Simple Compiler for MM

In this section we will build a small compiler that will translate expressions and statements in a python like mini-language into assembly language for our MM computer.

Click here for the Python code for the MM Compiler

Motivation for Compilers

The assembler certainly makes it easier to write machine language programs but it would be still nicer to be able to program with expressions like "a=(a+b)*c" instead of, say

ld  r0,a
ld  r1,b
add r0,r1
ld  r1,c
mul r0,r1
sto r0,a

So just as assemblers can assemble machine instructions from their symbolic parts, compilers are programs to compile sets of assembler instructions for more complex expressions. Some of the earliest compilers were for the language Fortran which stands for "Formula Translation". With Fortran a programmer could write code much more concisely and easily than with assembler. The compiled machine code was generally not quite as good as what could be produced by hand in assembler but it was often good enough, even when machines were absolutely miniscule by today's standards. Furthermore, knowing Fortran (or other languages like Cobol or Algol) meant that a programmer could write code for any computer that had the appropriate compiler, not just for the computer for which one knew the assembler code. Today the most common compiled language that produces machine code for personal computers is probably C.


From the start there was also a parallel effort to design and build interpreted languages. In general these languages do not try to produce machine code directly but rather interpret instructions that can do much more advanced operations than what the basic hardware supports. Early interpreted languages include Basic, APL (A Programming Language), and Lisp. Interpreted programs run much slower than compiled programs but in general are often easier to write and maintain. Python is an interpreted language and for programs that easily translate from Python to C, the C version will often run 30 to 50 times faster. But if we are doing the kinds of things Python does well (our MM compiler is a good example) the speed difference is less pronounced. We often are quite willing to give up a little speed to gain some very powerful operations that in turn result in consise code that is easy to understand.

The MH Compiler

Our language, which we'll call MH, is designed to be as small as possible but able to have programs like the factorial program from the previous section. We'll have only interger variables and, like Python, variables do not have to be declared. Variables and numbers may be combined in expressions with operators (+,-,*, and /) and anywhere a variable or number may appear a subexpression in parentheses may be used instead.

In order to keep the compiler very small we'll support just two kinds of basic statements; assignment and the while statement. In addition there is a compound statement, a series of other statements inside a pair of curly braces "{}".

So lots of stuff is left out. But there is enough to write the simple factorial program which will use most of the features just mentioned. Near the end of this section will be some suggstions for extending the language.

Let's look at an example program in MH. Here is code for computing the factorial of 5.

term = 5
ans  = 1
while term { ans=ans*term  term=term-1 }

As you can see, the program has some assignment statements and a while statement. There is also a expression at the end whose purpose will be explained later. The 2 statements enclosed in curly braces form a single compound statement that forms the body of the while statement. The test expression in the while statement "term" will cause the statements in the body of the while to be repeated until the value of term is zero. This, of course, will cause the variable "ans" to be multiplied by 5, 4, 3, 2, and finally 1.

Notice that unlike Python, statements do not need to be on separate lines or indented. This syntax is closer to the C language, with the exception that in C statements are required to be terminated with a semicolon.

The Compilation Process

The compilation process consists of parsing the code in the input language (MH) and then generating code in the target language (MM assembly). The parsing phase itself consists of two parts; identifying the tokens of the language such as variables, numbers, keywords and special symbols, and then determining how these tokens relate to one another to form expressions and statements. Sometimes compilers will build tree structure is to store these relationships but our little compiler does not go to such lengths. As the various pieces of input code come together output code is generated somewhat on the fly. The reason we can do this is that the grammer of our language is simple enough that the program can be scanned and the structure determined by simply knowing what has come so far and what the next token is to the right.

A Simple Compiler in Python

This is probably a good time to look over the and either keep it in a separate window or make a printout to follow the remainder of this discussion.

The function getToken extracts the next token from the program and returns it along with the rest of the program. It extracts keyword or variable names, numbers and special symbols. Lets try it out on some input.

