Compiler Support for Threads

Dylan Portability Interface

The Threads Library is designed for implementation using different threads APIs from common operating systems, including Unix and Windows. Harlequin’s implementation of the library is designed to be directly portable onto these operating systems. This portability is achieved by using primitive operations defined within our runtime system. Each primitive operation must be implemented specially for each operating system.

The set of portable primitive operations is collectively called the portability layer. The Dylan compiler has special knowledge of the portability layer via primitive function definitions and some specialized emit methods for flow-graph node types which are specific to threads.

Portability and Runtime Layers

The design assumes that each of the concrete classes of the Threads Library (<thread>, <simple-lock>, <recursive-lock>, <semaphore> and <notification>) corresponds with an equivalent lower-level feature provided directly by either the operating system or the runtime system. The Dylan objects which are instances of these classes are implemented as containers for handles corresponding to low-level (non-Dylan) objects. The Dylan objects contain normal Dylan slots too, and these are directly manipulated by the Dylan library. However, the slots containing the low-level handles may only be manipulated via primitive function calls. For each of the classes, primitive functions are defined to both create and destroy the low-level handles, as well as to perform the basic functions of the class, such as wait-for and release. The platform-specific implementation of these primitive functions is free to choose any representation for these handles, provided that it is the same shape as a Dylan slot (which is equivalent to C’s void *).

As with all Dylan objects, the container objects defined by the threads library are subject to automatic memory management, and possible relocation by the garbage collector. The contents of the container slots will be copied during such a relocation — but the values they contain will not be subject to garbage collection or relocation themselves.

The portability layer provides no direct support for the dynamic-bind operation. The library implements a dynamic variable as a thread-local variable via the high-level Dylan constructs define thread variable and block … cleanup to manage the creation and deletion of new bindings.

The portability layer includes support for conditional update of atomic variables, as well as assignment. The implementation mechanism for these is not defined, but it is hoped that many platforms will provide direct hardware support for this operation. Where hardware support is not available, the low-level implementation may choose to use a lock to protect conditional updates and assignments, as a fall back option. It is assumed that atomic variables may always be read as normal variables.

Implementations of Dylan Thread Interfaces shows the expected mapping between the concrete Dylan classes and low-level operating system features, for three of the most popular general-purpose operating systems.

Implementations of Dylan Thread Interfaces

Dylan Interface

Unix Implementation

Win32 Implementation






critical region



critical region





condition variable


dynamic variable

thread-local variable

thread-local variable



exchange instruction (using a guard value as a lock);

Dylan Types for Threads Portability

Three Dylan types merit discussion for their use with portability primitives: <thread>, <portable-container>. Objects that are instances of the <thread> and <portable-container> classes have slots which contain lower-level objects that are specific to the Dylan runtime or operating system.



A Dylan object of class <thread> contains two OS handles. One of these represents the underlying OS thread, and the other may be used by implementations to contain the current status of the thread, as an aid to the implementation of the join state.



The <portable-container> class is used by the implementation as a superclass for all the concrete synchronization classes (<simple-lock>, <recursive-lock>, <semaphore>, and <notification>). Each <portable-container> object contains an OS handle, which is available to the runtime for storing any OS-specific data. Subclasses may provide additional slots.

Various classes of Dylan objects are passed through the portability interface, and hence require description in terms of lower level languages. Correspondence Between Dylan Types and C Types maps the layout of these Dylan objects onto their C equivalents, which are used by runtime-specific implementations of the portability layer.

In general, all Dylan types can be thought of as equivalent to the C type D, which is in turn equivalent to the C type void*. Of course, runtime-specific implementations of the portability layer must have access to relevant fields of the Dylan objects on which they operate. The type definitions in Correspondence Between Dylan Types and C Types give implementations access to fields needed for specific types. These definitions are not necessarily complete descriptions of the Dylan objects, however. The objects may contain additional fields that are not of interest to the portability layer, and subclasses may add additional fields of their own.

