Yesterday I posted something of a rant about the poor state of our Sub and NameSpace PMCs. The problems in these two PMCs, and resulting problems caused by them in other places, are really symptoms of a single problem: That the packfile loader blindly inserts Sub PMCs into the corresponding NameSpace PMCs at runtime, and leaves the NameSpace PMC to sort out the details.

I would like to show you the three offending pieces of code that really lead us down this rabbit hole. The first snippet is from the heart of IMCC, the code that adds a namespace to a Sub during compilation:

ns_pmc     = NULL;
if (ns) {
    switch (ns->set) {
      case 'K':
        if (ns_const >= 0 && ns_const < ct->pmc.const_count)
            ns_pmc = ct->pmc.constants[ns_const];
      case 'S':
        if (ns_const >= 0 && ns_const < ct->str.const_count) {
            ns_pmc = Parrot_pmc_new_constant(imcc->interp, enum_class_String);
            VTABLE_set_string_native(imcc->interp, ns_pmc,
sub->namespace_name = ns_pmc;

In this snippet, ns is a SymReg* pointer. Basically, it’s a pointer to a parse token representing the NameSpace declaration. ns->set is the type of declaration, 'K' for a Key PMC and 'S' for a STRING literal. The two forms are written in PIR as:

.namespace "Foo"
.namespace ["Foo"]

Actually, I don’t know if the first is still valid syntax, so the 'S' part of this block might be dead code. We can dig into that later, it’s not really important now. The last line of the snippet sets the namespace_name attribute on the Sub PMC to be either a Key PMC or a String PMC containing the name of the namespace.

Notice that the Sub PMC has attributes namespace_name and namespace_stash, both of which are PMCs. The namespace_name is populated at compile time and is used by the packfile loader to create the NameSpace PMC automatically. A reference to that NameSpace PMC is stored in namespace_stash. Thereafter, namespace_name is rarely used. We can definitely talk about ripping out one of these two attributes, if we can’t make bigger improvements in a reasonable amount of time. In the long run, both will be gone.

The second snippet I want to show you is inside the packfile loader:

for (i = 0; i < self->pmc.const_count; i++)
    self->pmc.constants[i] = PackFile_Constant_unpack_pmc(interp, self, &cursor);
for (i = 0; i < self->pmc.const_count; i++) {
    PMC * const pmc  = self->pmc.constants[i]
                          = VTABLE_get_pmc_keyed_int(interp, self->pmc.constants[i], 0);
    if (VTABLE_isa(interp, pmc, sub_str))
        Parrot_ns_store_sub(interp, pmc);

I’ve removed comments for clarity (No, that’s not some kind of a joke. There were comments in this snippet, and they are not helpful for understandability).

In this snippet we first loop for the number of PMC constants, unpacking and thawing each from the packfile. Then in the second loop we loop over all of them again, to see which, if any, are Subs. For any Subs, we call Parrot_ns_store_sub to read the namespace_name out of the Sub PMC, create the NameSpace if necessary, and then insert that Sub into the namespace. That brings me to my third snippet of code:

ns = get_namespace_pmc(interp, sub_pmc);

/* attach a namespace to the sub for lookups */
sub->namespace_stash = ns;

/* store a :multi sub */
if (!PMC_IS_NULL(sub->multi_signature))
    store_sub_in_multi(interp, sub_pmc, ns);

/* store other subs (as long as they're not :anon) */
else if (!(PObj_get_FLAGS(sub_pmc) & SUB_FLAG_PF_ANON)
    || sub->vtable_index != -1) {
    STRING * const ns_entry_name = sub->ns_entry_name;
    PMC    * const nsname        = sub->namespace_name;

    Parrot_ns_store_global(interp, ns, ns_entry_name, sub_pmc);

This snippet comes to us from the heart of the Parrot_ns_store_sub routine I mentioned above. This is basically a duplication of some logic found in the NameSpace PMC. My first thought was that the duplicated code paths should be merged. My second thought is that they both need to just be deleted. In this snippet, we call get_namespace_pmc to find or create the NameSpace that suits the current Sub. If the Sub is flagged :multi, we add it to a MultiSub instance in that namespace. Otherwise, so long as the Sub isn’t flagged :anon or :vtable, we add it to the NameSpace.

So those are the three bits of Parrot that are causing all these problems. These are the three bits that really encapsulate what the problem with Sub is, why it’s so bad, why Subs eat up so much memory, and why load performance on packfiles is so poor. These three, small, innocuous snippets of code are really the root of so many problems. This is all it takes.

What is really being done here? IMCC has all the compile-time information, and as it’s going along it’s collecting that information in a parse tree of SymReg structures. A SymReg representing a Sub contains a pointer to a SymReg for the owner namespace, a SymReg for the string of the Sub’s name, a SymReg for each flag, etc. When it comes time to compile the Sub down to bytecode, it creates a Sub PMC and dutifully stores all this information from the .sub SymReg into the Sub PMC. After all, all that information is together when we parse and compile it, so storing it all together in the same place for storage does seem like a reasonable thing to do. We store the Sub PMC in the constants table of the packfile and move on to the next Sub.

