LLVM is a bit hard to explain, because the boundary around what it is is rather fuzzy. To sum it up in a noun phrase, I'd say that LLVM is a modular compilation system and virtual machine. I say "compilation system" because it doesn't really consist of an actual compiler, and there's a lot of it that is outside the definition of a compiler.
The core idea is that you have a program in some programming language which is compiled into a platform and language independent intermediate format. From there, the program is translated into some machine code (whatever type is used on the machine it's being run on) at a later time, either during execution (just-in-time compiling) or prior to execution (e.g. an installer converting the application to native code when the program is installed), and executed. In that sense there's some similarity to the .NET platform and Java platform, though it isn't totally analogous to those.
LLVM is a collection of modules that makes the various parts of the process possible. These components form a redundant superset of a full system, so you can choose which you want for a particular purpose and leave the rest.
Going chronologically through that process, the first module in LLVM is its assembler. LLVM does not directly parse and compile any particular programming language. When creating a working compiler, you must create a language parser that processes a program and performs any language-specific optimizations. LLVM takes as its input a program in LLVM assembly plus various metadata that could be useful later in the process, and assembles them into language and platform independent LLVM intermediate bytecode. A few of the open-sourceparsers already available for LLVM include C, C++, Objective-C, and many others; there are even parsers under development that take .NET and Java bytecodes as input.
The LLVM assembly language differs substantially from the Java and .NET bytecode languages, and bears some resemblance to RISC assembly languages such as MIPS and PPC. LLVM assembly consists of an infinite set of Single Static Assignment (SSA) registers; each register can be assigned only once, and a new register must be allocated for the result of every computation. However, LLVM also stores a significant amount of metadata, such as call graphs and other things at a higher level than a simple assembly language, in the bytecode (language-dependent metadata provided by the compiler is also stored for later use by language-dependent modules, e.g. if a particular language has a runtime environment that needs more information than just the native code). This combination of the assembly language design and rich metadata allows the optimizer and native code generator to act much more effectively, in a language-independent manner, than if they were working on a bare assembly language. Yet they are compact enough to not be significantly larger than the equivalent native code alone.
The next step in the process is global optimization. LLVM implements a substantial number of language-independent optimization algorithms, and compiler writers can use some or all of them as they like. Because of the metadata stored with the assembly language, LLVM is not limited to dealing simply with assembly, and the effectiveness of it's optimization algorithms resembles that of a standalone compiler (e.g. Visual C++). Even better, because optimization occurs after the entire program has been assembled, LLVM can do whole-program optimizations (known as link-time code generation in VC++ and others) that are outside the ability of simple compilers that only look at a function or a source module at a time.
After optimization comes native code generation (or, alternately, you could interpret the bytecode without producing native code). This step takes the assembly and metadata that has undergone language and platform independent optimization and creates executable machine code, usually after performing platform-specific optimizations, and the code is then executed. Native code generators are language-independent, interchangeable modules invoked by LLVM and, given a program in LLVM bytecode, native code can be generated for any platform that a native code generation module exists for (x86 and PPC are a couple that are already supported with open-source implementations).
Finally, LLVM provides a runtime system that allows for various runtime tasks to be performed. We'll get to the other tasks later, but one to mention here is that this runtime system allows language or platform specific runtime environments to interface with LLVM-generated native code, as well as interfacing with system or dynamic link libraries. Language-dependent metadata provided by the language compiler in the distant past is also available for use here.
So, that's the basic process. However, as I've been describing the logical process and not the details, this description is much more linear than reality. As was mentioned, LLVM provides a number of modules that may be optionally used, and some are redundant. As well, there's also flexibility in how the modules interact.
LLVM especially provides a great deal of flexibility in the timing of optimization and native code generation. While LLVM can be used like a normal compiler, taking in LLVM assembly and generating an executable with native code that can be directly executed on the target platform, it does not need to be. It's equally possible to store the LLVM bytecode in a platform-independent "executable" and optimize it and compile it to native code at a later point, either on execution or prior to execution. LLVM can even compile individual functions to native code the first time they are called, allowing some portions of the program to potentially never be compiled at all.
