Tag Archives: RoarVM

Supporting Concurrency Abstractions in High-level Language Virtual Machines

Last Friday, I defended my PhD dissertation. Finally, after 4 years and a bit, I am done. Finally. I am very grateful to all the people supporting me along the way and of course to my colleagues for their help.

My work focused on how to build VMs with support for all kind of different concurrent programming abstractions. Since you don’t want to put them into a VM just one by one, I was looking for a unifying substrate that’s up to the task. Below, you’ll find the abstract as well as the slides.

In addition to the thesis text itself, the implementations and tools are available. Please see the project page for more details.


During the past decade, software developers widely adopted JVM and CLI as multi-language virtual machines (VMs). At the same time, the multicore revolution burdened developers with increasing complexity. Language implementers devised a wide range of concurrent and parallel programming concepts to address this complexity but struggle to build these concepts on top of common multi-language VMs. Missing support in these VMs leads to tradeoffs between implementation simplicity, correctly implemented language semantics, and performance guarantees.

Departing from the traditional distinction between concurrency and parallelism, this dissertation finds that parallel programming concepts benefit from performance-related VM support, while concurrent programming concepts benefit from VM support that guarantees correct semantics in the presence of reflection, mutable state, and interaction with other languages and libraries.

Focusing on these concurrent programming concepts, this dissertation finds that a VM needs to provide mechanisms for managed state, managed execution, ownership, and controlled enforcement. Based on these requirements, this dissertation proposes an ownership-based metaobject protocol (OMOP) to build novel multi-language VMs with proper concurrent programming support.

This dissertation demonstrates the OMOP’s benefits by building concurrent programming concepts such as agents, software transactional memory, actors, active objects, and communicating sequential processes on top of the OMOP. The performance evaluation shows that OMOP-based implementations of concurrent programming concepts can reach performance on par with that of their conventionally implemented counterparts if the OMOP is supported by the VM.

To conclude, the OMOP proposed in this dissertation provides a unifying and minimal substrate to support concurrent programming on top of multi-language VMs. The OMOP enables language implementers to correctly implement language semantics, while simultaneously enabling VMs to provide efficient implementations.

  • Supporting Concurrency Abstractions in High-level Language Virtual Machines, Stefan Marr. Software Languages Lab, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 Brussels, Belgium, PhD Dissertation, January 2013. ISBN 978-90-5718-256-3.
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  • BibTex: BibSonomy


Sly and the RoarVM: Exploring the Manycore Future of Programming

My second talk at Smalltalks 2012 was most likely the reason why the organizers invited me in the first place. It was a slightly extended version of the Sly and RoarVM talk for the FOSDEM Smalltalk Dev Room from the beginning of the year, reporting on the Renaissance Project.

This time, the talk included more details on the RoarVM and mentioned a few experiments.


The manycore future has several challenges ahead of us that suggest that fundamental assumptions of contemporary programming approaches do not apply anymore when scalability is required.

Sly is a language prototype designed to experiment with the inherently nondeterministic properties of parallel systems. It is designed to enable programmers to embrace nondeterminism instead of guiding them to fight it. Nature shows that complex system can be built from independent entities that achieve a common goal without global synchronization/communication. Sly is design to enable the prototyping of algorithms that show such emerging behavior. We introduce it in the first part of the talk.

The second part of the talk focuses on the underlying problems of building virtual machines for the manycore future, which allow us to harness the available computing power. The RoarVM was design to experiment on the Tilera TILE64 manycore processor architecture, which provides 64 cores and characteristics that are distinctly different from today’s commodity multicore processors. Memory bandwidth, caches, and communication are the biggest challenges on such architectures. This talk gives a brief overview over the design choices of the RoarVM, which tackle the characteristics of the TILE64 architecture.

Acknowledgement: Sly and the RoarVM were designed and implemented by David Ungar and Sam Adams at IBM Research.


What If: Developing Applications in the Multicore Era

Yesterday was the first day of Smalltalks 2012 in Puerto Madryn. The organizers invited my to give a keynote on a topic of my choice, which I gladly did. Having just handed in my thesis draft, I chose to put my research into the context of Smalltalk and try to relate it to one of the main open questions: How do we actually want to program multicore systems.

The talk went ok, I think. Compared to academic conference, I was surprised by the amount of questions people asked. The discussions for me were also much more interesting than on a typical conference. Overall a good experience.


What if you would need to use all the processor cores you got to get your application to run with acceptable performance? This talk explores how we can support the various abstractions for concurrent and parallel programming that would help us to master the challenges of the multicore era. We show a variant of the RoarVM and with a novel metaobject protocol that allows us to implement agents, actors, software transactional memory, and others easily while preserving performance.



