Tristan Hume

Github Resume + Project List Blog

Writing a Compiler in Rust

18 April 2019

During my final term at UWaterloo I took the CS444 compilers class with a project to write a compiler from a substantial subset of Java to x86, with a language and two teammates of your choice. My group of three chose to write our compiler in Rust and it was a fun experience. We spent time coming to design decisions that worked out really well and used Rust’s strengths. Our compiler ended up being around 6800 lines of Rust and I personally put in around 60 hours of solid coding and more on code review and design. In this post I’ll go over some of the design decisions we made and some thoughts on what it was like using Rust.

Lexing and Parsing

The lectures for the course recommended writing an NFA to DFA compiler to implement the lexer, and writing an LR(1) parser generator for the parser, then having a separate “weeding” pass to construct a final AST (Abstract Syntax Tree) and validate it in various ways.

I suggested that we should try using a hand-written lexer and recursive descent parser instead, and my teammates agreed. A recursive descent parser allowed us to put all the code to parse, validate, and create the AST node in one place. We figured writing a pass to rewrite and validate the raw parse tree into a strongly typed AST would be about as much code as a recursive descent parser, except with the additional work of having to implement an LR(1) parser generator.

The AST we produced made good use of Rust’s type system, including extensive use of enum sum types to handle variants of types, expressions and statements. We also used Option and Vec extensively, as well as Box to allow type recursion. Our AST types looked like this:

// We preserve source span information using a `Spanned` struct
pub type Type = Spanned<TypeKind>;

#[derive(Clone, Debug, PartialEq, Eq, Hash)]
pub enum TypeKind {
    // ...

// ...

#[derive(Clone, Debug)]
pub struct InterfaceDecl {
    pub name: String,
    pub extends: Vec<TypeRef>,
    pub methods: Vec<Signature>,

We produced this using a Parser struct with functions for parsing different constructs that could also return parse errors. The Parser struct had a number of helper functions to easily consume and inspect tokens, using the power of abstraction present in a full programming language to get closer to the brevity of a parser generator grammar DSL. Here’s an example of what our parser looked like:

#[derive(Clone, Debug)]
pub enum ParseError {
    // ...

pub struct Parser<'a> {
    tokens: &'a [SpannedToken],
    pos: usize,

// ...

fn parse_for_statement(&mut self) -> PResult<ForStatement> {;;
    let init = self.parse_unless_and_eat(Token::Semicolon, Self::parse_for_init)?;
    let condition = self.parse_unless_and_eat(Token::Semicolon, Self::parse_expr)?;
    let update = self.parse_unless_and_eat(Token::RParen, Self::parse_statement_expr)?;
    let body = self.parse_statement()?;
    Ok(ForStatement { init, condition, update, body })

// ...


Mostly our parser takes the form of an LL(1) parser, which looks ahead one token to decide how it should parse. But some constructs require unlimited lookahead to parse. For example (java.lang.String)a should parse as a parenthesized field access chain on the ‘java’ variable except for the a at the end, which makes it a cast expression. In fact even LR(1) parsers can’t parse this specific case properly, and the recommended hack is to parse the inside of the parens as an “expression” and then just validate in the weeder that the expression is actually a type.

We solve this problem using backtracking, which is where we can save a position in the token stream, speculatively parse the following input as one construct, and then roll back to that saved position if that parsing fails. This can cause non-linear parse times on pathological input, but pathological cases don’t occur non-maliciously in practice, especially if backtracking is only used in some situations rather than for the whole parser.

An alternative strategy to backtracking that works in some situations is to parse the common elements of both nonterminals that could follow, then once the parser reaches the point where it can decide, it calls the specific non-terminal function passing what has been parsed so far as arguments. We use this strategy for deciding between parsing classes and interfaces and between parsing methods and constructors, by parsing the modifiers first, then looking ahead, then parsing the rest passing the parsed modifiers as arguments.

We have Rust helper functions that make backtracking really easy by trying one parse and then trying another if the first parse returns an Err:

// Unlike the Java spec, we can have arguments like `allow_minus` to avoid
// massive duplication in the case of minor special cases.
// `allow_minus` makes sure `(a)-b` parses as `int-int` rather than `(Type)(-int)`
fn parse_prim_expr(&mut self, allow_minus: AllowMinus) -> PResult<Box<Expr>> {
    let cur = &self.tokens[self.pos];
    let mut lhs = match &cur.tok {
        Token::LParen => self.one_of(Self::parse_cast_expr, Self::parse_paren_expr),
        // ...
    // ...

Pratt expression parsing

Instead of parsing expressions with precedence using many grammar levels, we use a Pratt parsing / precedence climbing system. This algorithm allows specifying the operators as a table with a “binding power” integer, with higher binding power for operators with higher precedence. This is both easier and more efficient for parsing expressions with many levels of precedence.

