a new contract for reference types

John Rose john.r.rose at oracle.com
Wed May 1 22:29:45 UTC 2019

On May 1, 2019, at 7:39 AM, Brian Goetz <brian.goetz at oracle.com> wrote:
> This is the point I’ve been failing to get across to Remi as well.  Suppose you have a big value, and you want a sparse ArrayList of that value?  You need a way to say “Arraylist of BigValue, but not flattened.”  And that’s a use-site concern.  ArrayList<BigValue?> gives you that.  
> Which is to say: the claim that V? is useless once we have reified generics is simply untrue.  

Uses of value type (and templates, after that) have a new
feature, not seen before on the JVM.  They pull information
from the definition (the class-file) and employ it at the use
site.  This fact has subtle and disruptive effects on our
JVM and user model.  I'll take a crack at explaining…

Today's types in the JVM are either hardwired primitives,
or else references.  The references do *not* pull information
from the definition, unless the operation specifically requests
it (via a resolution step, as in a `new` or `checkcast` instruction).
In many usages, our existing reference types work like forward
declarations in C:

    typedef struct Foo Foo; //"class Foo;" in C++
    extern Foo* makeFoo(const char* name);
    extern Foo* processFoo(Foo* arg);

I'll use the acronym *FDT* for "forward declared type".

Whole APIs can can be defined using such FDTs in C.  Eventually
somebody needs to make a Foo, but that can be in a small
subset of the application which actually loads a header file
that defines the body of `struct Foo`.

In physical terms, FDTs are obviously nullable because they
use an indirection pointer, which can assume a sentinel value.
This allows variables of FDT type (like `Foo*`) to be initialized
safely without the FDT's definition (such as a visible body for
`struct Foo`).

FDTs are not globally optimizable; at most they can be locally
optimized by rewriting a region of the program.  This applies
in general, and specifically to Java's reference types today.
Valhalla disrupts this state of affairs, in mostly good ways.

If you have an array of values for a FDT, you must have an array
of pointers.  It's impossible to secretly inline some of these arrays
because you are clever about knowing the source of them, except
in very limited case where local escape analysis lets you rewrite
the program secretly.  (Such technology has not been invented,
despite a half century of trying.  I'll call that "impossible" for short.)
Every mature OOL has a user switch to let the user choose,
non-secretly, whether to use an optimized representation or an
abstract one.  For Java, it's `int[]` vs. `Integer[]`.

It's not just arrays either.  If you want an optimized field, you
have to use a different contract than the FDTs.  For Java, it's
`int f` vs `Integer f`, with the definition of `int` hardwired
for your benefit.

The fact that Integer is a FDT at this point is invisible to users,
since it's built in (and in fact the JVM loads it really early).
But if you were to make a user defined primitive `uint`,
then suddenly you'd have to load the class-file for `uint`
before laying out a field of that type.  Or you'd have to
use an indirection.

So forward declarations can be used, with indirections, to
lay out fields and arrays abstractly.  Conversely, non-abstract
layouts (without indirections) cannot be used with forward
declarations.  (Side note:  You could include the full layout
redundantly at every use site.  We're not doing that; it would
break Java's core binary compatibility model.)

This is a deep reason why Java has nulls.  If you declare a
reference variable in Java, it is a FDT (although you might not
realized it).  To initialize that variable, you need a value which
is available before the type is defined.  Hello, null.

(Java could have chosen to omit null, I suppose, but then
every field load would potentially throw a "field not initialized"
exception.  The larger point is that variables of forward-declared
type need a state which does not depend on the type's definition.)

And it's not just arrays and fields either.  It turns out to be
infeasible to arrange efficient calling sequences for virtual
method hierarchies unless those hierarchies are loaded under
a contract which allows full knowledge of the definitions of
argument and return types in those hierarchies, *if* those
argument and return types are to be optimized as part
of the calling sequence.  (There are lots of 80% and 90%
solutions to this, but the 100% solution involves asking
the user to accept a new contract for the types that are
to be optimized.  Spoiler:  We intend that this new contract
will be the default for value types V, while V? makes use
of the old contract.)

For this reason, when we change the performance characteristics
of Java types by making some "inline" (aka "value" or "immediate"),
we also require a distinction between fully abstract occurrences
of such optimized values (using the old contract) and normally
optimized occurrences, using a new contract.

