Now that we have covered the most important algorithms, it's time to take a look at the internal data representation of extended numerals. This will be the final part in this series of posts.

Ratnums and cplxnums

Recall from my data representations article that fixnums are represented as immediate values, directly within a machine word. Flonums are represented in boxed form, by putting them in an opaque bytevector-like structure.

The data representations of complex numbers and rational numbers are pretty simple. Each have their own type tag, and they both contain two slots: the numerator and denominator in case of rational numbers, and the real and imaginary parts in case of complex numbers.

As you can see in the above diagram, the representations of ratnums and cplxnums are very similar. In the example, the slots contain just fixnums. Rational numbers are the simplest here: they can only contain integers (bignums or fixnums). Complex numbers can consist of any number type except other complex numbers, but the exactness of the real and imaginary components must match. This means you can't have 1.5+2/3i, for example.

In its most complex (haha!) form, a complex number contains a rational number in both the real and the imaginary parts, and these rational numbers both contain bignums as their numerator and denominator. In this situation, the entire complex number takes up a whopping minimum of 29 machine words: 3 words for the wrapper complex number, 2 times 3 words for each of the ratnums, and 4 times 5 words for the bignums inside the ratnums.

We'll now look into why bignums require at least 5 words.


Initially I tried to represent bignums as a kind of opaque bytevector, much like how flonums are stored. Memory-wise this is the best representation as it has no unnecessary overhead: only 2 extra words; one for the header and one for the sign. On a 32-bit machine it would look like this:

This representation is somewhat wasteful, because it uses a full machine word to represent the sign, which is only one bit of information! This is done to keep the bignum digits word-aligned, which is important for performance. The sign could be shoved into the header if we really wanted to be frugal on memory, but doing so would also complicate type detection. Alternatively, we could store the bignum's digits in 2s complement form so the sign is simply the high bit of the top digit, but that complicates several algorithms.

Regarding the "bytevector" part: because the limbs are word-aligned, it makes more sense to represent the size in words rather than bytes. Unfortunately, there's no way to do this with the current data representation of CHICKEN. This was the direct cause of the following bug: Someone tried to represent the largest known prime number in CHICKEN, and it failed to behave correctly because we didn't have enough header bits to represent its size. This was just for fun, so no harm was done, but when someone will actually need such numbers in practice, they're out of luck. One of these days we're going to have to tackle this problem...

Performance takes a hit

When I first integrated the "numbers" egg into CHICKEN 5, I also did some benchmarking. It turned out that my initial version made some benchmarks up to 8 times slower, though on average it would slow things down by a factor of 2. As pointed out by Alex Shinn and Felix Winkelmann, the reason it impacts some benchmarks so badly has to do with allocation.

Let's compile a loop going from zero to n, like so:

;; Very silly code, calculates 100 * 100 in a stupid way
(let lp ((i 0))
  (if (= i 100)
      (* i i)
      (lp (add1 i))))

Originally, in CHICKEN 4 without the full numeric tower, the compiled C code looked like this:

/* lp in k207 in k204 in k201 */
static void C_fcall f_220(C_word t0,C_word t1,C_word t2){
  C_word tmp;
  C_word t3;
  C_word t4;
  C_word t5;
  C_word t6;
  C_word *a;
  if(!C_demand(C_calculate_demand(4, 0, 2))) {
    C_save_and_reclaim_args((void *)trf_220, 3, t0, t1, t2);
  a=C_alloc(4); /* Allocate flonum for overflow situation */
  if(C_truep(C_i_nequalp(t2, C_fix(100)))) {
      C_word av2[2];
      av2[0] = t3;
      av2[1] = C_a_i_times(&a, 2, t2, t2);
      ((C_proc)(void*)(*((C_word*)t3+1)))(2, av2);
  } else {
    t3 = C_a_i_plus(&a, 2, t2, C_fix(1));
    C_trace("test.scm:4: lp");
    goto loop;

It's not much to look at, but this is very close to optimal code: It's a C loop, which allocates a fixed size of memory from the stack/nursery into which it can write the result of + or *, in case they would overflow.