Instead of using data tables like in the canonical Pratt parser implementation, we used Rust functions with match statements, which fill the same purpose but with more power and no need to keep a data structure around:

fn binding_power(cur: &SpannedToken) -> Option<u8> {
    match &cur.tok {
        Token::Operator(op) => match op {
            Op::Times | Op::Divide | Op::Modulo => Some(12),
            Op::Plus | Op::Minus => Some(11),
            Op::Greater | Op::GreaterEqual | Op::Less | Op::LessEqual => Some(9),
            Op::Equal | Op::NotEqual => Some(8),
            Op::And => Some(7),
            // ...
        Token::Instanceof => Some(9),
        _ => None,

Snapshot testing

Starting when we did our parser and continuing for the rest of our compiler, we made extensive use of snapshot testing with the insta crate. Snapshot testing (similar to expect tests) allows you to write tests which just provide the resulting data structure of some process and the testing system will create a “snapshot” of the result of that test in a file, and if the result ever changes it will cause a test failure and show you the diff between the snapshot file and the result it got. If the change was expected, you can then run a command to update the snapshot files that changed.

This was super useful for writing our parser, before we could parse full files and do anything with them, we could parse short snippets into AST types implementing the Rust Debug trait, and insta would create pretty-printed snapshots that we could inspect for correctness, and then commit to check for future regressions.

fn test_statement() {
    let mut lexer = file_lexer("testdata/");
    let tokens = lexer.lex_all().unwrap();
    let mut parser = Parser::create(&tokens);

    let statement = parser.parse_statement();
    assert_debug_snapshot_matches!("statements", statement);

Later during the code generation phase we used this extensively to check our assembly output on test programs.

Semantic analysis

About half of our compiler is in the middle-end passes which compute information necessary for code generation and verify various correctness properties. This includes:

Visitor infrastructure

Most of the passes in the middle of our compiler only care about certain AST nodes, but need to act on those nodes anywhere they might occur in the AST. One way to do this would be to pattern match through the whole AST in every patch, but there’s a lot of nodes so that would involve a lot of duplication.

Instead we have a Visitor trait (like an interface in other languages) which can be implemented by a compiler pass. It has callbacks only for the events we actually need, which can run code at various points in the traversal of the AST, as well as modify the AST in place. All the callbacks have default implementations that do nothing so that passes only need to implement the methods they need.

// We use a dynamic error type here so we don't have to make the visitor generic and
// instantiate it a bunch for every error type
pub type VResult = Result<(), Box<std::error::Error>>;

pub trait Visitor {
    // used for resolving variable references
    fn visit_var_ref(&mut self, _t: &mut VarRef) -> VResult {

    fn start_method(&mut self, _t: &mut Method) -> VResult {

    // `finish_` methods get passed the result of traversing their body so that they
    // can wrap errors to provide better location information
    fn finish_method(&mut self, _t: &mut Method, res: VResult) -> VResult {

    // like a `finish_` method except it doesn't need the result
    fn post_expr(&mut self, _t: &mut Expr) -> VResult {

    // ... a bunch of other methods

Passes that implement Visitor are driven by dynamically dispatched calls from the Visitable trait, which is implemented by every AST node and traverses the whole tree in evaluation order. A cool Rust feature we make good use of is “blanket impls” which make the logic for handling AST children that are in containers clean and uniform.

pub trait Visitable {
    fn visit(&mut self, v: &mut dyn Visitor) -> VResult;

impl<T: Visitable> Visitable for Vec<T> {
    fn visit(&mut self, v: &mut dyn Visitor) -> VResult {
        for t in self {

// ... other blanket impls for Option<T> and Box<T>

impl Visitable for TypeKind {
    fn visit(&mut self, v: &mut dyn Visitor) -> VResult {
        match self {
            TypeKind::Array(t) => t.visit(v)?,
            TypeKind::Ref(t) => t.visit(v)?,
            _ => (),

impl Visitable for ForStatement {
    fn visit(&mut self, v: &mut dyn Visitor) -> VResult {
        // closure allows us to use ? to combine results
        let res = (|| {
        v.finish_for_statement(self, res)

// ... many other Visitable implementations

This made a lot of our passes much easier. For example constant folding just overrides the post_expr method, checks if the children of an expression are constants and if so uses mem::replace to replace the node with a constant.

Resolving names

One discussion we had is how to handle resolving type and variable names. The most obvious way was doing so by mutating the AST using an Option field that’s initially None. However our functional programmer instincts felt icky about this so we tried to think of a better way. Using an optional field also had the problem that we knew by the code generation phase that all variables would be resolved but the type system would still think they could be None so we’d need to unwrap() them every time we wanted to access them.

We first considered using a side table where we’d give every named reference an ID or hash it, then have a map from ID to resolved location that we created during the resolution stage. But we didn’t like how this would make debugging harder since we could no longer just print out our AST types with Debug to see all their information including resolutions. It also would require passing around quite a few side tables and doing lots of lookups in them by the later stages. It didn’t even solve the need for unwrap since the table access could theoretically not find the corresponding element.

