Orc Concepts

Orc Concepts — High-level view of what Orc does.

Orc Concepts

Orc is a compiler for a simple assembly-like language. Unlike most compilers, Orc is primarily a library, which means that all its features can be controlled from any application that uses it. Also unlike most compilers, Orc creates code that can be immediately exectued by the application.

Orc is mainly useful for generating code that performs simple mathematical operations on continguous arrays. An example Orc function, translated to C, might look like:

      void function (int *dest, int *src1, int *src2, int n)
        int i;
	for (i = 0; i < n; i++) {
	  dest[i] = (src1[i] + src2[i] + 1) >> 1;

Orc is primarily targetted toward generating code for vector CPU extensions such as SSE, Altivec, and NEON.

Possible usage patterns:

The application generates Orc code programmatically. Generate Orc programs programmatically at runtime, compile at runtime, and execute. This is what many of the Orc test programs do, and is the most flexible and well-developed method at this time. This requires depending on the Orc library at runtime.

The application developer uses Orc to produce assembly source code that is then compiled into the application. This requires the developer to have Orc installed at build time. The advantage of this method is no Orc dependency at runtime. Disadvantages are a more complex build process, potential for compiler incompatibilities with generated assembly source code, and any Orc improvements require the application to be recompiled.

The application developer writes Orc source files, and compiles them into Orc bytecode to be included in the application. At runtime, Orc compiles the bytecode into executable code. This has the advantage of being easily editable. This method is still somewhat experimental.

A wide variety of additional workflows are possible, although tools are not yet available to make it convenient.


The OrcProgram is the primary object that applications use when using Orc to create code. It contains all the information related to what is essentially a function definition in C. Orc programs can be compiled into assembly source code, or directly into binary code that can be executed as part of the running process. On CPUs that are not supported, programs can also be executed via emulation. Orc programs can also be compiled into C source code.

A program contains one or more instructions and operates on one or more source and destination arrays, and may use scalar parameters. When compiled and executed, or emulated, the instructions define the operations performed on each source array member, and the results are placed in the destination array. Another way of thinking about it is that the compiler generates code that iterates over the destination array, calculating the value of each members based on the program instructions and the corresponding values in the source arrays and scalar parameters.

The form of programs is strictly limited so that they may be compiled into vector instructions effectively. It is anticipated that future versions of Orc will allow more complex programs.

The arrays that Orc programs operate on must be contiguous.

Some example operations are "addw" which adds two 16-bit integers, "convsbw" which converts a signed byte to a signed 16-bit integer, and "minul" which selects the lesser of two 32-bit unsigned integers. Orc only checks that the size of the operand matches the size of the variable. Thus, the compiler will not warn against using "minul" with signed 32-bit integers, because it does not know that the variables are signed or unsigned.

Orc has a main set of opcodes, that is, an OrcOpcodeSet, with the name "sys". These opcodes are always available. They cover most common arithmetic and conversion instructions for 8, 16, and 32-bit integers. There are two auxiliary libraries that provide additional opcode sets, the liborc-float library that contains the "float" opcode set for 32 and 64-bit floating point operations, and the liborc-pixel library containing the "pixel" opcode set for operations on 32-bit RGBA pixels.

Orc programs are compiled using the function orc_program_compile(). The compiled code will be targetted for the current processor, which is useful for compiling code that will be immediately executed. Compiling for other processor families or processor family variants, in order to produce assembly source code, can be accomplished using one of the orc_program_compile variants.

Once an Orc program is compiled, it can be executed by creating an OrcExecutor structure, linking it to the program to be executed, setting the arrays and parameters, and setting the iteration count. Orc executors are the equivalent of stack frames in a called function in normal C code. However, all Orc programs use the same OrcExecutor structure, which makes code that manipulates executors simpler in respect to those that manipulate stack frames. Executors can be reused.

An OrcTarget represents a particular instruction set or CPU family for which code can be generated. Current targets include MMX, SSE, Altivec, NEON, and ARM. There is also a special target that generates C source code, but is not capable of producing executable code at runtime. In most cases, the default target is the most appropriate target for the current CPU.

Individual Orc targets may have various options that control code generation for that target. For example, the various CPUs handled by the SSE target have different subsets of SSE instructions that are supported. The target flags for SSE enable generation of the different subsets of SSE instructions.

In order to produce target code, the Orc compiler finds an appropriate OrcRule to translate the instruction to target code. An OrcRuleSet is an array of rules that all have the required target flags, and a target may have one or more rule sets that can be enabled or disabled based on the target flags. In many cases, Orc instructions can be translated into one or two target instructions, which generates fast code. In other cases, the CPU indicated by the target and target flags does not have a fast method of performing the Orc instruction, and a slower method is chosen. This is indicated in the value returned by the compiling function call. In yet other cases, there is no implemented rule to translate an Orc instruction to target code, so compilation fails.

Compilation can fail for one of two main reasons. One reason is that the compiler was unable to parse the correct meaning, such as an unknown opcode, undeclared variable, or a size mismatch. These are uncorrectible errors, and the program cannot be executed or emulated. The other reason for a compilation failure is that target code could not be generated for a variety of reasons, including missing rules or unimplemented features. In this case, the program can be emulated. This process occurs automatically.

Emulation is generally slower than corresponding C code. Since the Orc compiler can produce C source code, it is possible to generate and compile backup C code for programs. This process is not yet automatic.

Extending Orc

Developers can extend Orc primarily by adding new opcode sets, adding new targets, and by adding new target rules.

Additional opcode sets can be created and registered in a manner similar to how the liborc-float and liborc-pixel libraries. In order to make full use of new opcode sets, one must also define rules for translating these opcodes into target code. The example libraries do this by registering rule sets for various targets (mainly SSE) for their opcode sets. Orc provides low-level API for generating target code. Not all possible target instructions can be generated with the target API, so developers may need to modify and add functions to the main Orc library as necessary to generate target code.