LanguagesArchitecture
Note: Regions are still a work-in-progress. This is only a preview describing how we expect them to work in practice, to show where we're headed and what we're aiming for. They could surpass our wildest expectations, or they could shatter and implode into a glorious fireball, who knows! Follow along as we implement all this, and reach out if anything isn't clear! 0 1

Vale has an ambitious goal: to be fast, memory safe, and most importantly, easy. There are a lot of stellar languages that have two, and we suspect it's possible to really maximize all three.

To do this, we're harnessing a new concept called regions.

In Part 1, we saw how we can use pure functions to easily "immutably borrow" a region, to eliminate memory safety costs when accessing it.

That works really well for the sections of our program that can be phrased as pure functions. 2

We can use regions to eliminate memory safety overhead in other places too, using a concept called "isolates".

Generational references are complete but the rest of these mechanisms are works in progress. We'll be implementing these features over the next two years, per the roadmap.

Isolates

An isolate is a hierarchy of data that nobody outside can point to, except for one owning reference outside that points at the root.

Some examples:

  • If a Spaceship owns a private Engine field and nobody outside needs to access it, it's conceptually an isolate.
  • In an entity-component-system architecture, each separate component (and the arrays holding them) are isolates.
  • A webapp might choose to centralize each component's state into an isolate.
  • A compiler could put a stage's Abstract Syntax Tree into an isolate.
  • A message sent via a channel from one thread to another would be an isolate, giving a language fearless concurrency.

By default, nothing inside an isolate can point out either, though Part 3 shows how we can enable that using one-way isolation. Most private data can actually be expressed very cleanly with one-way isolation. 3

Part 4 also shows how one-way isolation can make certain patterns (iterating, determinants, etc.) and entire architectures (like entity-component-system) zero-cost. 4

For the rest of this post though, we'll focus on regular isolates, where nothing inside can point out.

Most programs are naturally hierarchies of isolated data, 5 no matter what language they're written in. We can use the ' syntax to help the compiler know where those isolates are, so it can make more optimal code. 6

One doesn't need to '-annotate everything, of course. Consistent with Vale's philosophy of avoiding forced complexity, isolates are opt-in.

One would '-annotate only the parts of their program that profiling suggests would benefit from optimization.

Side Notes
(interesting tangential thoughts)
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If anything isn't clear, feel free to reach out via discord, twitter, or the subreddit! We love answering questions, and it helps us know how to improve our explanations.

1

We're aiming to complete regions by early 2024, check out the roadmap for more details.

2

Which is quite a lot, really. Our sample roguelike game, a very stateful mutation-heavy program, actually spent the vast majority of its time inside pure functions.

3

pure functions use it under the hood as well, if you squint hard enough.

4

Together, isolates, pure functions, and one-way isolation combine to form something that looks suspiciously like an entire new programming paradigm... whether that's true remains to be seen!

5

More specifically, they're naturally hierarchies of one-way isolated data. Private data often points outward, especially in stateful code.

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We can even take this to the extreme and ' everything, and we'd end up with data roughly the same shape as in Rust programs. In practice, there's a balance somewhere in-between.

Immutable Borrowing

We can immutably borrow an isolate's data, allowing the compiler to skip generation checks when reading it. This can make our code faster.

This is the same mechanism used by pure functions, described in Part 1.

This allows us to get the optimization benefits of affine types (like those seen in Rust and Cyclone), but with a vital improvement: it doesn't have aliasing restrictions, and enables techniques and optimizations that require shared mutability. 7

An Example

First, here's an example before we use isolation. We'll add isolation to it afterward.

This is a simple Cannon. 8

Here, we see it fire on an enemy ship.

fire isn't defined here, we show it further below.

struct Cannon { strength int; ... } struct Ship { hp int; } exported func main() { cannon = Cannon(12, ...); ship = Ship(100); fire(&cannon, &ship); println("Ship's new hp: {ship.hp}"); }
stdout
Ship's new hp: 88

When it fires on something it first calculates its strength, based on a very complex algorithm.

This algorithm has a little bit of overhead: whenever we read from cannon, such as the cannon.strength, it incurs a generation check.

func fire( cannon &Cannon, ship &Ship) void { // Read cannon to calculate damage. damage = cannon.strength * 2; // Now hit the ship! set ship.hp -= damage; }

Generation checks are rarely a source of significant slowdowns. However, if we're in the hot path of a performance-critical program, profiling might suggest that we optimize this function.

