Experiment with a lightweight systems programming language

#30 Assertion fail in typeck

~icefox filed ticket on garnet todo

a day ago

#29 Add formatting mode to compiler

~icefox filed ticket on garnet todo

13 days ago


builds.sr.ht status

An experiment in a systems programming language along the lines of Rust but more minimal. Where Rust is a C++ that doesn't suck, it'd be nice for this to be a C that doesn't suck. Currently though, it's mostly just ideas, though a functioning compiler is slowly gaining more features.

Loosely based on https://wiki.alopex.li/BetterThanC, far more loosely based on https://wiki.alopex.li/GarnetLanguage which is an older set of concepts and has a different compiler entirely.


Things where you go "it's a modern language, of COURSE it has this". If it doesn't have something like this, it's a hard error.

  • Unambiguous, context-free syntax
  • Good error messages
  • Cross-compile everywhere
  • Type inference
  • Sum types, no null, all that good jazz

#Runtime/language model goals

Things where you might need to need to make explicit design tradeoffs. It concerns the overlap of design and implementation. These are essentially directions explore rather than hard-and-fast rules, and may change with time.

  • Simplicity over runtime performance -- Rust and Go are very different places on this spectrum, but I think OCaml demonstrates you should be able to have a bunch of both. There needs to be more points on this spectrum. Investigate more.
  • Fast compiler -- This is a pain point for Rust for various reasons, and one of those things where having it work well is real nice.
  • Simplicity of compiler -- I'd rather have a GOOD compiler in 50k lines than a FANTASTIC compiler in 500k lines; investigate qbe for example.
  • I feel like these two things together should combine to (eventually) make compiler-as-library more of a thing, which seems like an overlooked field of study. It can be useful to aid JIT, metaprogramming, powerful dynamic linking, etc. It seems very silly that this remains Dark Magic outside of anything that isn't Lisp or Erlang. (That said, when you don't want this, you REALLY don't want it.)
  • As little undefined behavior as possible -- If the compiler is allowed to assume something can't happen, then the language should prevent it from happening if at all feasible. Let's stop calling it "undefined behavior" and call it an out of context problem, since it's often not undefineable, but rather it's something that the compiler doesn't have the information to reason about.
  • I am not CONVINCED that a linker is the best way to handle things. This has implications on things like distributing libraries, defining ABI's, using DLL's, and parallelizing the compiler itself. No solid thoughts here yet, but it is an area worth thinking about. Rust, C, Go and Swift present different points in this area to look at.

#C's advantages that I want to have

  • Easy to port to new systems
  • Easy to use on embedded systems
  • Easy to control code size bloat
  • Easy to get a (partial) mental model, which is low-level enough to teach you a lot
  • Simple and universal ABI for every platform -- easy for higher level stuff to call it, easy for it to call arbitrary stuff.
  • Compiles fast

#Pain points in Rust to think about

  • You can't be generic over mutability and ownership, so for example you end up with iter(), into_iter(), and iter_mut().
  • Related, the pile of AsRef, Deref, Borrow, ToOwned etc. traits.
  • Related, the pile of various things that look kinda like references/pointers but aren't, and all the hacks that go into making them work. Example: Box. Seems fine, right? Can't pattern match on it. See the box_pattern RFC.
  • Rust's hacky generic-ness over length of sequences/tuples is pretty lame
  • The slightly-magical relationship between String and &str, and &[] and [] and [T;N], is a little distressing
  • Magical AsRef and Deref behavior is a little distressing
  • std vs core vs alloc -- it'd be better if std didn't actually re-export core, because then more programs could be no_std implicitly. alloc is kinda a red-headed stepchild in this hierarchy; Zig's approach of explicit allocator objects everywhere may or may not be superior. Talk to some of the stdlib or embedded people about how they'd want to arrange it if they could; papering over weird platforms like wasm is a known annoyance. Maybe something like core for pure computational things, sys for platform-specific low-level stuff like threading and timekeeping primitives that may appear in a microcontroller or low-level VM without a full OS, then os or something for stuff like filesystems, processes, etc. Need better names though. I do like the idea of splitting out specific capabilities into specific parts that may or may not be present on all platforms though, instead of having a strictly additive model.
  • Syntax inconsistencies/nuisances: Fiddly match blocks, <>'s for generics (though the turbofish is wonderful), i32 is both a type and a module, -> and => being different is a PITA, you declare values with = in let statements but : in struct constructors,
  • Tail call optimization is not guarenteed -- Drop impl's get in the way, but it should be possible to avoid that, or at least make it so the compiler gives a warning if it can't guarentee that
  • Lack of construct-on-heap is occasionally kinda awful, though far more often totally unnoticable.
  • Rather mediocre support for data type reflection at either compile or run time, such as RTTI in general. Also bites us in trying to make C-like enums, separate enum discriminants from enums or vice versa (which makes them awkward to compose),
  • Rust's closures are awful.
  • On the note of boilerplate-y stuff, see https://github.com/rustwasm/walrus/blob/121340d3113e0102707b2b07cab3e764cea1ed6b/crates/macro/src/lib.rs for an example of a giant, complex, heavy proc macro that is used exactly once to generate a huge amount of entirely uninteresting --but nonetheless necessary-- code. It's good that you can use a macro for it, but it's kinda less good that you need to.
  • No function currying is rather a pain sometimes, especially when it's really just syntactic sugar for a trivial closure.
  • Rust's trait orphan rules are annoying, but may be too hard to be worth trying to solve.
  • Heckin gorram -> vs => still bleedin' trips me up after five years

