Continuous Integration and Cross Compilation

Austin Seipp austin at
Wed Jun 18 23:53:08 UTC 2014

Hi William,

Thanks for the email. Here're some things to consider.

For one, cross compilation is a hot topic, but it is going to be a
rather large amount of work to fix and it won't be easy. The primary
problem is that we need to make Template Haskell cross-compile, but in
general this is nontrivial: TemplateHaskell must load and run object
code on the *host* platform, but the compiler must generate code for
the *target* platform. There are ways around some of these problems;
for one, we could compile every module twice, once for the host, and
once for the target. Upon requesting TH, the Host GHC would load Host
Object Code, but the final executable would link with the Target
Object Code.

There are many, many subtle points to consider if we go down this
route - what happens for example if I cross compile from a 64bit
machine to a 32bit one, but TemplateHaskell wants some knowledge like
what "sizeOf (undefined :: CLong)" is? The host code sees a 64-bit
quantity while the target actually will deal with a 32bit one. This
could later explode horribly. And this isn't limited to different
endianness either - it applies to the ABI in general. 64bit Linux ->
64bit Windows would be just as problematic with this exact case, as
one uses LP64, while the other uses LLP64 data models.

So #1 by itself is a very, very non-trivial amount of work, and IMO I
don't think it's necessary for better builds. There are other routes
possible for cross compilation perhaps, but I'd speculate they are all
equally as non-trivial as this one.

Finally, the remainder of the scheme, including shipping builds to
remote machines and have them be tested sounds a bit more complicated,
and I'm wondering what the advantages are. In particular it seems like
this merely exposes more opportunities for failure points in the CI
system, because now all CI depends on cross compilation working
properly, being able to ship reports back and forth, and more.
Depending on CC in particular is a huge burden it sounds: it makes it
hard to distinguish when a cross-compilation bug may cause a failure
as opposed to a changeset from a committer, which widens the scope of
what we need to consider. A CI system should be absolutely as
predictable as possible, and this adds a *lot* of variables to the
mix. Cross compilation is really something that's not just one big
task - there will be many *small* bugs laying in wait after that, the
pain of a thousand cuts.

Really, we need to distinguish between two needs:

 1) Continuous integration.

 2) Nightly builds.

These two systems have very different needs in practice:

 1) A CI system needs to be *fast*, and it needs to have dedicated
resources to respond to changes quickly. This means we need to
*minimize* the amount of time for developer turn around to see
results. That includes minimizing the needed configurations. Shipping
builds to remote machines just for CI would greatly complicate this
and likely make it far longer on its own, not to mention it increases
with every system we add.

 2) A nightly build system is under nowhere near the same time
constraints, although it also needs to be dedicated. If an ARM/Linux
machine takes 6 hours to build (perhaps it's shared or something, or
just really wimpy), that's totally acceptable. These can then report
nightly about the results and we can reasonably blame
people/changesets based on that.

Finally, both of these become more complicated by the fact GHC is a
large project that has a highly variable number of configurations we
have to keep under control: static, dynamic, static+dynamic,
profiling, LLVM builds, builds where GHC itself is profiled, as well
as the matrix of those combinations: LLVM+GHC Profiled, etc etc etc.
Each of these configurations expose bugs in their own right.
Unfortunately doing #1 with all these configurations would be
ludicrous: it would explode the build times for any given system, and
it also drastically multiplies the hardware resources we'd need for CI
if we wanted them to respond quickly to any given changeset, because
you not only have to *build* them, you must run them. And now you have
to run a lot of them. A nightly build system is more reasonable for
these problems, because taking hours and hours is expected. These
problems would still be true even with cross compilation, because it
multiplies the amount of work every CI run must do no matter what.

We actually already do have both of these already, too: Joachim
Breitner for example has set us up a Travis-CI[1] setup, while Gabor
Pali has set us up nightly builds[2]. Travis-CI does the job of fast
CI, but it's not good for a few reasons:

1) We have literally zero visibility into it for reports. Essentially
we only know when it explodes because Joachim yells at us (normally at
me :) This is because GitHub is not our center-of-the-universe,
despite how much people yearn for it to be so.

