Harlan Haskins

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Building a Compiler in Swift with LLVM, Part 3: Code Generation to LLVM IR

If you've gotten this far in the tutorial, then you'll have built a Lexer and Parser for the Kaleidoscope programming language. If you haven't read those, I'd strongly recommend reading Part 1 and Part 2 first. This time we'll be turning this parser into a proper compiler by turning the parsed code into LLVM Intermediate Representation (LLVM IR).

This is the third part in a 4-part series where we'll build a compiler for the basic form of the Kaleidoscope sample language.

Quick Links

How does LLVM IR Work?

LLVM IR is a high-level assembly language with a suite of backends that can generate machine code for many different target architectures. High-level assembly language, while oxymoronic, means that LLVM is semantically similar to assembly while adding higher-level abstractions. These abstractions make it possible to generate code without having to consider things like calling conventions, nuances of pointer arithmetic, register allocation, and stack management.

IR is also strongly typed, which means you can think about structured types and don't have to worry much about manipulating raw data and thinking in terms of bits and bytes.

IR is represented in Static Single Assignment form, which means that programs have access to an infinite number of "registers" that can only be assigned once. Consider the tree-shaped Kaleidoscope AST:

indirect enum Expr {
    case number(Double)
    case variable(String)
    case binary(Expr, BinaryOperator, Expr)
    case call(String, [Expr])
    case ifelse(Expr, Expr, Expr)

Notice that .binary has two Exprs inside it, as subexpressions. We'd say that a binary operator has two dependencies that must be generated before we can generate the necessary code for the operator itself. So to generate a binary operator expression, we generate the code for the left-hand side, then the right-hand side. Then we can use the values in each of those new registers as the parameters to the math instruction.

Generating IR in Swift

Almost all of the LLVM project is implemented in C++, including all the libraries and APIs. Unfortunately, Swift does not interoperate directly with C++ like it does Objective-C. Because many more languages can interoperate with C than C++, the LLVM project includes a comprehensive set of C bindings into the LLVM libraries.

However, as with any C interop, it's cumbersome and easy to introduce subtle bugs from Swift. Using the C API, you frequently have to make use of the UnsafeMutableBufferPointer APIs, which (while convenient) are less than ideal:

let function = LLVMGetNamedFunction(module, "puts")
var args = [/* ... llvm values ... */]
args.withUnsafeMutableBufferPointer { buf in
  LLVMBuildCall(builder, function, buf.baseAddress, UInt32(buf.count), "")

Fortunately, I've been working on a library that wraps the LLVM API in a much more friendly, Swifty interface. It does away with all the unsafe code and exposes native Swift types that represent the underlying LLVM types. It's called LLVMSwift.

Using LLVMSwift

Let's say we want to emit Hello, World as LLVM IR.

First, we want to create a Module. Think of an LLVM module as everything that would reside in a single .o file from clang or gcc. It includes all the function declarations, global variables, and metadata. You can give it whatever name you'd like.

import LLVM

let module = Module(name: "main")

Next, we'll want to make an IRBuilder that will handle generating all the individual IR statements, functions, and global variables. A builder builds code into a specific Module, so you need to create it with the particular module you just created.

let builder = IRBuilder(module: module)

Now you're ready to start adding functions.

let mainType = FunctionType(args: [],
                            returnType: VoidType())
let main = builder.addFunction("main",
                               type: mainType)

// declare void @main()

In this case, main is a reference to an LLVM Function. You can pass this Function object into the IRBuilder's buildCall method to build a call instruction.


A Function is comprised of one or more BasicBlocks. A BasicBlock is a grouping of instructions that has an entry point that an instruction can jump to. Consider this assembly code:

        # assume we've just executed a syscall

        # copy the return value of the syscall
        move $t0, $v0

        # if $t0 == 0, jump to is_zero, otherwise to is_one
        beq $t0, $zero, is_zero

        # This will only be executed if the result of the syscall is not zero
        j end

        # This will only be executed if the result of the syscall is zero
        j end

        jr $ra

This example has four basic blocks: exec_syscall, is_not_zero, is_zero, and end. Every basic block in this example ends with a jump instruction that transfers execution to the basic block that's specified. This is not necessary in assembly, because if those don't end in a jump, they will just fall through to the next basic block. LLVM enforces that basic blocks must end in a terminator -- either a branch to another basic block, a return from the function, or something that will terminate the program. This helps ensure that the programmer always moves execution to the place they intend.