Let's optimize!

Optimizing with Isolation

If we can immutably borrow cannon, then we can skip those generation checks!

One way to do this is to make cannon isolated, and then open it up .immutably. 9

There are four changes here:

  • By putting the ' in front of the Cannon call, cannon is now of type 'Cannon which means it's isolated.
  • &cannon became cannon.imm, which immutably borrows the iso's contents.
  • We added <c'> after func fire so that the function can receive things in a read-only region, referred to as c.
  • Lastly, we made &Cannon into &c'Cannon to show that it's in that read-only region.

// (using above Cannon and Ship) exported func main() { cannon = 'Cannon(12, ...); ship = Ship(100); fire(cannon.imm, &ship); println("Ship's new hp: {ship.hp}"); } func fire<c'>( cannon &c'Cannon, ship &Ship) void { // This is faster now, no more // generation checks! damage = cannon.strength * 2; // Now hit the ship! set ship.hp -= damage; }

Now, cannon is immutably borrowed, so reading it (like cannon.strength) is faster because it doesn't incur any generation checks.

In this example, reading anything from cannon is zero cost, because we used .imm to open the isolate immutably.

This is the true strength of isolates: they tell the compiler when areas of our data are immutable, so it can read them with zero cost.

A Real World Example

Let's say we want a level generator for a simple game.

We're going to coalesce a black-and-white image's pixels until it gives us something interesting, and then use that to inspire our level's terrain.

This is known as a Cellular Automata algorithm, and is very similar to blurring an image.

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1
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Here's our main function which shows the general structure of our program.

The ' in front of [][]bool specifies the array is isolated.

The image.read in coalesceImage(&rand, image.read) will open up the image isolate as immutable, and then pass it in as an argument to coalesceImage.

Further below, we'll see how coalesceImage keeps the two inputs separate from each other.

exported func main() { // Our random number generator. rand = LCGRand(1337); // An isolated 16x16 array of bools. image = 10 '[][]bool(16, x => { '[]bool(16, y => { rand.next() mod 2 == 0 }) }); // We want coalesceImage to treat // the input rand as mutable, and // the input image as immutable. image_coalesced = coalesceImage(&rand, image.read); // And do it again, it'll look nice. image_coalesced_again = coalesceImage( &rand, image_coalesced.read); display(image_coalesced_again.read); }

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Techniques like intrusive data structures and graphs, plus useful patterns like observers, back-references, dependency references, callbacks, delegates and many forms of RAII and higher RAII.

8

Originally designed in the year 2347, this cannon an ion-based Hawking Propulsor, historically used pretty heavily in the Hegemony fleet. With the invention of the Shearing Field it has largely fallen out of use, but it's still a vital component in some outworld colony defenses like ours.

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The other way is to pull the damage = cannon.strength * 2 out into a pure function. That usually works well, but this post is about isolation so we'll show that instead.

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image's type is '[][]bool.

Here's the coalesceImage function.

func coalesceImage<r'>( rand &LCGRand, tiles &r'[][]bool) '[][]bool { // Returns a new array. // Make a new isolated array. tiles '[][]bool = foreach [x, column] in tiles.entries() { 11 foreach [y, walkable] in column.entries() { // Produces a boolean averageNeighbors(rand, tiles, x, y) } }; return tiles; }

The important part here is the r' in &r'[][]bool. It means this parameter is in a separate region from the rest of the parameters, and we only see the region as read-only. 12

When main calls coalesceImage, the compiler sees two things:

  • We're passing an isolated object.
  • The function parameter sees it as from a read-only region.

The compiler concludes that nobody's going to change anything in the region, therefore it's temporarily immutable. It generates a coalesceImage function that is optimized accordingly, eliminating memory safety overhead when reading from that region.

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foreach will automatically create an isolated array if it's constructed with a bunch of isolated elements.

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In general, one can change <r'> to <r' rw> for a read-write region here.

If you're curious, here's the averageNeighbors function, which takes its parameters in a similar way:

func averageNeighbors<r'>(rand &LCGRand, tiles &r'[][]bool, x int, y int) bool { num_neighbors = 0; num_white_neighbors = 0; foreach neighbor_x in range(x - 1, x + 1) { foreach neighbor_y in range(y - 1, y + 1) { if neighbor_x in 0..tiles.len() and neighbor_x in 0..tiles[0].len() { set num_neighbors += 1; set num_white_neighbors += if white { 1 } else { 0 }; } } } result_is_white = if num_white_neighbors * 2 == num_neighbors { // Even number of white and black neighbors, so choose randomly. rand.next() mod 2 == 0 } else { // true if most neighbors are white num_white_neighbors > num_neighbors / 2 }; return result_is_white; }

Cells

Above, we showed how an isolate in a variable can be passed to a function that reads from it.

