This post assumes knowledge of some basic vocabulary related to deoptimization. The footnotes have some pointers 1 2 3 4 on getting started.

Operationally, the “abstract VM state” a side exit or an invalidation point consumes can be characterized as the “interpreter state” at that point in the code. In other words, it is what the interpreter’s local state would look like if the interpreter were executing instead of optimized code.

Semantically, I think delimited continuations5 are the right way to formalize abstract VM states. The “limit” of a “VM state continuation” is the end of the physical frame the potentially deoptimizing operation (a call or a safepoint poll) is invoked from. The continuation itself runs in the interpreter, and the VM state encodes the initial state of the bytecode interpreter as data. The act of deoptimizing a frame is then the act of invoking this “VM state continuation” instead of returning to the normal return address / stack frame continuation (henceforth referred to as the “normal continuation”).

To kick things off, lets use this view to try to answer a basic question about VM states – what happens when we inline through a potentially deoptimizing call? To be concrete, lets say that we have

void f() {
counter_f++;
g();  # vm_state = vm_state_a
}

void g() {
counter_g++;
h();  # vm_state = vm_state_b
}


And you wish to inline g into f. What VM state should you feed to h once it is inlined into f?

void f_inlined() {
counter_f++;
/* inlined g */
counter_g++;
h();  # vm_state = ???
}


Here we have inlined what would have been two frames, f and g, into a single inlined frame, and we need a continuation delimited till the invocation boundary of f_inlined. Pre-inlining, deoptimizing the frames individually would involve first executing the vm_state_b continuation (at the call to h, in the frame for g), and then the vm_state_a continuation (at the call to g, in the frame for f). So, to deoptimize the inlined frame, we need to execute the vm_state_b continuation followed by the vm_state_a continuation. In other words, we need a continuation that is the composition of these two continuations! Just like inlining composes the “normal return” continuations, it also composes the “VM state” continuations. The final IR then has to look like:

void f_inlined() {
counter_f++;
/* inlined g */
counter_g++;
h();  # vm_state = compose(vm_state_b, vm_state_a)
}


# Structure

Modeling VM states as arbitrary continuations is fairly loose; stating that a potentially deoptimizing call can return either to the normal continuation or invoke some other arbitrary continuation still allows more kinds of behavior than we’d like to have to reason about. Can we reign in this definition by imposing some additional structure while still keeping the formalism useful? I think we can.

Deoptimization states, as typically used, have some structure in them. Usually the reason a caller wishes to invoke the deoptimization continuation instead of the normal continuation is that the deoptimization continuation can handle cases that normal continuation cannot. Moreover, in every state of the system the normal continuation is a correct implementation of the program being executed, the deoptimization continuation is semantically equivalent to the normal continuation.

The language runtime tends to give us some more structure – it is responsible for ensuring that a function always returns into the continuation that is correct given the current state of the world. So if a function returns into the normal continuation, $N$, then we know the deoptimization continuation it would have possibly returned into, $D$, is equivalent to $N$. Therefore we can optimize $N$ with the assumption that it is equivalent to $D$, since the runtime will not execute $N$ otherwise!

Let’s look at an example:

void f() {
func_a();  # vm_state = vms_a
// continuation A
uncommon_trap();  # vm_state = vms_b
// continuation B
}


Here continuation A is the normal continuation for the call to func_a and continuation B is the normal continuation for the call to func_b. uncommon_trap is a special function that unconditionally invokes the deoptimization continuation, and has no other side effects.

Since continuation A does nothing other than invoke the continuation vms_b (via the call to uncommon_trap), we have continuation A $\equiv$ vms_b. However, within continuation A, we know that continuation A $\equiv$ vms_a. Therefore we can replace the vms_b deopt state being passed to uncommon_trap() with vms_a, since the call to uncommon_trap() is within continuation A. This property is sometimes phrased as “replaying from the last valid VM state” and is exploited by some compilers6.

Note that we haven’t proved that vms_a is unconditionally equivalent to vms_b. Can you see why replacing vms_a with vms_b at func_a will be incorrect?

# Conclusion

I think delimited continuations form an elegant semantic model for describing VM states. In the future I plan to spend some time trying to come up with optimizations and simplifications that can be done on VM states as first class objects based on this interpretation.

1. Hölzle, Urs, Craig Chambers, and David Ungar. “Debugging optimized code with dynamic deoptimization.” ACM Sigplan Notices. Vol. 27. No. 7. ACM, 1992.

2. “Deoptimization terminology” http://www.philipreames.com/Blog/2015/05/20/deoptimization-terminology/

3. “Deoptimize me not, v8” https://blog.indutny.com/a.deoptimize-me-not

4. “The Java HotSpot Performance Engine Architecture: Dynamic Deoptimization” http://www.oracle.com/technetwork/java/whitepaper-135217.html#dynamic

5. Duboscq, Gilles, Thomas Würthinger, and Hanspeter Mössenböck. “Speculation without regret: reducing deoptimization meta-data in the Graal compiler.” Proceedings of the 2014 International Conference on Principles and Practices of Programming on the Java platform: Virtual machines, Languages, and Tools. ACM, 2014.