The first BasicBlock in an LLVM Function is special -- no other basic blocks are allowed to branch to it, and it is jumped to immediately upon execution of the function. This is called the entry block. Let's give our main an entry block and move the builder to the end of that block so it will start inserting instructions there:

let entry = main.appendBasicBlock(named: "entry")
builder.positionAtEnd(of: entry)

Now our LLVM looks like this:

; ModuleID = 'main'
source_filename = "main"

define void @main() {

Simple enough! Now we'll need to add a global string to store "Hello, world!\n", which is easy:

let helloWorld = builder.buildGlobalStringPtr(name: "hello-world",
                                              value: "Hello, world!\n")

Now there is a global variable called hello-world that looks like this in IR:

@hello-world = private unnamed_addr constant [15 x i8] c"Hello, world!\0A\00"

That \0A\00 at the end are hexadecimal ASCII character escapes for the newline and the NUL terminator, respectively.. The string is an Array of 15 i8s, or 8-bit integers.

Now we can use this global to build a call to puts, which takes a string and returns an i32.

let putsType = FunctionType(args: [PointerType(pointee: IntType.int8)],
                            returnType: IntType.int32)
let puts = builder.addFunction("puts", type: putsType)

Now we can build a call to puts with our global variable.

builder.buildCall(puts, args: [helloWorld])

We've built this call, and that's all we intend for this program to do. Because all basic blocks need to end in a terminator, then we need to build a ret instruction to finish the function.


Now the whole module looks like this:

; ModuleID = 'main'
source_filename = "main"

@hello-world = private unnamed_addr constant [15 x i8] c"Hello, world!\0A\00"

declare i32 @puts(i8*)

define void @main() {
  %0 = call i32 (i8*) @puts(i8* getelementptr inbounds ([15 x i8], [15 x i8]* @hello-world, i32 0, i32 0))
  ret void

And we're done! This is a full LLVM program that will print "Hello, world!" to stdout. You can verify this by saving it to a file, hello.ll, and using the command-line tool lli, the LLVM interpreter, to run this file:

lli hello.ll

Compiling Kaleidoscope to LLVM IR

Okay, now that you've been given a brief introduction to LLVM IR and the LLVMSwift library, we're ready to write the code generation pass for the Kaleidoscope compiler!

Remember what we said earlier -- that expressions are dependent on their subexpressions? This is important to how we think about code generation to LLVM IR. You'll want to have, at a minimum, one function that knows how to emit the appropriate code for each data structure in your AST.

Let's make another class to encapsulate all the code generation. Let's name it IRGenerator.

class IRGenerator {
    let module: Module
    let builder: IRBuilder
    let file: File

    init(file: File) {
        self.module = Module(name: "main")
        self.builder = IRBuilder(module: module)
        self.file = file


So far so good. Let's start with the simple case: emitting prototypes. Recall that a prototype is a function name and its arguments' names.

That's easy enough to create using the builder, so let's do that (comments inline.)

func emitPrototype(_ prototype: Prototype) -> Function {
    // If there is already a function with that name, then return
    // the existing function.
    if let function = module.function(named: prototype.name) {
        return function

    // Otherwise, construct a new function with same number of parameters
    // all of which are `double`s, returning a `double`.
    let argTypes = [IRType](repeating: FloatType.double,
                            count: prototype.params.count)
    let funcType = FunctionType(argTypes: argTypes,
                                returnType: FloatType.double)

    let function = builder.addFunction(prototype.name, type: funcType)

    // Set the names of all the parameters to the names we parsed
    for (var param, name) in zip(function.parameters, prototype.params) {
        param.name = name

    return function

Okay, so we can declare the existence of a function without giving it a body. This is all we need for extern declarations, which are represented as Prototypes.


Next, we'll write the code to generate an expression. This is going to be the most complicated, so I'll explain it in pieces. First, the signature:

func emitExpr(_ expr: Expr) throws -> IRValue

Next, we're going to switch over the cases. First, .number:

switch expr {
case .number(let value):
  return FloatType.double.constant(value)

Simple -- just make a constant value of FloatType.double, which is an LLVM built-in type.

Next, function calls. This is more interesting because it's the first time we've encountered something that could fail. What if the user called a function that didn't exist? What if the user called a function with the wrong number of arguments?

