[TYPES] Combining lazy and eager evaluation of terms

Tim Sweeney Tim.Sweeney at epicgames.com
Sun Aug 22 22:32:17 EDT 2004

In an attempt to combine some of the benefits of lazy and eager
evaluation, I have implemented a language with an evaluation strategy
which is strict with respect to divergence, but performs lazy evaluation
on certain intermediate subterms to allow a more expressive use of

To be more precise:

- By "strict with respect to divergence", I mean that for every possible
function or data constructor f, f(bot)=bot. Thus for lists,

- Performing "lazy evaluation on intermediate subterms" enables one to
successfully express recursive data structures like x=Cons(3,x) for an
infinite list, or r:=NewRef(Cons(3,r)) for a circular linked list.

- Unlike lazy languages supporting strictness declarations, and strict
languages supporting lazyness declarations, this language has no such
declarations and always follows a single evaluation scheme.

Currently, my implementation constructs thunks for all potentially
recursive terms, traversing them in applicative-order yet deferring
access to the value of any reentered thunk (a thunk whose evaluation is
already in progress) until its value is strongly required according to
normal-order evaluation rules.  Thus every subterm is always fully
evaluated eventually, but certain recursive terms are supported which
would, in an eager language, either be disallowed or result in access to
uninitialized data.

The benefits of this approach are are:

- Recursion and self-reference can be used much more expressively than
in traditional eager languages.

- The far majority of "traditional" eager functional and imperative code
can be automatically deemed safe for unboxed eager evaluation by the
compiler at performance comparable with a mainstream language.  In
particular, any code block which exhibits only backward references, or
for which a topological sort can be automatically derived.  Note that
any code for which this property doesn't hold could, in a language like
C++ or Java, access uninitialized variables.

- The complex process of class/module loading and runtime linking in
languages like Java and C# can be implemented as plain old execution of
the modules' top-level code, for example with proper resolution of
circular module references that construct constants.  Recent papers on
Java class loaders in purely eager environments indicate that this
process is somewhat contrived in the absence of general support for
thunked evaluation.

- The scheme can be combined with an effects-tagging and
"applicative-order readyness-tagging" strategy to support the free
intermixing of functional and imperative constructs, with effects-free
terms potentially evaluating in arbitrary order (due to recursion or
compiler optimizations) while guaranteeing that imperative effects only
execute sequentially, with any recursive sequentiality violations
sometimes being statically detectable, but always being dynamically
detectable.  Such an imperative framework can be implemented either in a
monadic Haskell-style IO/fixIO "top-level" framework, or in a more
traditional imperative language.

The drawbacks are:

- To a programmer reading a piece of code, it is not always obvious
whether that code will invoke thunked evaluation, yet this distinction
may have a significant impact on the resulting performance.

- The evaluation scheme is more complex than either a traditional
normal-order or applicative-order evaluator, in particular in its
treatment of transitions between thunked lazy evaluation and unboxed
eager evaluation.

- Every intermediate term (except for the untaken branch a conditional)
is fully evaluated.  This leads to more work than a pure lazy evaluator,
which discards intermediate terms which don't contribute to the final
result.  I do not consider this drawback significant to a mainstream
programming audience, however it rules out the use of some techniques
popular among lazy functional programmers, such as infinite non-circular
lists and streams.

The interesting problems related to this approach are:

- The conservative, compile-time detection of suberms where a
traditional eager runtime evaluation strategy may be safely invoked to
maximize performance.  This is a more lenient problem than traditional
strictness analysis, because there are no functions for which
f(bot)!=bot.  Thus the question is not "Can this term be evaluated to
ground here?" but "Can this term be evaluated without reaching any
unevaluated circular dependencies?"  Note that the recursion operator is
the only construct that can prevent a program from being evaluated with
the optimized eager scheme, but that some uses of recursion are
detectably safe under an unboxed strict evaluation scheme, such as

- The runtime unboxing of thunked values at all transition points where
a subterm requiring internal thunk-based evaluation moves into a context
allowing eager evaluation.  For example, in "x=Cons(3,x),y=Head(x)", we
can evaluate x using thunks, unbox the results, and evaluate y
traditionally.  This unboxing process becomes tricky with function
closures; in the general case, two versions of a closure's environment
and code pointer need to be kept around to support its evaluation in
both both thunked and unboxed contexts, and in some cases only the
thunked version may be safely invoked.  There are various optimizations
possible here -- such as dynamically generating a closure's thunked
environment when only an eager environment is available -- but the
tradeoffs are quite complex.

Does anybody have any references to work on similar evaluation schemes?

Tim Sweeney

More information about the Types-list mailing list