Jethro's Braindump


Compilers, The C Language

Building GCC

Instead of downloading the tarball, we clone from the Git mirror, because the tarball didn’t contain the full GCC distribution.

git clone
cd gcc
mkdir build && cd build
../configure                                           \
    --prefix=/usr                                      \
    --disable-multilib                                 \
    --with-system-zlib                                 \

Compiler Flow

To scope this discussion, we shall focus on the compilation flow for C, mentioning features involving other languages where necessary.

The GCC compiler can be split into 2 components, the front-end and the back-end. Compilation is initiated at gcc-main.c, where a driver is initialized. This driver collects required information about the output it needs to create (for example, the language specifications).

The driver calls toplev_main, which in turn calls do_compile. do_compile initializes the compiler, performing the following things:

  1. calls process_options, which sets global states based on the flags
  2. Set up the back-end if requested with backend_init()
  3. Initialize language-dependent structures, such as the symbol table.
  4. Calls compile_file() to compile the file.
  5. Calls finalize() to shut down.


The front-end is responsible for preprocessing, lexing, and parsing the input source program into an intermediate representation. This intermediate representation is common across all the languages that GCC supports, including C, C++, Go and Fortran.

Multiple intermediate representations are available. For C, the front-end uses the GENERIC tree representation, which is able to represent entire functions in trees, and is defined in gcc/tree.def using C macros. The GENERIC tree representations hold types, attributes, and operations.

Each language is contained in the ./gcc/language folder, e.g. gcc/c. In each language folder, there are 2 important files:
a shell script containing important variables concerning the language
a Makefile for building documentation, and installing the front-end

Invoking the Front-end

The front-end is invoked once to parse the entire input, via lang_hooks.parse_file() in the compile_file function in gcc/toplev.c:450.

For C, compile_file does various things:

  1. Initializes the call graph (cgraph)
  2. Parses the file using the parser defined in gcc/c/c-parser.c.
    1. This parser is a recursive-descent parser, with the callback finish_function() being called after each recursive-descent function completes

finish_function() is declared in gcc/c/c-decl.c, which does multiple things:

  1. Converts C code to the GENERIC tree representation by calling c_genericize
  2. Calls cgraph_node::finalize_function(fndecl, false) at the end (if nested, creates a call-graph node otherwise)


This cgraph_node finalize_function is defined in gcc/cgraphunit.c, which acts as the interface between tree-based front-ends like GENERIC and the backend.

As mentioned earlier, finalize_function is called when the front-end is done parsing the body. It queues nodes for processing in the enqueued_nodes linked-list, for processing later.

In the compile_file function described earlier, after lang_hooks.parse_file(), symtab->finalize_compilation_unit() is called. This calls cgraph_node::analyze_functions, which loops through the enqueue_nodes and:

  • Lowers representation into GIMPLE (gimplify)
  • build callgraph edges and references for all trivially needed symbols and all symbols referred by them.
  • lowers thunks
  • calls compile(), which runs IPA passes (interprocedural optimization). IPA uses information in the call graph to perform transformations across function boundaries. IPA passes include computation of reachability, and inlining functions.
    • The GIMPLE representation is further lowered into SSA form, and optimization techniques are done there, including:
      • Dead code elimination
      • Building the control flow graph
      • Alias analysis
      • Copy Renaming
    • calls expand_all_functions() which further lowers to RTL form by calling init_function_start (decl). The RTL form generated is target-dependent.

All passes (optimization or otherwise) are managed by a pass manager to ensure they are executed in the correct order. The passes are defined in gcc/passes.def. Depending on the optimization level, different passes are run.

RTL generation is done in gcc/emit-rtl.c. Some RTL optimization passes are run over the RTL form, including:

  • common subexpression elimination
  • global subexpression elimination
  • web construction
  • LRA (local register allocation): virtual registers are converted into physical registers, with spilling where necessary
  • basic-block reordering
  • peephole optimizations

The files for backends are located in directories under gcc/config, e.g. gcc/config/aarch64.

The final pass converts RTL code into assembly code for output. The source files are final.c plus insn-output.c. Finally, code for the target host is output.

The C Parser

The C parser is currently a handwritten recursive-descent parser. The reasons for handwriting the parser include:

Recursive-descent parsers are easy to read and debug
Handwriting the parser enables for handwritten optimization
Error Recovery
We can handwrite rules for common syntatic errors and recover from them.

The C parser used to be a generated parser via Bison, but extending the parser was difficult. Historically, Objective-C and OpenMP support was difficult to achieve with a generated parser.

In addition, the parser for C is relatively simple, in comparison to other portions in GCC, such as optimization, so it is reasonable to handwrite the parser to ensure that the parse trees obtained are deterministic and easy to debug.

The Intermediate Code Formats

We list the intermediate code formats in descending order of level.

The purpose of GENERIC is to represent functions in a tree representation that is language-independent. The transition point is c_genericize in gcc/c-decl.c
GIMPLE is derived from GENERIC, by converting it into a three-address representation. The three-address representation allows for several higher-level optimization passes. The transition point is gimplify_function_tree in cgraphunit.c:669. Some optimization passes include:
  • vectorization
  • empty loops
  • loop parallelization
The Register Transfer Language is lowest level IR, where instructions are output one-by-one. RTL is closest to the machine language, and more optimizations can be done at this level. This also includes machine-specific optimizations, as different machines have different instruction sets. The entry-point to RTL generation happens in the CFG expansion pass, defined in gcc/cfgexpand.c. The source files for RTL generation include stmt.c, calls.c, expr.c, explow.c, expmed.c, function.c, optabs.c and emit-rtl.c. Some optimization passes include:
  • loop optimization
  • (global) common subexpression elimination
  • Instruction scheduling
  • Register allocation

GCC’s RTL representation

RTL is inspired by Lisp lists. It has both an internal form, made up of structures that point at other structures, and a textual form that is used in the machine description and in printed debugging dumps. The textual form uses nested parentheses to indicate the pointers in the internal form.

