Explicit Call Stack Implementation

As part of an MSR internship, a prototype implementation of some of the explicit call stack passing transform has been done within GHC as a new pass. This page outlines an example of usage, sketches some implementation details should someone want to take it further, and details future work / problems that need addressing.


There are several examples in the testsuite patch, and also in the blog post above. The gist is:

Imagine you have the following source program:

module Main where

import Control.Exception

main :: IO ()
main = do
  baz `seq` return ()

bar str = error str
baz = bar "crash!\n"

Compile and run this and the program will predictably fail with an error message.

$ ~/ghc/ghc/ghc/stage2-inplace/ghc.exe --make -o Eek Eek.hs
$ ./Eek.exe 
Eek.exe: crash!

To build up a call stack, the program needs a bit of rewriting to the following form:

{-# OPTIONS_GHC -fexplicit-call-stack #-}
module Main where

import GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Annotation
import GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Stack
import Control.Exception

main :: IO ()
main = do
  baz `seq` return ()

{-# ANN bar Debug #-}
bar str = throwStack (\s -> ErrorCall $ str ++ show s)

{-# ANN baz Debug #-}
baz = bar "crash!\n"

The changes needed are:

  • indicating we want to run the explicit-call-stack pass by telling GHC, either via an options pragma or compile time flag.
  • importing GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Annotation to bring the annotation Debug into scope.
  • importing GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Stack to bring throwStack into scope
  • indicating that bar and baz should be rewritten to explicitly pass the stack by decorating them with a Debug annotation
  • replacing error with the primitive throwStack that can access the Stack and throw an exception

Compile and run now, and you get:

$ ./Eek.exe 
Eek.exe: crash!
in bar, Eek.hs:13,11
in baz, Eek.hs:16,7
in main, Eek.hs:10,3

Alternatively, the user can indicate instead that all functions should be rewritten to pass a stack (-fexplicit-call-stack-all), and thus not require the annotations:

{-# OPTIONS_GHC -fexplicit-call-stack-all #-}
module Main where

import GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Stack
import Control.Exception

main :: IO ()
main = do
  baz `seq` return ()

bar str = throwStack (\s -> ErrorCall $ str ++ show s)

baz = bar "crash!\n"

Which gives a slightly different output of:

$ ./Eek.exe 
Eek.exe: crash!
in bar, Eek.hs:11,11
in baz, Eek.hs:13,7
in main, Eek.hs:9,3
in main, Eek.hs:8,1

as main has also been rewritten to accept a stack...



Several flags have been added in the patch:

  • -fexplicit-call-stack which actually enables or disables the core pass. It also implies -fno-method-sharing which makes the core look a little more like you would intuitively expect and thus easier to write the transform for.
  • -fexplicit-call-stack-all which tells the core pass to ignore Debug annotations and just rewrite every top level binding. It also implies -fexplicit-call-stack to enable the core pass, and -fno-method-sharing as above.
  • -ddump-ecs which dumps the core after the explicit call stack phase has run
  • -fds-simple which causes the desugarer to massivly simplify how it translates mutually recursive functions with typeclass/type parameter arguments.


The pass uses GHC Annotations for two purposes. The first is to allow the user to guide which functions get rewritten for debugging purposes. The second is to record the link between the original function, and it's debug-rewritten form.

The annotations live in the module GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Annotations that have been added to the package template-haskell. (There is a dependency on TH Names in the annotations hence this package).

This module is tiny:

{-# LANGUAGE DeriveDataTypeable #-}
module GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Annotation where

import Language.Haskell.TH
import Data.Data

data Debug = Debug
  deriving (Data, Typeable)
data Debugged = Debugged { fromDebugged :: Name }
  deriving (Data, Typeable)

We need Data and Typeable so the Debug and Debugged constructors can be serialized using the default annotation serialization scheme.

  • The Debug annotation we have already seen, and is used by the core pass to establish which functions should have a stack accepting form generated.
  • The Debugged annotation is placed onto the core during the explicit call stack pass. The annotation is associated with the original function, and the fromDebugged field is given the template-haskell Name of the version of the function that accepts and threads through the call stack.

Source locations

In order to give helpful stack traces, the source locations of program variables had to be persisted into GHC Core somehow. The chosen route for this was to add a new type of Core Note:

data Note
  = ...
  | CoreSrcLoc SrcSpan

These are then sprinkled into the core by the desugarer see (dsExpr. Basically every variable reference becomes wrapped in a {{{Note (CoreSrcLoc loc) _}}}.

A utility pass was also written and added to simplCore/ called StripSrrcLocNote that removes all these notes again. This is used in e.g. desugaring RULES to make sure the patterns don't get clobbered.