#Glory points in Rust to exploit or even enhance

  • Move semantics everywhere
  • Derive traits
  • methods <-> functions
  • True, if conservative, constexpr's
  • Iterators just return Option
  • Math is checked by default
  • Stack unwinding without recovery -- very nice compromise of complexity
  • UTF-8 everywhere
  • Lack of magical constructors

#Functionality we sacrificed for simplicity

  • match blocks on function params, like Erlang -- just syntactic sugar
  • Monomorphized generics -- for now?
  • Cool arbitrary/rational number types -- can be a lib.
  • Though it is tempting, we will NOT do arbitrary-precision integer types such as being able to define an integer via an arbitrary range such as [-1, 572) or arbitrary size such as i23. Maybe later.
  • Like Rust, we don't need to target architectures smaller than 32 bits

#Wishlist items


  • Being effectively finished someday.
  • A compilation model that doesn't necessitate a slow compiler
  • Being able to reason about what kind of code the compiler will actually output


  • Async, promises, other fanciness for nonblocking I/O
  • Ultimate max performance in all circumstances
  • Anything requiring a proof solver as part of the type system


  • rustc
  • logos lexer
  • custom parser (recursive descent + Pratt)
  • output Rust, just to make things work.
  • argh for command line opts
  • codespan for error reporting

Things to consider:

  • rustyline (for repl)
  • lasso or string-interner (for string interning)
  • ryu for parsing floats

Programs-as-separate-files tests:

#Backend thoughts

Something I need to consider a little is what I want in terms of a compiler backend, since emitting x86_64 opcodes myself basically sounds like the least fun thing ever.


  • Not huge
  • Operates pretty fast
  • Outputs pretty good/fast/small code
  • Doesn't require binding to C/C++ code
  • Produces x86_64, ideally also Aarch64 and WASM, SPIR-V would be a nice bonus


  • Makes best code evar
  • Super cool innovative research project
  • Supports every platform evar, or anything less than 32-bits (it'd be cool, but it's not a goal)


  • Write our own -- ideal choice in the long run, worst choice in the short run
  • LLVM -- Fails at "not huge", "operates fast" and "doesn't require C++ bindings"
  • Cranelift -- Might actually be a good choice, but word on the street (as of early 2020) is it's poorly documented and unstable. Investigate more.
  • QBE -- Fails at "doesn't require C bindings", but initially looks good for everything else. Its Aarch64 unit tests have some failures though, and it doesn't output wasm. Probably my top pick currently.
  • WASM -- Just output straight-up WASM and use wasmtime to run it. Cool idea in the short term, WASM is easy to output and doesn't need us to optimize it much in theory, and would work well enough to let us bootstrap the compiler if we want to. Much easier to output than raw asm, there's good libraries to output it, and I know how to do it.
  • C -- Just output C Code. The traditional solution, complicates build process, but will work.
  • Rust -- Rust compiles slow but that's the only downside, complicates build process, but will work. Might be useful if we can proof whatever borrow checking type stuff we implement against Rust's

Output Rust for right now, bootstrap the compiler, then think about it.

Trying out QBE and Cranelift both seem reasonable choices, and writing a not-super-sophisticated backend that outputs many targets seems semi-reasonable. Outputting WASM is probably the simplest low-level thing to get started with, but is a little weird since it is kinda an IR itself, so to turn an SSA IR into wasm you need a step such as LLVM's "relooper". So one might end up with non-optimized WASM that leans on the implementation's optimizer.




