Calling Convention

Some terminology

Arguments passed to a function at the implementation level fall into 2 different groups. Language parameters correspond to the explicit arguments in the source code. Implementation parameters correspond to the house-keeping information used by the implementation.

The overall calling convention consists of several specific conventions with different properties, described below. Each convention is implemented by a separate entry point. There are partial orderings between the entry points for these conventions, depending on how specific each one is. The code which implements a control flow from one entry point to the next may be obliged to rearrange parameters (e.g. on the stack). This process is called stack fixing.

The register model

Three registers are used within the calling convention to support the passing of implementation parameters: Note that for the C back-end, global (or thread-local) variables might be used instead of real registers to pass these parameters.




number of args passed


the <function> object being called


the next-method list (#f for direct-entry)

The argument passing conventions

For each of the conventions, arguments are pushed onto the stack in reverse order (i.e. the rightmost argument is pushed first). The leftmost (or leftmost few) arguments are passed in registers. This has a possible disadvantage from the opposite ordering in terms of the need for temporary variables to hold interim results for order-of-evaluation reasons. In practice, the disadvantages will be small because:

  • Many arguments to functions are expected to be simple expressions (like constants or variable references) - so order of evaluation does not normally matter.

  • On a RISC implementation, we won’t want to push each argument anyway - instead it will be more efficient to allocate enough stack space for the call, and store each argument when it’s available. This works well with a conservative GC - but it might be poor with a total GC.

This calling convention has the following advantages:

  • required arguments can always be found at a known offset from a stack or frame pointer for any of the calling conventions

  • optional arguments appear in the same order in memory as they would if vectored up as #rest parameters

  • Stack allocating the optional arguments as vectors is almost trivial.

For the native code implementation, the callee is responsible for popping any arguments from the stack. This is always possible (even with dynamically sized optional args), because the argcount is available to say how many arguments were passed. This is not possible for the C back-end - and this is the only substantial difference from the C arg passing convention.

Calling Convention Goals

Internal entry points should be as efficient as possible. I.e. there should not be any constraints on them because Dylan is a dynamic language.

  1. There must be a consistent convention for all functions at the external entry point, so that functions can be called without the caller having any knowledge of what they are.

  2. The code which is executed at external entry points should be shared by all functions with similar properties / lambda-lists.

  3. The design should make the path from the external entry point to the internal entry point as simple as is reasonably possible.

The External Entry Point Convention

All Dylan function objects support the external convention. Each function object has an XEP slot containing the code to support this convention. External entry points are used for all unoptimized, normal calls to functions. This includes direct calls to methods and generic functions. Of course, whenever the compiler can use a more efficient entry point instead, then it will.

The registers are used as follows:




number of arguments


the function object


not used

If the function has a complex lambda list (with #rest or #key), then the external entry code will be one of a standard set of stack fixing functions. This stack fixer will make use of information in the function register to determine which keys to look for, whether the arg-count is legal, whether the arguments have appropriate types etc. The stack fixer will then tail jump to the internal entry point (again, found from the function object). This mechanism requires 2 transfers of control (caller -> stack-fixer -> callee).

For example, consider the following Dylan code:

define method func1 (a, b, #rest optionals, #key key1, key2)
end method;
func1(1, 2, key2: 99);

For the call to func1, above, the parameters are described in the following table:

XEP Parameters for the Call to func1

XEP Parameters


language parameters

1, 2, #"key2", 99




generic function func1`

Internal Entry Point Convention

The IEP convention uses a fixed number of language parameters, corresponding to each of the parameters of the function (5 in the case of func1, above, corresponding to a, b, optionals, key1, key2). In addition, there are two implementation parameters:

  • mlist, a list of the next applicable methods to call if the function is a method called from a generic function (this parameter is used to support calls to next-method). If the function is not being called from a generic function, the value is #f (false).

  • function, the Dylan function object being called (as for the XEP).

The implementation parameters are not obligatory for all IEP code. It is only necessary to pass mlist if the function contains a call to next-method. It is only necessary to pass function if the function is a closure (because the value is used by the IEP code to locate the environment of the closure). If the IEP is called from the XEP code, both the implementation parameters will always be set, even though they may not be necessary. For the same call to func1, above, the parameters are described in ` <runtime.htm#12946>`_.

IEP Parameters for the Call to func1

IEP Parameters


language parameters

1, 2, optionals, #f, 99




generic function func1

Note that the language parameters now correspond to the formal parameters of the function, whereas, for the XEP, they corresponded to the supplied arguments.

The value of optionals in the set of language parameters is the Dylan vector #[#"key2", 99] which corresponds to all the optional arguments. The language parameter corresponding to key1 is #f, because the keyword #"key1" was not supplied. However, the language parameter corresponding to key2 is 99, because #"key2" was supplied with that value.

The Method Entry Point Convention

All <method> objects support the method entry point convention. Each method object has an MEP slot containing the code to support this convention. When a method is called by a generic function (or via next method), the caller uses a dedicated entry point (available from the function object). If the method accepts #key or #rest parameters, then the method is called with a (possibly stack-allocated) vector representing the optional args. This vector appears as a single extra required argument.

If the method accepts #key parameters, then the method entry point will process the supplied keywords - stack fixing them so that they appear as required arguments. It will then tail-call the internal entry point.

If the method does not accept #key, then the method entry point is the same as the internal entry point.