A Basic Just-In-Time Compiler

This article was discussed on Hacker News and on reddit.

Monday’s /r/dailyprogrammer challenge was to write a program to read a recurrence relation definition and, through interpretation, iterate it to some number of terms. It’s given an initial term (u(0)) and a sequence of operations, f, to apply to the previous term (u(n + 1) = f(u(n))) to compute the next term. Since it’s an easy challenge, the operations are limited to addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, with one operand each.

For example, the relation u(n + 1) = (u(n) + 2) * 3 - 5 would be input as +2 *3 -5. If u(0) = 0 then,

Rather than write an interpreter to apply the sequence of operations, for my submission (mirror) I took the opportunity to write a simple x86-64 Just-In-Time (JIT) compiler. So rather than stepping through the operations one by one, my program converts the operations into native machine code and lets the hardware do the work directly. In this article I’ll go through how it works and how I did it.

Update: The follow-up challenge uses Reverse Polish notation to allow for more complicated expressions. I wrote another JIT compiler for my submission (mirror).

Allocating Executable Memory

Modern operating systems have page-granularity protections for different parts of process memory: read, write, and execute. Code can only be executed from memory with the execute bit set on its page, memory can only be changed when its write bit is set, and some pages aren’t allowed to be read. In a running process, the pages holding program code and loaded libraries will have their write bit cleared and execute bit set. Most of the other pages will have their execute bit cleared and their write bit set.

The reason for this is twofold. First, it significantly increases the security of the system. If untrusted input was read into executable memory, an attacker could input machine code (shellcode) into the buffer, then exploit a flaw in the program to cause control flow to jump to and execute that code. If the attacker is only able to write code to non-executable memory, this attack becomes a lot harder. The attacker has to rely on code already loaded into executable pages (return-oriented programming).

Second, it catches program bugs sooner and reduces their impact, so there’s less chance for a flawed program to accidentally corrupt user data. Accessing memory in an invalid way will causes a segmentation fault, usually leading to program termination. For example, NULL points to a special page with read, write, and execute disabled.

An Instruction Buffer

Memory returned by malloc() and friends will be writable and readable, but non-executable. If the JIT compiler allocates memory through malloc(), fills it with machine instructions, and jumps to it without doing any additional work, there will be a segmentation fault. So some different memory allocation calls will be made instead, with the details hidden behind an asmbuf struct.

#define PAGE_SIZE 4096

struct asmbuf {
    uint8_t code[PAGE_SIZE - sizeof(uint64_t)];
    uint64_t count;

To keep things simple here, I’m just assuming the page size is 4kB. In a real program, we’d use sysconf(_SC_PAGESIZE) to discover the page size at run time. On x86-64, pages may be 4kB, 2MB, or 1GB, but this program will work correctly as-is regardless.

Instead of malloc(), the compiler allocates memory as an anonymous memory map (mmap()). It’s anonymous because it’s not backed by a file.

struct asmbuf *
    int prot = PROT_READ | PROT_WRITE;
    int flags = MAP_ANONYMOUS | MAP_PRIVATE;
    return mmap(NULL, PAGE_SIZE, prot, flags, -1, 0);

Windows doesn’t have POSIX mmap(), so on that platform we use VirtualAlloc() instead. Here’s the equivalent in Win32.

struct asmbuf *
    return VirtualAlloc(NULL, PAGE_SIZE, type, PAGE_READWRITE);

Anyone reading closely should notice that I haven’t actually requested that the memory be executable, which is, like, the whole point of all this! This was intentional. Some operating systems employ a security feature called W^X: “write xor execute.” That is, memory is either writable or executable, but never both at the same time. This makes the shellcode attack I described before even harder. For well-behaved JIT compilers it means memory protections need to be adjusted after code generation and before execution.

The POSIX mprotect() function is used to change memory protections.

asmbuf_finalize(struct asmbuf *buf)
    mprotect(buf, sizeof(*buf), PROT_READ | PROT_EXEC);

Or on Win32 (that last parameter is not allowed to be NULL),

asmbuf_finalize(struct asmbuf *buf)
    DWORD old;
    VirtualProtect(buf, sizeof(*buf), PAGE_EXECUTE_READ, &old);

Finally, instead of free() it gets unmapped.

asmbuf_free(struct asmbuf *buf)
    munmap(buf, PAGE_SIZE);

And on Win32,

asmbuf_free(struct asmbuf *buf)
    VirtualFree(buf, 0, MEM_RELEASE);

I won’t list the definitions here, but there are two “methods” for inserting instructions and immediate values into the buffer. This will be raw machine code, so the caller will be acting a bit like an assembler.

asmbuf_ins(struct asmbuf *, int size, uint64_t ins);
asmbuf_immediate(struct asmbuf *, int size, const void *value);

