Ekaitz's tech blog:
I make stuff at ElenQ Technology and I talk about it

Milestone – RISC-V support in Mes’s bootstrappable TinyCC

From the series: Bootstrapping GCC in RISC-V

In the series we already introduced GCC, TinyCC, Mes and Mes’s TinyCC fork that is designed to be bootstrappable. In this post we are going to deal with the latter, explain how we made it work for RISC-V and the challenges we encountered.

The non-bootstrappable nature of TinyCC

As we introduced in the previous post TinyCC is not compilable from very simple compilers like Mes’s mescc. So the Mes project decided to make a fork that mescc was able to compile. Mes calls it a bootstrappable tinycc.

There’s a in uninteresting philosophical debate about what does bootstrappable mean, which leads to many errors and misunderstandings1. Many compilers call themselves bootstrappable if they can be compiled with themselves. When we talk about this, we are looking for a full-source bootstrappability, that is, that the compilers can be compiled from source, or from a full-source bootstrappable compiler.

TinyCC is supposed to be compilable by itself, but who compiles the version that compiles TinyCC? Another TinyCC? And who compiles that?

The yogurt problem we always get: how do you make yogurt? Take yogurt, mix with milk and in some hours you’ll get yogurt. See the problem?

If you are a culinary maniac, as I am, you can stretch this metaphor further. If you know what you are doing, you can obtain yogurt from raw milk2.

That’s what our project is doing: make yogurt from raw milk at some point.

So the compilers normally only care about the latest yogurt, but, we, the saviors of the ancient milk, those who can acidify the raw pureness, can make yogurt starter with raw milk.

That’s the kind of magic nobody cares about, not in the compiler world nor in the real life.

The yogurt starter does not make the best yogurt, by the way, it needs generations and generations of yogurts to make the best. That’s what our project does: start simple (stage-0 and Mes) and go enriching the product (TinyCC) until reaching a mature yogurt (GCC).

TinyCC does not really care about this bootstrappability concept. They only want to be compilable with themselves. Nothing else.

That’s why Jan, the inventor of this metaphor I just stretched to the infinite, had to fork the project. He had another choice: simplify TinyCC’s code upstream to be able to be compiled from a simpler step, but his ideas were rejected and some weird animosity I don’t understand started. More on that later.

The RISC-V support

When the previous blogpost was written, TinyCC had a RV64 backend, but the TinyCC fork did not have RISC-V support.

My job here was to take the backend from the official TinyCC and bring it to the bootstrappable one, Jan’s fork. I can say that is done. Good for me.

The process

I followed the cross-compiler trick again, in order to make this process easier in my computer and because Mes doesn’t support RISC-V output yet. Making a TinyCC for my x86_64 machine that had RISC-V output sounded more than reasonable to me. Later I could always move to a full RISC-V machine making sure that the backend was working.

So first I made a guix package for upstream TinyCC cross-compiler (for RISC-V) with GCC. This wasn’t really obvious, because there were some variables to set correctly. Tested everything compiled and worked like expected. Apart from a couple of issues later corrected upstream, it did.

Next, I made a guix package for the forked TinyCC with GCC. This also needed some changes, as the forked one is a quite old version of TinyCC. The process needs here a libtcc1.a that can be empty if the process is compiled with GCC (libgcc provides that functionality) but the compilation process doesn’t mention anything about this, and coming up with that by yourself is hard.

Now the project was compilable, it was time to code. You can see this part in the riscv-mes branch:


I took the backend from the upstream and inserted it in the fork. Of course, it didn’t compile. Many internal structures and APIs changed, so after trying to stitch all together myself, I headed to the Mailing List. At the beginning I wanted to think the answers I was getting were because I wasn’t explaining my doubts properly or something but what it was happening was that the animosity towards our fork (decision I didn’t take) appeared and someone tried to ridicule me in the mailing list for no reason at all.

The funny thing is I’d never needed to contact the mailing list if the project was as well written as they claim it to be. It’s full of functions and variables with one character, the code is mixed together in a very aggressive way… It’s supersmall, tiny even, but really hard to read. Also, the commits are not very descriptive for anyone that is not the main maintainer, who, surprise! Is the same person that gives aggressive answers in the mailing list… I hope it’s only my perception and they are nice with his friends and family, but the interaction made me feel uncomfortable and I don’t want to touch this code again.

It was a sad moment, I must admit. But I decided I was going to do this with help or without it. And I think I did it. Removed references here and there and finally it looks like I reached somewhere.

There are some differences to point out, one of the commits that made me ask in the mailing list was a huge change on the way that conditionals are handled in TinyCC. Our fork didn’t have that so I needed to split the code in several pieces and the benefits from that commit (some instruction optimization) are lost in the backport. Still the branching and jumping is correct, but less optimal. Not bad.

Code added and compiled, it was time for testing. I made a little script (I didn’t share that, but it’s not really relevant either) and a small test case of simple C files and compiled (not linked) them with the upstream version of the compiler and the forked one. Disassembled them and compared differences.

