Thursday, October 25, 2007


Today we report on the internal representation of objects and classes in the VM we are working on. Since everything is an object in Smalltalk, even classes, were are confronted with two diverging forces. From the Smalltalk point of view all objects are created equal, hence it would be most natural to model them using one class W_SqueakObject. From the VM point of view we would like to represent some objects using special classes: classes, stack frames, compiled methods, method dictionaries, method contexts, block context and so on. If those objects would not be exposed to the smalltalk view, that would not be a problem at all. However, as they are exposed to plain Smalltalk we had to find a better solution.

This post will quickly describe the outcome of various discussions and refactorings that we had yesterday and this morning addressing this issue. After we wrote a prototype yesterday, several (heated) discussions with all sprinters and, finally, a complete rewrite of the prototype we arrived at the following solution.

Every Smalltalk object may have an associated "shadow" object. These shadow objects are not exposed to the Smalltalk world, they are used by the WM as internal representation and can hold arbitrary information about the actual object. If an object has a shadow the shadow is notified whenever the state of the actual object changes, to keep them in sync. One way of looking at shadows is that they are a general cache mechanism, however, the approach is way more powerful, hooking into the notification of shadow arbitrary meta-behaviour may be attached to objects. As an example, think of immutable objects which reject any modification.

In the current implementation, the shadows are used to attach nicely decoded information about classes to all objects which are used as classes. This allows to use any object as a class, even if they are not a subclass of Smalltalk.Class, which is very Smalltalkish. The shadow of the class stores all required information about classes in a nice, easily accessible data structure (as opposed to the obscure bit format used at the Smalltalk level). The class shadow mirrors format and size of instances, a Python dictionary containing the compiled methods (mirroring the method dictionary), and the name of the class (if it has one), etc. Storing the methods in a Python dictionary instead of the Smalltalk method dictionary allows the tool chain to generate better code for method lookups, taking advantage of its highly optimized builtin dictionary implementation.


haupz said...


I don't get the bit where it says that using arbitrary objects as classes is Smalltalk-ish. What is the benefit of using the Symbol #florps or the SmallInteger 42 as a class?



Software Composition Group said...

Regarding the VM, all you need to use an object as class is: its first inst var must to point to a superclass, its second must point to a method dictionary and the third must contain the format bits. Apart for that, you are free to hack the language model. For example, one might create a class and bend its class pointer to itself - voila, prototypes running on a Smalltalk VM. More details see A Class of its Own

For me, that IS Smalltalk - an evolvable language :)