Calling Conventions

We’re only going to be concerned with three of x86-64’s many registers: rdi, rax, and rdx. These are 64-bit (r) extensions of the original 16-bit 8086 registers. The sequence of operations will be compiled into a function that we’ll be able to call from C like a normal function. Here’s what it’s prototype will look like. It takes a signed 64-bit integer and returns a signed 64-bit integer.

long recurrence(long);

The System V AMD64 ABI calling convention says that the first integer/pointer function argument is passed in the rdi register. When our JIT compiled program gets control, that’s where its input will be waiting. According to the ABI, the C program will be expecting the result to be in rax when control is returned. If our recurrence relation is merely the identity function (it has no operations), the only thing it will do is copy rdi to rax.

mov   rax, rdi

There’s a catch, though. You might think all the mucky platform-dependent stuff was encapsulated in asmbuf. Not quite. As usual, Windows is the oddball and has its own unique calling convention. For our purposes here, the only difference is that the first argument comes in rcx rather than rdi. Fortunately this only affects the very first instruction and the rest of the assembly remains the same.

The very last thing it will do, assuming the result is in rax, is return to the caller.


So we know the assembly, but what do we pass to asmbuf_ins()? This is where we get our hands dirty.

Finding the Code

If you want to do this the Right Way, you go download the x86-64 documentation, look up the instructions we’re using, and manually work out the bytes we need and how the operands fit into it. You know, like they used to do out of necessity back in the 60’s.

Fortunately there’s a much easier way. We’ll have an actual assembler do it and just copy what it does. Put both of the instructions above in a file peek.s and hand it to nasm. It will produce a raw binary with the machine code, which we’ll disassemble with nidsasm (the NASM disassembler).

$ nasm peek.s
$ ndisasm -b64 peek
00000000  4889F8            mov rax,rdi
00000003  C3                ret

That’s straightforward. The first instruction is 3 bytes and the return is 1 byte.

asmbuf_ins(buf, 3, 0x4889f8);  // mov   rax, rdi
// ... generate code ...
asmbuf_ins(buf, 1, 0xc3);      // ret

For each operation, we’ll set it up so the operand will already be loaded into rdi regardless of the operator, similar to how the argument was passed in the first place. A smarter compiler would embed the immediate in the operator’s instruction if it’s small (32-bits or fewer), but I’m keeping it simple. To sneakily capture the “template” for this instruction I’m going to use 0x0123456789abcdef as the operand.

mov   rdi, 0x0123456789abcdef

Which disassembled with ndisasm is,

00000000  48BFEFCDAB896745  mov rdi,0x123456789abcdef

Notice the operand listed little endian immediately after the instruction. That’s also easy!

long operand;
scanf("%ld", &operand);
asmbuf_ins(buf, 2, 0x48bf);         // mov   rdi, operand
asmbuf_immediate(buf, 8, &operand);

Apply the same discovery process individually for each operator you want to support, accumulating the result in rax for each.

switch (operator) {
    case '+':
        asmbuf_ins(buf, 3, 0x4801f8);   // add   rax, rdi
    case '-':
        asmbuf_ins(buf, 3, 0x4829f8);   // sub   rax, rdi
    case '*':
        asmbuf_ins(buf, 4, 0x480fafc7); // imul  rax, rdi
    case '/':
        asmbuf_ins(buf, 3, 0x4831d2);   // xor   rdx, rdx
        asmbuf_ins(buf, 3, 0x48f7ff);   // idiv  rdi

As an exercise, try adding support for modulus operator (%), XOR (^), and bit shifts (<, >). With the addition of these operators, you could define a decent PRNG as a recurrence relation. It will also eliminate the closed form solution to this problem so that we actually have a reason to do all this! Or, alternatively, switch it all to floating point.

Calling the Generated Code

Once we’re all done generating code, finalize the buffer to make it executable, cast it to a function pointer, and call it. (I cast it as a void * just to avoid repeating myself, since that will implicitly cast to the correct function pointer prototype.)

long (*recurrence)(long) = (void *)buf->code;
// ...
x[n + 1] = recurrence(x[n]);

That’s pretty cool if you ask me! Now this was an extremely simplified situation. There’s no branching, no intermediate values, no function calls, and I didn’t even touch the stack (push, pop). The recurrence relation definition in this challenge is practically an assembly language itself, so after the initial setup it’s a 1:1 translation.

I’d like to build a JIT compiler more advanced than this in the future. I just need to find a suitable problem that’s more complicated than this one, warrants having a JIT compiler, but is still simple enough that I could, on some level, justify not using LLVM.

Have a comment on this article? Start a discussion in my public inbox by sending an email to ~skeeto/public-inbox@lists.sr.ht [mailing list etiquette] , or see existing discussions.

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Chris Wellons

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