Paul Chiusano

Functional programming, UX, tech


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In search of a better abstract machine for nonstrict languages

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For a while, I’ve been curious if it’s possible to develop a better runtime for nonstrict languages. Despite the advantages of pervasive nonstrictness in a language, a drawback is that nonstrict languages make it more difficult to reason about space usage. Much of this is people being unfamiliar with nonstrictness and surprised when it performs differently than a strict language, but some of it is the fact that the normal order evaluation doesn’t provide an obvious compositional means of assigning space usage to programs. Reasoning about space usage in a nonstrict language is nonlocal.

As an optimization, Haskell does static strictness analysis. Strictness analsysis has always struck me as a rather kludgy, incomplete solution. Because it’s a static analysis, it depends on what functions get inlined. Thus, depending on this unrelated axis of optimization (inlining), an expression may have completely different asymptotic space usage, at the whim of the inliner. A good example of this is foldl, which, if run with optimizations turned on, does the right thing for foldl (+) 0 [1..1000000], running in constant space and reducing the thunk as it goes, and with optimizations turned off, builds up a huge, left-leaning tower thunks that takes linear space. Yikes! As far as I am concerned, inlining and any other optimization should never do anything other than improve constant factors. Anything affecting asymptotics should be under explicit programmer control. (There’s also optimistic evaluation, which I also dislike, as it depends on timing information. Thus, a foldl might use constant space or linear space depending on how long the folding function takes to run. Gak!)

Enough complaining about Haskell, though, here’s a simple idea for a nonstrict runtime that I tried playing with recently. Note that my goal is to preserve the same termination properties of normal order evaluation, while making reasoning about space usage simpler by propagating stricness information at runtime. I do not just want a strict language, as that would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Here’s my sketch:

-- HOAS encoding, for simplicity
data Runtime
  = Prim !Int
  | Await !Strictness !(Runtime -> Runtime)
  | App !Runtime !Runtime

data Strictness = Strict | Nonstrict

whnf :: Runtime -> Runtime
whnf i@(Prim _) = i
whnf a@(Await _ _) = a
whnf (App f x) = case whnf f of
  Await Strict body -> case whnf x of x -> whnf (body x)
  Await Nonstrict body -> whnf (body x)
  _ -> error "cannot apply a non-function"

So, notice that lambdas (the Await constructor), when taking an argument, indicate to the caller whether the argument should be passed strictly or nonstrictly. The idea being that if a function is going to evaluate an argument anyway, it might as well have the caller evaluate that argument. In Haskell, callers always (modulo static stricness analysis) pass arguments thunked. Here, arguments are received one at a time and we are propagating strictness information to the caller (and possibly to their caller). This is nice for higher-order functions, because they can propagate this stricness also. I hypothesized that the problem with foldl was that it was simply not propagating the strictness of the binary folding function it receives.

Here’s an implementation of foldl using Runtime (full gist). Obviously, it’s pretty ugly writing out Runtime values directly, rather than compiling to Runtime but stick with me for now:

-- order of arguments shuffled to maximize specialization
-- foldl :: [a] -> (b -> a -> b) -> b -> b
-- foldl [] !f z = z
-- foldl (h:t) !f z = foldl t f (f z h)

foldlRuntime :: Runtime
foldlRuntime = Await Strict $ \list ->
  list `App` (Await Strict (\_ -> Await Strict id)) -- scott-encoded lists, pass an expression when list is nil
       `App` (Await Nonstrict (\h -> Await Nonstrict (\t -> -- and a function accepting the head and tail when cons
         Await Strict (\f@(Await strictness _) ->
           Await strictness (\z -> -- note that we request the `z` using the
             foldlRuntime `App` t
                          `App` f
                          `App` (f `App` z `App` h))))))

The interesting bit is where we propagate the strictness of f to how we request z. If f is strict in its first argument, then this argument is requested strictly. However, even though this implementation works in constant space, it’s actually not the same as the usual foldl (nor is it foldl'). In the branch where the list is nonempty, the z argument strictness always matches the strictness of f, but since f z h is passed as the new z parameter, we should technically respect the strictness of the final argument to foldl. We could do this, by asking for the strictness of the partially applied foldl t f, and respecting that strictness, but it would require keeping a linear call stack.

I’m not sure that explanation makes sense, but the bottom line is that we need some static information about strictness—we don’t want the runtime to have to look ahead to the end of the loop in order to determine strictness of an argument, as that entails linear space usage. Thus a more clever runtime isn’t sufficient. We need to know that fold is polymorphic in its strictness, statically. Stefan Holdermans showed an example of how to embed this in Haskell. Imagine if foldl had a richer type, something like:

foldl :: ![] -> !(s b -> s2 a -> s b) -> s b -> !b

Where ! indicates the type is strict, the s in s b is a strictness type parameter, that is, strictness is tracked like a regular effect, and it is possible to write code which is polymorphic in strictness. Many HOFs will have this property–we want them to propagate the strictness of the function arguments. The foldlRuntime implementation I gave above actually implements this type. What is nice is that we have a single runtime value for implementing all the different instantiations of the strictness tags s and s2.

Note that this basic idea can I believe be implemented efficiently with two mutable stacks. And it’s interesting to think about extending it to handle concerns like unboxing. That is, when awaiting an argument, we can tell the caller whether to accept that argument strictly, and, if strict, whether to accept the argument unboxed.

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