>>> import compiler
>>> compiler.getToken("while a b=a")
['while', ' a b=a']

So you can see that a call to getToken removed the keyword "while" and returned it and the rest of the program in a list. Let's look at the code in getToken briefly. The string.strip function first removes whitespace including spaces, tabs and newlines. Then the next character is examined. If it is a letter then a word is gathered as in the example above. If it is a digit, a string representing an integer is returned. Finally a single character, perhaps an "+", "=", or "{" is returned. In any case what is returned is the next item of information that forms the structure of the program.

If MH were extended we would want getToken smart enough to return pairs of special characters like "**" or "<=" as single tokens. You might consider how you would do this. We would also need a way to ignore comments in the program.

Let's look at the nature of possible statments in MH. The simplest is an expression all by itself. An expression in MH is a series of "terms" separated by an operator ('+','*',etc). "Terms" are numbers, variables, or subexpressions enclosed in parentheses. Expressions and terms are recursive structures and our functions "getExpr" and "getTerm" call each other recursively as well.

This expression statement, which is also possible in Python, is a little boring because it computes a value and then promptly throws it away. An assignment statement however sets a variable to the value computed. In MH only a simple variable is allowed on the lefthand side of the assignment operator "=".

A compound statment is a series of statements bracketed by "{" and "}". The inner statements may be assignments, while statements and other compound statements.

The while statment takes the form "while <expression> <statement>". Here "<statement>" is apt to be a compound statment and is repeated as long as the "<expression>" evaluates to a nonzero value.

Some Sample Compilations

It is useful to play with the compiler before examining the code in detail. This will allow us to see what sort of assembly code is produced. The compiler accepts a mini-program on the command line (or standard input) and outputs the resultant assembly code to standard output.

Let's look at what must be the simplest possible program. A single statement which in turn is a single number, "3".

$ python "3"
  ld# r0,3

The generated code simply loads the number 3 into register 0. In general the compiler will generate code to get the result of any expression into a chosen register, starting with 0 and working up as it needs more registers. This, by the way, is why our MM architecture includes 10 general registers. Let's look at a slightly more complex expression, "a*3". Note that it is necessary to quote the expression to keep the shell from trying to evaluate special characters like "*".

$ python "a*3"
  ld  r0,a
  ld# r1,3
  mul r0,r1

Here the subexpression "a" is "calculated" in register 0 and the subexpression "3" in register 1 (the next register). Then the multiply instruction leaves the result in register 0. Not shown here is a memory word allocated to the variable "a". Next, let's try a nested expression

$ python "(b+3)*a"
  ld  r0,b
  ld# r1,3
  add r0,r1
  ld  r1,a
  mul r0,r1

This expression requires r0 and r1 to compute "b+3" and then reuses register 1 to hold "a" before the multiply.

Let's extend this just a bit by compiling an assignment statement. Now the output looks like this.

$ python "c=(b+3)*a"
  ld  r0,b
  ld# r1,3
  add r0,r1
  ld  r1,a
  mul r0,r1
  sto r0,c
c 0

The calculation is followed by "sto r0,c" which stores the result of the computation into the variable "c". Also a line was added to allocate a word of memory for "c". As we'll see, these allocations all take place at the end of our program so they are out of the way of the code. The compiler will remember to allocate a word of memory for any variable that gets something assigned to it. That should include all variables that we use.

Finally let's look at the output of a very simple while loop. It's not meant to be a real one since the conditional term does not change. But it will illustrate the code that is generated.

python "while a {b=b*c a=a-1}"
  ld  r0,a
  jz  r0,z2

  ld  r1,b
  ld  r2,c
  mul r1,r2
  sto r1,b

  ld  r1,a
  ld# r2,1
  sub r1,r2
  sto r1,a
  jmp  z1
a 0
b 0

The while loop uses the "jump on zero" machine instruction to jump out of the loop and a simple jump to repeat the loop. It also generates labels "z1" and "z2" for the destinations of the jump instructions. Later while statements would generate labels like "z3", "z4", etc.

I've put in some blank lines to separate the code generated by the different expressions. You should be able to recognize which parts belong with what.

A Closer Look at the Code

We've already looked at "getToken". Let's look at the other functions from the top down.

