[swift-evolution] [proposal] Tail Call recursion attributes

T.J. Usiyan griotspeak at gmail.com
Fri Mar 18 17:51:40 CDT 2016

Hello all,


Tail call optimization can be a powerful tool when implementing certain
types of algorithms. Unfortunately, Tail call optimization cannot be
consistently used in Swift code. Developers cannot be sure that
opportunities for this particular optimization to be applied are, in fact,
being realized. This discrepancy can cause dramatic differences from
expected and actual performance. An attribute, similar to Scala’s tailrec,
along with LLVM warnings, could allow a clear indicator of when such
optimizations are not guaranteed to work.

Swift-evolution thread:

LLVM will perform tail call optimization when possible but cannot currently
guarantee when applied. This is partially explained by Joe Groff in

“… there are other low-level resources that need to be managed in the case
of an arbitrary tail call, such as space on the callstack and memory for
indirectly-passed parameters. Being able to manage these would require a
special machine-level calling convention that would have overhead we don’t
want to spend pervasively to make arbitrary functions tail-callable.”

Swift developers currently have no insight into when TCO can or will occur.

func fact(input: Int) -> Int {
    func _fact(n: Int, value: Int) -> (n: Int, value:Int) {
        if n <= 0 {
            return (0, value)
        } else {
            return _fact(n - 1, value: n * value)

    return _fact(input, value: 1).value

the provided example, the developer can be reasonably sure that tail call
optimization is possible but, without either a universal guarantee or
something like the proposed attribute, there is no way to be sure that such
an optimization will occur.
Proposed solution

Adding an attribute would provide developers with concrete knowledge of
when TCO can and will be performed by LLVM in compiling their swift code.

func fact(input: Int) -> Int {
    func _fact(n: Int, value: Int) -> (n: Int, value:Int) {
// Call site where TCO is expected
tail return fact(3)

this attribute and return modifier combination, the developer can express
the desire for TCO and warnings can be emitted if TCO cannot be guaranteed.
If there are currently only a few such cases, developers are made aware of
what those cases are and can design implementations with this information
at hand. As LLVM’s ability to provide TCO increases, the allowed cases
simply grow with no effect for the initial narrow cases.
We should, at first, work to support the simplest cases and only allow
self-recursive tail calls, which avoid some of the aforementioned stack and
memory management problems that can be encountered in arbitrary tail call.
If the user attempts to use @tailrec and defer together, the compiler
should emit and error , as deferred blocks occur after the return
expression is evaluated. We should also provide feedback to the developer
so that they understand that the defer is blocking TCO.
Detailed design

In the minimal case, implementation of this feature can consist solely of
the attribute and output from LLVM indicating whether or not the requested
optimization can be guaranteed. To quote Joe Groff once more, guaranteed
support for self recursive tail calls ‘can likely be implemented mostly in
SILGen by jumping to the entry block, without any supporting backend work.
Arbitrary tail calls can be supported in the fullness of time.’.
Impact on existing code

This should not have any breaking impact as it is strictly additive and
Future Enhancements

This proposal is meant to clarify when tail call optimization will be
applied and lay the foundation for expansion of supported cases. Possible
cases which we could support in the future are

   - allowing tail calls between functions in the same module, so that the
   compiler has enough information to use the tail-callable convention only
   where needed,
   - allowing tail calls between functions in the same module or external
   functions marked with a ‘@tail_callable’ attribute.

Alternatives considered

   - We could add the keyword without expanding the supported cases in any
   - We could allow deferred blocks to be executed before the expression in
   a tail return if there is a motivating reason.
      - Slava Pestov pointed out that this could prove troublesome for code
      similar to

   swift func f() -> String { let fd = open(...) defer { close(fd) } return
   read(fd) }
   - Mark Lacey suggests that

      “this could also be handled by passing continuations that should be
      run on the return paths of callees. The continuation a function passes to
      its callee would wrap the continuation passed to it by its
caller, so they
      would get executed in the original order. That’s an ABI change
though, and
      a potentially expensive one.

      We’ve considered doing something like this as an optimization to
      enable more proper tail calls in other cases (e.g. for the ARC case where
      you release after return). This would be done by cloning callees, and
      adding a new parameter. It’s not clear how worthwhile it would
be to pursue
      this, and how expensive it would be in terms of code bloat."

      Though, according to Joe Groff,

      “For ARC stuff it seems to me we can ensure all parameters are
      callee-consumed @owned or @in, and move any non-argument cleanups before
      the tail call, which eliminates the need for any continuation to
be passed.”

      This may not be desirable as it would change the semantics of
the function where the original goal of this proposal is to let the
developer assert that TCO is desired and allow the compiler to emit an
error when it cannot guarantee TCO.
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