Stack Computers: the new wave © Copyright 1989, Philip Koopman, All Rights Reserved.

Chapter 9. The Future of Stack Computers


The initial market for stack machines is the real time control area. The high level of system integration possible with stack machines may also lead to use as low cost, high performance coprocessor cards for personal computers and low-end workstations as well. These coprocessor cards may well be application specific for a certain class of problems, or even a single important software package. Both these environments will require running much application code in conventional programming languages.

Conventional languages can be implemented very easily on stack machines. The only problem is that pure stack machines probably can not perform quite as well as register machines when running conventional programs written in the normal programming style. This problem is mostly one of a mismatch between stack machine capabilities and the requirements of conventional languages. Conventional programs tend to use few procedure calls and large numbers of local variables. Stack machines tend to be good at running programs with many small procedures and few local variables. In part, the difference is due to the programming styles encouraged by common practice and the structure of conventional programming languages. To some extent, the difference is that register machines are well suited to general purpose data processing, whereas stack machines perform best in a real time control environment. At any rate, performance of conventional languages on stack machines can be brought close to even the highest performance register machines for all applications by providing a modest level of hardware support. The idea, of course, is to approximately match register-based machines where they are best while not sacrificing the features that make stack machines better for other areas.

9.1.1 Stack frames

The issue, then, is to identify high level language structures that require additional hardware support. Strangely, the high level language run-time stack is the only major area in which pure stack machines fail to support conventional high level languages. This is because high level languages have the notion of "activation records," which are "frames" of elements pushed onto a software-managed stack in program memory upon every subroutine call. In the usual implementation, each stack frame is allocated only once as a large chunk of memory in the preamble to the subroutine being called. This frame contains the input parameters (which were actually allocated by the calling routine), the user declared local variables, and any compiler generated intermediate variables that might be necessary. During the course of the subroutine, arbitrary accesses are made within the stack frame without actually performing any pushes or pops.

The stack frame is used as a temporary memory allocation device for subroutine calling, not as a traditional pushdown stack for storing intermediate results between successive calculations. This means that it is incompatible with hardware stacks built into stack machines such as those we have been studying. An obvious approach to modify stack machines to meet this requirement is to build the primary stack so as to be allocated in large chunks with random access within a frame. This is precisely how the RISC machines with register windows (described as SL2 machines in Chapter 2) solve the problem. The reason why this does not make sense for stack machines is that all accesses to data pay the penalties associated with having operands in the instruction format.

An alternative approach is to build a secondary hardware stack for accessing local variables at a "slow" speed, with primary data manipulations done on a LIFO hardware data stack. This lets us have the best of both worlds, but is not without cost. That secondary register frame stack will in general have to be 5 to 10 times as big as the data stack for good operating characteristics.

9.1.2 Aliasing of registers and memory

If this were the end of the tradeoff discussion, we might still be tempted to build a chip with on-chip frames. But, there is a deciding factor which tilts the balance in favor of placing the stack frames in program memory. That additional factor is that the semantics of conventional languages allow access to these local variables by memory address. The C language is notorious for this problem, which affects register machines and stack machines alike.

While the aliasing of registers to memory addresses can be handled with clever hardware or compilers, the costs in hardware and/or software complexity are not in keeping with the stack machine design philosophy of maximum performance with minimum complexity. Therefore, the best choice for a stack machine is to maintain the conventional language stack frames in program memory, with a Frame Pointer register available as a hardware pointer for stack frame accesses. If chip space is plentiful, a stack machine might provide on-chip RAM as part of the program memory space to speed up access to the stack frames.

It is indeed tempting to write complex compilers in an attempt to keep most local variables on the hardware stack while executing conventional languages. An experiment by this author with some stack machines has shown, however, that the difference between a C compiler that keeps all local variables on the hardware data stack and one that uses program memory with a frame pointer is small. In fact, if the machine has a hardware frame pointer, keeping the frames in program memory is actually somewhat faster.

Normally, one would think that keeping local variables on the hardware data stack would be faster than placing them in memory. The reason this is not so is because stack machines are relatively inefficient at accessing deeply buried elements, especially if they may have been spilled out of the stack buffer and into program memory. Much of the time in the all-on-hardware-stack approach is spent thrashing elements about on the stack. While access to memory-resident frame elements is somewhat slower than access to data on the hardware stack, in the end the savings on stack manipulations make up the difference.

9.1.3 A strategy for handling stack frames

A good compromise approach for handling frames is a mixture of the program memory resident and hardware data stack resident methods. The details of the approach are as follows. All procedure calls place the parameters to be passed on the hardware stack. Since these parameters must be computed or moved from one stack frame location to another using the hardware data stack anyway, no time is lost doing this. The procedure call is then made. The called procedure then copies all but one or two of the parameters from the hardware stack into its newly allocated frame as local variables. The compiler must be sure that the parameters left on the data stack are not referenced by address. This can be accomplished with register variable declarations by the programmer, compiler analysis, or just playing it safe and copying all parameters to memory. Having only one or two parameters on the data stack minimizes stack spills and still provides good efficiency gains. When the procedure terminates, the returned value is placed on the hardware stack.

The compromise approach gives good efficiency by saving a large number of references to memory. It also provides an excellent interface between different languages, such as Forth and C. It is relatively easy to write compilers to handle this approach as well. Also, many stack machines now in existence have a hardware frame pointer, so can easily support this scheme.

9.1.4 Conventional language execution efficiency

From this discussion, we can see that stack machines can be reasonably efficient at supporting conventional programming languages with their stack frame approach. Of course, stack machines that use a hardware frame pointer into program memory cannot be expected to be as efficient as RISC machines, since they have massive on-chip register windows for direct frame support or exceedingly clever optimizing compilers that do sophisticated global register allocation.

To the extent that programs in conventional languages conform to the models used by high performance register machines, stack machines will seem to perform poorly. Aspects of conventional programs that cause this effect include: large segments of straight-line code, near-100% cache hit ratios, large numbers of local variables used across long procedures, and shallowly nested procedures that can be compiled as in-line code.

To the extent that programs use structures which run efficiently on stack machines, stack machines can approach or even exceed the performance of register-based machines. Code which is run well by stack machines contains: highly modular procedures with many levels of nesting and perhaps recursion; a relatively small number of frequently used subroutines and inner loops that may be placed in fast memory, and perhaps provided with microcode support; small numbers of local variables passed down through many layers of interface routines; and deeply nested subroutine calls. Also, programs that operate in environments with frequent interrupts and context switches can benefit from using stack machines.

A practical method for using conventional languages on stack machines is to adopt the traditional approach of implementing the bulk of a program in a moderately efficient high level language. Then, the inner loops of the program are recoded in the assembly language of the machine. This affords very high performance with a modest amount of effort. In the case of a project where stack machines are needed for their excellent real time control processing characteristics, this approach can yield maximum processing speed for the programmer time invested.

One should also keep in mind that there are reasons to select a computer other than raw processing speed for single programs. The reasons that might tilt the balance in favor of stack machines include: interrupt processing speed, task switching speed, low overall system complexity, and the need for application specific microcode and/or hardware support. In the final analysis, stack machines will probably not run many conventional language programs quite as quickly as register-based machines. But, other considerations will largely cancel out the drawbacks, especially for real time control applications, making stack machines an excellent alternative.


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