Special Features

Introduction to bind-exit and unwind-protect

The following sections describe the implementation for the native code compiler, only.

Bind-exit and unwind-protect are represented on the stack as frames which contain information about how to invoke the relevant continuation. Unwind-protect frames are also chained together, and the current environment of existing unwind-protects is available in %current-unwind-protect-frame.

There are primitives to build each type of frame, and also to remove unwind-protect frames (bind-exit frames just have to be popped - so that is done inline). The primitive which removes unwind-protect frames in the fall-through case is also responsible for invoking the cleanup code (which is called as a sub-function in the same function frame as its parent).

There are also primitives to do non-local exits (NLX). These are passed the address of the bind-exit frame for the destination, and also the multiple values to be returned. As part of the NLX, any intervening unwind-protects are invoked and their frames are removed. Multiple-values are saved around the unwind-protects in the bind-exit frame of the destination.


An unwind-protect frame (UPF) looks as follows:




address of start of cleanup code


frame pointer


previous unwind-protect frame

The compiler compiles unwind-protect as follows:

let frame = primitive-build-unwind-protect-frame(tag1);
  end-cleanup(); // inlined as a return instruction

If the protected body exits normally, then primitive-unwind-protect-cleanup is called (in the runtime system). This causes the unwind-protect frame to be unlinked from the chain, and the cleanup code to be invoked, as a subroutine call within the same function frame as the protected body. The cleanup code finishes by executing a return instruction. The runtime system ensures that any multiple values are restored, and returns control to the compiled code, which then executes the code following the unwind-protect.

If the cleanup code is invoked because of an NLX, then the runtime function finds the ultimate destination bind exit frame (BEF) from the UPF. The runtime function then passes this BEF to another runtime function (as for bind-exit) to test whether there are any further intervening cleanups, or to transfer control to the ultimate destination if not.


A bind-exit frame (BEF) looks as follows:




continuation address


frame pointer


current unwind-protect frame


space for stack-allocated vector for up to 8 multiple values


pointer to saved multiple values as a vector

The compiler compiles bind-exit as follows:

let frame = primitive-build-bind-exit-frame(tag1);
let closure = make-bind-exit-closure(frame);

During an NLX, multiple-values will be saved in the frame if an intervening unwind-protect is active. The frame itself contains space for 8 values. If more values are present, then they will be heap allocated.

When an NLX occurs, the transfer of control is implemented by a call into the runtime system, passing the pointer to the BEF as a parameter. The runtime function first checks whether there is an intervening cleanup, by testing whether the target dynamic environment in the BEF matches the current global dynamic environment. If there is no intervening cleanup, then control is transferred to the destination of the BEF. Alternatively, if there is an intervening cleanup, then the ultimate destination field of the current UPF is set to the destination BEF, and the cleanup code is invoked within a loop which repeatedly tests for further intervening unwind-protect frames until no more are found.

Multiple Values

The current implementation of multiple values supports Common Lisp semantics. It is about to be replaced by a new version which supports the new Dylan semantics.

Harlequin’s current implementation uses a register to return a single Dylan value, as this is the only value that is used by almost all callers. In addition, each function returns a count of the number of values being returned. This count can be examined by the caller, if required, to determine how many values were returned. If a function is returning more than one value, the additional values are stored in a global (thread-local) area, where the caller may retrieve then, if desired. On RISC architectures, the multiple value count is returned in a register. For the x86 architecture, the direction flag register is set / unset to specify whether single / multiple values are being returned, respectively. If multiple values are being returned, then the count of the values is stored in a global (thread-local) location.

Documentation for the new version will be available shortly. Until then, here’s an overview:

Functions which return a fixed number of return values just return those values, without returning a count. The first few values will be returned in registers (an architecture-specific number), and remaining values will be returned in a thread-local overspill area. If a function always returns zero values, then no code need be executed to indicate this fact.

Functions which return a dynamically-sized number of values return their values as above, but also return a count of the number being returned in a register. If a function dynamically happens to return zero values, then the return count will be set to zero, but the value #f will be returned as if it were the first return value.

If the caller of a function can statically determine the number of return values (i.e. at compile-time), then it need perform no checks. However, if the caller has no knowledge of the function being called, then it must check the properties of the callee function object to determine whether the static or dynamic convention is being used, and may then need to read either the dynamic return value count, or the static count in the properties of the function object.

This design has some interesting implications for tail-call optimization. A function can simply tail another function only if both the following rules apply:

  1. The callee is known to return at least as many values as the caller, and they have appropriate types.

  2. If the caller returns a dynamically-sized number of values, then the callee must too.