Correspondence Between Dylan Types and C Types

Dylan Type

C Type

C Type Definition



typedef void* D;



platform specific (size of void*)



typedef D(*DFN)(D, int, …);



typedef struct _sov { * *D class; * *DINT size; D data[ ]; } SOV;



typedef struct _bst { * *D class; * *DINT size; char data[ ]; } B_STRING;



typedef void* D_NAME;



typedef struct _ctr { * *D class; * *void* handle; } CONTAINER;



typedef struct _dth { * *D class; * *void* handle1; void* handle2; } D_THREAD;

Compiler Support for the Portability Interface

The Compiler Flow Graph

The front end of the compiler parses Dylan source code and produces an intermediate representation, the Implicit Continuation Representation (ICR). The ICR is a directed acyclic graph (DAG) of Dylan objects. A leaf in the ICR represents a basic computational object, such as a variable (of class <variable-leaf>) or a function (of class <function-leaf>). A node in the ICR represents an operation such as assignment (class <assignment>), conditional execution (class <if>), or a reference to a leaf (class <reference>).

In mapping Dylan code to the ICR, the compiler uses a set of converters, which perform syntactic pattern matching against fragments of Dylan code and generate the ICR corresponding to the matched code. For example, when the compiler encounters a top-level variable definition (introduced by the Dylan define variable construct), the converter for define variable creates a new instance of <global-variable-leaf> in the ICR to represent this variable and to record data such as its name, initial value, and typing information.

The back end of the compiler traverses the flow graph and emits code in the target language for compiler output. Methods in the back end specialize on node and leaf classes to enable them to produce the appropriate output.

Compiler Support for Atomic and Fluid Variables

The portability layer provides support for atomic variable access and for Dylan fluid variables (implemented as thread-local variables). Atomic variables and thread variables are directly represented in the flow graph, where they are subject to dataflow analysis. The variables themselves appear as leaves in the graph.

Because both atomic and fluid variables need special treatment when they are accessed, the back end must emit output that is different from that for accessing other kinds of variables. The compiler defines two specialized classes of leaf for the ICR, <atomic-global-variable-leaf> (corresponding to atomic variables) and <fluid-global-variable-leaf> (corresponding to fluid variables). These are subclasses of <global-variable-leaf> and therefore inherit general characteristics of leaves that represent variables.

ICR leaves representing both atomic and fluid variables are created by the converter for define variable. When the compiler encounters a definition of an atomic variable (introduced by the define atomic-variable construct), the converter for define variable creates an instance of <atomic-global-variable-leaf> in the ICR. When the compiler encounters a definition of a fluid variable (introduced by the define fluid-variable construct), the converter creates an instance of <fluid-global-variable-leaf>.

The operations of reading, writing, and conditionally updating atomic variables and of reading and writing fluid variables are not represented by primitive functions. Instead, they are represented directly in the flow graph. They are implemented by specializing methods on the leaf classes that represent atomic and fluid variables.

Compiler Support for Primitives

When the compiler constructs the flow graph, it represents a function call as a node in the ICR. Just as the compiler distinguishes atomic and fluid variables by means of specialized leaf classes, so it distinguishes calls to primitive functions of the portability interface by means of a specialized node class.

A function call is an operation on several components: the function object, the arguments, and the destination for returned values. When the compiler encounters a regular Dylan call, which typically appears as a call to a generic function, it represents the call in the ICR as a node of class <combination>.

However, the compiler contains a table of the primitive functions in the portability interface. Before creating an ICR node to represent a function call, the compiler looks up the function being called in the table of primitives. If the function appears in the table, the compiler creates an ICR node of class <primitive-combination>.

When the back end traverses the flow graph, methods specialized on the node class <primitive-combination> emit calls to primitive functions.

