This post is about using an abstract machine to implement a non-strict functional language.

A non-strict language does not evaluate expressions until they are required.

For example, [1..] is a valid expression, it’s an infinite list of ascending integers starting from 1.

A functional language allows you to name and pass functions around. For example map add1 [1..10] applies the function add to each element in the list.


G-machine is a compiler-based graph reduction machine.

This compiler takes as input a simple intermediate language called Core, and compiles the code into G-machine instructions. Then, these instructions can be run on the machine.

This is in contrast with other implementation such as template instantiation, where you traverse some of the Core code only at run-time.

Core language

The compilation works on Core, which is language simplified from a higher level non-strict functional language such as Haskell.


The following example Core program evaluates to 42:

main = double 21
double x = x + x

This program has two supercombinator definitions. main and double are functions, the variables after that but before the equals sign are the arguments to the function, and the expression on the right-hand-side (rhs) is the body of the function.

main is a special supercombinator: it is the starting point of program execution.

Local definitions

Supercombinators can have local definitions in the form of let or letrec expressions

main = quadruple 20 ;
quadruple x = let twice_x = x + x
              in twice_x + twice_x

infinite n = letrec ns = cons n ns
             in ns

quadruple defines locally twice_x, to be used in the body of the let expression. This is useful for naming intermediate values and to avoid recomputing the same value twice.

infinite declares ns and uses ns at the same time - the definition of ns is recursive.

Algebraic Data Types (ADTs)

In many functional languages, such as OCaml in the example below, algebraic data types are defined by the user like so:

type colour = Red | Green | Blue
type complex = Rect of int * int | Polar of int * int

Red, Green, Blue, Rect, and Polar, are called constructors, because you use them to construct values of the ADTs.

We can pattern match on these ADTs using a match expression:

match colour with
| Red   -> "Red"
| Green -> "Green"
| Blue  -> "Blue"

In Core, we use a simple, uniform representation for constructors, and transform pattern matching into simple case expressions.

We use Pack to define constructors:

Red   = Pack{1,0}
Green = Pack{2,0}
Blue  = Pack{3,0}

Rect  = Pack{1,2}
Polar = Pack{2,2}

The first argument identifies a constructor in the ADT, and the second argument is the arity of the constructor, (how many arguments it requires).

A case expression is used to determine alternative in an ADT a value is:

isRed = case c of
            <1> -> True  ;
            <2> -> False ;
            <3> -> False


Lastly, Core has arithmetic:

main = 1 + 1

And comparison:

main = if (2 > 1) 2 1

How is evaluation done?

The G-machine works in terms of a stack and heap.

A stack contains pointers to items in the heap, and heap contains nodes, representing numbers, application, etc.

Given this example:

f g x = K (g x)

The machine will be in the state where the top of the stack is the function f, the next item is a pointer to an application of f to g, and the next item is a pointer to an application of f g to x.

[-]---->  @
         / \
[-]-->  @   x
       / \
[-]-> f   g

The goal then becomes to evaluate the function K (g x).

To evaluate a function application, g x, the function and the arguments have to be pushed onto the stack first.

This is done by using the Push instruction:

Push 1:

[-]---->  @
         / \
[-]-->  @   x <-\
       / \      |
[-]-> f   g     |

The way 1 is counted is to ignore the top of the stack, which is the supercombinator node, and to start counting from 0.

Then x needs to be pushed onto the stack:

Push 1:

[-]---->  @
         / \
[-]-->  @   x <-\
       / \      |
[-]-> f   g <-\ |
              | |

Now apply the function by creating an application node, using Mkap:


[-]---->  @
         / \
[-]-->  @   x <-\
       / \      |
[-]-> f   g <-\ |
              | |
[-]-> @       | |
     / \------+-/

Mkap creates an application node using the top two items of the stack.

Now we need to apply K to (g x), since K is a supercombinator, we can directly push it using Pushglobal:

Pushglobal K

[-]---->  @
         / \
[-]-->  @   x <-\
       / \      |
[-]-> f   g <-\ |
              | |
[-]-> @       | |
     / \------+-/
[-]-> K

And use Mkap to apply K to its arguments:


[-]---->  @
         / \
[-]-->  @   x <-\
       / \      |
[-]-> f   g <-\ |
              | |
[-]-> @       | |
     / \      | |
    K   @     | |
       / \----+-/

Finally we have replaced f g x with its body K (g x), so we can remove the old nodes:

Slide 3:

[-]-> @
     / \
    K   @
       / \
      g   x

In summary, the code generated for a supercombinator is to:

  1. construct the rhs of the supercombinator
  2. Slide n + 1, where n is the arity of the supercombinator
  3. Unwind

Where Unwind is the instruction to cause machine evaluation to continue.

To recap, the key instructions are:

Minimal G-machine

The G-machine uses a five-tuple for it’s state:

type gm_state =
    gm_code    (* current instruction stream *)
  * gm_stack   (* current stack              *)
  * gm_heap    (* heap of nodes              *)
  * gm_globals (* global addresses in heap   *)
  * gm_stats   (* statistics of machine      *)

gm_code is a list of machine instructions:

type gm_code = instruction list

The gm_stack is a list of addresses in the heap:

type gm_stack = addr list

gm_heap is a heap mapping addr to node, and can be implemented as a list, with list index as addr.

type gm_heap = node list

gm_globals is an association list of names to addr in heap:

type gm_globals = (name * addr) list

The G-machine runs by dispatching on each instruction.

Pushglobal looks up the name in gm_globals and pushes the node in the heap onto the stack.

Pushint allocates an integer node on the heap, and pushes the address onto the stack.

Mkap uses two addresses at the top of the stack to build an application node in the heap.

Push is used to copy an argument that is passed to a function. It has to look at the application node at the (n+1)-th place, and look at the rhs of the node.

Slide tidies the stack by popping addresses off the stack.

Unwind is always the last instruction of a sequence, and will construct a new state based on what’s on top of the stack.

  1. NNum, the G-machine has terminated
  2. NAp, must continue unwinding from next node
  3. NGlobal, jump to the supercombinator code by putting it onto gm_code


implementing Functional Languages: a tutorial