Colin Watson

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Tue, 15 Apr 2014

Porting GHC: A Tale of Two Architectures

We had some requests to get GHC (the Glasgow Haskell Compiler) up and running on two new Ubuntu architectures: arm64, added in 13.10, and ppc64el, added in 14.04. This has been something of a saga, and has involved rather more late-night hacking than is probably good for me.

Book the First: Recalled to a life of strange build systems

You might not know it from the sheer bulk of uploads I do sometimes, but I actually don't speak a word of Haskell and it's not very high up my list of things to learn. But I am a pretty experienced build engineer, and I enjoy porting things to new architectures: I'm firmly of the belief that breadth of architecture support is a good way to shake out certain categories of issues in code, that it's worth doing aggressively across an entire distribution, and that, even if you don't think you need something now, new requirements have a habit of coming along when you least expect them and you might as well be prepared in advance. Furthermore, it annoys me when we have excessive noise in our build failure and proposed-migration output and I often put bits and pieces of spare time into gardening miscellaneous problems there, and at one point there was a lot of Haskell stuff on the list and it got a bit annoying to have to keep sending patches rather than just fixing things myself, and ... well, I ended up as probably the only non-Haskell-programmer on the Debian Haskell team and found myself fixing problems there in my free time. Life is a bit weird sometimes.

Bootstrapping packages on a new architecture is a bit of a black art that only a fairly small number of relatively bitter and twisted people know very much about. Doing it in Ubuntu is specifically painful because we've always forbidden direct binary uploads: all binaries have to come from a build daemon. Compilers in particular often tend to be written in the language they compile, and it's not uncommon for them to build-depend on themselves: that is, you need a previous version of the compiler to build the compiler, stretching back to the dawn of time where somebody put things together with a big magnet or something. So how do you get started on a new architecture? Well, what we do in this case is we construct a binary somehow (usually involving cross-compilation) and insert it as a build-dependency for a proper build in Launchpad. The ability to do this is restricted to a small group of Canonical employees, partly because it's very easy to make mistakes and partly because things like the classic "Reflections on Trusting Trust" are in the backs of our minds somewhere. We have an iron rule for our own sanity that the injected build-dependencies must themselves have been built from the unmodified source package in Ubuntu, although there can be source modifications further back in the chain. Fortunately, we don't need to do this very often, but it does mean that as somebody who can do it I feel an obligation to try and unblock other people where I can.

As far as constructing those build-dependencies goes, sometimes we look for binaries built by other distributions (particularly Debian), and that's pretty straightforward. In this case, though, these two architectures are pretty new and the Debian ports are only just getting going, and as far as I can tell none of the other distributions with active arm64 or ppc64el ports (or trivial name variants) has got as far as porting GHC yet. Well, OK. This was somewhere around the Christmas holidays and I had some time. Muggins here cracks his knuckles and decides to have a go at bootstrapping it from scratch. It can't be that hard, right? Not to mention that it was a blocker for over 600 entries on that build failure list I mentioned, which is definitely enough to make me sit up and take notice; we'd even had the odd customer request for it.

Several attempts later and I was starting to doubt my sanity, not least for trying in the first place. We ship GHC 7.6, and upgrading to 7.8 is not a project I'd like to tackle until the much more experienced Haskell folks in Debian have switched to it in unstable. The porting documentation for 7.6 has bitrotted more or less beyond usability, and the corresponding documentation for 7.8 really isn't backportable to 7.6. I tried building 7.8 for ppc64el anyway, picking that on the basis that we had quicker hardware for it and didn't seem likely to be particularly more arduous than arm64 (ho ho), and I even got to the point of having a cross-built stage2 compiler (stage1, in the cross-building case, is a GHC binary that runs on your starting architecture and generates code for your target architecture) that I could copy over to a ppc64el box and try to use as the base for a fully-native build, but it segfaulted incomprehensibly just after spawning any child process. Compilers tend to do rather a lot, especially when they're built to use GCC to generate object code, so this was a pretty serious problem, and it resisted analysis. I poked at it for a while but didn't get anywhere, and I had other things to do so declared it a write-off and gave up.

