Tart status update

Tuesday, October 11, 2011
I decided to back off on the "make function parameters default to read-only" change because it was getting too big and too complex. I still plan to go ahead with it, but I need to fix some other things first. The whole mutability thing has introduced a lot of small problems that need to be solved one by one, and I've just been working through them.

One question that has come up is: If function parameters are read-only by default, should function return values also be? I even thought about making all object references readonly by default, but I really don't want to drink quite so deeply from the functional programming kool-aid.

Another question that keeps rolling around in my brain is this: Was it the right choice to make Tart an AOT (Ahead of Time) language instead of a JIT? I originally made tart an AOT because I was looking for a replacement for C++, not another Java. And AOTs do have a couple of obvious advantages: quicker startup time, for example.

VM-based languages, however, have plenty of advantages of their own. For example, in the current incarnation of Tart, up to 4 different versions of a class can be written to an output file: Once as executable code, once as DWARF debugging info, once as reflection data, and once as importable symbols for compilation of another module. The reason that these 4 different representations are necessary is because any of the last three can be deleted from the module without affecting any of the others - so for example you can strip out all the DWARF and reflection will still work. With a JIT, we'd only need to write a single representation, and then produce on demand any or all of those representations as needed. And the whole "dynamic linking" problem completely disappears.

Similarly, a JIT can make all kinds of optimizations that are not available to an AOT compiler. For example, if it knows that class A is never subclassed (because no such class has been loaded into memory), it can optimize calls to A's methods as direct calls rather than dispatched through a jump table. Of course, how much optimization you get depends on how long you are willing to wait at startup.

One could, in fact, design an intermediate representation that would allow better optimizations than C++, Java, or even LLVM IR, because it would preserve certain high-level invariants that could be used to guide optimizations that are normally removed from byte-code representations. (Note: This means that the "compiled" class files would not be LLVM bitcode files, but some higher-level representation.)

Writing a JIT for Tart wouldn't be all that hard, if we used LLVM's JIT engine as a base. And it would be fun. On the other hand - it would be completely, recklessly insane. Therefore I won't do it. That doesn't prevent me, however, from writing a design doc about it.

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