Code-generating Away the Boilerplate in Our Migration Back to Spidermonkey

| | c++ metaprogramming embedding javascript

If creativity emerges from constraint, then embedding a JavaScript engine into your database server is a recipe for creativity.

We’ve worked with the internals of a lot of different JavaScript engines, and one thing stands out: JavaScript is hard to embed for anything but the most trivial uses. To do it well, without writing a ton of mind-numbing and maintenance-hostile duplicode, we had to use a wide slice of the code-generating capabilities of C++ in concert. In our most recent migration from the V8 engine back to SpiderMonkey, we eliminated boilerplate by:

  • Generating callbacks with unique template instantiations
  • Implementing type integrations through policy based class design
  • Generating callbacks with constrained method invocation with compile time type lists
  • Utilizing a Lippincott function to provide C++ and Javascript exception interchangeability

I’ve put together a compiling walkthrough of these techniques in use, but before we get there, an examination of the prevailing context is in order...

Hang on… most recent migration? You mean there’s been more than one?

An embedded JavaScript interpreter has been a fundamental part of MongoDB since its inception, but the particular implementation has changed five times. Pre-release versions experimented with the V8 engine from the Chromium project and a homegrown solution based on transcoding to Java. Those experiments resulted in performance and ease of deployment concerns, so for the 0.9 release we switched to SpiderMonkey, the interpreter from Firefox, and stuck with that through version 2.2. In version 2.4, to achieve greater performance, we swapped over to V8, which by then was much more mature.

For the 3.2 release, we went back to SpiderMonkey -- which had in the meanwhile become a very different engine, geared towards a C++ rather than C API. A variety of needs forced our hand: platforms we wanted to support, tools we wanted to use and most importantly, a fundamental mismatch between our execution model and V8. It had suited us well when we first migrated to it, but over the years it had evolved to the point that we could not adopt new versions. This stranded us on an unsupported version for several very uncomfortable releases.

V8 is multi-process, MongoDB is single process with multiple threads

At the most basic level, we migrated away from V8 because Chrome has a process per tab resource model. If a tab dies, Chrome is perfectly happy to open a new one, so it can treat out-of-memory errors as fatal. MongoDB cannot. Its user operations are implemented as threads, giving them the shared access to memory they need to perform well under highly concurrent workloads; we cannot permit the server to quit just because one operation is out of control. Version 3.12 of V8 -- the one we integrated into MongoDB 2.4 -- offered an API to soft-constrain memory usage, but later versions removed this feature. That trapped us on an old and unsupported version of that software, which in turn prevented us from upgrading our compiler toolchain, as bugs in older versions of V8 prevented it from compiling on newer compilers. That in turn prevented us from supporting more architectures, and was in general a regular source of bugs, only some of which we were able to find viable workarounds for.

For 3.2 we decided that status quo was simply no longer acceptable to us. Seeking to avoid the effort of migrating to another engine, we tested the feasibility of using V8 out of process. That approach would have involved a separate pool of child processes for executing JavaScript, and some sort of IPC to communicate with them. While that would have provided the ideal amount of security and resource isolation, the cost of moving large documents between processes, let alone the overhead of regular context switching just isn’t something that can be optimized away.

Return to SpiderMonkey Island

So, migration it was. Back to SpiderMonkey, in fact.

SpiderMonkey has several qualities that make it the most suitable option for our needs1. Most importantly, its process model is most like ours, with a single process for the browser and threads for tabs. This necessitates better tools for constraining memory and managing resource exhaustion. In addition, Firefox (and thereby SpiderMonkey) is available on the greatest number of platforms. In addition to its high performance JIT, it also has a baseline interpreter in C++ that ensures that any architecture capable of hosting a reasonable distribution of Linux can also run Firefox. And as icing on the cake, the Mozilla Foundation offers extended support releases of Firefox that offer security fixes for a year; annual maintenance affords us a substantially more manageable integration than the six-week fix cycles we had with V8.

Metaprogramming away the boilerplate

When someone uses the MongoDB shell to assign documents from a query result into an array, they write that in what appears to be pure JavaScript. But inside the server, the activity crosses the boundary between memory managed by the storage engine and SpiderMonkey. What is more, much of the data in those documents consists of primitive types not found in stock JavaScript.

