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Move VM, Bytecode, and Disassembler

There are times we wish to understand what's actually going on under the hood when we write a piece of code, compile it, and execute it in the move VM.

In this post, we will take a look at them.

Move VM execution model

A Move Interpreter handles program execution at the bytecode level.

Just like other stack-based interpreters, when seeing an instruction, move interpreters may consume operands from the stack and may push results to it. But unlike x86 machines, where operands/variables share the same region with the call stack, Move VM logically separate them apart: a Move interpreter has two parts -- An operand stack, and a call stack (its internal structure is shown below).

├── operand Stack
│ ├── value[0] <---- stack bottom
│ ├── value[1]
│ ├── ...
│ └── value[n] <---- stack top
└── call stack
├── frame[0] <-- Call stack bottom
│ ├── pc (program counter)
│ ├── locals (an array of ValueImpl, contains local variables and paramters)
│ ├── function (a runtime function)
│ └── ty_args (type arguments)
├── frame[1]
├── ...
└── frame[m] <-- Call stack top

Upon any procedural call, the caller prepares arguments (a.k.a, actual parameters) and pushes them to the operand stack, then the Call instruction will result in the creation of a new frame for the callee on top of the call stack, where formal parameters are copied from the stack.

We can understand most instructions' meaning from their name. Whenever you wonder the effect of any instruction, refer to the execute_code_impl() in for details.

Move Disassembler

Most of the time, Move developers write code, test, and debug at the source level. However, since bytecode is actually what the Move VM executes, in some rare conditions, we might need to inspect the corresponding bytecode of a particular module or function.

For instance, in Starcoin Framework, there's a function owns() in the IdentiferNFT module of NFT.move. Its original implementation is:

public fun owns<NFTMeta: copy + store + drop, NFTBody: store>(owner: address): bool acquires IdentifierNFT {
if (!exists<IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>(owner)) {
return false
let id_nft = borrow_global<IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>(owner);

Some readers may have noticed that the logic of the form if not X then false else Y is actually equivalent to X and Y. Therefore, it is tempting to simplify the function to this form (let's call it the one-liner version):

public fun owns<NFTMeta: copy + store + drop, NFTBody: store>(owner: address): bool acquires IdentifierNFT {
exists<IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>(owner)) &&
Option::is_some(borrow_global<IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>(owner)&.nft)

But if we try to run the tests, we might notice that the gas fee for the one-liner consumption differs from that of the original version. Why?

Now it's time to examine the bytecode.

First, let's check the bytecode of the original implementation. To disassemble the module IdentifierNFT, run mpm package disassemble --name IdentifierNFT. Here's is the result of the owns function:

public owns<NFTMeta: copy + drop + store, NFTBody: store>(id_nft: address): bool {
0: CopyLoc[0](owner: address)
1: ExistsGeneric[0](IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>)
2: Not
3: BrTrue(5)
4: Branch(7)
5: LdFalse
6: Ret
7: CopyLoc[0](owner: address)
8: ImmBorrowGlobalGeneric[0](IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>)
9: StLoc[1](id_nft: &IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>)
10: MoveLoc[1](id_nft: &IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>)
11: ImmBorrowFieldGeneric[0](IdentifierNFT.nft: Option<NFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>)
12: Call[5](is_some<NFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>(&Option<NFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>): bool)
13: Ret

Let's try to understand it using what we've learned earlier: There are 4 basic blocks in the function. In B0, it copied the owner address to the stack, and then use it to do the existence check, followed by a negation, finally branches to B2 conditionally.

B2 simply pushes false and returns.

B1 is a dummy block that takes the control flow to B3. It does the global borrow from instruction 7-8 and store it in id_nft at instruction 9. Instruction 10 loads that to the stack again (yes, you might have noticed that a simple peephole optimization can eliminate instructions 9-10. Currently Move compiler doesn't really do much optimization). The last three instructions 11-13 return the result of the predicate is_some() on field 0.

Now let's check the one-liner's bytecode out:

public owns<NFTMeta: copy + drop + store, NFTBody: store>(%#1: address): bool {
0: CopyLoc[0](owner: address)
1: ExistsGeneric[0](IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>)
2: BrTrue(4)
3: Branch(10)
4: CopyLoc[0](owner: address)
5: ImmBorrowGlobalGeneric[0](IdentifierNFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>)
6: ImmBorrowFieldGeneric[0](IdentifierNFT.nft: Option<NFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>)
7: Call[5](is_some<NFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>(&Option<NFT<NFTMeta, NFTBody>>): bool)
8: StLoc[1](%#1: bool)
9: Branch(12)
10: LdFalse
11: StLoc[1](%#1: bool)
12: MoveLoc[1](%#1: bool)
13: Ret

We won't elaborate on the details here again, since most of the instructions are the same. We can notice a few differences:

  1. There are more basic blocks in the one-liner version.
  2. Results are no longer returned directly from the stack. Notice that the compiler generated an unnamed local variable %#1, any value to be returned gets stored into it, and finally B4 returns it.
  3. Redundant instructions 9-10 in the original bytecode no longer exists here, since the one-liner don't have a temporary variable id_nft.

Now we fully understand the behavioral difference caused by the refactoring.