Sunday, August 13, 2017

Getting started with a GCC back end

This is part two of a series “Writing a GCC back end”.

Most CPU architectures have a common subset – they have instructions doing arithmetics and bit operations on a few general registers, an instruction that can write a register to memory, and an instruction that can read from memory and place the result in a register. It is therefore easy to make a compiler that can compile simple straight-line functions by taking an existing back end and restricting it to this common subset. This is enough to start running the test suite, and it is then straightforward to address one deficiency at a time (adding additional instructions, addressing modes, ABI, etc.).

My original thought was that the RISC-V back end would be a good choice as a starting point – the architecture is fully documented, and it is a new, actively maintained, backend that does not use legacy APIs. But the RISC-V back end has lots of functionality (such as support for multiple ISA profiles, 32- and 64-bit modes, and features such as position-independent code, exception handling and debug information) and the work of reducing it became unnecessarily complicated when I tried...

I now think it is better to start from one of the minimal back ends, such as the back end for the Moxie architecture. Moxie seems to be a good choice as there is also a blog series “How To Retarget the GNU Toolchain in 21 Patches” describing step-by-step how it was developed. The blog series is old, but GCC has a very stable API, so it is essentially the same now (I once updated a GCC backend from GCC 4.3 to GCC 4.9, which were released 6 years apart, and only a few lines needed to be modified...).

One thing missing from the Moxie blog series is how to build the compiler and how to configure and run the test-suite, but I blogged about that a while back in “Running the GCC test-suite for epiphany-sim”.

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