Embedding each of those types requires a host of lifecycle bindings, methods, and associated wrapper code. All three of these will need to be crafted by imperative call after imperative call, and their identity stored in a manner accessible to us at runtime, so that we can bless types into their roles and understand what we’re looking at when they’re passed to us in lifecycle or method invocation callbacks.

Rigging types and adapting a codebase to SpiderMonkey means a ton of boilerplate. And if you want multithreading, multiply all that by N.

There are also several impedance mismatches between the kind of C++ SpiderMonkey wants us to use and the kind we actually have and can reliably ask our co-workers to write. SpiderMonkey will crash if a callback throws, so exceptions must be trapped. To safely handle C++ data attached to JS objects, piles of boilerplate will need to be invoked. And utf8 strings have to be squared with the 16 bit chars SpiderMonkey uses internally.

Rigging up your own types and adapting your particular codebase to SpiderMonkey’s requirements means a ton of boilerplate. And if you want multithreading, you need to multiply all of the above by N.

What is more, many SpiderMonkey API calls take a lot of function pointer arguments, so you get no help from the compiler about the correctness of your rigging. With 25 types to wrap and over 75 functions involved in our integration, it was worth putting real effort into automating all that with good code generation.

Implementing an int64_t in SpiderMonkey, from top to bottom

I wrote a heavily commented walkthrough of what it takes to embed a single type -- int64_t -- into SpiderMonkey. It starts with a demonstration of how you would do it without any code generation, and without any error checking. Next I add error checking, which adds a lot more boilerplate. Then I get down to the metaprogramming business.

A quick rundown of a SpiderMonkey integration

Understanding how our design alleviates clarity, safety, and maintainability problems requires a little familiarity with the details of the SpiderMonkey API. You just need enough to be oriented, so that you can focus on code technique. This walkthrough is not a tutorial on embedding SpiderMonkey -- for that, refer to the SpiderMonkey documentation.

The SpiderMonkey API uses a lot of handles-- objects that coordinate memory sharing between outside code and the garbage collected world of SpiderMonkey. Any time you see a JS::HandleObject, JS::MutableHandleObject, or JSHandleValue, that’s a handle. Those handles are used to trace pointers known outside of SpiderMonkey, to prevent them from being GC'd and ensure they aren't moved during compaction. And at the top, we have the “context”, which owns the various heap-based “arenas” containing garbage collected objects. Our C++ code will have to talk to, know about, and track movement of these objects.

Any time you see JS::<Anything>, that’s a SpiderMonkey API component, as are the other classes and functions prefixed with ‘JS’.

A simple int64_t with no error checking

Imagine for a moment that you've read and implemented something from the SpiderMonkey hello world, and that you've come to terms with the way they track garbage collected objects.

You've taken care of initializing the runtime, created a context and global scope object and wrapped it all up in a Read Eval Print Loop. Now your application can take JavaScript in and process its output in some rudimentary way (perhaps printing to standard out). At this point, you realize that you'd like one of your callbacks to return an integer value, specifically one that requires 64 bits to fully represent.

You could go the route of returning a string, except that all of the encoding and decoding will be quite expensive.

You could use a double, except that values over 2^53 will experience rounding due to a lack of resolution (standard IEEE 754 doubles only hold 52 bits of mantissa).

But all of those seem a little too error prone and not quite as flexible as you'd like, so you opt for a custom type. It will encapsulate a heap allocated C++ int64_t and will expose a few methods as accessors. You'd like your shim to create objects of this type, check if an object you are handed is one of them and ensure that all of this is resilient to adversarial use (so avoid crashes, use after frees, etc).

Without any scaffolding, you might start off with something like this: (Note that we do something very similar to represent 64 bit signed integers faithfully in the mongo shell)

The actual type you're adapting. For now we'll make it a simple wrapper around an int64_t

struct MyType {
    int64_t val;
};

Now we'll wrap up all of the various handles we'll need into SpiderMonkey to shim our type into the environment.

