Compile-Time Sort in Nim

Compile-Time Sort in D

Michael Parker recently wrote a blog post showing how to implement a compile-time quicksort in D after Björn Fahller recently wrote a blog post showing how to implement a compile-time quicksort in C++17. It’s a skillful demonstration that employs D’s powerful compile-time programming capabilities to write code that, while not always useful, is quite concise.

Reading it, of course, the thought that came to my mind was “Surely Nim can do better.”1

First let’s take a quick look at Michael’s D code:

void main() {
    import std.algorithm, std.stdio;
    enum a = [ 3, 1, 2, 4, 0 ];
    static b = sort(a);
    writeln(b); // [0, 1, 2, 3, 4]

I won’t rehash his whole post, which is lucid and pleasurable to read, but here’s the basic gist: we declare an enum, which is a special kind of constant2 only available at compile time. The call to sort is prepended by the static keyword, which binds the result of a compile-time evaluation to a static variable available at runtime. The call to writeln is runtime-only, and thus happens whenever main() is called.

This is a nicely modern approach, bereft of boilerplate, fairly easy to understand, and allows the programmer to execute arbitrary code at compile-time. Michael gives a nice example of some complicated mathy code that is used to validate numeric parameters both at runtime and compile time. It does have a few constraints, though:

The fundamental requirements for CTFE eligibility are that a function must be portable, free of side effects, contain no inline assembly, and the source code must be available.

Compile-Time Sort in Nim

Now let’s look at an equivalent program written in Nim:

import algorithm

  var a = @[3, 1, 2, 4, 0]
  sort(a, system.cmp)

const b = a
echo b

You can probably see that the structure is very similar. There are a couple subtle differences, so we’ll go through it. The first difference is that the first two statements, equivalent to the first two statements in the D code are evaluated in a static block. There’s nothing about the statements themselves specific to compile-time execution; rather it’s the context provided by their scope that indicates it’s happening at compile time. Now that we’re outside the static block, we’re back in the runtime; we bind b outside of the static context with a const3, and echo during execution of the program itself.

Really, the only differences here are syntactic; I prefer Nim’s designation of execution context with blocks rather than the somewhat more occult special-casing of single-value enums, but they have equal expressive power. But let’s look at what the Nim docs say about static:

A static statement/expression can be used to enforce compile time evaluation explicitly. Enforced compile time evaluation can even evaluate code that has side effects[.]

Whoa! That’s a difference. Unlike in the D example, Nim static statements can perform IO. So that means we could write:

import algorithm

  var a = @[3, 1, 2, 4, 0]
  sort(a, system.cmp)
  echo a

const b = a
echo b

And the constant is echoed once during compilation, then again whenever you run the application.

Compile-Time Side Effects

What this means is that in addition to computationally intensive code, we can perform other useful operations at compile time. Here’s a reformatted example from the Nim forums that demonstrates effectful code during compilation:

import strutils, tables

  let configLines = "configfile.ini".slurp().splitLines()

  var keyValues = newSeq[(string, string)]()

  for line in configLines:
    if line.len > 0 and line[0] != ';':
      let splitLine = line.split('=')
      keyValues.add((splitLine[0].strip().toLowerAscii(), splitLine[1].strip()))

const config = keyValues.toTable()

Here, we statically read a config file during compilation and build a table out of it, which we can then bind into the runtime scope as a constant available at runtime. This is a neat trick, allowing us to easily parameterize builds (for instance).

  1. Not really. It was more like, that’s super cool! Can Nim do that?

  2. It turns out that in D, if you declare an enum with only one value (in this case a list), it is declared to be a manifest constant. That seems to me like a slightly strange way of getting a compile-time-only value, but I’m not a D programmer.

  3. The const keyword behaves very similarly to D’s static.

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