Finally, LLVM also supports profiling and dynamic recompilation of a program. The LLVM runtime is capable of profiling the native code of the program at runtime, determining where the program spends most of its time, what functions are executed most often, etc. based on actual usage. It can then recompile the program from bytecode, either between executions or during idle time, using this profile data to perform optimizations based on actual usage.
So, that's squishy. But why should you care? Well, a few reasons. Probably the most attractive is that you can make a full, optimizing compiler for a language that will generate native code for many platforms simply by writing a parser and LLVM assembly generator - thousands of lines of code compared to hundreds of thousands or millions (see here for one example of this). Alternately, if you're designing a processor for some reason (work, school, or hobby), you can write a native code generator and instantly support all the languages parsers already exist for. And then there are some less obvious uses, such as using the metadata generated by LLVM to perform complex analysis of source code for the purpose of searching for bugs, security holes, etc.
LLVM is a free open-source project that may be used in free or commercial projects, open-source or proprietary. Its largest benefactor is Apple, who uses it extensively. Other companies such as Adobe also use it in various ways. For more information, see this brief summary of the LLVM system, and the LLVM web page.
Hey, does anybody remember the days when I actually wrote stuff on this blog? Those were good times.
Well, in case anybody actually remembers that far back, one of the things I'm known for is my topic du jour manner of self-education. I hear about some topic (or it comes up in some thought process), I research it for anywhere from a few days to a few months (however long it holds my interest), then I move on to some other topic. This week's topic du jour is cache-oblivious algorithms.
To explain what cache-oblivious algorithms are and why they're good, let's work through an example.
Suppose we've got a sorted array of 2^24 32-bit values, for a total size of 64 MB, and we need to determine if it contains a given value (if not, to find the nearest values). As we know that the list is sorted, binary search is the obvious choice, as it's known to be O(log N) complexity; note also that a sorted array is effectively an implicit binary search tree with items stored in-order, and the binary search is just a traversal of that tree. This complexity dictates that the search will require approximately log2(2^24) = 24 comparisons, each by definition involving a memory access (obviously, as the array is stored in memory).
Now consider a similar array containing 2^8 32-bit values (total size of 1 KB). According to the big O, a search through this array will take about 8 comparisons - 1/3 as many as the 2^24 array. Now, while these two numbers are accurate, they're highly misleading. By that measure, you'd expect it to take three times as long to perform the 2^24 search as the 2^8. It doesn't. In fact, the difference is well over an order of magnitude.
The reason for this discrepancy is the assumption that all memory accesses are equal. This is invalidated by the existence of processor (and other) caching, where cache hits are significantly faster than cache misses, as well as Non-Uniform Memory Architectures, where different memory banks have different access times for different processors. The 1 KB array can easily be held entirely in the processor's L1 cache, and in theory all accesses will be cache hits. The 64 MB array, on the other hand, can't even be held in L2 or L3 cache, so most memory accesses will be cache misses, and must go all the way to main memory.
Of course, main memory isn't that extreme of an example, as it isn't too much slower than processor cache. The real killer is when you have something (e.g. a database) that can't be held entirely in memory, and must be read from disk as needed (or worse, accessed over the internet at a speed that makes hard disks look fast). Hard drives are about a million times slower than RAM, meaning that each and every disk access is an excruciating performance hit, and the internet can be an order of magnitude worse.
Unsurprisingly, a massive amount of research effort over the last half a century has been in minimizing that amount that must be read from disk, especially in the class of cache-aware algorithms. Cache-aware algorithms are algorithms that are tuned (typically parametrized) for a specific system configuration (e.g. cache size) to achieve performance superior to algorithms that don't take such configuration into consideration.
One of the most common cache-aware algorithms, used in most file systems and database structures, is the B-tree (and family members), an upside-down (non-binary) search tree designed to minimize the number of disk accesses in searching data sets too large to fit entirely into memory. The B-tree is cache-aware because the block size can be adjusted to perform optimally on a given system configuration through either abstract math or actual benchmarks, and the optimal size for one configuration may perform poorly on another configuration.
Surprisingly, only in the last decade have people seriously investigated whether it is possible to create algorithms that make optimal use of a system configuration regardless of what exactly that configuration is, with no parametrization. This type of algorithm is called cache-oblivious algorithms.