Any type we want to adapt to the SpiderMonkey environment will require some code that closely resembles the boilerplate below.

class AdaptedMyType {
public:
    // Assume that the context has been initialized and that
    // the global object has already been created.
    //
    // The context object is a handle to the javascript
    // execution environment, with it's own callstack, heap,
    // etc.
    //
    // The global object is the top level scope where global
    // variables go.  I.e. if you execute "x = 10;" the
    // global object will then hold { x : 10 }
    AdaptedMyType(JSContext ctx, JS::HandleObject global)
        : _context(ctx),

          // A jsclass can be thought of as the vtable
          // behind a type.  We attach lifecycle methods to
          // it which, when present, modify behavior.  Most
          // of these fields are empty in this example
          // because we don’t want to specialize their
          // behavior.  As an example, providing an
          // enumerate function would specialize field
          // lookup on our type.
          _jsclass{
              "MyType",
              JSCLASS_HAS_PRIVATE,
              nullptr,  // addProperty
              nullptr,  // delProperty
              nullptr,  // getProperty
              nullptr,  // setProperty
              nullptr,  // enumerate
              nullptr,  // resolve
              nullptr,  // convert
              AdaptedMyType::finalize,
              nullptr,  // call
              nullptr,  // hasInstance
              AdaptedMyType::construct,
          },

          // The JavaScript prototype object for the type
          // we’re adapting will hold a value returned from
          // JS_InitClass.  That helper is provided by
          // SpiderMonkey and wraps up binding of methods,
          // constructors, etc.
          _proto(
              _context,
              JS_InitClass(
                  _context,
                  global,         // global scope to install into
                  JS::NullPtr(),  // parent of the prototype
                  &_jsclass,
                  construct,
                  0,        // hint # of args to constructor
                  nullptr,  // instance property spec, i.e.
                            // attributes
                  methods,  // instance function spec, i.e.
                            // methods
                  nullptr,  // static property spec
                  nullptr   // static function spec
                  )) {}

    // We'll use this function to make new objects of our
    // desired type from C++
    void newObject(JS::MutableHandleObject out) {
        out.set(JS_NewObject(_context, &_jsclass, _proto));
    }

    // Check if an object is of this type
    bool instanceOf(JS::HandleObject object) {
        return JS_InstanceOf(
            _context, object, &_jsclass, nullptr);
    }

private:
    // Every JSContext will hold an instance of our adapter
    // type in which the bookkeeping specific to that
    // context is done.  Thus we provide a function here to
    // get the specific adapter needed for the given context
    // object.  The implementation is elided here for
    // brevity.
    static AdaptedMyType& fromContext(JSContext cx);

    // We specialize finalization of our adapted type by
    // fetching our private C++ implementation out of it and
    // calling delete.  This is called when the JS object is
    // GC’d.
    static void finalize(JSFreeOp fop, JSObject obj) {
        // JS_Get/Set_Private() provides access to a special
        // void attached to a given JSObject. We use it to
        // store a heap allocated MyType that holds the data
        // we care about.
        auto ptr = static_cast<MyType>(JS_GetPrivate(obj));
        if (ptr)
            delete ptr;
    }

    // Our constructor is of the form MyType("12345").  That
    // allows us to bind integers that can't be represented
    // by a double.
    static bool construct(JSContext cx,
                          unsigned argc,
                          JS::Value vp) {
        auto args = JS::CallArgsFromVp(argc, vp);

        JS::RootedString str(cx, args.get(0).toString());

        // SpiderMonkey strings are utf16 internally,
        // JSAutoByteString manages converting to utf8
        // safely
        JSAutoByteString bstr(cx, str);
        auto val = std::atoll(bstr.ptr());

        auto myType = std::make_unique(MyType{val});

        JS::RootedObject out(cx);
        fromContext(cx).newObject(&out);
        JS_SetPrivate(out, myType.release());

        args.rval().setObjectOrNull(out);

        return true;
    }

    static bool toNumber(JSContext cx,
                         unsigned argc,
                         JS::Value vp) {
        auto args = JS::CallArgsFromVp(argc, vp);

        auto ptr = static_cast(
            JS_GetPrivate(args.thisv().toObjectOrNull()));
        args.rval().setNumber(
            static_cast(ptr->val));

        return true;
    }

    static bool toString(JSContext cx,
                         unsigned argc,
                         JS::Value vp) {
        auto args = JS::CallArgsFromVp(argc, vp);

        auto ptr = static_cast(
            JS_GetPrivate(args.thisv().toObjectOrNull()));
        auto str = std::to_string(ptr->val);
        JS::RootedString rstr(
            cx, JS_NewStringCopyZ(cx, str.c_str()));
        args.rval().setString(rstr);

        return true;
    }

    static constexpr JSFunctionSpec methods[] = {
        JS_FS("toNumber", &toNumber, 0, 0),
        JS_FS("toString", &toString, 0, 0),
        JS_FS_END,
    };