Note: Real compilers split the semantic analysis into a separate pass that happens before code generation. We're doing them together for brevity.

Well, this is where we should start defining some errors. We want an error for each case -- either the function doesn't exist, or it had an arity mismatch (arity meaning the number of arguments).

enum IRError: Error {
    case unknownFunction(String)
    case arityMismatch(String, expected: Int, got: Int)

We also need a way to look up a prototype from the list of prototypes in the File declaration. Add the following to the declaration of File:

private let prototypeMap: [String: Prototype]

func prototype(named: String) -> Prototype? {
    return prototypeMap[name]

This means that File will now keep track of a mapping of names to their corresponding prototypes. We can ask the File declaration for a prototype by name and then throw an error if the function didn't exist.

case .call(let name, let args):
    // Ask the module for a function with the same name.
    // If there wasn't one, then throw an error.
    guard let prototype = file.prototype(named: name) else {
        throw IRError.unknownFunction(name)
    // Now make sure the call has the same number of arguments as the
    // function itself. If not, throw the other error.
    guard prototype.params.count == args.count else {
        throw IRError.arityMismatch(name,
                                    expected: prototype.params.count,
                                    got: args.count)

    // Emit the function, or grab the existing function with that name
    let function = emitPrototype(prototype)

    // Emit all of the arguments from left to right
    let callArgs = try args.map(emitExpr)

    // Now build a call to that function.
    return builder.buildCall(function, args: callArgs)

We're making progress! There are two cases left: variables and binary operators.

There's another possible error here: What if we try to reference a variable that doesn't exist yet? Well, we'll need a way to keep track of the parameters of a function while we're emitting its expression. Let's add a new property to IRGenerator:

private var parameterValues = [String: IRValue]()

We'll populate this array later, once we're emitting code for functions. For now, assume this will be filled with the function's parameters that we can look up by name when we reference them.

Let's add another case to the error enum:

case unknownVariable(String)

Now we can emit the code for .variable declarations.

case .variable(let name):
    guard let param = parameterValues[name] else {
        throw IRError.unknownVariable(name)
    return param

Great! That was easy. If we didn't find the binding, then throw an error. Otherwise, return it.

Next we'll handle .ifelse expressions. These are interesting in that one of the cases of the if expression won't be executed. This means that we'll need to make some more BasicBlocks and jump to a specific one if the condition is true. Fortunately, LLVM's br instruction allows for a condition.

So we'll make a basic block for the true case, a basic block for the false case, and then a merge basic block that they'll both jump to once they're done.

In the merge block, we'll use what's called a PHI node in LLVM. A PHI node is a special instruction that changes its value based on where we came from.

So consider this PHI node:

%3 = phi double [ %1, %then ],
                [ %2, %else ]

You can read this as "if we just came from the block %then, then it'll have the value in %1. If you came from the block %else, then it'll have the value %2".

We'll make a phi node to combine the values from the two new blocks we'll create, like so:

case .ifelse(let cond, let thenExpr, let elseExpr):
  // Create a `not-equal` comparison
  let checkCond = builder.buildFCmp(try emitExpr(cond),

  // Create a basic block to execute in the true or false cases,
  // and a block to jump to after.
  let thenBB = builder.currentFunction!.appendBasicBlock(named: "then")
  let elseBB = builder.currentFunction!.appendBasicBlock(named: "else")
  let mergeBB = builder.currentFunction!.appendBasicBlock(named: "merge")

  // Create a conditional branch instruction that will branch to the
  // `then` block if the condition is true, and the `else` block if false.
  builder.buildCondBr(condition: checkCond, then: thenBB, else: elseBB)

  // Position the builder at the end of the `then` block and emit the expressions
  builder.positionAtEnd(of: thenBB)
  let thenVal = try emitExpr(thenExpr)

  // Do the same for the else block
  builder.positionAtEnd(of: elseBB)
  let elseVal = try emitExpr(elseExpr)

  // Move to the merge block
  builder.positionAtEnd(of: mergeBB)

  // Make a phi node of type double
  let phi = builder.buildPhi(FloatType.double)

  // Add the two incoming blocks to the phi node.
  phi.addIncoming([(thenVal, thenBB), (elseVal, elseBB)])

  return phi

The last expression type, .binary, is straightforward. Emit the code for the left-hand side, then the right-hand side. Once we do that, emit the instruction corresponding to the mathematical operation in the operator.