However this is a bit messy. It could be better to add an explicit phase in the pipeline which goes

HSSyn --desugarer--> Expr SrcLocAnnotatedVar --passes that safely work with src locs--> Expr SrcLocAnnotatedVar --strip anns--> CoreExpr --rest of pipeline--> ...

Alternatively, HPC works fine on HSSyn, maybe that'd be a better target for this work.

The transform

The transform itself lives in callStackCore/SimpleDebugTranslate. The entry point is stackPassTransform. Beacause of the need for annotations (and hence transitively template haskell), most of the module is conditionally compiled with an #ifdef GHCI.

The pass transforms a module by the following:

  • Building up a mapping of variable names in the current module that are to be _debugged_ (i.e. to have a stack-accepting variant generated), and allocating the names for these debugged variants. buildLocalDebuggedMap
  • Actually doing the rewriting of all bindings in the module (processBind)
    • Those bindings that are to have a stack-accpeting variant generated have that generated, and their original expression is rewritten to forward to the new variant.
    • All other bindings are rewritten so that any references to any functions with Debugged annotations instead call the fromDebugged field.
  • Adding all of the new Debugged annotations into the current pipeline and into the ModGuts for persisting into the interface file. (mkAndSetAnnotations).

The actual rewriting performs a fairly dumb transform:

f = e

will be rewritten to

f = f' (pushStack #currentsrcloc# emptyStack)
f' = \stack -> [[e]]_stack

where [[e]]_stack replaces any variable x with a Debugged x' annotation with x' (pushStack #currentsrcloc# stack).

The rewriting also recognises the special function throwStack and replaces it with roughly \f -> throw (f stack).


The library for the actual runtime callstacks lives in GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Stack in package base. The stack has been designed to abstract away recursion (since otherwise that would kill performance/memory usage given that iteration has to use recursion).

The high level view of the stack design is this:

Imagine you have a real call stack, e.g.

error in top!
      in a
      in b
      in c
      in c
      in c
      in d
      in b

Our abstracted call stack would be built by keeping the first occurance of any element (from the top of the stack), and replacing any later occurences by a sentinal value (hereafter ...). These sentinal values collapse together if they would ever be adjacent.

i.e, walking down the above stack from the top, we would build up:

                                                                      in top!
                                                            in top!   in a
                                        in top!   in top!   in a      in b
                              in top!   in a      in a      in b      in c
                    in top!   in a      in b      in b      in c      ...
          in top!   in a      in b      in c      in c      ...       in d
in top!   in a      in b      in c      ...       ...       in d      ...

Alternatively, building up as though we were pusing elements onto the stack one by one:

                                          in top!
                                    in a  in a
                              in b  in b  in b
                  in c  in c  in c  in c  in c
            in c  ...   ...   ...   ...   ...
      in d  in d  in d  in d  in d  in d  in d
in b  in b  in b  in b  in b  ...   ...   ...

The stack data structure represents the sentinal elements implicitly by having two constructors to represent an element on top of another stack; Then, and RecursionThen (for the sentinal). Loosly, our final stack in the examples above would be:

top `Then` a `Then` b `Then` c `RecursionThen` d `RecursionThen` Empty

In order to prevent a large number of stacks being allocated and held live, each stack holds an MVar to a Hashtable of stack elements to new stacks. This table is used to memoise push calls.

Open Problems

There are several open problems and incomplete corners in the implementation

Some are mentioned here, they are elaborated on more fully in the paper, linked above.


It would be useful if many prelude functions (c.f. error and a few of it's cousins) could have Debugged variants available, so e.g. fromJust or head errors could be detected more easily.

However, In order for the pass to work, it requires at least a stage 2 compiler. This is because the annotations system uses template haskell in order to evaluate annotation expressions. This means that the libraries would need rebuilding with the stage 2 compiler, which may make things a bit messy. It may also induce some horrible dependencies between base and template-haskell - (Prelude needing to import GHC.ExplicitCallStack.Annotations, etc.


Partial record selectors are currently written with a specialsed error function. The pass could try and special case to detect these, or a solving of the bootstrapping problem above would allow a debugged version of the specialised error function to be generated.

Type Classes

Type classes provide many interesting problems; some theoretical, some pragmatic

  • I have a section outlining some approaches in the paper

Source locations in AbsBinds

AbsBinds currently don't store source locations for the binding group accurately. This shows up in a couple of the tests in the testsuite in the patch. I havn't had chance to investigate this properly, but it should be relatively straightforward to fix.

Late Debugging

There is currently a big open question about how or whether it would be possible to create debugged versions of functions without recompiling / changing that module. Maybe I have a library and I want to pass a call-stack down inside there.

Higher order functions

Also discussed in the paper

Last modified 6 years ago Last modified on Dec 5, 2013 9:09:37 AM