Isolates are incredibly versatile when held in local variables, as we saw above.

However, when a struct member is an isolate, it can only be accessed when: 13

  • The containing struct is destroyed first. 14 15
  • The containing struct is also an isolate.
  • The containing struct is in an immutable region.
  • We use a cell.

A cell relaxes these restrictions by moving some checks to run-time. 16

For example, this Ship contains an "Engine cell".

foo uses the .read syntax to gain access to the contained 'Engine.

struct Ship { engine ''Engine; } struct Engine { fuel int; } func foo(ship &Ship) { engine = ship.engine.imm; // Can read engine freely! println(engine.fuel); }

The above example did an immutable borrow using .imm. We can also:

  • Mutably borrow the Engine with .open.
  • Readonly borrow the Engine with .read, which lets us read it while others modify it.

There are two caveats to using cells:

  • We can borrow it with .read and .open as much as we want, but the program will halt if it's ever borrowed with .imm and .open at the same time.
  • The program will halt if someone destroys that Ship while someone is borrowing it.

So what's actually happening with that line, engine = ship.engine.imm;?

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This is because an isolate must never be opened twice at the same time, it must only be opened once. If we allowed opening a struct member isolate, then it could indirectly be opened twice simultaneously.

14

This restriction can be combined with Higher RAII to make some pretty interesting mechanisms. It's also conceptually similar to GhostToken in Rust.

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Design TBD: Can an isolate be used like a ghosttoken, to pass around permission to open, say, a mutex? It would be zero cost.

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For anyone familiar with Rust, a cell is similar to a RefCell, but with some improvements:

  • There's no shared mutability restrictions; anyone can open it in a read-only or read-write way.
  • There's no async restrictions; it doesn't cause any data coloring that could get in the way of Seamless Concurrency.

Cell Guards

When we borrow from a cell, we get a cell guard.

For example, if ship.engine is a ''Engine, then immutably borrowing it like engine = ship.engine.imm will make engine a CellGuard<imm, Engine>.

Under the hood, a CellGuard contains a pointer to the original cell.

When the CellGuard goes out of scope, will inform the original cell that we're done borrowing it.

This is how the language enforces that we don't immutably borrow and readwrite borrow the cell at the same time, which protects us from memory problems.

So if engine is a CellGuard<imm, Engine>, how is it possible to say engine.fuel, like in println(engine.fuel)?

A Cell Guard's Mask

A cell guard has an interesting quirk: it wears a mask.

Mentioning its name, like the engine in println(engine.fuel), does not give us the CellGuard<imm, Engine>.

Instead, it gives us the contents, &e'Engine. e is hidden, an implicit region that's conceptually tied to the cell guard.

The compiler then makes sure that no references into this region outlive the cell guard itself, similar to when we open a regular isolate.

Architectural Benefits

Besides having better performance via immutable borrowing, isolates and cells can also have architectural benefits as well.

First, it indirectly helps us stick to unidirectional data flow, the pattern where after we're done modifying the data, it's read-only for the rest of the operation. This pattern might be familiar:

  • React (and other functional reactive programming approaches) are built upon this principle.
  • The borrow checker steers us in this direction; we commonly construct some data and then only read it afterward.
  • Functional programming enforces this pattern, by not letting us change data after it's constructed.
  • This pattern is common in object-oriented code too, as a way to uphold invariants.

Second, it ensures that a struct's private data won't be unexpectedly changed by anyone outside.

In other languages, we can accidentally make a reference to some private data that escapes to someone outside our class. Then, someone uses that reference to modify the data that we thought was private, in unexpected ways that cause bugs. With regionsthe compiler prevents this from ever happening.

The best thing about isolation however is that it is opt-in. Consistent with Vale's philosophy of avoiding forced complexity, we never have to use isolation, or isolates, or regions at all. As more of us experiment with regions, we can learn the best places to apply them.

Conclusion

As we saw, isolates can be surprisingly powerful for optimization, and using them well can make a program much faster.

