and representing a variety of languages in a common syntax tree is a complex problem so the solution is going to be complex.  Second, history – looking at the GCC internals is a bit like walking down memory lane; this is the way we wrote high-performance software when systems had limited memory (think 64k) and CPUs had low throughput (think 16Mhz clock cycles).  Prior to GCC 4.8.0, GCC was compiled with the C compiler, so don’t bother looking for C++ constructs in the source code.

The AST Tree

The primary element in the GCC AST is the ‘tree’ structure.  An introduction to the tree structure appears in the GCC Internals Documentation.  Figure 1 is extracted from the tree.h header file and provides a good starting place for a discussion of the GCC tree and how to approach programming with it.


union GTY ((ptr_alias (union lang_tree_node),
 desc ("tree_node_structure (&%h)"), variable_size)) tree_node {
 struct tree_base GTY ((tag ("TS_BASE"))) base;
 struct tree_typed GTY ((tag ("TS_TYPED"))) typed;
 struct tree_common GTY ((tag ("TS_COMMON"))) common;
 struct tree_int_cst GTY ((tag ("TS_INT_CST"))) int_cst;
 struct tree_real_cst GTY ((tag ("TS_REAL_CST"))) real_cst;
 struct tree_fixed_cst GTY ((tag ("TS_FIXED_CST"))) fixed_cst;
 struct tree_vector GTY ((tag ("TS_VECTOR"))) vector;
 struct tree_string GTY ((tag ("TS_STRING"))) string;
 struct tree_complex GTY ((tag ("TS_COMPLEX"))) complex;
 struct tree_identifier GTY ((tag ("TS_IDENTIFIER"))) identifier;
 struct tree_decl_minimal GTY((tag ("TS_DECL_MINIMAL"))) decl_minimal;
 struct tree_decl_common GTY ((tag ("TS_DECL_COMMON"))) decl_common;
 struct tree_decl_with_rtl GTY ((tag ("TS_DECL_WRTL"))) decl_with_rtl;
 struct tree_decl_non_common GTY ((tag ("TS_DECL_NON_COMMON"))) decl_non_common;
 struct tree_parm_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_PARM_DECL"))) parm_decl;
 struct tree_decl_with_vis GTY ((tag ("TS_DECL_WITH_VIS"))) decl_with_vis;
 struct tree_var_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_VAR_DECL"))) var_decl;
 struct tree_field_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_FIELD_DECL"))) field_decl;
 struct tree_label_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_LABEL_DECL"))) label_decl;
 struct tree_result_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_RESULT_DECL"))) result_decl;
 struct tree_const_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_CONST_DECL"))) const_decl;
 struct tree_type_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_TYPE_DECL"))) type_decl;
 struct tree_function_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_FUNCTION_DECL"))) function_decl;
 struct tree_translation_unit_decl GTY ((tag ("TS_TRANSLATION_UNIT_DECL")))
 translation_unit_decl;
 struct tree_type_common GTY ((tag ("TS_TYPE_COMMON"))) type_common;
 struct tree_type_with_lang_specific GTY ((tag ("TS_TYPE_WITH_LANG_SPECIFIC")))
 type_with_lang_specific;
 struct tree_type_non_common GTY ((tag ("TS_TYPE_NON_COMMON")))
 type_non_common;
 struct tree_list GTY ((tag ("TS_LIST"))) list;
 struct tree_vec GTY ((tag ("TS_VEC"))) vec;
 struct tree_exp GTY ((tag ("TS_EXP"))) exp;
 struct tree_ssa_name GTY ((tag ("TS_SSA_NAME"))) ssa_name;
 struct tree_block GTY ((tag ("TS_BLOCK"))) block;
 struct tree_binfo GTY ((tag ("TS_BINFO"))) binfo;
 struct tree_statement_list GTY ((tag ("TS_STATEMENT_LIST"))) stmt_list;
 struct tree_constructor GTY ((tag ("TS_CONSTRUCTOR"))) constructor;
 struct tree_omp_clause GTY ((tag ("TS_OMP_CLAUSE"))) omp_clause;
 struct tree_optimization_option GTY ((tag ("TS_OPTIMIZATION"))) optimization;
 struct tree_target_option GTY ((tag ("TS_TARGET_OPTION"))) target_option;
};

Figure 1: The tree_node structure extracted from the GCC code base.