    JSContext* _context;
    JSClass _jsclass;
    JS::PersistentRootedObject _proto;
};

Same boilerplate, but dealing with safety

While this is enough to work, it's worth noting a number of things that we're not doing that make this an unsafe integration:

  1. The vast majority of SpiderMonkey calls can fail. All of them need to have their error returns checked.
  2. SpiderMonkey requires that callbacks not throw. We need to make sure that exceptions are trapped and that callbacks return false when they are.
  3. An adversarial user of our library can invoke the methods we've created on our prototype (which only holds a nullptr) or on completely unrelated types (where the JS_GetPrivate call may read completely arbitrary data). We need to constrain method invocation to objects of the correct type.

Let's see what that looks like for toNumber. (Assume a Lippincott function that encodes a C++ exception as a JavaScript exception.)

void cppToJSException(JSContext* cx);

static bool toNumber(JSContext* cx,
                     unsigned argc,
                     JS::Value* vp) {
    try {
        auto args = JS::CallArgsFromVp(argc, vp);

        if (!args.thisv().isObject()) {
            throw std::runtime_error(std::string(
                "MyType::toNumber can only be called on "
                "objects"));
        }

        JS::RootedObject obj(cx,
                             args.thisv().toObjectOrNull());

        if (!fromContext(cx).instanceOf(obj)) {
            throw std::runtime_error(std::string(
                "MyType::toNumber can only be called on "
                "objects of type MyType"));
        }

        if (fromContext(cx)._proto == obj) {
            throw std::runtime_error(std::string(
                "MyType::toNumber can't be called on the "
                "prototype"));
        }

        auto ptr = static_cast<MyType*>(
            JS_GetPrivate(args.thisv().toObjectOrNull()));
        args.rval().setNumber(
            static_cast<double>(ptr->val));

        return true;
    } catch (...) {
        cppToJSException(cx);
        return false;
    }
}

Oodles of boilerplate

Now repeat that kind of logic for all of the other callbacks.

And after we've made our first integration robust, let's look at what we'll have to do for our second, third and 20th type.

  1. There's a lot of boiler plate floating around, and much of it is quite typo prone (the JSClass and JS_InitClass invocations will be easy to screw up once we start adding pointers). For example, you might want to provide a addProperty handler, but accidentally put it in the delProperty slot. The type system will not help you.
  2. Small changes in functionality involve large changes to our boilerplate. As an example, if we'd like to make a type without a globally visible constructor, we actually won't be able to use JS_InitClass (not only does it expose a global constructor, but deleting the exposed constructor later will prevent prototype lookup due to an optimization within JS_InitClass).

What sort of tricks can we imagine doing to save ourselves that boilerplate? We could attack it with manual codegen, but first lets see what C++ can natively give us.

Per-callback template instantiations

We'll need something with the correct signature for SpiderMonkey and we'll need unique function pointers per callback. The obvious solution is drive template instantiations per callback, which we can make unique by making each callback a type.

template <typename T>
bool wrapFunction(JSContext* cx,
                  unsigned argc,
                  JS::Value* vp) {
    try {
        JS::CallArgs args = JS::CallArgsFromVp(argc, vp);
        T::call(cx, args);
        return true;
    } catch (...) {
        cppToJSException(cx);
        return false;
    }
}

Now our users just write their callbacks of the form:

struct Callback {
    static const char* name() {
        return "CallbackName";
    };
    static void call(JSContext* cx, JS::CallArgs args);
};

And they can throw if they want, don't have to worry about early returns and always get their exceptions massaged.

That's great for any free functions, or those that don't rely on opaque private pointers, but what about those additional method constraints?