On startup then, since we have all these Sub PMCs and each contains all the necessary data to set themselves up, we read out all this data and start recreating the necessary details: NameSpaces, MultiSubs, etc. This all makes some good sense as well, in theory. In practice, we end up with lots of bits of data (the Subs) tasked with recreating the containers in which they are to be stored (the NameSpace, Class, and MultiSubs). This means that each Sub needs to contain enough information to possibly recreate all the possible containers where it could be stored (NameSpace, Class, and MultiSub), and that is extremely wasteful.

Here’s the big question I have: Why are we creating the NameSpace and the MultiSub PMCs at runtime? Why don’t we create them at compile time, and simply have them available and ready to use already when we load in the packfile?

Here’s an alternate chain of events to consider. When IMCC reaches a .namespace directive and creates the associated SymReg, we should also immediately create a NameSpace PMC. Then when we create .subs in PIR, we can add each to the current NameSpace, instead of storing the namespace SymReg reference in the Sub. When we go to create the bytecode, we serialize and store all the NameSpace PMCs, which will recurse and serialize/store all their component Subs. The same thing goes with MultiSubs: When we find a :multi flag, IMCC should create a MultiSub PMC immediately instead of a Sub PMC, and perform the mergers at compile time. When we serialize the NameSpace, it recursively serializes the MultiSubs, which recursively serializes the various component Subs. One other thing we are going to want to do is create Class PMCs, or some kind of compile-time stand-in. This way we are able to handle :method Subs easily, by inserting them into Classes at compile time, not runtime. There are some complications here, so I’ll discuss them in a bit.

The real beauty of this change shows up on the loader side: When we load the packfile, we loop over and thaw all the PMCs. Then….We’re done. Maybe when we load a NameSpace we need to fix it up and insert it into the NameSpace tree. Also, when we load a NameSpace with the same name as a NameSpace that already exists in the tree we need to merge them together. That’s a small and inconsequential operation, especially considering how much other code we’re going to delete or streamline.

Here are some problems that we are going to fix:

  1. Methods will never need to be stored in the NameSpace, even temporarily
  2. Improve startup performance, by not needing to do a VTABLE_isa on every PMC to see if it’s a Sub. If so, we can avoid logic for inserting the Sub into an auto-created NameSpace, the storing it in weird ways depending on flags, and doing all that other crap.
  3. We can significantly cut down logic from the NameSpace PMC, and probably make them much cheaper in terms of used memory and logic overhead
  4. We can slim down several fields from Sub: namespace_stash, namespace_name, vtable_index, method_name, ns_entry_name, multi_signature, and probably comp_flags too. Some of these are going to require deprecations, and some of them are going to require us to provide workarounds in certain areas.
  5. If we can make IMCC less reliant on direct structure access for setting up a Sub, which is a real possibility when there is less “setting up” to be done, we can make it more easy to replace Sub entirely with a custom subclass at compile time. That’s something we’ve always wanted but never been able to do precisely because there were so many direct attribute accesses in IMCC.
  6. We can move more processing to compile-time and do less of it at load time, decreasing startup time for most programs run from bytecode.
  7. We can probably simplify a lot of IMCC logic by actually creating the PMCs we need directly, instead of creating a bunch of structures which contain the information we need to create the things we need later.

The issue of Classes and Methods is a little bit tricky because looming overhead are the impending 6model refactors. The :method flag on a Sub really performs two tasks: First, it tells IMCC to automatically add a parameter to the front of the list called “self”. Second, it tells the NameSpace to store the Sub, but to do so in a super-secret way that only the Class PMC can find. The first use I’ve always felt was nonsensical, especially when you consider requests to add a new :invocant flag for parameters to manually specify the name of the invocant, and the fact that the automatic behavior of it creates a large number of problems especially with respect to VTABLEs. In my new conception of things, NameSpace won’t be storing methods anyway, so the second use of the flag disappears completely. I say we deprecate it soon and remove it entirely at the earliest possible convenience.

In the near-term, I think the :method flag is going to be used to create a ProtoClass or an uninitialized Class PMC at compile time. Then, when we call the newclass opcode at runtime it will look to see if we have a Class (or ProtoClass) by that name and if so will return the existing object, marking it as being “found” to prevent calling newclass again on it. That sequence of events is a little bit more messy than I would like (again, I would like to avoid the :method flag entirely and do class creation either entirely at compile time or entirely at runtime, but maintaining compatability with current syntax may lead in a more messy direction). I’ll explore some of these ideas in a later post.

I’ve created a branch locally to start exploring some of these ideas, and will push it to the repo when I have something to show. Depending on how this project lends itself to division, I may end up with many small atomic branches or one large overwhelming one. Both paths are equally plausible. I’m going to start playing around with some code, and when I find something that seems like a reasonable stopping point I’ll try to merge it if reasonable.