4.11. GHC Backends

GHC supports multiple backend code generators. This is the part of the compiler responsible for taking the last intermediate representation that GHC uses (a form called Cmm that is a simple, C like language) and compiling it to executable code. The backends that GHC support are described below.

4.11.1. Native code Generator (-fasm)

The default backend for GHC. It is a native code generator, compiling Cmm all the way to assembly code. It is the fastest backend and generally produces good performance code. It has the best support for compiling shared libraries. Select it with the -fasm flag.

4.11.2. LLVM Code Generator (-fllvm)

This is an alternative backend that uses the LLVM compiler to produce executable code. It generally produces code as with performance as good as the native code generator but for some cases can produce much faster code. This is especially true for numeric, array heavy code using packages like vector. The penalty is a significant increase in compilation times. Select the LLVM backend with the -fllvm flag. Currently LLVM 2.8 and later are supported.

You must install and have LLVM available on your PATH for the LLVM code generator to work. Specifically GHC needs to be able to call the optand llc tools. Secondly, if you are running Mac OS X with LLVM 3.0 or greater then you also need the Clang c compiler compiler available on your PATH. Clang and LLVM are both included with OS X by default from 10.6 onwards.

To install LLVM and Clang:

  • Linux: Use your package management tool.
  • Mac OS X: LLVM and Clang are included by default from 10.6 and later. For 10.5 you should install the Homebrew package manager for OS X. Alternatively you can download binaries for LLVM and Clang from here.
  • Windows: You should download binaries for LLVM and clang from here.

4.11.3. C Code Generator (-fvia-C)

This is the oldest code generator in GHC and is generally not included any more having been deprecated around GHC 7.0. Select it with the -fvia-C flag.

The C code generator is only supported when GHC is built in unregisterised mode, a mode where GHC produces 'portable' C code as output to facilitate porting GHC itself to a new platform. This mode produces much slower code though so it's unlikely your version of GHC was built this way. If it has then the native code generator probably won't be available. You can check this information by calling ghc --info.

4.11.4. Unregisterised compilation

The term "unregisterised" really means "compile via vanilla C", disabling some of the platform-specific tricks that GHC normally uses to make programs go faster. When compiling unregisterised, GHC simply generates a C file which is compiled via gcc.

When GHC is build in unregisterised mode only the LLVM and C code generators will be available. The native code generator won't be. LLVM usually offers a substantial performance benefit over the C backend in unregisterised mode.

Unregisterised compilation can be useful when porting GHC to a new machine, since it reduces the prerequisite tools to gcc, as, and ld and nothing more, and furthermore the amount of platform-specific code that needs to be written in order to get unregisterised compilation going is usually fairly small.

Unregisterised compilation cannot be selected at compile-time; you have to build GHC with the appropriate options set. Consult the GHC Building Guide for details.

You can check if your GHC is unregisterised by calling ghc --info.