Fundamentally, a tree_node is a big union of structs.  The union contains a handful of common or descriptive members, but the majority of union members are specific types of tree nodes.  The first tree union member: tree_base is common to all tree nodes and provides the basic descriptive information about the node to permit one to determine the precise kind of node being examined or manipulated.  There is a bit of an inheritance model introduced with tree_base being the foundation and tree_typed and tree_common adding another layer of customization for specific categories of tree nodes to inherit but from there on out the remainder of the union members are specific types of tree nodes.  For example, tree_int_cst is an integer constant node whereas tree_field_decl is a field declaration.

Tree nodes are typed but not in the C language sense of ‘typed’.  One way to think about it is that the tree_node structure is a memory-efficient way to model a class in C prior to C++.  Instead of member functions or methods, there is a large library of macros which act on tree nodes.  In general, macros will fall into two categories: predicate macros which will usually have a ‘_P’ suffix and return a value which can be compared to zero to indicate a false result and transformation macros which take a tree node and usually return another tree node.  Despite the temtpation to dip directly into the public tree_node structure and access or modify the data members directly – don’t do it.  Treat tree nodes like a C++ classes in which all the data members are private and rely on the tree macros to query or manipulate tree nodes.

Relying on the macros to work with the tree_node structure is the correct approach per GCC documentation but will also simply make your life easier.  GCC tree_node structures are ‘strongly typed’ in the sense that they are distinct in the GCC tree type-system and many of the macros expect a specific tree_node type.  For example the INT_CST_LT(A, B) macro expects to have two tree_int_cst nodes passed as arguments – even though the C++ compiler cannot enforce the typing at compile time.  If you pass in the wrong  tree_node type, you will typically get a segmentation violation.  An alternative approach is to compile GCC with the –enable-checking flag set which will enforce runtime checking of node types.

In terms of history, this type of modelling was common back in the day when machines were limited in memory and compute cycles.  This approach is very efficient in terms of memory as the union overlays all the types and there are no virtual tables or other C++ class overhead that consumes memory or requires compute overhead.  The price paid though is that it is 100% incumbent on the developer to keep the type-system front-of-mind and insure that they are invoking the right macros with the right arguments.  The strategy of relying on the compiler to advise one about type mis-matches does not work in this kind of code.

Basics of AST Programming

There are 5 key macros that can be invoked safely on any tree structure.  These three are: TREE_CODE, TREE_TYPE, TREE_CHAIN, TYPE_P and DECL_P.  In general after obtaining a ‘generic’ tree node, the first step is to use the TREE_CODE macro to determine the ‘type’ (in the GCC type-system) of the node.  The TREE_TYPE macro returns the source code ‘type’ associated with the node.  For example, the node result type of a method declaration returning an interger value will have a TREE_TYPE with a TREE_CODE equal to INTEGER_TYPE.  The code for that statement would look like:


TREE_CODE( TREE_TYPE( DECL_RESULT( <em>methodNode</em> ))) == INTEGER_TYPE

Within the AST structure, lists are generally represented as singly-linked lists with the link to the next list member returned by the TREE_CHAIN macro.  For example, the DECL_ARGUMENTS macro will return a pointer to the first parameter for a function or method.  If this value is NULL_TREE, then there are no parameters, otherwise the tree node for the first parameter is returned.  Using TREE_CHAIN on that node will return NULL_TREE if it is the only parameter or will return a tree instance for the next parameter.  There also exists a vector data structure within GCC and it is accessed using a different set of macros.

The TYPE_P and DECL_P macros are predicates which will return non-zero values if the tree passed as an argument is a type specification or a code declaration.  Knowing this distinction is important as it then quickly partitions the macros which can be used with node.  Many macros will have a prefix of ‘TYPE_’ for type nodes and ‘DECL_’ for declaration nodes.  Frequently there will be two sets of identical macros, for instance TYPE_UID will return the GCC generated, internal numeric unique identifier for a type node whereas DECL_UID is needed for a declaration node.  In general, I have found that calling a TYPE_ macro on a declaration or a DECL_ macro on a type specification will result in a segmentation violation.

Other frequently used macros include: DECL_NAME and TYPE_NAME to return a tree node that contains the source code name for a given element.  IDENTIFIER_POINTER can then be used on that tree to return a pointer to the char* for the name.  DECL_SOURCE_FILE, DECL_SOURCE_LINE and DECL_SOURCE_LOCATION are available to map an AST declaration back to the source code location.  As mentioned above, DECL_UID and TYPE_UID return numeric unique identifiers for elements in the source code.