FOSDEM Smalltalk Dev Room: Sly and the RoarVM

Today, FOSDEM featured that first incarnation of a Smalltalk developer room. Unfortunately, FOSDEM is always packed with interesting talks, so, I only managed to attend a couple of talks. Most notably the talk on Spoon.

I also had the chance to give a talk. The presentation included a bit about how to use the RoarVM, how to build it in one minute, and what we actually do with Sly and the Renaissance project.

OOSPLA 2011 @SPLASH2011, Day 1

The first day of the technical tracks including OOPSLA started with a keynote by Ivan Sutherland titled The Sequential Prison. His main point was that the way we think and the way we build machines and software is based on sequential concepts. The words we use to communicate and express ourselves are often of a very sequential nature. His examples included: call, do, repeat, program, and instruction. Other examples that shape and restrict our way of thinking are for instance basic data structures and concepts like strings (character sequences). However, we also use words that enable thinking about concurrency and parallelism much better. His examples for these included: configure, pipeline, connect, channel, network, and path.

After the talk David ask him what he would do in the first day of a class on how to program a massively parallel system. His answer was something like: “I would probably retire!”, making the point that it is a hard problem which requires creative solutions.

Catching Concurrency Bugs

After the keynote, the first technical track started with a session on catching concurrency bugs. The first paper presented was Sheriff: Precise Detection and Automatic Mitigation of False Sharing. As far as I understood, it is a pthread replacement, which abuses the memory-managing features and copy-on-write tricks to know about write-write contention on cacheline-level. The tool can attribute that back to the allocation site, which does not seem to be terribly useful if I manage my heap myself :-/

Accentuating the Positive: Atomicity Inference and Enforcement Using Correct Executions was the second paper presented. They use some inference technique to place locks to prevent data-races that are still in the code. The most severe limitation seems to be that it only works for stack variables. However, the idea of making almost correct code more correct looks interesting.

The third paper, SOS: Saving Time in Dynamic Race Detection with Stationary Analysis, focuses on identifying objects that are not changing their state after a certain initialization period. They call such objects stationary, since they cannot participate in races. Would be interesting to see what we could get out of a similar analysis to decide when to promote an object into the RoarVM’s read-mostly heap.

The last presentation in that session was about Testing Atomicity of Composed Concurrent Operations. Here they use commutativity specifications to reduce the search space/testing effort. The goal is to find for instance pairs of operations, which are meant to be executed atomically but are not properly synchronized.

Parallelizing Compilers

The second session started with Hawkeye: Effective Discovery of Dataflow Impediments to Parallelization. They use a dynamic analysis to determine dependencies. The analysis further uses abstraction, ADT semantics to understand the recorded traces. The ADT semantics are used to abstract from the details, and avoid having to track everything precisely. Based on that analysis approach, they developed a tool that can be used to identify undesirable dependencies and iteratively improve a program.

The second paper was Automatic Fine-Grained Locking using Shape Properties. The goal is go from unsynchronized code to fine-grained synchronized code. For that purpose, they describe a new locking protocol called Domination Locking for objects graphs, which is supposed to be more general then earlier approaches.

The third paper Safe Parallel Programming using Dynamic Dependency Hints presented an extension on earlier work that uses hints like ‘possibly parallel region’. The system can execute such regions in parallel and will use an STM-like approach to make it correct in case there are conflicts. The presented work introduced channels to better describe data dependencies.

The last paper titled Sprint: Speculative Prefetching of Remote Data is targeted at distributed systems, but presents an approach that will automatically prefetch data to reduce the impact of latency and reduce overall runtime. Such a technique could be relevant for manycore systems exhibiting similar tradeoffs.

Memory Management

The last session of the day started with the presentation of a nice VM paper: Why Nothing Matters: The Impact of Zeroing. Certainly a worthwhile read for everyone implementing safe languages concerned with initializing objects/tables/structures/… efficiently with NULL.

The second talk Ribbons: a Partially Shared Memory Programming Model presented a programming model in-between threads and processes using memory-protection tricks to restrict the use of shared memory and isolate components. An interesting approach, especially since I have something similar in mind for the RoarVM.

The last talk of the day was about Asynchronous Assertions. Also something that might be interesting for paranoid VM hacker like me. It is an approach that allows the runtime to offload the assertion checking to other threads. To make that work, it works with snapshot semantics of the memory at the point where the assertion is offloaded.