Constraining methods

Let's imagine a function which takes an object and checks it against several types like AdaptedMyType. It returns a tuple of bools where:

  1. The given type is one of the Args types
  2. The given type is the prototype of one of the given types.
template <typename T, typename... Args>
std::tuple<bool, bool> instanceOf(JSContext* cx,
                                  JS::HandleValue value);

// Now provide a generator for all constrained methods.
template <typename T, bool noProto, typename... Args>
bool wrapConstrainedMethod(JSContext* cx,
                           unsigned argc,
                           JS::Value* vp) {
    try {
        JS::CallArgs args = JS::CallArgsFromVp(argc, vp);

        if (!args.thisv().isObject()) {
            throw std::runtime_error(
                std::string(T::name()) +
                " can only be called on objects");
        }

        bool correctType;
        bool isProto;

        std::tie(correctType, isProto) =
            instanceOf<Args...>(cx, args.thisv());

        if (!correctType) {
            throw std::runtime_error(
                std::string(T::name()) +
                " can only be called on objects of the "
                "correct type");
        }

        if (noProto && isProto) {
            throw std::runtime_error(
                std::string(T::name()) +
                " cannot be called on the prototype");
        }

        T::call(cx, args);
        return true;
    } catch (...) {
        cppToJSException(cx);
        return false;
    }
}

That takes care of producing valid callbacks, with all of the necessary boiler plate. But what about stamping out multiple whole types, rather than just callbacks for the type (a decimal floating point lets say)? For that, we can turn to the same kind of policy dispatch we just used for wrapFunction, but with a more complicated shape.

Adding policy based design

Policy based design is a powerful technique for providing compile time customization of functions and types. This Wikipedia article describes it in better detail if you’re interested. The main point here is to enumerate all of the kinds of specializations we want to do for all of our custom types. We'll inherit our other type policies from a base policy to allow for easy type reflection by comparing member pointers. While this could be done more cleanly with SFINAE (Substitution Failure Is Not An Error), MSVC 2013 made that awkward enough (though it is getting better) to send us down this route instead.

We'll use this down below in our definition of BaseInfo.

enum class InstallType : char {
    Global = 0,
    Private,
    OverNative,
};

struct BaseInfo {
    // Indicates JS inheritance with the named type
    static const char* const inheritFrom;

    // If the constructor should be visible in the global
    // scope
    static const InstallType installType =
        InstallType::Global;

    static const JSFunctionSpec* freeFunctions;
    static const JSFunctionSpec* methods;

    static const unsigned classFlags = 0;

    // A special hook to run after the type is installed
    // into the scope
    static void postInstall(JSContext* cx,
                            JS::HandleObject global,
                            JS::HandleObject proto);

    static void addProperty(JSContext* cx,
                            JS::HandleObject obj,
                            JS::HandleId id,
                            JS::MutableHandleValue v);
    static void call(JSContext* cx, JS::CallArgs args);
    static void construct(JSContext* cx, JS::CallArgs args);
    static void convert(JSContext* cx,
                        JS::HandleObject obj,
                        JSType type,
                        JS::MutableHandleValue vp);
    static void delProperty(JSContext* cx,
                            JS::HandleObject obj,
                            JS::HandleId id,
                            bool* succeeded);
    static void enumerate(JSContext* cx,
                          JS::HandleObject obj,
                          JS::AutoIdVector& properties);
    static void finalize(JSFreeOp* fop, JSObject* obj);
    static void getProperty(JSContext* cx,
                            JS::HandleObject obj,
                            JS::HandleId id,
                            JS::MutableHandleValue vp);
    static void hasInstance(JSContext* cx,
                            JS::HandleObject obj,
                            JS::MutableHandleValue vp,
                            bool* bp);
    static void resolve(JSContext* cx,
                        JS::HandleObject obj,
                        JS::HandleId id,
                        bool* resolvedp);
    static void setProperty(JSContext* cx,
                            JS::HandleObject obj,
                            JS::HandleId id,
                            bool strict,
                            JS::MutableHandleValue vp);
};

A little tidying up...