References on IR stuff:

References on backend stuff:

Technically-irrelelvant but cool papers:

#Random notes


  • Actual build takes ~1-2 minutes
  • Adding end-to-end unit tests it takes 5 minutes
  • Adding code coverage it takes ~15 minutes -- cargo-tarpaulin ain't instant but most of it is still spent in building it rather than running it.
  • Making a .deb package for cargo-tarpaulin would help a lot then. Talked to the Debian Rust packaging team and they're in favor, very helpful folks, but of course understaffed.

#Out Of Context Problems

nee "Undefined Behavior"

Some more thoughts on the lack of undefined behavior is... you COULD define "read an invalid pointer" to be "return unknown value, or crash the program". But only if you knew that pointer could never aim at memory-mapped I/O. Writing to an invalid pointer could literally do anything in terms of corrupting program state. Some slightly-heated discussion with devsnek breaks the problem down into two parts: For example, WASM does not have undefined behavior. If you look at a computer from the point of view of assembly language + OS, it MOSTLY lacks undefined behavior, though some things like data races still can result in it. If you smash a stack in assembly you can look at it and define what is going to happen. But from the point of view of the assumptions made by a higher-level language, especially one free to tinker with the ABI a little, there's no way you can define what will happen when a stack gets smashed. And even if you're writing in assembly on a microcontroller then you might still be able to do things that put the hardware in an inconsistent state by poking memory-mapped I/O. So, Undefined Behavior usually isn't really Undefined, rather it's defined by a system out of the scope of the language definition. So let's just stop calling it Undefined Behavior and call it an out of context problem.

Things that I think we CAN define context for:

  • Integer overflow either overflows or panics.
  • Constructing an undefined pointer just is a number in a register.
  • Reading an undefined pointer, in the absence of memmapped I/O, either gives a random result, panics, or causes the host system to produce an error (ie by segfaulting your program)
  • We may have well-defined pointers that are never valid, ie, null pointer. Reading and writing to these can do whatever we feel like. We should probably make them either panic or cause the host system to produce an error.
  • Reading uninitialized data should be a compile-time error. Manually eliding initialization for performance reasons just means your compiler isn't good enough at avoiding it itself. A good middle-ground might be some setup where in debug mode you can have runtime checks for reading uninitialized data before it's been written.
  • Order of evaluation of function arguments.
  • Constructing an impossible value, such as having an enum representing integer values 0-5 and stuffing the integer 6 into its slot. Not sure how to deal with this, but it's a case that needs handling.

Here's a list of things that I don't see a way of defining in any reasonable/performant way:

  • Writing an undefined pointer may do anything, ie by smashing the stack. If correctly executing a program requires assuming an un-smashed stack, well, that's tricky.
  • Reading a pointer pointing to mmapped I/O may similarly do anything. A notable recent experience was when reading a value from memory was required to acknowledge an interrupt.

Todo list of other common sources of UB in C, from https://stackoverflow.com/questions/367633/what-are-all-the-common-undefined-behaviours-that-a-c-programmer-should-know-a:

  • Converting pointers to objects of incompatible types
  • Left-shifting values by a negative amount (right shifts by negative amounts are implementation defined)
  • Evaluating an expression that is not mathematically defined (ie, div by 0)
  • Casting a numeric value into a value that can't be represented by the target type (either directly or via static_cast)
  • Attempting to modify a string literal or any other const object during its lifetime
  • A pile of other things that are mostly C++'s fault

Reading material: https://blog.regehr.org/archives/213 and the follow-on articles. Also, apparently Zig has opt-in undefined behavior for things like integer overflow, shift checking, etc which sounds pretty hot. Another option is to provide compiler-intrinsic escape hatches, similar to Rust's various unchecked_foo() functions.

Some of the optimizations that pointer UB enables are talked about here: https://plv.mpi-sws.org/rustbelt/stacked-borrows/paper.pdf Would be very interesting to have some emperical numbers about how much UB helps optimizations.

Again, note that we are NOT trying to make incorrect programs do something that could be considered correct, and we are NOT trying to define things that are inherently undefinable (such as writing to a truly random/unknown pointer). Sooner or later, defining what is defined is up to the programmer, and we are trying to make it so that there are as few rules and hidden gotchas as possible for the programmer to handle when dealing with these things.

Other reading material from people doing interesting unsafe Rust things: https://github.com/TimelyDataflow/abomonation/issues/32

Mandating a different pointer type for referring to mmapped I/O is probably not unreasonable, tbqh, and removes a source of semantic weirdness that compilers have problems dealing with. Basically have a MMIOPtr[T] type that is kinda similar to Rust's UnsafeCell<T>, but doesn't allow reads/writes to be reordered or optimized away, and which has different constraints on what values are allowed for it than a normal pointer does.