You can try it building the upstream TinyCC and the fork and make them compile (-c) a some files. Use objdump --dissassemble and see the results. It’s not really hard to test. Here you have an example of a program you can build:

// Example file to build
int main (int argc, char *argv[]){
    int a = 19, b = 90;
    if (a && b){
        return 1;
    } else {
        return 45 + 90 << 8;

And the result it should give in both versions, optimized (upstream) and unoptimized (our fork):

OPTIMIZED VERSION                              || UNOPTIMIZED VERSION
0000000000000000 <main>:                       || 0000000000000000 <main>:
   0:   fd010113    addi    sp,sp,-48          ||    0: fd010113    addi    sp,sp,-48
   4:   02113423    sd  ra,40(sp)              ||    4: 02113423    sd  ra,40(sp)
   8:   02813023    sd  s0,32(sp)              ||    8: 02813023    sd  s0,32(sp)
   c:   03010413    addi    s0,sp,48           ||    c: 03010413    addi    s0,sp,48
  10:   00000013    nop                        ||   10: 00000013    nop
  14:   fea43423    sd  a0,-24(s0)             ||   14: fea43423    sd  a0,-24(s0)
  18:   feb43023    sd  a1,-32(s0)             ||   18: feb43023    sd  a1,-32(s0)
  1c:   0130051b    addiw   a0,zero,19         ||   1c: 0130051b    addiw   a0,zero,19
  20:   fca42e23    sw  a0,-36(s0)             ||   20: fca42e23    sw  a0,-36(s0)
  24:   05a0051b    addiw   a0,zero,90         ||   24: 05a0051b    addiw   a0,zero,90
  28:   fca42c23    sw  a0,-40(s0)             ||   28: fca42c23    sw  a0,-40(s0)
  2c:   fdc42503    lw  a0,-36(s0)             ||   2c: fdc42503    lw  a0,-36(s0)
  30:   00051463    bnez    a0,38 <main+0x38>  ||   30: 00051463    bnez    a0,38 <main+0x38>
  34:   0180006f    j   4c <main+0x4c>         ||   34: 01c0006f    j   50 <main+0x50>
  38:   fd842503    lw  a0,-40(s0)             ||   38: fd842503    lw  a0,-40(s0)
  3c:   00051463    bnez    a0,44 <main+0x44>  ||   3c: 00051463    bnez    a0,44 <main+0x44>
  40:   00c0006f    j   4c <main+0x4c>         ||   40: 0100006f    j   50 <main+0x50>
  44:   0010051b    addiw   a0,zero,1          ||   44: 0010051b    addiw   a0,zero,1
  48:   0100006f    j   58 <main+0x58>         ||   48: 0140006f    j   5c <main+0x5c>
  4c:   00008537    lui a0,0x8                 ||   4c: 0100006f    j   5c <main+0x5c>
  50:   7005051b    addiw   a0,a0,1792         ||   50: 00008537    lui a0,0x8
  54:   00000033    add zero,zero,zero         ||   54: 7005051b    addiw   a0,a0,1792
  58:   02813083    ld  ra,40(sp)              ||   58: 00000033    add zero,zero,zero
  5c:   02013403    ld  s0,32(sp)              ||   5c: 02813083    ld  ra,40(sp)
  60:   03010113    addi    sp,sp,48           ||   60: 02013403    ld  s0,32(sp)
  64:   00008067    ret                        ||   64: 03010113    addi    sp,sp,48
                                               ||   68: 00008067    ret

In the right you can see there are some j instructions duplicated, but it’s not supposed to be a problem, as the rest of the addresses are calculated properly, and they are never going to be reached.

Last step

So the code is added to the fork and it seems to work. That’s what I promised to do, but I wanted to go a little bit further and test if Mes was able to handle the code I added to the TinyCC fork.

In order to do that I made another branch in the project where I changed the package and some configuration in order to compile the forked TinyCC using Mes.

You can see what I did here:


Turns out that I managed to build the thing, using Mes for my x86_64 machine choosing RISC-V as the backend, but it doesn’t work at all.

The resulting compiler generates empty files that have no permissions and fails instantly.

At least we tested that mescc is ok with the C constructs we used in the backport of the RISC-V support. But there are still many things to test and this isn’t easy at all.

Let me give you some examples on how tricky this process is.

This line in the guix.scm file3:

    "--extra-cflags=-Dinline= -DONE_SOURCE=1"

Does two crazy preprocessor tricks, inserted as C flags. It’s equivalent to adding these macros in the top level of the sources:

#define inline 
#define ONE_SOURCE 1

The first one removes the word inline from the source code, because mescc does not support that. The second, defines ONE_SOURCE to a value because if it’s only defined, without a value, like the makefile does by default, it is not matched properly by de #ifdefs. Finding this is not obvious.

That’s of course not the only thing, we found out many others. I spent a couple of weeks making the building process work for mescc and when I thought it was working the result is a broken binary. Pretty fun.

And why all this trouble, you might think?

Jan’s fork is not compiled using the configure and the Makefile the project comes with, he wrote some shell scripts to build everything. I wanted to try to build the project directly as it came for several reasons: the scripts are prepared for native compilers and not for the cross compiler I was building, they use Mes from source but I just needed to use the upstream one and I thought integrating all this in the normal building process would be an extra win.

