An Incremental Approach to Compiler Construction

Compilers are perceived to be magical artifacts, carefully crafted by the wizards, and unfathomable by the mere mortals. Books on compilers are better described as wizard-talk: written by and for a clique of all-knowing practitioners. Real-life compilers are too complex to serve as an educational tool. And the gap between real-life compilers and the educational toy compilers is too wide. The novice compiler writer stands puzzled facing an impenetrable barrier, “better write an interpreter instead.”

The goal of this paper is to break that barrier. We show that building a compiler can be as easy as building an interpreter. The compiler we construct accepts a large subset of the Scheme programming language and produces assembly code for the Intel-x86 architecture, the dominant architecture of personal computing. The development of the compiler is broken into many small incremental steps. Every step yields a fully working compiler for a progressively expanding subset of Scheme. Every compiler step produces real assembly code that can be assembled then executed directly by the hardware. We assume that the reader is familiar with the basic computer architecture: its components and execution model.

Detailed knowledge of the Intel-x86 architecture is not required. The development of the compiler is described in detail in an extended tutorial. Supporting material for the tutorial such as an automated testing facility coupled with a comprehensive test suite are provided with the tutorial. It is our hope that current and future implementors of Scheme find in this paper the motivation for developing high-performance compilers and the means for achieving that goal.
Source: The University of Chicago
Author: Abdulaziz Ghuloum

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