Rubinius, What's Next?

Brian Ford 17 February 2011

On Tuesday, we released version 1.2.1 (see the Release notes). This release weighs in at 256 commits and 21 tickets closed in the 56 calendar days since the release of 1.2.0. Many thanks to those who contributed patches and to everyone who helped us test it.

While we were working on 1.2.1, we were also working on a Top Secret project that we've craftily hidden in plain sight. I'd like to introduce the work we are doing on the hydra branch and the features you can expect to see in Rubinius soon.

Daedalus - A new build system

Rubinius is a fairly complex project. It combines multiple components into a single system. We have worked hard to contain this complexity and from the beginning we insisted that building Rubinius be as simple as possible. For example, Rubinius can be run from the source directory, there is no need to install it first. Typically, building requires:

./configure
rake

The Rubinius system combines:

  1. External libraries written in C/C++, sometimes built with just Makefiles and sometimes using autotools.
  2. The virtual machine, garbage collector, and JIT compiler written in C++.
  3. The virtual machine interpreter instructions, including support code for the JIT, and instruction documentation all generated at build time from an instruction template.
  4. The core library and bytecode compiler written in Ruby.
  5. Various C extensions like the Melbourne parser, BigDecimal, Digest, and OpenSSL libraries. In the case of the parser, we have to build two versions, one for the bootstrapping system and one for the Rubinius system being built.

It has not been easy to make this work and over the years we have compiled a list of exactly what we need in a build system. Evan, in typical form, started hacking out a first pass and created daedalus, our new build system. It features such exotic (and extremely useful) features as SHA-based change detection, parallel builds, single-process execution, and use-aware configuration options. Allow me to elaborate.

Full-on Concurrency

Nobody likes waiting in line. In fact, the more desirable a thing is, the less we want to stand idly waiting in a line for it, tapping our foot, twiddling our thumbs. The same could be said about our programs.

Threads give us the ability to add concurrency to our programs. However, unless the hardware either has multiple CPUs or multiple cores per CPU (or both), the apparent concurrency will still be executing serially. Since there are so many multi-core CPUs around these days, our programs should be getting stuff done in parallel.

Unfortunately, there's a twist. Even with native threads on a multi-core CPU, the amount of parallelism you get depends on how well you manage locks around shared data and resources. Sometimes managing these locks is complex and you opt for one big lock, essentially only allowing one thread at a time to run. That big lock is usually called a global interpreter lock (GIL) or global VM lock (GVL).

The Rubinius VM originally had green (user-space) threads, but it has had native threads with a GIL for a while now. In the hydra branch, Evan and contributors like Dirkjan Bussink have been working on replacing the GIL with fine-grained locks so that threads truly execute in parallel. This work has been going very well, owing in part to the fact that so much code in Rubinius is actually written in Ruby. Contributors like Chuck Remes have been running hydra under heavy concurrency loads and Rubinius is performing well.

Rubinius also has experimental support for Fibers and a built-in Actor library. There is more work to be done but Rubinius is quickly becoming an excellent platform for concurrency, with a variety of approaches available to the programmer. Evan has also suggested rewriting the Rubinius IO subsystem to enable even better APIs for concurrency, all from Ruby.

Performance

Forget everything anyone has ever told you about Ruby being slow. There are two things that make Ruby, as implemented, slow: 1) inexperience; 2) inadequate tools. These two result in one big thing: doing too much. Or, as they say: No code runs faster than no code. We have been working for 4+ years to build adequate tools in Rubinius, and there is plenty of experience in Smalltalk, Self, and other languages for making dynamic languages fast.

Presently, Rubinius typically runs pure Ruby code almost 2 times faster than MRI 1.9. However, there are also cases where Rubinius is slower. These mostly involve core libraries that are implemented in C in MRI. There are three main fronts on which we are attacking performance issues: 1) improving the algorithms in the Ruby code that implements the core library; 2) continuing to tune the VM and garbage collector; and 3) improving the JIT compiler. Which leads me to one of the most exciting things we are working on...

JIT Intermediate Representation (IR)

The just-in-time (JIT) compiler is the key to making Ruby fast. One of the biggest challenges with a dynamic language like Ruby is knowing what method is actually being invoked when a message is sent to an object. Consider the following code:

class A
  def m(x)
    ...
  end
end

class B def m(x) ... end end

class C def work(obj) obj.m(y) end end

What method is being invoked by obj.m(y)? There is no way to definitively know this by looking at the source code. However, when the program is actually running, we can know precisely what obj is and precisely which method m was invoked. This is called type profiling and that is exactly what the Rubinius VM does. Then the JIT uses the type information to make decisions like whether to inline a method into another method. When methods are inlined, it gives the optimizer more data and more possibilities to remove redundant code. The less code we can run, the faster Ruby will be.

Presently, the JIT compiler converts Rubinius bytecode into LLVM IR and LLVM handles the thorny task of generating machine code. However, Rubinius bytecode is designed for fast execution by the virtual machine rather than as a rich intermediate representation. So Evan has started work on a new JIT IR.

This new IR will help us to express Ruby semantics in a way that enables many powerful optimizations and will ultimately allow LLVM to generate even better machine code. Put another way, Rubinius loves Ruby code! Right down to the metal. There's no fighting a foreign type system or the semantics of a language at odds with Ruby's rosy view of the world.

