Published September 11, 2023 | Version 1.0
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AST vs. Bytecode: Interpreters in the Age of Meta-Compilation (Artifact)


This artifact accompanies our paper AST vs. Bytecode: Interpreters in the Age of Meta-Compilation to enable others to reuse our experimental setup and methodology, and verify our claims.

Specifically, the artifacts covers our three contributions:

  1. It contains the implementation of our methodology to identify run-time performance and memory usage tradeoffs between AST and bytecode interpreters. Thus, it contains all benchmarks and experiments for reproduction of results, and reuse for new experiments, as well as the data we collected to verify our analysis.
  2. It contains PySOM and TruffleSOM, which both come with an AST and a bytecode interpreter to enable their comparison. It further contains all the variants of PySOM and TruffleSOM that assess the impact of specific optimizations.
  3. It allows to verify the key claim of our paper, that bytecode interpreters cannot be assumed to be faster than AST interpreters in the context of metacompilation systems.

Paper Abstract

Thanks to partial evaluation and meta-tracing, it became practical to build language implementations that reach state-of-the-art peak performance by implementing only an interpreter. Systems such as RPython and the GraalVM provide components such as a garbage collector and just-in-time compiler in a language-agnostic manner, greatly reducing implementation effort. However, meta-compilation-based language implementations still need to improve further to reach the low memory use and fast warmup behavior that custom-built systems provide. A key element in this endeavor is interpreter performance. Folklore tells us that bytecode interpreters are superior to abstract-syntax-tree (AST) interpreters both in terms of memory use and run-time performance.

This work assesses the trade-offs between AST and bytecode interpreters to verify common assumptions and whether they hold in the context of meta-compilation systems. We implemented four interpreters, an AST and a bytecode one, based on RPython as well as GraalVM. We keep the difference between the interpreters as small as feasible to be able to evaluate interpreter performance, peak performance, warmup, memory use, and the impact of individual optimizations.

Our results show that both systems indeed reach performance close to Node.js/V8. Looking at interpreter-only performance, our AST interpreters are on par with, or even slightly faster than their bytecode counterparts. After just-in-time compilation, the results are roughly on par. This means bytecode interpreters do not have their widely assumed performance advantage. However, we can confirm that bytecodes are more compact in memory than ASTs, which becomes relevant for larger applications. However, for smaller applications, we noticed that bytecode interpreters allocate more memory because boxing avoidance is not as applicable, and because the bytecode interpreter structure requires memory, e.g., for a reified stack.

Our results show AST interpreters to be competitive on top of meta-compilation systems. Together with possible engineering benefits, they should thus not be discounted so easily in favor of bytecode interpreters.


This work was supported by the UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EP/V007165/1) and a Royal Society Industry Fellowship (INF\R1\211001).


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Additional details


CaMELot: Catching and Mitigating Event-Loop Concurrency Issues EP/V007165/1
UK Research and Innovation