The compiler knows how it can compile + and * to "inlineable" C functions. Many of the most performance-critical functions are built into the compiler like that. But because the compiler (currently) doesn't perform range analysis, it's not smart enough to figure out that none of these operators in this example can cause an overflow. This bites us especially hard when introducing bignums: because we need to assume that any operator may overflow, we must be able to allocate a bignum. And assuming the result of these operators may be bignums, the next iteration of the loop is a bignum. Adding two bignums of unknown sizes together results in another bignum of unknown size.

Because of the above, we can't pre-allocate in a tight C loop. Instead, we must split our loop in two. This is needed to allow the garbage collector to kick in: if you'll recall from the garbage collector post, we need a continuation both for liveness analysis and as a place to jump back to after GC.

One part of our lp calls an allocating procedure, wrapping up the other part in a continuation:

/* k251 in lp in k223 in k220 in k217 in k214 (first part of our "lp") */
static void C_ccall f_253(C_word c, C_word *av) {
  C_word tmp;
  C_word t0 = av[0];
  C_word t1 = av[1];
  C_word t2;
  C_word *a;
  if(!C_demand(C_calculate_demand(0, c, 2))) {
    C_save_and_reclaim((void *)f_253, 2, av);
  C_trace("test.scm:6: lp");
  t2 = ((C_word*)((C_word*)t0)[2])[1];
  f_236(t2, ((C_word*)t0)[3], t1);

/* lp in k223 in k220 in k217 in k214 (second part of our "lp") */
static void C_fcall f_236(C_word t0, C_word t1, C_word t2){
  C_word tmp;
  C_word t3;
  C_word *a;
  if(!C_demand(C_calculate_demand(4, 0, 3))) {
    C_save_and_reclaim_args((void *)trf_236, 3, t0, t1, t2);
  if(C_truep(C_i_nequalp(t2, C_fix(100)))) {
    C_trace("test.scm:5: *");
      C_word av2[4];
      av2[0] = C_SCHEME_UNDEFINED;
      av2[1] = t1;
      av2[2] = t2;
      av2[3] = t2;
  } else {
    /* Allocate continuation of (add1 i), which is the first part (f_253) */
    t3=(*a = C_CLOSURE_TYPE|3, a[1] = (C_word)f_253,
        a[2] = ((C_word*)t0)[2], a[3] = t1, tmp = (C_word)a, a += 4, tmp);
    C_trace("test.scm:6: add1");
      C_word av2[4];
      av2[0] = C_SCHEME_UNDEFINED;
      av2[1] = t3;
      av2[2] = t2;
      av2[3] = C_fix(1);

As you can imagine, allocating a continuation on the stack every time is pretty heavy, and function calling isn't as cheap as a goto loop either. The first part of the loop doesn't even do anything. It just acts as a continuation to be received by the plus call. You can probably imagine how terrible the code would look if we compiled something like (/ (* (+ a b) (+ c d)) 2). That's at least 4 continuations, instead of a few simple statements.

For this reason, my patch was rejected (and rightly so!). The message was clear: code that doesn't use bignums should never pay a performance penalty just because bignums exist.

In order to fix this situation, I had to come up with a radical change to how bignums worked, or face the possibility that a full numeric tower would not make it into CHICKEN 5.

Adding a new "scratch space" memory region

If we want to make the extended numeric operators as fast as the originals, we must be able to inline them. This prevents garbage collection, because we don't get the continuation for an inlined call. But what if they allocate some unknown quantity of memory? We can't allocate on the stack or heap, because that could cause either to fill up, requiring a GC.

So, the obvious solution is to allocate these objects elsewhere. A separate memory space in which bignums can be stored. But what if that space fills up? Don't we need to initiate a GC then? But this is where we're in luck: bignums are not compound objects! They are huge slabs of opaque data, much like strings. Because they can't refer to other objects, we are dealing with a simplified garbage collection problem: only the objects pointing to a bignum need to be updated.

