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pmichaud (6013)

pmichaud
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http://www.pmichaud.com/

Patrick Michaud is the pumpking for the Rakudo Perl 6 compiler. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and was formerly a Professor of Computer Science at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. He is currently a software developer and consultant focused on open source development and applications, including Perl, PmWiki, and Linux.

Journal of pmichaud (6013)

Saturday September 05, 2009
02:56 PM

Rakudo day: Rats, contextual variables, and %*ENV fixes

[ #39585 ]

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm doing two Rakudo days per week for my Vienna.pm grant to make up for some of the weeks I missed during conferences and summer travel. This week I focused on adding a rational (Rat) data type, support for contextual variables, and fixing up the handling of environment variables via %*ENV.

After the work that was done on operator overloading last week, implementing a basic Rat data type ended up being surprisingly easy. In fact, I just wrote it as a straightforward Perl 6 class and added it to the setting -- you can see the easy-to-read results in src/setting/Rat.pm. I did just enough of the implementation to get the basics in place, at which point Solomon Foster, Moritz Lenz, and others started working out a lot of the other details such as conversions to and from Rat and other MMD considerations. As a result we have quite a few clarifications and improvements to the specification, a lot of new tests have been written, and Rakudo passes a lot more tests in the test suite.

While adding Rat was relatively easy, adding contextual variables to Rakudo was quite a bit more challenging. Contextual variables are similar to lexicals, except that searching for a contextual variable involves looking at a block's callers instead of the block's outer lexical scopes. Contextuals have many similarities to the way that Unix environment variables work, but they also fill many of the niches that would have otherwise been handled by global or environment variables.

Contextual variables in Perl 6 are denoted using the * twigil. Here's a simple example that uses a contextual:

    sub foo() {
        say $*PHRASE;
    }

    sub bar() {
        my $*PHRASE = 'world';
        foo();
    }

    my $*PHRASE = 'hello';
    foo();
    bar();

When run, this outputs "hello\nworld\n". When foo() needs to look up the value of $*PHRASE, it does so by first checking its local lexpad, then checking its caller's lexpad, then its caller's caller's lexpad, and so forth until it finds a declared $*PHRASE. Thus in the first call to foo() above, foo()'s caller is the mainline and so foo() finds the mainline's definition of $*PHRASE ("hello"). The call to bar() declares a new contextual named $*PHRASE, and thus the second call to foo() sees bar()'s value of $*PHRASE ("world").

In other words, contextual variable lookups always use the (dynamic) caller chain instead of (static) lexical scoping.

This turns out to be incredibly useful in a number of situations where we want to provide called functions with an idea of the dynamic context in which they're being called. One of the most common uses for contextuals can be to override the default output for print, say, and other builtin I/O functions. The print and say builtins output to $*OUT, a contextual variable. So, to change the output destination for any calls to say or print, simply declare a new contextual $*OUT:

    say "Hello world on standard output";

    {
        my $*OUT = open("outfile.txt", :w);
        say "This text is going to outfile.txt";
        say "Report follows:";
        print_report();
        $*OUT.close;
    }

    say "...and this also goes to standard output";

So, in the bare block in the above code, the declaration of a new $*OUT contextual causes all of the calls to say and print executed inside of that block to send their output to outfile.txt instead of the default standard output. This behavior holds even for nested function calls such as print_report() -- its calls to say and print also get sent to outfile.txt.

This ability to establish a dynamic context value that can be quickly looked up from within nested function calls is key to simplifying many compiler implementation details. If you look at STD.pm you'll quickly see how much it relies on contextuals. Indeed, one of my next tasks will be to add contextuals to NQP and PGE so that we can move even closer to the way STD.pm handles parsing.

As I alluded above, contextual variables also fill some of the niches held by global and environment variables. If a search for a contextual variable doesn't find it declared in any of the callers' lexpads, we then fall back to looking in the GLOBAL and PROCESS packages. Thus a $GLOBAL::foo variable can be quickly accessed using $*foo if no caller has declared its own $*foo.

In fact, most of the predefined contextuals such as $*OUT, $*ERR, %*ENV, $*PID, etc., are actually defined in the PROCESS package. This gives us a lot of flexibility in deciding things:

    $*OUT          # the standard output of my caller
    $PROCESS::OUT  # the standard output for this process

The implementation for contextual variables in Rakudo required creating new Parrot operations for finding variables in the dynamic caller chain instead of the static outer scope chain, creating a (!find_contextual) sub in Rakudo to handle the contextual lookups, refactoring the compiler to treat the * twigil as a contextual instead of a global variable, and migrating the previous "contextual globals" we had into the PROCESS namespace. These later steps took the longest by far to accomplish.

Finally for this week's Rakudo days, there have been a number of RT tickets and requests for fixing up the handling of %*ENV -- previously it was based on Parrot's Env PMC and some of the Parrot-isms leaked out (e.g. RT #57400). The implementation of contextual variables opened the door to cleaning up %*ENV to work more appropriately, so I went ahead and did that.

Overall I'm very pleased by the progress made in this week's pair of Rakudo days: we got a good start on rational datatypes and cleaning up the relationships among the built-in scalar types, we now have a working contextual model that we'll need for the next phases of compiler development, and environment variables are now working more like they are supposed to.

Many thanks to Vienna.pm for sponsoring this work.

Pm

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  • Hi patrick

    while I agree that contextual variables are a very neat solution, do they not make using these variables very slow?

    Even when not using contextual variables explicitly, every use of say() would need to check that no caller has overridden the value of $*OUT

    Clint

    • From what I can tell, contextuals don't appear to me to be all that much slower than ordinary lexicals. There might be a case where a deeply nested call stack could increase the search time, but I suspect that will be rather rare.

      Beyond that, there are all sorts of ways to optimize for the cases where speed ends up being more important than flexibility. For example, a block that is going to make a lot of calls to say() can do:

      my $*OUT = CALLER::<$*OUT>;

      and this will reduce the number of caller con