And we'll add some macros to clean up the interface a bit:

// Declare the types that we'll need.  Implementation will
// go in AdaptedMyType::Functions::function::call.
#define DECLARE_JS_FUNCTION(function)        \
    struct function {                        \
        static const char* name() {          \
            return #function;                \
        }                                    \
        static void call(JSContext* cx,      \
                         JS::CallArgs args); \
    };

// Bear with me that we're constructing a JSFunctionSpec
// correctly
#define ATTACH_JS_CONSTRAINED_METHOD_NO_PROTO(name, ...) \
    {                                                    \
        #name, {wrapConstrainedMethod < Functions::name, \
                true,                                    \
                __VA_ARGS__ >,                           \
                nullptr },                               \
                0,                                       \
                0,                                       \
                nullptr                                  \
    }

...and voila!

At last we arrive at an AdaptedMyType header of:

struct AdaptedMyTypeInfo : public BaseInfo {
    static void construct(JSContext* cx, JS::CallArgs args);
    static void finalize(JSFreeOp* fop, JSObject* obj);

    struct Functions {
        DECLARE_JS_FUNCTION(toString);
        DECLARE_JS_FUNCTION(toNumber);
    };

    static const JSFunctionSpec methods[3];

    static const char* const className;
    static const unsigned classFlags = JSCLASS_HAS_PRIVATE;
};

and an implementation of:

const JSFunctionSpec AdaptedMyTypeInfo::methods[3] = {
    ATTACH_JS_CONSTRAINED_METHOD_NO_PROTO(
        toNumber, AdaptedMyTypeInfo),
    ATTACH_JS_CONSTRAINED_METHOD_NO_PROTO(
        toString, AdaptedMyTypeInfo),
    JS_FS_END,
};

const char* const AdaptedMyTypeInfo::className = "MyType";

void AdaptedMyTypeInfo::construct(
    JSContext* cx, JS::CallArgs args) { /* ... */
}
void AdaptedMyTypeInfo::finalize(JSFreeOp* fop,
                                 JSObject* obj) { /* ... */
}
void AdaptedMyTypeInfo::Functions::toString::call(
    JSContext* cx, JS::CallArgs args) { /* ... */
}
void AdaptedMyTypeInfo::Functions::toNumber::call(
    JSContext* cx, JS::CallArgs args) { /* ... */
}

We'll then adapt that with a wrapper that generates types from an appropriate policy:

template <typename T>
class WrapType : public T {
public:
    WrapType(JSContext* context);
    ~WrapType();

    // We'll break up the prototype installation into an
    // explicit step
    void install(JS::HandleObject global);

    // Create a new object without invoking the constructor
    void newObject(JS::MutableHandleObject out);

    // Create an object by invoking the constructor
    void newInstance(const JS::HandleValueArray& args,
                     JS::MutableHandleObject out);

    bool instanceOf(JS::HandleObject obj);

    const JSClass* getJSClass() const;

    JS::HandleObject getProto() const;
};

Allowing us to create and install a new type by:

void myFunc(JSContext* cx, JS::HandleObject global) {
    WrapType<AdaptedMyTypeInfo> adaptedMyType(cx);

    adaptedMyType.install(global);
}

The Payoff

While it may seem like a lot of work to save a little bit of boilerplate, a quick look at our codebase will show that we’ve so far stamped out 25 instances of Wraptype and more than 75 wrapped functions. While it was a bit of work to stand up, we’ve found that developers unfamiliar with this part of the codebase ramp up fairly quickly and generally don’t need to do much more than mimic existing examples. Which, as the main maintainer of our JavaScript integration, is pretty much all I could have asked for.


P.S.

Note also that the solution presented at the end is almost exactly what we use today for our production JavaScript integration:

1: Our prior use of SpiderMonkey didn’t make it the shoe-in that it might seem to have been at first. Past experience didn’t matter -- most of our staff had only maintained the SpiderMonkey integration; the deep understanding gained during the initial implementation was years in the past. Besides, SpiderMonkey had undergone a lot of change in the meanwhile. It had migrated away from the C API it started with towards one geared to C++. It had also gained support for explicit multi-threading, only to migrate back to a thread unaware model later on. For these reasons there wasn’t much institutional knowledge to drive us towards SpiderMonkey, and relatively little code reuse to be expected.[Return]