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Understanding V8's Bytecode

V8 is Google’s open source JavaScript engine. Chrome, Node.js, and many other applications use V8. This article explains V8’s bytecode format — which is actually easy to read once you understand some basic concepts.

This post is available in Chinese, translated by justjavac.

Ignition! We have lift-off! Interpreter Ignition is part of our compiler pipeline since 2016.
Ignition! We have lift-off! Interpreter Ignition is part of our compiler pipeline since 2016.

When V8 compiles JavaScript code, the parser generates an abstractsyntax tree. A syntax tree is a tree representation of the syntactic structure of the JavaScriptcode. Ignition, the interpreter, generates bytecode from this syntax tree. TurboFan, the optimizing compiler, eventually takes the bytecode and generates optimized machine code from it.

V8’s compiler pipeline.
V8’s compiler pipeline.

If you want to know why we have two execution modes, you can check out my video from JSConfEU:

Bytecode is an abstraction of machine code. Compiling bytecode to machine code is easier if the bytecode was designed with the same computational model as the physical CPU. This is why interpreters are often register or stack machines. Ignition is a register machine with an accumulator register.

Schematic of high level languages versus machine code.
Schematic of high level languages versus machine code.

You can think of V8's bytecodes as small building blocks that make up any JavaScript functionality when composed together. V8 has several hundred bytecodes. There are bytecodes for operators like Add or TypeOf, or for property loads like LdaNamedProperty. V8 also has some pretty specific bytecodes like CreateObjectLiteralor SuspendGenerator. The header file bytecodes.h defines the complete list of V8’s bytecodes.

Each bytecode specifies its inputs and outputs as register operands. Ignition uses registers r0, r1, r2, ... and an accumulator register. Almost all bytecodes use the accumulator register. It is like a regular register, except that the bytecodes don’t specify it. For example, Add r1 adds the value in register r1 to the value in the accumulator. This keeps bytecodes shorter and saves memory.

Many of the bytecodes begin with Lda or Sta. The a in Lda and Sta stands for accumulator. For example, LdaSmi [42] loads the Small Integer (Smi) 42 into the accumulator register. Star r0 stores the value currently in the accumulator in register r0.

So far the basics, time to look at the bytecode for an actual function.

function incrementX(obj) {
  return 1 + obj.x;

incrementX({x: 42});  // V8’s compiler is lazy if you don’t run a function, it won’t interpret it.

If you want to see V8's bytecode of JavaScript code, you can print it by calling D8 or Node.js (8.3 or higher) with the flag --print-bytecode. For Chrome, start Chrome from the command line with --js-flags="--print-bytecode", see Run Chromium with flags.

$ node --print-bytecode incrementX.js
[generating bytecode for function: incrementX]
Parameter count 2
Frame size 8
  12 E> 0x2ddf8802cf6e @    StackCheck
  19 S> 0x2ddf8802cf6f @    LdaSmi [1]
        0x2ddf8802cf71 @    Star r0
  34 E> 0x2ddf8802cf73 @    LdaNamedProperty a0, [0], [4]
  28 E> 0x2ddf8802cf77 @    Add r0, [6]
  36 S> 0x2ddf8802cf7a @    Return
Constant pool (size = 1)
0x2ddf8802cf21: [FixedArray] in OldSpace
  - map = 0x2ddfb2d02309 <Map(HOLEY_ELEMENTS)>
  - length: 1
            0: 0x2ddf8db91611 <String[1]: x>
Handler Table (size = 16)

We can ignore most of the output and focus on the actual bytecodes. Here is what eachbytecode means, line by line.

LdaSmi [1]

Star r0

LdaNamedProperty a0, [0], [4]

LdaNamedProperty loads a named property of a0 into the accumulator. ai refers to the i-th argument of incrementX(). In this example, we look up a named property on a0, the first argument of incrementX(). The name is determined by the constant 0. LdaNamedProperty uses 0 to look up the name in a separate table:

- length: 1
           0: 0x2ddf8db91611 <String[1]: x>

Here, 0 maps to x. So this bytecode loads obj.x.

What is the operand with value 4 used for? It is an index of the so-called feedback vector of the function incrementX(). The feedback vector contains runtime information that is used for performance optimizations.

Now the registers look like this:

Add r0, [6]

The last instruction adds r0 to the accumulator, resulting in 43. 6 is another index of the feedback vector.


Return returns the value in the accumulator. That is the end of the function incrementX(). The caller of incrementX() starts off with 43 in the accumulator and can further work with this value.

At a first glance, V8’s bytecode might look rather cryptic, especially with all the extra information printed. But once you know that Ignition is a register machine with an accumulator register, you can figure out what most bytecodes do.

Note: The bytecode described here is from V8 version 6.2, Chrome 62, and a (not yet released) version of Node 9. We always work on V8 to improve performance and memory consumption. In other V8 versions, the details might be different.

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