Support for Dylan Language Features

Interfacing to Foreign Code

It is intended that threads created by the Dylan library may inter-operate with code written in other languages with no special constraints. Dylan is interfaced with other languages via a Foreign Language Interface (FLI), which acts as a barrier between Dylan conventions and the neutral conventions of the platform. The FLI is responsible for:

  1. mapping between Dylan and foreign data types,

  2. converting between Dylan and foreign calling conventions

  3. maintaining the Dylan dynamic environment

  4. maintaining any support necessary for garbage collection (such as ensuring that all Dylan values can be traced).

The first and second of these require no significant extensions to support multiple threads, since these are inherently computations which have no effect on any thread other than the one performing the computation.

There is a requirement that the dynamic environment for each thread is stored in a thread-local variable. Since the environment is stored in this way, its value is preserved across calls into foreign code, and it will still be valid if the foreign code calls back into Dylan. The techniques described in [MG95] for maintaining the dynamic environment across foreign calls are therefore directly appropriate to a multi-threaded implementation too.

If an object is passed to foreign code with dynamic extent, then it is sufficient to ensure that the object is referenced from the current stack, which the garbage collector will scan conservatively. In a multi-threaded implementation, the garbage collector will scan all the stacks conservatively, so there is no requirement to maintain a thread-global data structure.

If an object is passed with indefinite extent, then it must be recorded in a table. The table may be maintained by the runtime system, by means of suitable primitive functions to add and remove references. There are potentially synchronization problems associated with multiple threads manipulating a global data structure — but the runtime system implementation is free to choose whether to have separate tables for each thread, or whether to have a global table with an associated lock to guard accesses. Either technique is possible — but Harlequin have not yet implemented this feature.

One further consideration is the interaction of the Dylan threads library itself with foreign components:

If foreign code is not designed for multiple threads (for instance, because it uses global data structures, and doesn’t synchronize updates), then the code may fail if it is invoked from multiple Dylan threads. However, this problem is not related to the Dylan implementation, since it would fail if called from multiple threads created by any means. The solution is to modify the foreign component to make it thread safe.

If foreign code is designed for use with multiple threads, then it is valid for it to use the synchronization facilities of the Dylan library (by calling back into Dylan, to invoke the Threads Library synchronization functions). Alternatively, it may use its own methods for synchronization, provided that these are not incompatible with the methods provided by the operating system. This is valid whenever it has been possible to implement the runtime system support for threads directly in terms of operating system features, and it is anticipated that this will always be true if the operating system supports threads. Typically, foreign code is expected to make direct use of operating system threads facilities.

However, a problem may arise if a thread is created in foreign code, and the new thread then calls back into Dylan. In this case, the Dylan thread library itself will not be able to find an existing <thread> object corresponding to the current thread, and the fluid variables for the current thread will not have been correctly initialized. Worse still, the garbage collector may not have enough information to locate the roots of the thread. Harlequin have not yet allowed for this in their implementation, but they have an anticipated solution.

It is possible to detect that a thread has never been executing on the Dylan side of the FLI before because it will have an uninitialized (zero) value for its thread-local dynamic environment variable. This can be checked at a call-in in the stub function which implements the FLI. Once such a thread has been detected, appropriate initialization steps can be taken. A function in the runtime system can be called to register the stack of the thread for root tracing; the dynamic environment can be set to point to a suitable value on the stack; finally a new Dylan <thread> object can be allocated and initialized with primitive-initialize-current-thread (as for the first thread).


As has been discussed, the Dylan synchronization objects are implemented as wrappers around lower-level operating system structures. The Dylan objects are subject to garbage collection, and their memory will be automatically freed by the garbage collector at an undefined point in the program. But the low-level structures are not Dylan objects and must be explicitly freed when the Dylan container is collected (primitive functions are provided for this purpose). However, the core language of Dylan provides no finalization mechanism to invoke cleanup code when objects are reclaimed. Harlequin’s implementation of the Threads Library strictly requires this, but it is not yet implemented. It is intended to provide finalization support for Dylan with a new garbage collector which is currently under development.