What is the new contract?  Here are the essentials:

1. An occurrence of the optimized type in a descriptor causes
resolution.   This applies to field, method, array, and method types.
1a. There may be side effects due to class-file loading.
1b. There may be circularity errors due to loading of ill-formed programs.
1c. In the case of templates, there may be side effects due
to template expansion logic (including bootstrap methods).

2. The optimized type does not necessarily permit null values.
2a. After resolving the type, validity of null is determined
unambiguously from the type's definition, not its use.

3. Uses of an optimized type aggressively employ the details of
that type as found in its class-file (or template expansion).
3a. In most cases this entails aggressive inlining.
3b. The only reliable way to turn off aggressive inlining is
to request the old contract, by using the old descriptor.

I think what's going on behind the questions about V and V?
is the emergence of this new contract, and the clarification
of the old contract.  The contract differences can be hidden
in many cases, but not all.  Users will expect the new contract
in cases like the following:

  - when making a field or (in most cases) an array
  - when passing values to and from methods

In most cases where the type is resolved, the old and new
contracts don't differ.  These include:

  - making an instance
  - type casting or testing
  - reflection

In some cases, users may wish for the old contract.
Such cases include:

  - nullability (if the type doesn't natively support null)
  - layout polymorphism based on indirections (old generics)
  - sparse arrays of multi-word types
  - descriptor equivalence (avoidance of bridges)
  - copy avoidance (cf. Doug's note)

We are presently using the type name V? to refer to the
old contract.  This means that V? could serve any of the
above use cases.  Although it seems unnatural for copy
avoidance, but natural enough for the others.

Thus, the deep difference of V and V?, or V.val and V.box,
amounts to "V considered natively" and "V considered as
a FDT".  This is very like the distinction in C++ between
`const T&` vs. `T`.  And like C++ we might examine
reasons to add further distinctions, such as `const T&&`
and `T&` and (nullable) `T*` or `const T*`.  Each of
those variations of `T` in C++ have distinct contracts
in the C++ user model.  Java surely won't have so many
distinctions; after all it differs from C++ by moving
many representational choice from compile-time
specifications into the JVM's runtime.

I hope we only need two basic contracts for the Valhalla
user model, the old one (necessary at least for backward
compatibility) and one new one (sketched above).  Doug's
note raises a possible need for a third contract, which I
hope we can avoid.  I think V? can help in Doug's examples
to force an indirection, which (in most cases but not all)
can be strength-reduced to something off the heap.

Doug's note has a comforting observation that such fine
tuning is most important at large scales, and that there
are several tactics which can be deployed there.  The
job of choosing tactics can sometimes be deferred to
the library code, rather than the user.  For example,
sometimes the right answer for sorting a large flat
array will be to first sort a temporary array of indexes
into that array, and then permute the array.  Such a
tactical decision doesn't need to show up in the user
model of the sort function.

Another ray of hope: Al though the JIT cannot rewrite
data structure, since it operates after data is defined,
it locally rewrites large amounts of program structure,
including the formats of method arguments and returns.
(This assumes successful de-virtualization which is
often the case, more often than successful escape
analysis that allows data to be reformatted.)
Indirections are not important to the JIT, since
the JIT can always just use the original definition.

Anyway, it's clear to me we need to nail down the new
contract, and (in hindsight) elucidate the old one.

It also seems to me that we are OK tying the new contract
to V (the natural contract for the natural name) and the
old one to V? (meaning nullable, but also indirect).

Regarding subtyping, I don't see (from these considerations)
a firm reason to declare that V? is a super of V.  The value
set of V? *might* have one more point than that of V,
or it *might not*.  The reason we are doing V? is not the
value set, but the whole contract, which includes the
value set as an obvious, but ultimately non-determinative part.

I suppose if we were to spell V? as V* it would be clearer
what we mean, relative to C and C++.  But V? is fine by
me, as long as we use Java's tradition of "lump instead of
split", and be firm that V? lumps together nullability
(*guaranteed* as opposed to only *when natural*) plus
other aspects, notably backward compatibility, and
sparse random order (not dense linear order) in arrays.

— John

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