Book the Second: The golden thread of progress

In March, another mailing list conversation prodded me into finding a blog entry by Karel Gardas on building GHC for arm64. This was enough to be worth another look, and indeed it turned out that (with some help from Karel in private mail) I was able to cross-build a compiler that actually worked and could be used to run a fully-native build that also worked. Of course this was 7.8, since as I mentioned cross-building 7.6 is unrealistically difficult unless you're considerably more of an expert on GHC's labyrinthine build system than I am. OK, no problem, right? Getting a GHC at all is the hard bit, and 7.8 must be at least as capable as 7.6, so it should be able to build 7.6 easily enough ...

Not so much. What I'd missed here was that compiler engineers generally only care very much about building the compiler with older versions of itself, and if the language in question has any kind of deprecation cycle then the compiler itself is likely to be behind on various things compared to more typical code since it has to be buildable with older versions. This means that the removal of some deprecated interfaces from 7.8 posed a problem, as did some changes in certain primops that had gained an associated compatibility layer in 7.8 but nobody had gone back to put the corresponding compatibility layer into 7.6. GHC supports running Haskell code through the C preprocessor, and there's a __GLASGOW_HASKELL__ definition with the compiler's version number, so this was just a slog tracking down changes in git and adding #ifdef-guarded code that coped with the newer compiler (remembering that stage1 will be built with 7.8 and stage2 with stage1, i.e. 7.6, from the same source tree). More inscrutably, GHC has its own packaging system called Cabal which is also used by the compiler build process to determine which subpackages to build and how to link them against each other, and some crucial subpackages weren't being built: it looked like it was stuck on picking versions from "stage0" (i.e. the initial compiler used as an input to the whole process) when it should have been building its own. Eventually I figured out that this was because GHC's use of its packaging system hadn't anticipated this case, and was selecting the higher version of the ghc package itself from stage0 rather than the version it was about to build for itself, and thus never actually tried to build most of the compiler. Editing ghc_stage1_DEPS in ghc/stage1/ after its initial generation sorted this out. One late night building round and round in circles for a while until I had something stable, and a Debian source upload to add basic support for the architecture name (and other changes which were a bit over the top in retrospect: I didn't need to touch the embedded copy of libffi, as we build with the system one), and I was able to feed this all into Launchpad and watch the builders munch away very satisfyingly at the Haskell library stack for a while.

This was all interesting, and finally all that work was actually paying off in terms of getting to watch a slew of several hundred build failures vanish from arm64 (the final count was something like 640, I think). The fly in the ointment was that ppc64el was still blocked, as the problem there wasn't building 7.6, it was getting a working 7.8. But now I really did have other much more urgent things to do, so I figured I just wouldn't get to this by release time and stuck it on the figurative shelf.

Book the Third: The track of a bug

Then, last Friday, I cleared out my urgent pile and thought I'd have another quick look. (I get a bit obsessive about things like this that smell of "interesting intellectual puzzle".) slyfox on the #ghc IRC channel gave me some general debugging advice and, particularly usefully, a reduced example program that I could use to debug just the process-spawning problem without having to wade through noise from running the rest of the compiler. I reproduced the same problem there, and then found that the program crashed earlier (in stg_ap_0_fast, part of the run-time system) if I compiled it with +RTS -Da -RTS. I nailed it down to a small enough region of assembly that I could see all of the assembly, the source code, and an intermediate representation or two from the compiler, and then started meditating on what makes ppc64el special.