In addition to the above, for C++ source code fed to g++, the compiler will inject methods and  fields not explicitly declared in the c++ source code.  These elements can be identified with the DECL_IS_BUILTIN and DECL_ARTIFICIAL macros.  If as you traverse the AST you trip across oddly named elements, check the node with those macros to determine if the nodes have been created by the compiler.

Beyond this simple introduction, sifting through the AST will require a lot of time reviewing the tree.h and other header files to look for macros that you will useful for your application.  Fortunately, the naming is very consistent and quite good which eases the hunt for the right macro.  Once you think you have the right macro for a given task, try it in your plugin and see if you get the desired result.  Be prepared for a lot of trial-and-error investigation in the debugger.  Also, though there are some GDB scripts to pretty-print AST tree instances, looking at these structure in the debugger will also require some experience, as again the debugger isn’t able to infer much about GCC’s internal type system.

Making the AST Easier to Navigate and Manipulate

I have started a handful of C++ libraries which bridge the gap between the implicit type system in the GCC tree_node structure and explicit C++ classes modelling distinct tree_node types.  For example, a snippet from my TypeTree class appears below in Figure 2.


class TypeTree : public DeclOrTypeBaseTree
 {
 public :

TypeTree( const tree& typeTree )
 : DeclOrTypeBaseTree( typeTree )
 {
 assert( TYPE_P( typeTree ) );
 }

TypeTree& operator= ( const tree& typeTree )
 {
 assert( TYPE_P( typeTree ) );

(tree&)m_tree = typeTree;

return( *this );
 }

 const CPPModel::UID UID() const
 {
 return( CPPModel::UID( TYPE_UID( TYPE_MAIN_VARIANT( m_tree ) ), CPPModel::UID::UIDType::TYPE ) );
 }

 const std::string Namespace() const;

std::unique_ptr<const CPPModel::Type> type( const CPPModel::ASTDictionary& dictionary ) const;

CPPModel::TypeInfo::Specifier typeSpecifier() const;

CPPModel::ConstListPtr<CPPModel::Attribute> attributes();
 };

Figure 2: TypeTree wrapper class for GCC tree_node.

Within this library I make extensive use of the STL, Boost libraries and a number of C++ 11 features.  For example, ConstListPtr<> is a template alias for a std::unique_ptr to a boost::ptr_list class.


template <class T> using ListPtr = std::unique_ptr<boost::ptr_list<T>>;
 template <class T> using ConstListPtr = std::unique_ptr<const boost::ptr_list<T>>;

template <class T> using ListRef = const boost::ptr_list<T>&;

template <class T> ConstListPtr<T> MakeConst( ListPtr<T>& nonConstList ) { return( ConstListPtr<T>( std::move( nonConstList ) ) ); }

Figure 3: Template aliases for lists.

At present the library is capable of walking through the GCC AST and creating a dictionary of all the types in the code being compiled.  Within this dictionary, the library is also able to provide detailed information on classes, structs, unions, functions and global variables.  It will scrape out C++ 11 generalized attributes on many source code elements (not all of the yet though) and return proper declarations with parameters and return types for functions and methods.  The ASTDictionary and the specific language model classes have no dependency on GCC Internals themselves.

The approach I followed for developing the library thus far was to get enough simple code running using the GCC macros that I could then start to refactor into C++ classes.  Along the way, I used Boost strong typedefs to start making sense of the GCC type system at compile time.  Once the puzzle pieces started falling into place and the programming patterns took shape, developing a plugin on top of the libraries is fairly straightforward.  That said, there is a long and painful learning curve associated with GCC internals and the AST itself.

Getting the Code and Disclaimers

The library code is available on Github: ‘stephanfr/GCCPlugin’.  All of the code is under GPL V3.0 which is absolutely required as it runs within GCC itself.  I do not claim that the library is complete, stable, usable or rational – but hopefully some will find it useful if for nothing more than providing some insight into the GCC AST.  For the record, this is not my job nor is it my job to enrich or bug fix the library so you can get your compiler theory class project done in time.  That said, if you pick up the code and either enrich it or fix some bugs – please return the code to me and I will merge what makes sense.

The code should ‘just run’ if you have a GCC Plugin build environment configured per my prior posts.  One detail is that the ‘GCCPlugin Debug.launch’ file will need to be moved to the ‘.launches’ directory of Eclipse’s ‘org.eclipse.debug.core’ plugin directory.  If the ‘.launches’ directory does not exist, then create it.

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