What is compilation?

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7/24/2010 8:00:46 PM
Compilation refers to the compiler's process of translating a high-level language program into a low-level language program. This process is very complex; hence, from the logical as well as an implementation point of view, it is customary to partition the compilation process into several phases, which are nothing more than logically cohesive operations that input one representation of a source program and output another representation.

A typical compilation, broken down into phases, is shown in Figure 1.

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Figure 1: Compilation process phases.

The initial process phases analyze the source program. The lexical analysis phase reads the characters in the source program and groups them into streams of tokens; each token represents a logically cohesive sequence of characters, such as identifiers, operators, and keywords. The character sequence that forms a token is called a "lexeme". Certain tokens are augmented by the lexical value; that is, when an identifier like xyz is found, the lexical analyzer not only returns id, but it also enters the lexeme xyz into the symbol table if it does not already exist there. It returns a pointer to this symbol table entry as a lexical value associated with this occurrence of the token id. Therefore, when internally representing a statement like X: = Y + Z, after the lexical analysis will be id1: = id2 + id3.

The subscripts 1, 2, and 3 are used for convenience; the actual token is id. The syntax analysis phase imposes a hierarchical structure on the token string, as shown in Figure 2.

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Figure 2: Syntax analysis imposes a structure hierarchy on the token string.

Intermediate Code Generation

Some compilers generate an explicit intermediate code representation of the source program. The intermediate code can have a variety of forms. For example, a three-address code (TAC) representation for the tree shown in Figure 2 will be:

where T1 and T2 are compiler-generated temporaries.

Code Optimization

In the optimization phase, the compiler performs various transformations in order to improve the intermediate code. These transformations will result in faster-running machine code.

Code Generation

The final phase in the compilation process is the generation of target code. This process involves selecting memory locations for each variable used by the program. Then, each intermediate instruction is translated into a sequence of machine instructions that performs the same task.

Compiler Phase Organization

This is the logical organization of compiler. It reveals that certain phases of the compiler are heavily dependent on the source language and are independent of the code requirements of the target machine. All such phases, when grouped together, constitute the front end of the compiler; whereas those phases that are dependent on the target machine constitute the back end of the compiler. Grouping the compilation phases in the front and back ends facilitates the re-targeting of the code; implementation of the same source language on different machines can be done by rewriting only the back end.


Different languages can also be implemented on the same machine by rewriting the front end and using the same back end. But to do this, all of the front ends are required to produce the same intermediate code; and this is difficult, because the front end depends on the source language, and different languages are designed with different viewpoints. Therefore, it becomes difficult to write the front ends for different languages by using a common intermediate code.

Having relatively few passes is desirable from the point of view of reducing the compilation time. To reduce the number of passes, it is required to group several phases in one pass. For some of the phases, being grouped into one pass is not a major problem. For example, the lexical analyzer and syntax analyzer can easily be grouped into one pass, because the interface between them is a single token; that is, the processing required by the token is independent of other tokens. Therefore, these phases can be easily grouped together, with the lexical analyzer working as a subroutine of the syntax analyzer, which is charge of the entire analysis activity.

Conversely, grouping some of the phases into one pass is not that easy. Grouping intermediate and object code-generation phases is difficult, because it is often very hard to perform object code generation until a sufficient number of intermediate code statements have been generated. Here, the interface between the two is not based on only one intermediate instruction-certain languages permit the use of a variable before it is declared. Similarly, many languages also permit forward jumps. Therefore, it is not possible to generate object code for a construct until sufficient intermediate code statements have been generated. To overcome this problem and enable the merging of intermediate and object code generation into one pass, the technique called "back-patching" is used; the object code is generated by leaving ‘statementholes,’ which will be filled later when the information becomes available.

Lexical Analysis Phase

In the lexical analysis phase, the compiler scans the characters of the source program, one character at a time. Whenever it gets a sufficient number of characters to constitute a token of the specified language, it outputs that token. In order to perform this task, the lexical analyzer must know the keywords, identifiers, operators, delimiters, and punctuation symbols of the language to be implemented. So, when it scans the source program, it will be able to return a suitable token whenever it encounters a token lexeme. (Lexeme refers to the sequence of characters in the source program that is matched by language's character patterns that specify identifiers, operators, keywords, delimiters, punctuation symbols, and so forth.) Therefore, the lexical analyzer design must:

  1. Specify the token of the language, and

  2. Suitably recognize the tokens.

We cannot specify the language tokens by enumerating each and every identifier, operator, keyword, delimiter, and punctuation symbol; our specification would end up spanning several pages—and perhaps never end, especially for those languages that do not limit the number of characters that an identifier can have. Therefore, token specification should be generated by specifying the rules that govern the way that the language's alphabet symbols can be combined, so that the result of the combination will be a token of that language's identifiers, operators, and keywords. This requires the use of suitable language-specific notation.

Regular Expression Notation

Regular expression notation can be used for specification of tokens because tokens constitute a regular set. It is compact, precise, and contains a deterministic finite automata (DFA) that accepts the language specified by the regular expression. The DFA is used to recognize the language specified by the regular expression notation, making the automatic construction of recognizer of tokens possible. Therefore, the study of regular expression notation and finite automata becomes necessary. Some definitions of the various terms used are described below.

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