VEE 2009
Conference paper

Demystifying magic: High-level low-level programming

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The power of high-level languages lies in their abstraction over hardware and software complexity, leading to greater security, better reliability, and lower development costs. However, opaque abstractions are often show-stoppers for systems programmers, forcing them to either break the abstraction, or more often, simply give up and use a different language. This paper addresses the challenge of opening up a high-level language to allow practical low-level programming without forsaking integrity or performance. The contribution of this paper is three-fold: 1) we draw together common threads in a diverse literature, 2) we identify a framework for extending high-level languages for low-level programming, and 3) we show the power of this approach through concrete case studies. Our framework leverages just three core ideas: extending semantics via intrinsic methods, extending types via unboxing and architectural-width primitives, and controlling semantics via scoped semantic regimes. We develop these ideas through the context of a rich literature and substantial practical experience. We show that they provide the power necessary to implement substantial artifacts such as a high-performance virtual machine, while preserving the software engineering benefits of the host language. The time has come for high-level low-level programming to be taken more seriously: 1) more projects now use high-level languages for systems programming, 2) increasing architectural heterogeneity and parallelism heighten the need for abstraction, and 3) a new generation of high-level languages are under development and ripe to be influenced. Copyright © 2009 ACM.