I'm reading a compiler textbook that compiles to some form of assembly. Since I don't know this assembly language I decided to invent my own simple "assembly language" and implement a basic "virtual machine" which will execute these instructions.

Currently I'm thinking how I can implement function decleration and function calling in the language and VM.

I had the following idea, please tell me what you think:

Function declerations would look like simple labels. At the end of a function there's an end statement. The 'main program' is a function by itself. For examle:

// some logic
CALL funcA
// more logic
// .. some logic

However the difference between call <function> and goto <label> is this:

goto simply sets the 'instruction pointer' (the register that holds the number of the next line to be executed) to the line number of the label.

call does what goto does, but before jumping it pushes the current line number (plus 1) onto a stack.

When end is reached, the VM pops the top of the stack and jumps to this line number. If there is nothing in the stack, the program terminates.

So for example, for the code above this is what happens:

main: // this is where the VM starts
// some logic
CALL funcA // push onto the stack the number 4 (3+1), and jump to the label funcA
// more logic .. this is where we return to from funcA
END // pop the top of the stack and jump to this line number. nothing -> terminate
// .. some logic
END // pop the top of the stack (the number 4), and jump to this line number

What do you think of this approach?

  • 2
    Yes, it is more or less as compilers work (they push the Program Counter register). Push values before the line number for passing "parameters" to the function, leave an empty "pushable" place for the function to put the return value.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 18:01
  • 1
    Yes most CPUs work like this, they don't support structured programming (loops, selection, subroutines), these are synthesised as you have described. A good processor to learn is ARM it is simple and still in use. Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 19:44
  • You should read (in particular if you heard of Lisp or Scheme) C.Queinnec's book Lisp in Small Pieces. You could also study the source code of lua and of nekovm. Start by reading about call stacks and continuations. Rad also programming language pragmatics by M.Scott Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 19:50
  • You might also want to read Art of Assembly. It's a hefty book, but it's also online and pretty easy to find. Covers the x86 architecture pretty well. Although a better place to start would probably be Systems Software: A Programmer's Perspective. IIRC, chapter 4 is the one on hardware. You can skip that and get through the book fine, but it's interesting. Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 20:12
  • ...Although, on second thought, the best place to start (that I know of) would be Crafting a Compiler by Fischer, Cytron, and LeBlanc. It actually uses the JVM as its example target platform, and covers the Jasmin assembler instruction set and JVM calling convention pretty well. Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 20:13

1 Answer 1


It depends on the VM, to be honest.

It is a bit easier to write a VM in an OO language that operates on data structures kept in memory rather than on some form of linearized bytecode. If you ever implement a toy programming language you might decide to do it this way, at least initially (I have done this before), in which case the VM is probably just a polymorphic "run()" method. A lot of scripting languages work this way, because the code will be generated at the same time in which it is run, so there is no need to maintain the bytecode for later.

If you compile all the way to a linearized bytecode (like how Java compiles), the way you handle operation calls will depend on the language. If you do not allow recursion (most old programming languages originally did not), you can simply inline the operation calls directly into the bytecode. This causes code bloat but is "safe" otherwise.

If you compile all the way to a linearized bytecode, but you want to allow recursion, then you'll need to emulate a call stack. Each frame of the stack will hold a reference to the location in the code segment where that operation was invoked (for operation-based frames). It will also hold copies of all variables local to that frame. Objects to which those variables refer may be held on the stack or in a separate heap segment, depending on the design of the programming language and (more likely) the code optimizer being used by the compiler.

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