Ruby 1.9

MRI 1.9 introduced two completely different changes to Ruby. The first was a new implementation based on a bytecode virtual machine. While the virtual machine replaced the AST-walking interpreter, little else changed architecturally. Mostly the same core library and garbage collector code exists in MRI 1.9 as was in MRI 1.8. The second change introduced some new syntax (minor) and encodings (major). Many of the other changes, for example, returning Enumerator objects from methods that take blocks, have been back-ported to Ruby 1.8.7 and are already available in Rubinius.

So, the key to supporting Ruby 1.9 in Rubinius essentially involves supporting the 1.9 syntax changes and encodings. We have begun implementing the parser changes and introduced the foundation for Encoding-aware Strings. A good amount of work remains to be done, but over the next month we expect that we will be starting to run Ruby 1.9-specific code in Rubinius.

Tools of Information

It has been said that printf is the mother of all debuggers. That illustrates two points: 1) data is often buried in our program code; and 2) we should have tools (e.g. a debugger) that enables us to access the data without manually instrumenting our code.

Presently, Rubinius has a built-in debugger, precise method profiler, memory analysis tool, and Agent interface that permits querying a running Rubinius VM--even one running on a remote machine--for a variety of information.

We will be adding the ability to track the location where objects are allocated to assist finding object leaks or code that is creating unusually large numbers of objects. We are also working on a tool to graphically display information like number of running threads, amount of CPU usage, and amount of memory used while actively monitoring a VM.

I am also curious about correlating this VM information with external data to enable play-back review. For example, I would like to monitor RubySpec runs and correlate which spec is running with the VM data. I imagine a simple monotonic reference ID provided by the VM would be useful in correlating these two otherwise unrelated pieces of data. The RubySpec runner would request the ID before running each spec and the Agent monitor would request the ID when gathering VM data. Later the two data sets could easily be merged.

When you find yourself manually instrumenting some code, consider what data you are trying to get your hands on and let us know the scenario. We'll likely be able to build a tool that will open up new vistas into the behavior of your Ruby programs.

Windows®

However one may feel about Windows as an operating system, it is undeniable that the vast majority of people in the world use Windows. We believe those people have an inalienable right to use Rubinius, too.

Thanks to the wonderful, hard-working MinGW-w64 folks, we are able to compile the Rubinius VM into a native Windows executable. Presently, the VM will compile, link, and attempt to load the Ruby core library. More platform-specific work is needed to load the library. The next step after that will be getting the RubySpecs to run and start fixing issues.

Since the Windows work is being done on the hydra branch, the other features discussed above will be available on Windows as soon as we complete them.

Multi-language-ualization

The Rubinius VM began as an effort to create a modern, first-class environment for running programs written in Ruby. However, it turns out that Ruby is a terrific language for writing subsystems for other programming languages. Actually, this should come as no surprise; Ruby is a fabulous general purpose programming language.

To support experimenting with writing other languages that run on the Rubinius VM, Evan has started to put together a Language Toolkit. This includes things like a built-in PEG parser, convenient ways to create methods from Rubinius bytecode, and decoupling method dispatch from Ruby semantics.

Hopefully, Evan will introduce us to all this in a future blog post, but here is a taste of what you can do:

class Hello
  dynamic_method :world do |g|
    g.push :self
    g.push_literal "Hello, world"
    g.send :puts, 1, true
    g.ret
  end
end

Hello.new.world

Of course, that is much more concisely written in Ruby, but combine this ability with a built-in PEG parser and you can be experimenting with your own fascinating syntax in a matter of minutes.

Check out the Rubinius Projects page for some of these language experiments. One language in particular is Fancy, which is fully bootstrapped (i.e. the Fancy compiler is now written in Fancy) on Rubinius.

Documentation

One the one hand, Rubinius just runs Ruby code, and you shouldn't need any special knowledge to run your application on Rubinius. On the other hand, as I've discussed above, there are some specific Rubinius features that may be very helpful to you. However, they can only be as helpful as the documentation we have for them.

Before we released 1.2.0 in December last year, I spent quite a bit of time getting a new documentation system in place. Since then, we've had contributors help with translations to Russian, Polish, Spanish, and German. Adam Gardiner started documenting the garbage collector algorithms. Yehuda Katz (you may have heard the name) has contributed documentation for the bytecode compiler complete with diagrams!. Chuck Remes wrote up a great piece on the memory analysis tool.

We really appreciate these contributions. We understand the need for great documentation and we have been creating better support for it. In many cases, all that is needed is to just open a file and start writing. Of course, one cannot expect to understand much about Rubinius without digging into the code. If there is a particular part of Rubinius that you are curious about, jump in the #rubinius channel on freenode.net and ask us questions. We can point you in the right direction and help clarify things. If nothing else, let us know which part of the missing documentation is most important to you and we can start filling that in.

How you can help

There you have it, some super exciting things coming very soon for Rubinius and for Ruby! We would love to have your help making Rubinius even better. The most important thing you can do is try running your Ruby code. Give us feedback. Let us know what features or tools would make your life easier. Help us to build them.

Rubinius adopts Ruby's rosy view of the world. We want to empower you to solve your hardest problems with Ruby, and have fun doing it.

Tweet at @rubinius on Twitter or email community@rubini.us. Please report Rubinius issues to our issue tracker.

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