Unfortunately, finding all the live objects that point to a bignum would be quite difficult. Luckily, like many problems in computer science, this can be easily solved by adding another level of indirection. While we're calling inline functions, we can allocate small objects on the stack, which will remain there, never moving until the next GC. We can use this to our advantage: whenever a bignum is needed, we allocate a fixed-size wrapper object on the stack. This object points into the scratch space, where the actual bignum data lives. See the following diagram:

In the diagram, we have a bignum representing the number 24386824307922, which we've put in a list and a vector, and we also have the rational number 1/24386824307922, which refers to the same bignum in its denominator. All these objects can be on the stack or on the heap. We have no control over them; the user can set any object slot to hold the bignum. We do have control over the wrapper object, and only the wrapper object directly points into scratch space. Because bignums are opaque objects in Scheme, the wrapper is invisible. Thus, user code is (in principle) unable to access the wrapper's data slot, so there will be no direct references to the bignum data portion. This means we're free to move it around without updating anything but the wrapper object's slot.

Note that in the scratch space, we also store a back-pointer to the wrapper object's slot. This allows us to update the wrapper object after moving its matching bignum data blob around. This way, we can reallocate the scratch space when more space is needed.

Some of the native functions like Karatsuba multiplication or Burnikel-Ziegler division generate many temporary values. All such hand-written code has been tuned to erase a bignum's back-pointer when that bignum is no longer needed. It makes the code quite a bit hairier, but it allows (limited) garbage collection to be done when reallocating the scratch space.

With this setup, all numeric operations only need to allocate memory to hold a bignum wrapper object. This is a fixed size, much like in CHICKEN 4, and it means numeric operations can once again be inlined!

Oh, and why a bignum takes up 5 words? Well, sometimes we know that a procedure receives 2 fixnums. In that case, we can pre-allocate a bignum for the case when it overflows. Because we know in its maximum size in advance, there's no need for the scratch space; we can just allocate it in the nursery. For uniformity reasons, such a bignum still requires a wrapper object (2 words) and a bignum data blob (3 words: its header, the sign and one limb). This sounds complicated, but it shortens the specialised code for two fixnums, and allocating only in the nursery is also faster.

Some parting thoughts

Adding full numeric tower support has been extremely educational for me. I'm not really a math person, but having a clear goal like this motivated me to dive in deep into the literature. Overall, I'm happy with how it turned out, but there are always improvements.

For example, instead of doing everything in C it would (of course!) be preferable to do it all in Scheme. Unfortunately, CHICKEN's design makes it hard to do this in an efficient way: it's currently impossible to export Scheme procedures that can be called inline (i.e., non-CPS calls) without copying their full code into the call site. If we can find a way, it would be possible to do 90% of the algorithms in Scheme. The principle on which this would be based can be found in an old paper about the Lucid Common Lisp implementation. Basically, you implement a handful of primitives natively, and everything else can be done in Lisp. For example, SBCL is implemented this way too.

As far as I can tell, of the more popular Scheme implementations, Gambit is the only one that actually does this. I've been very impressed with Gambit in general. Besides having pretty readable Scheme code for bignum algorithms, Gambit has some superior bignum algorithms, most get close to (and in rare cases even surpass) GMP performance. This is mostly due to the hard work of Bradley Lucier, a numerical analyst who has also provided useful feedback on some of my work on the numbers egg, and this series of blog posts. He really knows this stuff! Most other Scheme implementations are in C and still pretty slow due to the algorithms they use, unless of course they use GMP.

In CHICKEN, there is a lot of room for optimisations. But I also think we shouldn't try to implement every algorithm under the sun. Things should generally be fast enough to serve the most common cases. Typical code doesn't use bignums, and if it does it's only small bignums (for instance, when using 64-bit integers with the FFI), which is why I think we should optimise for these cases. For example, my implementations of Karatsuba and Burnikel-Ziegler aren't great, so if anyone feels like having a stab at improving these things we already have (or simply replacing them with a better algorithm), please do!