Baby Steps to a C Compiler

Writing a compiler, and learning a little low-level programming, is a very powerful way of learning more about how computers work.

Compilers are often seen as daunting projects. Indeed, a production-grade compiler is a huge task. Writing a crude but working compiler is not.

The secret to getting started is to find a minimal viable project, and expand your featureset from there. This is the approach discussed in An Incremental Approach to Compiler Construction, and it works really well. You only need to complete step 1, and you have a compiler! It’s only compiling a tiny subset of the language, but it’s a bona fide compiler. You can expand your compiler as much or as little as you like – you will be a better programmer with a deeper knowledge as a result.

Inspired by this paper, I have been writing a C compiler. This is a little harder in some ways (you have to parse C) but easier in others (you don’t need runtime type information). All you need to get started is your Minimal Viable Compiler.

For my compiler, babyc, I chose this as my first basic program:

int main() {
    return 2;

No variables, function calls, external dependencies, if statements, or loops. Not so scary.

We need to parse this first. We’ll use Flex and Bison. There are example C99 grammars that we can look at, but our entire grammar is tiny. Here’s the lexer:

"{" { return '{'; }
"}" { return '}'; }
"(" { return '('; }
")" { return ')'; }
";" { return ';'; }
[0-9]+ { return NUMBER; }
"return" { return RETURN; }
"int" { return TYPE; }
"main" { return IDENTIFIER; }

Here’s the grammar:

	TYPE IDENTIFIER '(' ')' '{' expression '}'

Finally, we need to generate some assembly. We’ll use 32-bit x86 assembly, because it’s extremely common and it probably runs natively on your current machine. There’s a great x86 reference site here.

Here’s the assembly file we need to generate:

        .global _start # Tell the loader we want to start at _start.

        movl    $2,%ebx # The argument to our system call.
        movl    $1,%eax # The system call number of sys_exit is 1.
        int     $0x80 # Send an interrupt

Hook up the lexer and parser (source), write this assembly to a file (source), and congratulations! You’re a compiler writer!

Babyc started out like this, and you can see this minimal version here.

Of course, the assembly file is no good if you can’t run it. Let’s check our compiler actually generates the assembly we’re expecting:

# Here's the file we want to compile.
$ cat return_two.c
#include <stdio.h>

int main() {
    return 2;

# Run the compiler with this file.
$ ./babyc return_two.c
Written out.s.

# Check the output looks sensible.
$ cat out.s
    .global _start

    movl    $2, %ebx
    movl    $1, %eax
    int     $0x80

Great! Let’s actually run this compiled code to ensure it’s doing what we expected.

# Assemble the file. We explicitly assemble as 32-bit
# to avoid confusion on x86_64 machines.
$ as out.s -o out.o --32

# Link the file, again specifying 32-bit.
$ ld -m elf_i386 -s -o out out.o

# Run it!
$ ./out

# What was the return code?
$ echo $?
2 # Woohoo!

From here, the sky’s the limit. You can work through the Incremental Approach paper and gradually make your compiler more sophisticated. You’ll need to build a more elaborate parse tree, then walk it to generate assembly. The next steps are (1) allowing arbitrary return values (e.g. return 3; sample code here) and then (2) adding support for negating values (e.g. return ~1; sample code here). Each additional step will teach you more about C, more about how your computer really works, and more of the world of compilers.

This is the approach babyc is taking. Babyc now has if statements, loops, variables, and basic arithmetic. You’re welcome to check out the code, but I hope I’ve tempted you to have a try yourself.

Don’t fear the low-level stuff. It’s a fascinating world down here.

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