2) The time limit is unacceptable. Travis-CI for example actually
cannot do dynamic builds of GHC because it takes too long. Considering
GHC is shipping dynamically on major platforms now, that's quite a
huge loss for a CI system to miss (and no, a separate build matrix
configuration doesn't work here - GHC builds statically and
dynamically at the same time, and ships both - there's no way to have
"only static" and "only dynamic" entries.)

3) It has limited platform support - only recently did it have OS X,
and Windows is not yet in sight. Ditto for FreeBSD. These are crucial
for CI as well, as they encompass all our Tier-1 platforms. This could
be fixed with cross compilation, but again, that's a big, big project.

And finally, on the GitHub note, as I said in the prior thread about
Phabricator, I don't actually think it offers us anything useful at
this point in time - literally almost nothing other than "other
projects use GitHub", which is not an advantage, it's an appeal to
popularity IMO. Webhooks still cannot do things like ban tabs,
trailing whitespace, or enforce submodule integrity. We have to have
our own setup for all of that. I'm never going to hit the 'Merge
Button' for PRs - validation is 100% mandatory on behalf of the
merger, and again, Travis-CI cannot provide coherent coverage even if
we could use it for that. And because of that there's no difference
between GitHub any other code site - I have to pull the branch
manually and test myself, which I could do with any random git
repository in the world.

The code review tools are worse than Phabricator. Finally, if we are
going to accept patches from people, we need to have a coherent,
singular way to do it - mixing GitHub PRs, Phabricator, and uploading
patches to Trac is just a nightmare for pain, and not just for me,
even though I do most of the patch work - it incurs the burden on
*every* person who wants to review code to now do so in many separate
places. And we need to make code review *easier*, not harder! If
anything, we should be consolidating on a single place (obviously, I'd
vote for Phabricator), not adding more places to make changes that we
all have to keep up with, when we don't even use the service itself!
That's why I proposed Phabricator: because it is coherent and a
singular place to go to, and very good at what it does, and does not
attempt to 'take over' GHC itself. GitHub is a fairly all-or-nothing
proposition if you want any benefits it delivers, if you ask me (I say
this as someone who likes GitHub for smaller projects). I just don't
think their tools are suitable for us.

So, back to the topic. I think the nightly builds are actually in an
OK state at the moment, since we do get reports from them, and
builders do check in regularly. The nightly builders also cover a more
diverse set of platforms than our CI will. But the CI and turnaround
could be *greatly* improved, I think, because ghc-complete is
essentially ignored or unknown by many people.

So I'll also make a suggestion: just to actually get something that
will pull GHC's repo every 10 minutes or so, do a build, and then
email ghc-devs *only* if failures pop up. In fact, we could just
re-use the existing nightly build infrastructure for this, and just
make it check very regularly, and just run standard amd64/Linux and
Windows builds upon changes. I could provide hardware for this. This
would increase the visibility of reports, not require *any* new code,
and already works.

Overall, I will absolutely help you in every possible way, because
this really is a problem for newcomers, and existing developers, when
we catch dumb failures later than we should. But I think the proposed
solution here is extraordinarily complex in comparison to what we
actually need right now.

... I will say that if you *did* fix cross compilation however to work
with TH you would be a hero to many people - myself included -
continuous integration aside! :)


On Wed, Jun 18, 2014 at 3:10 PM, William Knop
<william.knop.nospam at> wrote:
> Hello all,
> I’ve seen quite a few comments on the list and elsewhere lamenting the time it takes to compile and validate ghc. It’s troublesome not only because it’s inconvenient, but, more seriously, people are holding off on sending patches in which stifles development. I would like to propose a solution:
> 1. Implement proper cross-compilation, such that build and host may be different— e.g. a linux x86_64 machine can build ghc that runs on Windows x86. What sort of work would this entail?
> 2. Batch cross-compiled builds for all OSs/archs on a continuous integration service (e.g. Travis CI) or cloud service, then package up the binaries with the test suite.
> 3. Send the package to our buildbots, and run the test suite.
> 4. (optional) If using a CI service, have the buildbots send results back to the CI. This could be useful if we'd use GitHub for pulls in the future *.
> Cheers,
> Will
> * I realize vanilla GitHub currently has certain annoying limitations, though some of them are pretty easy to solve via the github-services and/or webhooks. I don’t think this conflicts with the desire to use Phabricator, either, so I’ll send details and motivations to that thread.
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> ghc-devs at


Austin Seipp, Haskell Consultant
Well-Typed LLP,

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