We're getting close to a CHICKEN 5 release, so let's take a look at the cool new stuff!

Overhaul of built-in modules

The biggest change you'll notice when you fire up CHICKEN and start to use it is that the modules that come shipped with core are completely different from CHICKEN 4. The functionality is mostly the same, but we moved things around (a lot!) to make things more logical.

This is also the main reason we decided to bump the major version number: the modules have different names, procedures have been renamed, merged or dropped.

You can take a look at the complete list in the CHICKEN 5 manual. We've taken the module layout from R7RS small as inspiration, but since CHICKEN is still an R5RS Scheme first (with r7rs being an optional extension) we had to make some changes.

So, we define a scheme module which contains the entire R5RS language. For everything that is a CHICKEN-specific extension to standard R5RS Scheme, we put it under a (chicken ...) name, which tries to follow the R7RS naming conventions.

For example, R7RS defines a (scheme process-context) module with the following procedures:

  • command-line
  • exit
  • emergency-exit
  • get-environment-variable
  • get-environment-variables

Likewise, CHICKEN defines a (chicken process-context) module, which is a superset of the corresponding R7RS module. Take a look at its manual page; you can see that it defines many more procedures, but it includes all the standard ones too.

By using the R7RS names but with scheme replaced by chicken, the new modules should be easy to remember for anyone used to R7RS. Of course, you can still write portable standard R7RS programs via the r7rs egg, which defines a 100% compatible (scheme process-context) module with only the R7RS identifiers.

There is one important caveat: Because our scheme modules exports everything from R5RS Scheme, we don't provide, say, a (chicken cxr) module for all the cadadr, caddar and so on, because those are all in scheme. This also means that the (chicken load) module does not export load; that's already in scheme. Instead, it defines various non-standard CHICKEN extensions like load-relative and such.

Saner module imports

Speaking of modules, we've improved the way modules are linked into user code. In CHICKEN 4, there's a very strict distinction between modules and (compilation) units. This was an endless source of confusion for beginners. For example, why did (import foo) give an error when you tried to actually refer to an identifier from the foo module? That's because import didn't actually load the code, just the import library. To actually load the code and import the library, you needed (use foo). You could also load the code without importing it via (require-library foo). This should help with cross-compilation. The idea was that you would only need to load the import library on the host, and have the library itself compiled for the target, but in practice you needed to compile the library twice anyway (once on the host, once for the target).

We got rid of this mess: now the canonical way to import the foo library is simply (import foo). For more info, see this post by Felix outlining how to improve imports.

Full numeric tower

Of course, support for the full numeric tower is a personal favorite of mine, having spent a lot of time to perfect this stuff!

Most importantly, this means you no longer need to worry about integer computations over- or underflowing into a flonum and all the weird floating-point problems that entails. Bignums are also a necessity when dealing with 64-bit numeric C types in the FFI. For example, we finally support the size_t type correctly. To me, complex numbers and exact fractions (aka rational numbers) are a nice added bonus, as you could already get them before with the numbers egg. However, by having these types built-in, they're more efficient and you don't have to worry about passing these numbers to code that can't handle them because support happened not to be compiled in.

Take some time to read my blog series about the numeric tower if you're interested in the details.

Declarative egg description language

The chicken-install program to install eggs was rewritten along with all the surrounding tools. The main reason to do this was to make the life of package maintainers easier.

The old version of chicken-install would download, build, install and (optionally) run the unit tests as part of one command. If any dependencies were missing, it would also recursively download, build, install and run tests for those as well. The new version cleanly separates these steps, by generating shell scripts (batch files on Windows) that can do the necessary actions to build and install.

To make this easier, we also had to re-think the egg "language". In CHICKEN 4, a .setup-file was simply a Scheme program in which a few helper procedures were available for calling the compiler. This means it's impossible to create a simple shell script that will separate the build and install steps. That's why we now have a separate, declarative file which describes the components of an egg. See the .egg file documentation for a concrete example.

The rewritten chicken-install will now also cache eggs to avoid re-downloading the same eggs again and again. By default the cache is stored in a dot-directory under the user's home directory. This can be overridden with the CHICKEN_EGG_CACHE environment variable, which might also help package maintainers take the distributed files from another location.

See these design notes for more information about the goals and motivations behind the rewrite.

Improved support for static compilation

In principle, CHICKEN 4 has good support for static compilation. In practice, egg authors would not include the necessary commands for building their libraries statically. Most people don't have a real need for static linking, which means they tend not to make an effort to support it just in case someone else might need it.

The upshot of this was that you could only really compile programs statically when they didn't use any eggs, or if you created a custom build script that would compile the eggs manually with the required -static option. With the new chicken-install, you get static compilation support automatically, for free.

Note that in CHICKEN 4, you could also build eggs and programs using the so-called deployment mode. This allowed shipping a program with all its libraries in one directory. This worked quite well if your target platform supported it, but not all platforms did. Static compilation covers all the use cases that deployment supported and works reliably on all platforms, so we decided to drop deployment mode with all the complexity it brings.

Other noteworthy things

But wait, there's more!

  • Code generation is now fully deterministic, making builds reproducible. This allows you to verify that any given file of generated C code corresponds to the Scheme source code by recompiling it with the same CHICKEN version, both for user code and for CHICKEN core itself. As an added bonus, because the generated C output is deterministic, ccache can be used to get much faster builds (before, it would invalidate the cache as each file would be different).
  • We've improved how symbols are garbage collected, which was optional and somewhat broken in CHICKEN 4. This will speed up code that generates many symbols, and stops symbol table stuffing attacks from being a threat.
  • We have removed quite a bit of bloat: The srfi-1, srfi-13, srfi-14, srfi-69 and srfi-18 libraries have been removed from core! Not to worry though; they are now available as eggs. This will both allow faster development and encourage innovation and competition from alternatives to these non-essential libraries (especially R7RS-large seems to be geared towards renewal of some of these). We've also moved several non-SRFI procedures from core: object-evict, compile-file, binary-search, procedures for dealing with queues, scan-input-lines and POSIX group-information have all been moved to eggs. Support for SWIG has been removed, as it was bit-rotting and nobody seemed to be using it anyway.
  • Ports can now be bi-directional, so there's no more unnecessary distinction between input-ports and output ports. This maps more cleanly to file descriptor semantics, which can also be opened for both reading and writing.
  • Random number generation has been completely replaced. Before, we used libc's rand(), which produces very low quality random numbers. CHICKEN 5 uses the WELL512 PRNG to generate random integers, and it provides access to the system entropy pool for generating cryptographically secure streams of random bytes (using /dev/urandom on *nix, and RtlGenRandom on Windows).

Conclusion

There's a lot to like about the new CHICKEN, so go ahead and give it a spin! Release candidate 1 was made available today for you to try. The full list of changes can of course be found in the NEWS file. If you're already a happy CHICKEN 4 user, we've created a porting guide for you, to make it easier to make the transition from 4 to 5. If you need more help, you can of course contact the always friendly CHICKEN community.

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