A History of Bootstrapping Ikarus Scheme

In this post, Aziz explains the history of how he went about bootstrapping Ikarus Scheme.

First, there was a Scheme->C compiler (running under Petite Chez). I
did not invest much in making it generate good code (details omitted)
since I know I was going to throw it away eventually. I would use it
to compile some minimal scheme runtime system (the usual R5RS stuff)
plus an interpreter (straight-forward environment-passing,
continuation-passing interpreter). The result of compiling this was
a huge C file that GCC took ages to compile, but eventually, you get
a repl that can interpret code (slowwwly). These were not good times.
Next, I wrote an in-core assembler: it can allocate a chunk of memory,
whack it with some powerpc instructions, and jump to it. I of course
did not compile the assembler, because any piece of code added to the
base system that was compiled to C was adding to the ages it took GCC
to compile. So, the assembler ran interpreted, but the code it makes
can be executed from the interpreter.
Next, I wrote the in-core compiler that uses the in-core assembler
but can compile Scheme code. So, you can compile a Scheme procedure,
and you can call it from the interpreter, and it can call other
compiled procedures, but it cannot call interpreted code, nor can it
call C code. So, once you call a compiled procedure, it’s in another
universe until it returns. The compiler is still running interpreted
(under a bad interpreter too) so it was very very very slow, but the
code it generated was good (if it worked that is! the system was
still being debugged).
Next, I managed to compile the entire runtime system including the
interpreter, the assembler, and the compiler itself.
So, at that point, to compile ikarus from scratch, you first compile
a minimal runtime system and an interpreter to C, then you use the
interpreter to load the assembler and compiler (and some additional
runtime that I could not compile), then you use the interpreted
compiler to compile the run-time and assembler and compiler and some
startup code (initialization), then you execute the initialization
and lo and behold, you’re running in the compiler!
IIRC, this process (if successful) took at least an hour, so, I was
not eager to do it frequently, and this is why I “invented” saved
code: so that I can compile everything, and save the initialization
code along with everything reachable from it and so that next time,
I can just load it and be immediately in the compiler.
Notice that running in the compiler was not (semantically) different
from running in the interpreter: it was only much faster since you
are not being interpreted by a poorly-written interpreter that was
compiled poorly to C. So, bootstrapping was now much faster since
I can load the already compiled system, compile everything, then
save the system. As that got more reliable, the interpreter and
Scheme->C compiler were not being used for anything other than for
loading and jumping to the pre-compiled code, so, I wrote a little
piece of C code that does just that and threw the rest away! At
the end, bootstrap time became 20~40 seconds on the 800MHz iBook
down from an hour or so. It was finally good times.
And that’s how that incarnation of ikarus was born.

— Aziz

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