mdlbear: (technonerdmonster)
[personal profile] mdlbear

A few months ago while waiting for a ferry with my sister I mentioned a programming language called Elm, which I've been particularly interested in because it's a functional language that compiles into Javascript. Her response, predictably, was something like "I have no idea what you just said. What does 'compiles' mean?" So I explained the difference between compilers and interpreters, and a few other things about programming languages, and she said that it was the first time anyone had explained how programming languages work in a way that made sense to her. In the back of my mind, I thought it might someday make an interesting blog post. So here it is.

Inside of a computer, everything is a number. These days, these numbers are all represented in binary (base two -- just ones and zeroes), stored in a couple of billion numbered locations each of which holds eight binary digits. (A binary digit is called a "bit", and eight of them together make a "byte", which is the amount of data needed to represent a number between 0 and 255, or a single character in a block of text. Apart from the numerical coincidence, computer bits have nothing to do with the bits that were made by breaking apart "pieces of eight".)

The numbers in the computer's memory are used for three different things. First, some of them are used to represent the data that the computer is going to be working on. Second, some of them represent the location of those data. And finally, some of them are instructions that tell the computer what to do with the data. Those instructions are called "machine language" because they're the only thing the machine actually understands. Nobody writes programs in machine language if they can possibly avoid it.

The Details

The first thing people did so that they wouldn't have to write machine language was to assemble instructions out of human-readable pieces: mnemonics for the operation codes (opcodes), labels for the locations, quoted strings for text, and so on. The programs that did this were called "assemblers", and the language was called "assembly language". It looks something like this:

REPEAT: LD  R1, N       # load the number in the location called N
        MUL R2, R1
        SUB R1, 1       # subtract 1
        STO R1, N       # store the result back in N
        JNZ REPEAT      # if the result was not zero, jump back to
                        # the instruction labeled REPEAT

Can you spot the bug?

An assembler is a pretty simple program to write. It has to look up each mnemonic in a table, keep track of locations and labels, and convert decimal numbers to binary. Writing a program in assembly language, however, is tedious and error-prone. For example, think about what happens if N starts out with a value of zero.

So people started writing "compilers", which are somewhat more complicated programs that build programs out of something that looks more like

while n > 0 do n := n - 1 done

... which does almost exactly what that assembly-language program does, but also fixes the bug by making sure that n is greater than zero when we start.

A compiler works by reading a program written whatever language the compiler is compiling, and writing out its translation into machine language (or possibly assembly language). That saves a lot of time when you want to run the program, since it only has to be compiled once and you can run the resulting "object file" as many times as you like. It's a good match for the way early computers worked, by reading in a deck of punched cards and punching out a much smaller object deck. You would leave your program with the computer operators, and a couple of hours (or days, if there were a lot of other people ahead of you) later after the program had run get your deck back with a print-out of the results. Or, more often than not, a print-out of your program with dozens of error messages from the compiler that you would have to correct before trying again.

And of course, after your program compiled without errors you would still have bugs to fix, often by looking at a printed-out dump of everything that was in the computer's memory when it crashed. But when you were all done you would have a comparatively small deck of cards that you could stack in front of new data and run any time you wanted to.

About the same time people started writing compilers (the early 1950s), a few lucky people -- mostly either working for computer companies or at universities -- had access to smaller computers that they could sit next to and interact with by way of some kind of keyboard. These were usually teletypes, which used punched paper tape instead of cards, but that's another story altogether. The point is that the time spent starting up the compiler, compiling your program, loading your object deck, and running that, gets old pretty quickly. It was made worse by the fact that most compilers actually make two or more passes over your program. The first pass analyzes the syntax, turns all of the human-readable symbols into numbers, and writes out an intermediate file with all of the symbols in a table. After that it can refer to symbols by their position in the table, which after all is just a number. Computers are comfortable with numbers.

After that, the compiler would go back over the program and figure out which sequence of machine-language instructions to use for everything, and finally assign locations to all the labels now that it knew how much space everything was going to take.

Some people realized that, instead of writing out the machine language instructions that made up the program, the computer could simply do them. This kind of program is called an "interpreter". Interpreters are a lot easier to write than compilers, but the main reason they're popular is that they make it easier to write programs.

An interpreted program is going to take longer to run than a compiled program. The interpreter has to interpret each statement every time it encounters it, so loops are especially slow. It's not unusual for compiled code to be ten times faster than interpreted code. But a programmer can save so much time debugging their program with an interpreter -- hours or days -- that in most cases the program would have to be run thousands of times before compiling it would make sense.

One of the other nice things about an interpreter is that you can type little programs at it and see immediately what they do. It's especially useful when you're learning a language and you're still unsure of the exact syntax. This is called a "Read, Evaluate, Print Loop", which quickly got shortened to "REPL" (and pronounced similarly to "ripple").

There's also a trick called "Just In Time" (JIT) compilation -- the interpreter keeps track of how many times any given piece of code is run, and after enough repetitions (five or ten), it compiles it down to machine language. It can actually do better than a separate compiler, because by the time the code has run ten times the interpreter has a good idea of how it's actually being used.

TL;DR: an assembler turns each line in a program directly into a machine-language instruction. A compiler takes a program written in a more complicated (for the computer) but easier to write in (for people) and turns it into a sequence of machine-language instructions, that can then be read back in and run. An interpreter skips that last step -- instead of writing out the machine language instructions, it just does them on the spot.

Teaser: Next time I'll talk about different kinds of programming languages: functional, imperative, object-oriented, and scripting. I'm also open to suggestions -- what would you like me to write about?

Date: 2018-05-26 09:43 am (UTC)
madfilkentist: Photo of Carl (Default)
From: [personal profile] madfilkentist
To cover the case you started out with, you should add the concept of compiling from one high-level language to another. We used to call that pre-compiling, I think. Except that this is compiling to an interpreted language.

Nice explanation, though. I'm not the best person to judge whether a non-techie would understand it, but it seems clear enough to me.

Date: 2018-05-26 07:30 pm (UTC)
thnidu: my familiar. "Beanie Baby" -type dragon, red with white wings (Default)
From: [personal profile] thnidu
I'm going to watch this series! I've been working with computers since the punch card days, but not much behind the scenes, and I *learned things* from this post.

Date: 2018-05-27 02:29 am (UTC)
amaebi: black fox (Default)
From: [personal profile] amaebi
I hadn't known about interpreters-- thanks!

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