Sometimes this is easy. A sequential scan of an array that does something on every element in order is cache-oblivious because it produces the provably minimum number of cache misses regardless of how the cache works. Divide and conquer algorithms that access each item in an array are also generally cache-oblivious and provably optimal because they ultimately divide enough to operate only on what's in a single cache line, regardless of what size the cache line is, before moving on to the next cache line (assuming, of course, that the size of each element is small in relation to the size of a cache line); in other words, they have a more or less linear scanning memory access pattern.
Binary search, however, is not cache-oblivious, as it's not a true divide and conquer algorithm in the sense that matters to us; specifically, it does not access all elements, and therefore does not get to take advantage of the predominant locality in the array. However, we can make a cache-oblivious implicit binary search tree by changing the ordering of items. To maximize performance, we want to lay out the nodes of the binary tree such that child nodes are as close as possible to their parents as often as possible, resulting in a minimal number of cache misses.
The key here is what's called the van Emde Boas layout (VEB) (you can tell I use HTTPS Everywhere because my Wikipedia links are all HTTPS). The basic idea is that the (triangular when drawn on paper) tree is divided recursively into (triangular) subtrees, with all nodes in each subtree being clustered together. This gives it a fractal structure with child and parent nodes being as close as possible to each other, maximizing cache locality during searches without needing to know the details of the cache system. A short tree in this form is shown below; below that is a comparison with trees in in-order, breadth-first (BFS), and depth-first search (DFS):
It's worth noting that cache-oblivious structures may or may not be as fast/faster than the simpler forms when the entire data set is in the same level of cache (whether you're talking about L1, RAM, etc.). One of the papers (the same one the images are from) examined the performance of static (non-changing) binary trees stored in in-order, BFS (an order that gives some cache locality while still being trivial to calculate child positions for), DFS, and VEB order, as well as two cache-aware search tree formats. In this experiment, the tree was stored in memory and cached in the processor cache - cache hits stay in the processor, cache misses go to main memory.
In the case of VEB, the complex fractal structure makes it nontrivial to calculate the position of a node's children in the array. As a result, when the entire data structure is in cache, calculation of child position takes longer than memory accesses, and VEB is about 40% slower than the standard in-order ordering. VEB begins to outperform in-order ordering once about half of the tree does not fit into cache; this calculation complexity problem can be overcome by storing child pointers with each node, but this is rather self-defeating, as this only multiplies the amount of data that has to be fit into the limited cache. In almost all cases, the cache-aware algorithms were superior to the others, but obviously require tuning to the particular cache, which is exactly what we're trying to avoid. BFS also performed admirably, always at least 15% faster than in-order ordering, and superior to VEB when more than ~1.5% of the data was able to fit into cache.
Another article compared a cache-oblivious binary heap based on VEB ordering with a standard binary heap using BFS ordering, in the context of a real-world internet page cache in actual use. Here, the heap is stored on (solid state) disk and cached in memory - cache hits go to memory while cache misses go to the disk. As in the previous benchmark, VEB performed 30% worse than the standard BFS when the entire tree could be stored in cache, but outperformed BFS when more than 0.2% of the tree was not stored in memory (I would guess this threshold is so low due to the many order of magnitude difference between memory and disk performance). At the other end, VEB peaked at 10x the speed of BFS when most of the tree was not cached. I imagine the reason this wasn't much higher was that in this real-world benchmark the priority queue was very small relative to the other data that is being accessed, and as such performance was dominated by other operations.
In the ~10 years researchers have been working on this, an array of cache-oblivious algorithms have been described, such as searching, sorting, linked lists, heaps, matrix multiplication and transposition, and various geometric algorithms such as 3D bounding volumes. The list of stuff I've seen so far (though not necessarily read through completely) is shown below, though I'm certain there are other things out there as well.
I am a graduate of computer science and biology (molecular biology and biotechnology specialization) looking to get into the game development industry. I have been staff at Campaign Creations since 1998, and staff at Camelot Systems since 2001. In that time I've published the popular game modification programs MoPaQ 2000, MPQDraft, and ThunderGraft, and done a variety of game reverse-engineering projects. The last few years, I've taken up linguistics as a hobby, with special interest in Japanese, Latin, and Trique.