You see, the vast majority of porting bugs come down to what I might call gross properties of the architecture. You have things like whether it's 32-bit or 64-bit, big-endian or little-endian, whether char is signed or unsigned, that sort of thing. There's a big table on the Debian wiki that handily summarises most of the important ones. Sometimes you have to deal with distribution-specific things like whether GL or GLES is used; often, especially for new variants of existing architectures, you have to cope with foolish configure scripts that think they can guess certain things from the architecture name and get it wrong (assuming that powerpc* means big-endian, for instance). We often have to update config.guess and config.sub, and on ppc64el we have the additional hassle of updating libtool macros too. But I've done a lot of this stuff and I'd accounted for everything I could think of. ppc64el is actually a lot like amd64 in terms of many of these porting-relevant properties, and not even that far off arm64 which I'd just successfully ported GHC to, so I couldn't be dealing with anything particularly obvious. There was some hand-written assembly which certainly could have been problematic, but I'd carefully checked that this wasn't being used by the "unregisterised" (no specialised machine dependencies, so relatively easy to port but not well-optimised) build I was using. A problem around spawning processes suggested a problem with SIGCHLD handling, but I ruled that out by slowing down the first child process that it spawned and using strace to confirm that SIGSEGV was the first signal received. What on earth was the problem?

From some painstaking gdb work, one thing I eventually noticed was that stg_ap_0_fast's local stack appeared to be being corrupted by a function call, specifically a call to the colourfully-named debugBelch. Now, when IBM's toolchain engineers were putting together ppc64el based on ppc64, they took the opportunity to fix a number of problems with their ABI: there's an OpenJDK bug with a handy list of references. One of the things I noticed there was that there were some stack allocation optimisations in the new ABI, which affected functions that don't call any vararg functions and don't call any functions that take enough parameters that some of them have to be passed on the stack rather than in registers. debugBelch takes varargs: hmm. Now, the calling code isn't quite in C as such, but in a related dialect called "Cmm", a variant of C-- (yes, minus), that GHC uses to help bridge the gap between the functional world and its code generation, and which is compiled down to C by GHC. When importing C functions into Cmm, GHC generates prototypes for them, but it doesn't do enough parsing to work out the true prototype; instead, they all just get something like extern StgFunPtr f(void);. In most architectures you can get away with this, because the arguments get passed in the usual calling convention anyway and it all works out, but on ppc64el this means that the caller doesn't generate enough stack space and then the callee tries to save its varargs onto the stack in an area that in fact belongs to the caller, and suddenly everything goes south. Things were starting to make sense.

Now, debugBelch is only used in optional debugging code; but runInteractiveProcess (the function associated with the initial round of failures) takes no fewer than twelve arguments, plenty to force some of them onto the stack. I poked around the GCC patch for this ABI change a bit and determined that it only optimised away the stack allocation if it had a full prototype for all the callees, so I guessed that changing those prototypes to extern StgFunPtr f(); might work: it's still technically wrong, not least because omitting the parameter list is an obsolescent feature in C11, but it's at least just omitting information about the parameter list rather than actively lying about it. I tweaked that and ran the cross-build from scratch again. Lo and behold, suddenly I had a working compiler, and I could go through the same build-7.6-using-7.8 procedure as with arm64, much more quickly this time now that I knew what I was doing. One upstream bug, one Debian upload, and several bootstrapping builds later, and GHC was up and running on another architecture in Launchpad. Success!


There's still more to do. I gather there may be a Google Summer of Code project in Linaro to write proper native code generation for GHC on arm64: this would make things a good deal faster, but also enable GHCi (the interpreter) and Template Haskell, and thus clear quite a few more build failures. Since there's already native code generation for ppc64 in GHC, getting it going for ppc64el would probably only be a couple of days' work at this point. But these are niceties by comparison, and I'm more than happy with what I got working for 14.04.

The upshot of all of this is that I may be the first non-Haskell-programmer to ever port GHC to two entirely new architectures. I'm not sure if I gain much from that personally aside from a lot of lost sleep and being considered extremely strange. It has, however, been by far the most challenging set of packages I've ported, and a fascinating trip through some odd corners of build systems and undefined behaviour that I don't normally need to touch.

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