How ocamljs compiles OCaml to Javascript

How ocamljs compiles OCaml

Ocamljs uses the ocamlc front-end up to the point where it generates ‘lambda’ code–an untyped representation that looks a lot like Lisp. (You can see the lambda representation of OCaml code with the -dlambda option to ocamlc or ocamljs.)

The translation is very direct: OCaml functions turn into Javascript functions, OCaml exception handling to Javascript exception handling, etc. Javascript distinguishes between expressions and statements, while OCaml has only expressions, so there are two compilations for most OCaml constructs, depending on which context the construct appears in.

One difference between OCaml and Javascript is that functions in OCaml may be applied to a different number of arguments than they are defined to take. So OCaml function application is not compiled to Javascript function application, but rather to a call to an apply method which checks the number of arguments and either returns a closure (for under-application) or tail calls the result of the application with the extra arguments (for over-application). See Xavier Leroy’s talk From Krivine’s machine to the Caml implementations.

This apply method is also where tail-recursion is implemented, using trampolines. See src/stdlib/support.js for details.

Much of standard OCaml is implemented by a library of C primitives; Javascript implementations of these (insofar as they have been implemented) are in src/ocamljs/primitives.js. Some OCaml primitives are implemented directly by the code generator; see comp_ccall in src/jscomp/

How ocamljs represents OCaml values in Javascript

OCaml ints, nativeints, int32s, floats, and chars are represented by Javascript numbers. There is no support for int64s. OCaml booleans are represented by Javascript booleans.

OCaml heap blocks (used in OCaml to represent records, variants, polymorphic variants, exceptions, and arrays) are represented by Javascript arrays. Blocks may have a tag (used to distinguish branches of variants), which is represented as an extra slot on the array object. See src/stdlib/support.js for functions on blocks.

Javascript strings are immutable; while OCaml strings are mutable, mutable strings are not used much except in low-level code. Ocamljs has two string representations: Mutable strings are arrays of chars (represented as numbers) with a toString method to convert to an actual string. Immutable strings are Javascript strings. If you write a literal string in OCaml, you get a literal (immutable) Javascript string. Pervasives.(^) and Buffer.contents (and therefore Printf.sprintf) yield immutable strings. But String.create returns a mutable string. You can read the elements of either string as usual, but writing to an immutable string fails (at present with an inscrutable error). If you call native code with a mutable string it may or may not do the right thing. (XXX maybe it would be better to drop support for immutable strings entirely.)