I lost this time though.

The compilation process might be missing some libraries, or some stubs might be in use instead of the real code… Maybe the problem is I’m using the x86_64 version of Mes, which is not thoroughly tested… But using the i386 version is not possible because I’m building for 64bit RISC-V and the i386 doesn’t know how to deal with 64 bit words… Honestly, I don’t know what to do.

Something cool to say

Mes does not compile following the classic process. Mes is integrated with some tools from the stage-0 project so it uses the M1 macro system, hex0 and all that kind of things to build the programs.

During the process I found that some of the M1 instructions Mes was generating were not available by M1, so I had to add a few extra instructions to the M1 macro definitions for Mes. Here’s the diff (a little bit simplified) I had to make:

diff --git a/lib/x86_64-mes/x86_64.M1 b/lib/x86_64-mes/x86_64.M1
index 9ffbbf15..64997c55 100644
--- a/lib/x86_64-mes/x86_64.M1
+++ b/lib/x86_64-mes/x86_64.M1
@@ -147,6 +148,10 @@ DEFINE mov____0x8(%rbp),%rsp 488b65
 DEFINE mov____0x8(%rdi),%rax 488b47
 DEFINE mov____0x8(%rdi),%rbp 488b6f
 DEFINE mov____0x8(%rdi),%rsp 488b67
+DEFINE mov____(%rax),%si 668b30
+DEFINE mov____(%rax),%sil 408a30
+DEFINE mov____%si,(%rdi) 668937
+DEFINE mov____%sil,(%rdi) 448837
 DEFINE movl___%eax,0x32 890425
 DEFINE movl___%edi,0x32 893c25
 DEFINE movl___%esi,(%rdi) 8937

base-commit: aa5f1533e1736a89e60d2c34c2a0ab3b01f8d037

Now, with those instructions added, my package got a little bit more complex: I had to extend the Mes package with my patch until that change is accepted upstream. But this is great! Using software and improving it while you use it is the best feeling in life!4

Let me use this point to show you a little bit how this macro system works. You can see this x86_64.M1 file has three columns: DEFINE, some text, and some number in hex. This is kind of an assembler description. There’s the M1 program that receives a file written with instructions that look like the text in the second column in the .M1 file and converts them one by one to the numbers in the third. In short, the .M1 file is a reference that tells the M1 program how to do the conversion.

M1 is just a text replacement tool that makes the conversion based on the input file it gets from the .M1 file. It helps us write instructions in a way that looks like they have a meaning (that’s what an assembler is after all).

Later, those numbers are converted to binary, using Hex0 or another a little bit more sophisticated tool.

All these tools are written in a way that can be audited (Hex0 is written in Hex0…) and they are executed from source at their very beginning.

This is how we make yogurt directly from milk. Cool huh? Props to http://bootstrappable.org/


Back to the project, considering the fact that I didn’t manage to build a fully working TinyCC with a RISC-V backend using Mes, is this a failure?

I wouldn’t say so.

The new RISC-V backend is added and tested in the forked TinyCC, using GCC as a compiler. That’s a big chunk of the work.

On the other hand, I can compile the forked TinyCC with mescc even if the result didn’t work, I can say the code I added was processed so it was technically acceptable for mescc. Not bad, but we’ll still need to see how true is this.

In the end, these kind of small steps make progress, and having everything documented here and in the commits on the git repositories help others continue with what I just did.

Now, I’m going to leave this as finished, as the code is supposed to work. All the dots are more or less drawn. Now it’s time for another project, one that connects all the dots of the RISC-V full source bootstrap: from mescc (already has some RISC-V support) to the forked TinyCC (I added the RISC-V support), next to the mainline TinyCC (has RISC-V support) or/and GCC 4.6.4 (I added RISC-V support) and from one of those to GCC 7.5 (the first one with RISC-V support) and then to the world.

My work in this project left all the breadcrumbs in the forest, ready for anyone to follow5.

That person can be me, anyone else or even a group of people. All I can say is I won’t forget this project, I’ll always be reachable for advice and I’d try to help as much as I can. As I always do.

These days I’ll continue to give a couple of tries to this and I may reach something else, but I won’t be as busy on it as I’ve been. I think I gave everything I could in this project. There’s still a lot to do, but what it’s left is not something I can do alone.

Until next time.

  1. I’ve reached many misunderstandings about my project too. Some people have told me all this work is worthless because you can always bootstrap from an x86_64 machine and then continue the bootstrapping effort in your RISC-V. And so on. That’s why this blog doesn’t have a comment section. People insist to believe that other people’s work is worthless or they are able to do it simpler with no effort. I won’t claim that my explanations are the best, but I can claim to be the laziest person I know, and I’d never spent time in something that doesn’t worth the effort. 

  2. With kefir you are fucked. We don’t know where it comes from. Luckily we harvested a lot and it’s easy to grow. 

  3. https://github.com/ekaitz-zarraga/tcc/blob/mes-package/guix.scm#L196 

  4. Chocolate and hot coffee too. 

  5. I hope someone follows them before the birds eat them.