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Development environment and compiler

Use Linux instead of OSX as the tooling for ELF files is more complete than for Mach-O on OSX. Also Swift libraries on OSX have have extra code for Objective-C integration which just causes more issues.

I currently use the swift-2.2-stable branch to reduce the amount of compiler issues caused by tracking the latest and greatest however there is one issue stopping the use of the Swift releases that can be downloaded from swift.org.

Ive moved to Swift-3.0 since this is where the latest changes are happening and I will need to move to it anyway at some point so its easier to track the syntax changes as they occur. However you will need to compile a custom version of Swift and its Stdlib for building the kernel but a normal snapshot for the utils that are run on Linux.

Red zone

Because we are writing kernel code that has to run interrupt and exception handlers in kernel mode we need to make sure that the code from the Swift compiler and Stdlib libraries do not use the redzone. Currently there isn't a -disable-red-zone option for swiftc like there is for clang so swift and stdlib need to be recompiled to disable its use.

I forked swift and added a -disable-red-zone option for compiling and removed the floating point code and other unneeded bits from Stdlib so that it could be compiled without using SSE registers. See https://github.com/spevans/swift/blob/kernel-lib/KERNEL_LIB.txt for how to build and install the compiler

Using the compiler

When compiling you can compile related source files into a module and then link the modules together or compile all source files at once and produce one .o file. Obviously with lots of files it will eventually become slow recompiling them every time but currently its useful since the -whole-module-optimization flag can be used.

Compilation command looks something like:

swift -frontend -gnone -O -Xfrontend -disable-red-zone -Xcc -mno-red-zone -Xcc -mno-mmx -Xcc -mno-sse -Xcc -mno-sse2 -parse-as-library -import-objc-header <file.h> -whole-module-optimization -module-name MyModule -emit-object -o <output.o> <file1.swift> <file2.swift>

-gnone disables debug information which probably isn't very useful until you have some sort of debugger support

-O is for optimisation, the other options being -Onone which turns it off but produces a larger amount of code and -Ounchecked which is -O but without extra checks after certain operations. -O produces good code but does tend to inline everything into one big function which can make it hard to workout what went wrong when an exception handler simply gives the instruction pointer as the source of an error.

-Xfrontend -disable-red-zone ensures that code generated from the swiftc doesn't generate red zone code.

-Xcc -mno-red-zone tells the clang compiler not to use the red zone on any files it compiles. clang is used if there is any code in the header file you use which will probably be the case as will be shown.

-Xcc -mno-mmx -Xcc -mno-sse -Xcc -mno-sse2 uses clang options to tell swiftc not to use MMX/SSE/SSE2

-parse-as-library means that the code is not a script.

-import-objc-header allows a .h header file to be imported that allows access to C function and type definitions.

-module-name is required although is only used in fully qualifying the method and function names. However actual module files are not created with this option.


Now that a .o ELF file has been produced it needs to be linked to a final executable. Swift requires that its stdlib is linked in as this provides some basic functions that are needed by Swift at runtime.

The library name is libswiftCore.a and should be in lib/swift_static/linux under the install directory.

libswiftCore.a relies on libc, libcpp and a few other system libraries however they wont be available so the missing functions need to be emulated. The full list of symbols that need to be implemented is here

C & assembly required to get binary starting up

The libcpp functions consist of the usual new(), delete() and a few std::_throw_* functions however the bulk of them are std::string*. Note that not every function needs to be implemented but require at least a function declaration. An example libcpp, written in C to simplify building can be seen here.

The libc functions include the usual malloc, free and malloc_usable_size (although there is no need for realloc), mem*, str* and various versions of putchar.

These all need to be written, example versions can be seen here. These functions will form the C interface between your Swift code and the machine it is running on.

Note that using debug versions of swift and libswiftCore.a will increase the number of undefined symbols because some of the C++ string functions are not inlined anymore and so must be implemented. Currently I have found no benefit to using the debug versions since they also increase the size of the binary and in addition require more stack space.

A list of library calls made for the following simple 'Hello World' can be seen here

public func startup() {
    print("Hello World!")


As I was maintaining a separate branch of the swift compiler I decided to remove some bits of Stdlib mostly to remove floating point and the use of SSE. I also removed the math functions (sin, cos, etc) as these are not needed and help reduce the size of the stdlib library file.

Swift modules

I originally use Swift modules when building the project, making each subdirectory (kernel/devices, kernel/init, kernel/traps etc) into their own module and then linked them all afterwards. However there were two problems with this:

  1. Circular dependencies between modules. If module A needed to use a function in module B and vice versa they couldn't as module A would require module B to built first so that it could then be imported however this would fail as B also needed A to be built.

  2. -whole-module-optimization cannot be used to active the best code output.

However the downside of not using modules is that build time is increased as everything is compiled together. For a small project this is not such an issue but for a large kernel it could be.

I may revisit this decision later I think the main problem was that I split the core up into modules when they should have just been one in the first place. If there are eventually multiple device drivers and other parts that dont have interdependencies on each other then it should be possible to do it this way. Swift modules compile to 2 files, the object file and a binary header file that is used by the import statement so it should not be a problem in the future to take the ELF object file and load it dynamically into the kernel in some way.

Why is there so much C in the code?

The fakelib directory contains all the symbols required to satisfy the linker even though a lot of them are left unimplemented and simply print a message and then halt. Most of the functions do the bare minimum to satisfy the Swift startup or pretend to (eg the pthread functions dont actually do any locking or unlocking etc).

When a Swift function is first called there is some global initialisation performed in the libraries (wrapped in a pthread_once()/ dispatch_once()). This calls malloc()/free() and some C++ string functions so all of the C code is required to perform this basic initialisation. The TTY driver in C is required for any debugging / oops messages until Swift is initialised and can take over the display.

Originally I had planned to add more functionality in Swift but it took longer than I expected to get this far although I hope to add more memory management and some simple device drivers to see how easy it is to do in Swift.

Will it build on OSX?

Currently it will not build on OSX. I originally started developing on OSX against the libswiftCore.dylib shipped with the latest Xcode including writing a static linker to link the .dylib with the stub C functions to produce a binary. This was working however I got stuck doing the stubs for the Obj-C functions. Then Swift went open source and since the linux library is not compiled with Obj-C support it removed a whole slew of functions and symbols that would need to be supported.

The linux version also has the advantage that it builds a more efficient binary since it is using proper ELF files and the standard ld linker. The static linker I wrote just dumps the .dylib and relocates it in place but it suffers from the fact that ZEROFILL sections have to be stored as blocks of zeros in the binary and there is no optimisation of cstring sections etc. Also, changes in the latest .dylib built from the Swift repo seem to add some new header flags which I have yet to support. It may be possible to build against the static stdlib on OSX but at the moment its not that interesting for me to do. As of now the OSX fakelib support has been removed.

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