Next we considered making all of our AST types generic with an annotation type parameter that started out as () but changed as the AST progressed through stages where it gained more info. The main problem with this is that each pass would need to re-build the entire AST, which would make easy visitor infrastructure much harder. Maybe if Rust had something like an automatically derivable Functor implementation it wouldn’t have been bad, but barring that it would need a lot of boilerplate. There were also multiple things we needed to annotate at various stages necessitating many parameters, and a lot of AST types, which would require a lot of refactoring our AST and parser to add a multitude of parameters.

So instead we just bit the bullet and used Option type fields, and I think it worked out well. We implemented a nice Reference<T, R> generic that had a raw and resolved field. We used it for both variable and type references. It had Hash and PartialEq implementations that only looked at the resolved value because that’s what mattered for data structures in later passes. It also had a special Debug implementation that made the output in snapshot tests nicer:

impl<T: fmt::Debug, R: fmt::Debug> fmt::Debug for Reference<T, R> {
    fn fmt(&self, f: &mut fmt::Formatter) -> fmt::Result {
        if let Some(r) = &self.resolved {
            write!(f, "{:#?} => {:#?}", self.raw, r)
        } else {
            write!(f, "{:?}", self.raw) // only print the raw if not resolved yet

Reference counting

In a number of different places, especially the class hierarchy checking and type checking phases, a lot of things needed to have the same pieces of information propagated to them. For example types bubbling up an expression or inherited methods bubbling down a tree. In a language like Java we’d just have multiple references to the same object, but in Rust for ownership reasons we couldn’t do that straightforwardly. We started out in some places by cloneing things which worked fine, but I realized I could just switch everything to use Rc to allow sharing.

I had an interesting moment where I thought “man it sucks that this code has to do all this reference count manipulation, that’s unnecessarily slow, maybe I should refactor this to use an arena or something”. Then I realized that if I had been writing in Swift I wouldn’t have given this a second thought because everything would be ref-counted, and even worse than the Rust version, atomically ref-counted. Writing code in Rust makes me feel like I have an obligation to make code as fast as possible in a way other languages don’t, just by surfacing the costs better. Sometimes I need to remind myself that actually it’s fast enough already.

Code Generation

The course requires that we generate textual NASM x86 assembly files. Given that we only need to output to those, we decided we didn’t need an intermediate abstraction for generating assembly, and our code generation stage could just use Rust string formatting. This would make our code simpler, easier and also allow us to more easily include comments in the generated assembly.

The fact that we preserved source span information through our whole compiler and could generate comments came in handy because we could output comments containing the source expression/statement location for every single generated piece of code. This made it much easier to track down exactly which piece of code was causing a bug.

A somewhat annoying Rust thing we ran into is that we could find two easy ways of formatting to a string, both of which had an issue:

let mut s = String::new();
// Requires a Result return type or unwrap, even though it won't ever fail.
// Generates a bunch of garbage error handling LLVM needs to optimize out.
writeln!(s, "mov eax, {}", val)?;
// Allocates an intermediate String which it then immediately frees
s.push_str(format!("mov eax, {}", val));

My two teammates worked on the initial stages of code generation in parallel and each of them chose a different fork of this tradeoff, and by that close to the end of the course our consistency standards had relaxed, so our code generation has both.


Our compiler was supposed to output Linux ELF binaries and link to a runtime that made Linux syscalls. However, our entire team used macOS. Rewriting the runtime for macOS would have been somewhat annoying since syscalls aren’t always as easy and well documented on macOS as Linux. It also would have added an annoying delay to running our tests and made the harness more complex if we had to scp the binaries to a Linux server or VM.

I remembered that my internet friend had written a cool tool called usercorn that used the Unicorn CPU emulator plus some fanciness to run Linux binaries on macOS as if they were normal macOS binaries (or vice versa and a bunch of other things). It was straightforward to build a self-contained version that I could check into our repository and use in our tests to run our binaries. My teammate then got together a macOS build of ld that could link Linux ELF binaries and included it.

We could also use usercorn to output a trace of all the instructions executed and registers modified by our programs, and this came in handy quite a few times for debugging our code generation.

I ran into one problem where a test program that did a lot of allocation was 1000x slower under usercorn than on a real Linux server. Luckily I knew the author and I just sent him the offending binary and he quickly figured it was due to an inefficient implementation of the brk syscall which reasonable programs don’t use for every single memory allocation like the runtime the course provided did. He quickly figured out how to make it more efficient and pushed a fix later that evening which solved my problem. He’s pretty awesome, subscribe to his Patreon!

I then shared our pre-compiled bundle of usercorn and ld (with the bug fix for the assignment tests) with a few other teams I knew who used macOS so they could have an easier time testing as well.


Overall I’m proud of how our compiler turned out. It was a fun project and my teammates were excellent. I also think Rust ended up being a good choice of implementation language, especially the powerful enums and pattern matching. The main downsides of Rust were the long compile times (although apparently comparable to a group that did their compiler in C++), and the fact that sometimes we had to do somewhat more work to satisfy the borrow checker.

One of the most interesting learning experiences from the project was when afterwards I talked to some other teams and got to compare what it was like to do the same project in different languages and with different design decisions. I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post!

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