Function "main" reads an entire program from either standard input or (as we've seen) from the command line. It repeatably calls "getStat" to peel one statement at a time from the program and print the resulting assembly code. As we'll see the dictionary vars contains an entry for each variable found and "main" reserves a word of memory for each.

Like "getToken" the 3 other functions "getStat", "getTerm" and "getExpr" return two values; the assembly code generated and the remainder of the program still to be compiled.

Function "getStat" looks at the first token. If it is "while" it gets an expression for the condition test, putting the assembly code into string "code1", and another statement (calling itself recursively) for the body (in "code2"). It then makes two unique lables in "l1" and "l2" and combines all to produce the code which is returned along with the rest of the program. Other sections of "getStat" handle the assignment statement, compound statments and a single expression. Part of compiling an assignment statement is to add an entry to the "vars" dictionary for each variable on the left of the "=".

By this point the remaining two functions, "getExpr" and "getTerm" should be fairly straightforward. The only tricky bit is the mutual recursion between them. Expressions consist of terms which may be variables, numbers or subexpressions in parentheses separated by operators. If you are confused run the test above with some "print" statements inserted.

Compiling and Assembling the Factorial Program

Now let's compile the factorial program at the top of this section and produce MM code that can be run in the simulator. We'll start by placing the following MH code into a file called ""

term = 5
ans  = 1
while term { ans=ans*term  term=term-1 }

On Unix it is possible to run the compiler and assembler together since both are using standard input and standard output. In fact many compilers take advantage of this. Here is our factorial program ready to load into the simulator.

$ python < | python
100 030005     ld# r0,5
101 020117     sto r0,term
102 030001     ld# r0,1
103 020118     sto r0,ans
104 010117     ld  r0,term
105 110115     jz  r0,z2
106 011118     ld  r1,ans
107 012117     ld  r2,term
108 071002     mul r1,r2
109 021118     sto r1,ans
110 011117     ld  r1,term
111 032001     ld# r2,1
112 061002     sub r1,r2
113 021117     sto r1,term
114 100104     jmp  z1
115 010118     ld  r0,ans
116 000000     hlt
117 000000   term 0
118 000000   ans 0

The last statement of the program is simply the expression "ans". As you can see this loads it into general register zero where it can be observed in the simulator. The following creates a machine language file and runs it in the simulator.

python < | python >

Further considerations

It is interesting to compare the assembly language output from the compiler with the assembly language program for computing factorials that we built in the previous section. The hand built version is about half the size of the compiler output. For a long time people continued to program in assembler just for this advantage. The space advantage is also a runtime advantage. Smaller programs run faster with fewer instructions to execute. Later, compilers were made to optimize their output and that closed the gap somewhat.

Our compiler treats all operators that it supports with the same precedence. You can see this by compiling "a*b+c" and "a*(b+c)". They produce the same code. To fix this "getExpr" must be broken into separate functions for each precedence level. Sums can be products separated by "+" and "-" operators. Products are terms separated by "*" and "/". There are several other levels, exponentiation and logical operations, even array access.

Defining functions and calling them with arguments demands operations that work with stacks. Stacks may also be used in lieu of multiple registers for computing nested expressions and then combining them later. Compilers are sometimes defined as being either stack oriented or register oriented. In fact the way our compiler uses successive registers is very similar to using a stack.

Our compiler does not support function calls or definitions. Typically when a function is called its arguments are evaluated and pushed onto a stack. The function is then invoked saving the return address as well, either on the same stack or on another. When the function returns the arguments are popped from the stack and the function return value is pushed.

Python, Java and some other languages perform what they call compilation, but instead of compiling to machine code they compile to an intermediate code that is then interpreted very much like our simulator program works. However the basic operations in this code are much more powerful than our machine instructions. Here strings can be added, dictionaries accessed and so on. In python compilation happens automatically. When you import a module Python will try to save the compiled code in a file with the "pyc" extension. The Python interpreter then takes over to run the code. With Java the interpreters are available in web browsers which load compiled Java classes and run them. These interpreters go by the name of "Java Virtual Machine". There is also a Python compiler called Jython written in Java that translates Python source code into Java classes.

Copyright © 2003-2015 Chris Meyers