Thursday, August 26, 2010

ocamljs 0.3

I am happy to announce version 0.3 of ocamljs. Ocamljs is a system for compiling OCaml to Javascript. It includes a Javascript back-end for the OCaml compiler, as well as several support libraries, such as bindings to the browser DOM. Ocamljs also works with orpc for RPC over HTTP, and froc for functional reactive browser programming.

Changes since version 0.2 include:

  • support for OCaml 3.11.x and 3.12.0
  • jQuery binding (contributed by Dave Benjamin)
  • full support for OCaml objects (interoperable with Javascript objects)
  • Lwt 2.x support
  • ocamllex and ocamlyacc support
  • better interoperability with Javascript
  • many small fixes and improvements

Development of ocamljs has moved from Google Code to Github; see

Comparison to js_of_ocaml

Since I last did an ocamljs release, a new OCaml-to-Javascript system has arrived, js_of_ocaml. I want to say a little about how the two systems compare:

Ocamljs is a back-end to the existing OCaml compiler; it translates the “lambda” intermediate language to Javascript. (This is also where the bytecode and native code back-ends connect to the common front-end.) Js_of_ocaml post-processes ordinary OCaml bytecode (compiled and linked with the ordinary OCaml bytecode compiler) into Javascript. With ocamljs you need a special installation of the compiler (and special support for ocamlbuild and ocamlfind), you need to recompile libraries, and you need the OCaml source to build it. With js_of_ocaml you don’t need any of this.

Since ocamljs recompiles libraries, it’s possible to special-case code for the Javascript build to take advantage of Javascript facilities. For example, ocamljs implements the Buffer module on top of Javascript arrays instead of strings, for better performance. Similarly, it implements CamlinternalOO to use Javascript method dispatch directly instead of layering OCaml method dispatch on top. Js_of_ocaml can’t do this (or at least it would be necessary to recognize the compiled bytecode and replace it with the special case).

Because js_of_ocaml works from bytecode, it can’t always know the type of values (at the bytecode level, ints, bools, and chars all have the same representation, for example). This makes interoperating with native Javascript more difficult: you usually need conversion functions between the OCaml and Javascript representation of values when you call a Javascript function from OCaml. Ocamljs has more information to work with, and can represent OCaml bools as Javascript bools, for example, so you can usually call a Javascript function from OCaml without conversions.

Ocamljs has a mixed representation of strings: literal strings and the result of ^, Buffer.contents, and Printf.sprintf are all immutable Javascript strings; strings created with String.create are mutable strings implemented by Javascript arrays (with a toString method which returns the represented string). This is good for interoperability—you can usually pass a string directly to Javascript—but it doesn’t match regular OCaml’s semantics, and it can cause runtime failures (e.g. if you try to mutate an immutable string). Js_of_ocaml implements only mutable strings, so you need conversions when calling Javascript, but the semantics match regular OCaml.

With ocamljs, Javascript objects can be called from OCaml using the ordinary OCaml method-call syntax, and objects written in OCaml can be called using the ordinary Javascript syntax. With js_of_ocaml, a special syntax is needed to call Javascript objects, and OCaml objects can’t easily be called from Javascript. However, there is an advantage to having a special call syntax: with ocamljs it is not possible to partially apply calls to native Javascript methods, but this is not caught by the compiler, so there can be a runtime failure.

Ocamljs supports inline Javascript, while js_of_ocaml does not. I think it might be possible for js_of_ocaml to do so using the same approach that ocamljs takes: use Camlp4 quotations to embed a syntax tree, then convert the syntax tree from its OCaml representation (as lambda code or bytecode) into Javascript. However, you would still need conversion functions between OCaml and Javascript values.

I haven’t compared the performance of the two systems. It seems like there must be a speed penalty to translating from bytecode compared to translating from lambda code. On the other hand, while ocamljs is very naive in its translation, js_of_ocaml makes several optimization passes. With many programs it doesn’t matter, since most of the time is spent in browser code. (For example, the planet example seems to run at the same speed in ocamljs and js_of_ocaml.) It would be interesting to compare them on something computationally intensive like Andrej Bauer’s

Js_of_ocaml is more complete and careful in its implementation of OCaml (e.g. it supports int64s), and it generates much more compact code than ocamljs. I hope to close the gap in these areas, possibly by borrowing some code and good ideas from js_of_ocaml.

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