There are some details we didn't cover in the article:

  • We can attach an allocator to an isolate, such as BumpAllocator^'Fleet. 17
  • We can use an isolate to create something and then permanently freeze it. 18
  • We can hand a mutably-opened isolate into a pure function, and have it remain mutable.
  • We can't mutably .open a cell that's inside a read-only region (this has some benefits later for seamless concurrency), unless inside a mutex.
  • We can completely contain a third-party library's code inside an isolate if we wanted to; isolates are very composable.

Part 3 also shows how an isolate's contents can point outside the isolate using one-way isolation, which fits well with most structs' private data.

Part 4 shows how we can have one object contain another region's data inline.

Part 5 then shows how to combine that with one-way isolation to make certain patterns (iterating collections, calculating determinants, etc.) and entire architectures (like entity-component-system) zero-cost. 19

That's all for now! We hope you enjoyed this article. Stay tuned for the next article, which shows how one-way isolation works.

If you're impressed with our track record and believe in the direction we're heading, please consider sponsoring us on GitHub!

With your support, we can bring regions to programmers worldwide.

See you next time!

- Evan Ovadia

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17

Actual syntax TBD.

18

This might be merged with how immutable structs currently work. It would recursively call drop first, presumably.

19

Together, isolates, pure functions, and one-way isolation combine to form something that looks suspiciously like an entire new programming paradigm... whether that's true remains to be seen!

20

This is just a draft! TODOs:

  • Finish BenchmarkRL, then measure how many checks could be eliminated by iso regions.
  • Final measurements for the BenchmarkRL mention. Pretty sure it's well above 90%; pathfinding, AI, and turn resolution take most of the time.

Vale's Vision

Vale aims to bring a new way of programming into the world that offers speed, safety, and ease of use.

The world needs something like this! Currently, most programming language work is in:

  • High-overhead languages involving reference counting and tracing garbage collection.
  • Complex languages (Ada/Spark, Coq, Rust, Haskell, etc.) which impose higher complexity burden and mental overhead on the programmer.

These are useful, but there is a vast field of possibilities in between, waiting to be explored!

Our aim is to explore that space, discover what it has to offer, and make speed and safety easier than ever before.

In this quest, we've discovered and implemented a lot of new techniques:

  • Generational Memory, for a language to ensure an object still exists at the time of dereferencing.
  • Higher RAII, a form of linear typing that enables destructors with parameters and returns.
  • Fearless FFI, which allows us to call into C without risk of accidentally corrupting Vale objects.
  • Perfect Replayability, to record all inputs and replay execution, and completely solve heisenbugs and race bugs.

These techniques have also opened up some new emergent possibilities, which we hope to implement:

  • Region Borrow Checking, which adds mutable aliasing support to a Rust-like borrow checker.
  • Hybrid-Generational Memory, which ensures that nobody destroys an object too early, for better optimizations.
  • Seamless concurrency, the ability to launch multiple threads that can access any pre-existing data without data races, without the need for refactoring the code or the data.
  • Object pools and bump-allocators that are memory-safe and decoupled, so no refactoring needed.

We also gain a lot of inspiration from other languages, and are finding new ways to combine their techniques:

  • We can mix an unsafe block with Fearless FFI to make a much safer systems programming language!
  • We can mix Erlang's isolation benefits with functional reactive programming to make much more resilient programs!
  • We can mix region borrow checking with Pony's iso to support shared mutability.

...plus a lot more interesting ideas to explore!

The Vale programming language is a novel combination of ideas from the research world and original innovations. Our goal is to publish our techniques, even the ones that couldn't fit in Vale, so that the world as a whole can benefit from our work here, not just those who use Vale.

Our medium-term goals:

  • Finish the Region Borrow Checker, to show the world that shared mutability can work with borrow checking!
  • Prototype Hybrid-Generational Memory in Vale, to see how fast and easy we can make single ownership.
  • Publish the Language Simplicity Manifesto, a collection of principles to keep programming languages' learning curves down.
  • Publish the Memory Safety Grimoire, a collection of "memory safety building blocks" that languages can potentially use to make new memory models, just like Vale combined generational references and scope tethering.

We aim to publish articles biweekly on all of these topics, and create and inspire the next generation of fast, safe, and easy programming languages.

If you want to support our work, please consider sponsoring us on GitHub!

With enough sponsorship, we can:

  • Work on this full-time.
  • Turn the Vale Language Project into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
  • Make Vale into a production-ready language, and push it into the mainstream!