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

Chapter 9. The Future of Stack Computers


There are two interesting stack machine design details that are not in common usage, but which may prove useful in future designs.

9.5.1 Conditional subroutine returns

One of the design details is an observation by Doran (1972) that stack machines do not need conditional branches, they only need conditional subroutine return instructions. Consider an IF statement in a high level language. If we ignore the optional ELSE clause, an IF statement appears to be a piece of code with one entry point and two exit points. The entry point is the beginning of the statement, where the branch condition is evaluate. The first exit point is if the condition is false, in which case none of the rest of the statement is executed. The second exit point is the end of the statement, when all actions have been completed.

The usual way of implementing an IF statement is by using a conditional branch that is taken if the condition tested by the IF is false. Instead, consider a subroutine that contains the code for the entire IF statement. The entry point to the IF statement is a subroutine call into this special subroutine. The first exit point can be a conditional subroutine return instruction, that only returns if the condition clause of the IF statement is false. The second exit point can be an unconditional return.

What this scheme accomplishes is elimination of conditional branches with embedded addresses. All that is required is a conditional subroutine return statement. This technique is well suited to stack machines, because of the low cost of the initial subroutine call into the IF statement's subroutine and the low cost of the subroutine exits. It may lead to more efficient machines than those currently in use.

9.5.2 Use of the stack for holding code

Another interesting proposal for stack machine program execution was put forth by Tsukamoto (1977). He examined the conflicting virtues and pitfalls of self-modifying code. While self-modifying code can be very efficient, it is almost universally shunned by software professionals as being too risky. Self-modifying code corrupts the contents of a program, so that the programmer cannot count on an instruction generated by the compiler or assembler being correct during the full course of a program run.

Tsukamoto's idea allows the use of self-modifying code without the pitfalls. He simply suggests using the run-time stack to store modified program segments for execution. Code can be generated by the application program and executed at run-time, yet does not corrupt the program memory. When the code has been executed, it can be thrown away by simply popping the stack.

Neither of these techniques is in common use today, but either one or both of them may eventually find an important application.


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