Consider the code for simple.c:

  #include <stdio.h>

  int main() {
    int a = 0;
    return 0;

We compile with GCC dumping the RTL code:

  gcc -fdump-rtl-all-all /home/jethro/Dropbox/NUS/CS4212/assignments/simple.c

We get the list of RTLs at different RTL passes:

  +-- a.out
  +-- simple.c.229r.expand
  +-- simple.c.230r.vregs
  +-- simple.c.231r.into_cfglayout
  +-- simple.c.232r.jump
  +-- simple.c.244r.reginfo
  +-- simple.c.264r.outof_cfglayout
  +-- simple.c.265r.split1
  +-- simple.c.267r.dfinit
  +-- simple.c.268r.mode_sw
  +-- simple.c.269r.asmcons
  +-- simple.c.273r.ira
  +-- simple.c.274r.reload
  +-- simple.c.278r.split2
  +-- simple.c.282r.pro_and_epilogue
  +-- simple.c.285r.jump2
  +-- simple.c.298r.stack
  +-- simple.c.299r.alignments
  +-- simple.c.301r.mach
  +-- simple.c.302r.barriers
  +-- simple.c.306r.shorten
  +-- simple.c.307r.nothrow
  +-- simple.c.308r.dwarf2
  \-- simple.c.310r.dfinish

Each instruction has the form (type id prev next n (statement)). We look at a instruction generated from the program:

  (insn 5 2 6 2 (set (mem/c:SI (plus:DI (reg/f:DI 82 virtual-stack-vars)
                                        (const_int -4 [0xfffffffffffffffc])) [1 aD.2249+0 S4 A32])
                     (const_int 0 [0])) "/home/jethro/Dropbox/NUS/CS4212/assignments/simple.c":4 -1
  (mem/c:SI (plus:DI (reg/f:DI 82 virtual-stack-vars)
                     (const_int -4 [0xfffffffffffffffc])) [1 aD.2249+0 S4 A32])

Obtains a from an offset from the virtual stack, and loads it into memory. set is the assign operation in int a = 0. (const_int 0 [0]) represents 0.

In (insn 5 2 6 2 ...), 5 is the current instruction, the first 2 is the previous instruction, 6 is the next instruction and the final 2 is the basic block ID.

Peephole Optimizations

Peephole optimizations in GCC are defined in markdown files in different target machines. For example, we look at the gcc/config/arm/ These contain Lisp expressions of the form:

    "preparation statements")

This follows some form of pattern matching. Common matching functions are found in For example, match_operand constrains the operands allowed for that instruction. and captures it into group 1.

match_dup assumes that operand number n has already been determined by a match_operand appearing earlier in the recognition template, and it matches only an identical-looking expression.

All of the peephole examples below are machine-dependent: specifically, the instruction set of the machine is an important factor.

Example 1: gcc/config/arm/

    [(set (reg:CC CC_REGNUM)
          (compare:CC (match_operand:SI 1 "register_operand" "")
                      (const_int 0)))
    (cond_exec (ne (reg:CC CC_REGNUM) (const_int 0))
               (set (match_operand:SI 0 "register_operand" "") (const_int 0)))
    (cond_exec (eq (reg:CC CC_REGNUM) (const_int 0))
               (set (match_dup 0) (const_int 1)))
    (match_scratch:SI 2 "r")]
    "TARGET_32BIT && peep2_regno_dead_p (3, CC_REGNUM)"
      [(set (reg:CC CC_REGNUM)
            (compare:CC (const_int 0) (match_dup 1)))
      (set (match_dup 2) (minus:SI (const_int 0) (match_dup 1)))])
    (set (match_dup 0)
         (plus:SI (plus:SI (match_dup 1) (match_dup 2))
                  (geu:SI (reg:CC CC_REGNUM) (const_int 0))))]

Here we look for instructions of the form: Rd = (eq (reg1) (const_int0)). We substitute it for ARM instructions of the form:

  negs Rd, reg1
  adc  Rd, Rd, reg1

which is shorter and more efficient. We do it where the target machine is 32-bits.

Example 2: gcc/config/i386/

    [(set (match_operand:W 0 "register_operand")
          (match_operand:W 1 "memory_operand"))
    (set (pc) (match_dup 0))]
     && peep2_reg_dead_p (2, operands[0])"
    [(set (pc) (match_dup 1))])

Combines the simple jump instruction into a single instruction.

Example 3: gcc/config/aarch64/

    [(match_scratch:GPI 3 "r")
    (set (match_operand:GPI 0 "register_operand")
          (match_operand:GPI 1 "register_operand")
          (match_operand:GPI 2 "aarch64_pluslong_strict_immedate")))]
    "aarch64_move_imm (INTVAL (operands[2]), <MODE>mode)"
    [(set (match_dup 3) (match_dup 2))
    (set (match_dup 0) (plus:GPI (match_dup 1) (match_dup 3)))]

If there’s a free register, and a constant can be loaded in with a single instruction, we set it directly.