case let .binary(lhs, op, rhs):
    let lhsVal = try emitExpr(lhs)
    let rhsVal = try emitExpr(rhs)
    switch op {
    case .plus:
        return builder.buildAdd(lhsVal, rhsVal)
    case .minus:
        return builder.buildSub(lhsVal, rhsVal)
    case .divide:
        return builder.buildDiv(lhsVal, rhsVal)
    case .times:
        return builder.buildMul(lhsVal, rhsVal)
    case .mod:
        return builder.buildRem(lhsVal, rhsVal)

Now the last binary operator: equals. We'll make a floating-point comparison (fcmp) instruction, which will return an i1 (1-bit integer). Because values in Kaleidoscope need to be doubles, then we have to build an IntToFP instruction to convert the value to double.

    case .equals:
        let comparison = builder.buildFCmp(lhsVal, rhsVal,
        return builder.buildIntToFP(comparison,
                                    type: FloatType.double,
                                    signed: false)

And we're done with emitExpr()!


Now the last piece of the puzzle: Function definitions. Recall that a function is comprised of a prototype and a single expression for the body. We're going to need to do one special thing: populate the parameterValues with the parameters of this function: when we begin working with the function, register the parameters with the parameterValues. When you're done, remove them all!

func emitDefinition(_ definition: Definition) throws -> Function {
  // Lazily emit the function prototype
  let function = emitPrototype(definition.prototype)

  // Register each of the parameters' underlying LLVM values
  for (idx, arg) in definition.prototype.params.enumerated() {
    let param = function.parameter(at: idx)!
    parameterValues[arg] = param

  // Create the entry basic block
  let entryBlock = function.appendBasicBlock(named: "entry")
  builder.positionAtEnd(of: entryBlock)

  // Emit the underlying expression
  let expr = try emitExpr(definition.expr)

  // Build a return of the expression

  // Now remove the parameter values.

  return function

Wrapping It All Together

A binary file isn't actually executable unless we have a main function. Our main function will just execute each file-level expression and print its value. To do that, we'll loop through all the expressions and make a call to printf with the format string "%f\n".

func emitPrintf() -> Function {
  if let function = module.function(named: "printf") { return function }

    // Printf's C type is `int printf(char *, ...)`
  let printfType = FunctionType(argTypes: [PointerType(pointee: IntType.int8)],
                                returnType: IntType.int32,
                                isVarArg: true)

  // Add a declaration of printf
  return builder.addFunction("printf", type: printfType)

func emitMain() throws {
  // Our main function will take no arguments and return void.
  let mainType = FunctionType(argTypes: [], returnType: VoidType())
  let function = builder.addFunction("main", type: mainType)

  // Make an entry block
  let entry = function.appendBasicBlock(named: "entry")
  builder.positionAtEnd(of: entry)

  // Make a global string containing the format string
  let formatString = builder.buildGlobalStringPtr("%f\n")
  let printf = emitPrintf()

  // Emit each expression along with a call to printf with that
  // format string.
  for expr in file.expressions {
    let val = try emitExpr(expr)
    builder.buildCall(printf, args: [formatString, val])

  // Return void

The last thing we need is have one more function to emit everything declared at file level. Let's make a function that just emits all extern definitions, function definitions, and the main function:

func emit() throws {
  for extern in file.externs {
  for definition in file.definitions {
    try emitDefinition(definition)
  try emitMain()

And that's it! We've just built a compiler that can lex, parse, and compile any Kaleidoscope program!

Let's write a small main.swift that will read a file from disk and compile it!

import Foundation

guard CommandLine.arguments.count > 1 else {
    print("usage: Kaleidoscope <file>")

do {
    let file = try String(contentsOfFile: CommandLine.arguments[1])
    let lexer = Lexer(input: file)
    let parser = Parser(tokens: lexer.lex())
    let file = try parser.parseFile()
    let irGen = IRGenerator(file: file)
    try irGen.emit()
    try irGen.module.verify()
} catch {
    print("error: \(error)")

It works! We can see the IR that's emitted for any valid Kaleidoscope program we write.

In Part 4, we're going to built a Just-In-Time compiler using LLVM's JIT that allows you to execute Kaleidoscope programs from a REPL.

Code Listing

The code for this depends on LLVMSwift, so we cannot link it in a single gist. It's available as a Swift Package Manager project on GitHub here.