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An optimising compiler for brainfuck

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bfc is an industrial grade compiler for brainfuck. It can:

  • compile (and cross-compile) BF programs to executables
  • optimise runtime speed
  • optimise runtime memory usage
  • optimise executable size
  • show syntax errors with highlighting of the offending source code
  • show warnings with highlighting of the offending source code

It is structured as follows:

BF source -> BF IR -> LLVM IR -> x86-64 Binary

Interested readers may enjoy my blog posts:

Table of Contents


You will need LLVM and Rust installed to compile bfc.

$ cargo build --release

You can then compile and run BF programs as follows:

$ target/release/bfc sample_programs/hello_world.bf
$ ./hello_world
Hello World!

You can use debug builds of bfc, but bfc will run much slower on large BF programs. This is due to bfc's speculative exectuion. You can disable this by passing --opt=0 or --opt=1 when running bfc.

$ target/debug/bfc --opt=0 sample_programs/hello_world.bf

By default, bfc compiles programs to executables that run on the current machine. You can explicitly specify architecture using LLVM target triples:

$ target/release/bfc sample_programs/hello_world.bf --target=x86_64-pc-linux-gnu

LLVM Version

LLVM 8 is recommended. Either download a prebuilt LLVM, or build it as follows:

$ wget http://llvm.org/pre-releases/3.8.0/rc1/llvm-3.8.0rc1.src.tar.xz
$ tar -xf llvm-3.8.0rc1.src.tar.xz

$ mkdir -p ~/tmp/llvm_3_8_build
$ cd ~/tmp/llvm_3_8_build

$ cmake -G Ninja /path/to/untarred/llvm
$ ninja

bfc depends on llvm-sys, which compiles against whichever llvm-config it finds.

$ export PATH=~/tmp/llvm_3_8_build:$PATH
$ cargo build --release

Running tests

$ cargo test


bfc considers cells to be single bytes, and arithmetic wraps around. As a result, - sets cell #0 to 255.

bfc provides 100,000 cells. Accessing cells outside of this range is explicitly undefined, and will probably segfault your program. bfc will generate a warning if it can statically prove out-of-range cell access.

bfc requires brackets to be balanced, so +[]] is rejected, unlike some BF interpreters.

Finally, bfc assumes input files are valid UTF-8.

Test programs

There are a few test programs in this repo, but http://www.hevanet.com/cristofd/brainfuck/tests.b is an excellent collection of small test BF programs and some more elaborate programs can be found at 1 and 2.


bfc can report syntax errors and warnings with relevant line numbers and highlighting.

diagnostics screenshot

Note that some warning are produced during optimisation, so disabling optimisations will reduce warnings.


Peephole optimisations

bfc provides a range of peephole optimisations. We use quickcheck to ensure our optimisations are in the optimal order (by verifying that our optimiser is idempotent).

Combining Instructions

We combine successive increments/decrements:

   Compile            Combine
+++  =>   Increment 1   =>   Increment 3
          Increment 1
          Increment 1

If increments/decrements cancel out, we remove them entirely.

   Compile             Combine
+-   =>   Increment  1    =>   # nothing!
          Increment -1

We combine pointer increments:

   Compile                  Combine
>>   =>   PointerIncrement 1   =>   PointerIncrement 2
          PointerIncrement 1

We do the same thing for successive sets:

Set 1   =>   Set 2
Set 2

We combine sets and increments too:

  Compile            Known zero       Combine
+   =>   Increment 1   =>   Set 0       =>   Set 1
                            Increment 1

We remove increments when there's a set immediately after:

Increment 1   =>   Set 2
Set 2

We remove both increments and sets if there's a read immediately after:

Increment 1   =>   Read

We track the current cell position in straight-line code. If we can determine the last instruction to modify the current cell, it doesn't need to be immediately previous. For example, +>-<,:

Increment 1          =>   PointerIncrement 1
PointerIncrement 1        Increment -1
Increment -1              PointerIncrement -1
PointerIncrement -1       Read

Loop Simplification

[-] is a common BF idiom for zeroing cells. We replace that with Set, enabling further instruction combination.

   Compile              Simplify
[-]  =>   Loop             =>   Set 0
            Increment -1

Dead Code Elimination

We remove loops that we know are dead.

For example, loops at the beginning of a program:

    Compile                  Known zero               DCE
[>]   =>    Loop                 =>     Set 0          => Set 0
              DataIncrement 1           Loop

Loops following another loop (one BF technique for comments is [-][this, is+a comment.]).

      Compile                 Annotate                 DCE
[>][>]   =>  Loop                =>   Loop              =>   Loop
               DataIncrement 1          DataIncrement 1        DataIncrement 1
             Loop                     Set 0                  Set 0
               DataIncrement 1        Loop
                                          DataIncrement 1

Loops where the cell has previously been set to zero:

        Compile               Simplify                 DCE
[-]>+<[]  =>   Loop              =>    Set 0            =>  Set 0
                 Increment -1          DataIncrement 1      DataIncrement 1
               DataIncrement 1         Increment 1          Increment 1
               Increment 1             DataIncrement -1     DataIncrement -1
               DataIncrement -1        Loop

We remove redundant set commands after loops (often generated by loop annotation as above).

       Remove redundant set
Loop           =>   Loop
  Increment -1        Increment -1
Set 0

We also remove dead code at the end of a program.

        Remove pure code
Write         =>           Write
Increment 1

Finally, we remove cell modifications that are immediately overwritten by reads, e.g. +, is equivalent to ,.

Reorder with offsets

Given a sequence of instructions without loops or I/O, we can safely reorder them to have the same effect (we assume no out-of-bound cell access).

This enables us to combine pointer operations:

    Compile                   Reorder
>+>   =>   PointerIncrement 1   =>    Increment 1 (offset 1)
           Increment 1                PointerIncrement 2
           PointerIncrement 1

We also ensure we modify cells in a consistent order, to aid cache locality. For example, >+<+>>+ writes to cell #1, then cell #0, then cell #2. We reorder these instructions to obtain:

Increment 1 (offset 0)
Increment 1 (offset 1)
Increment 1 (offset 2)
PointerIncrement 2

Multiply-move loops

bfc can detect loops that perform multiplication and converts them to multiply instructions. This works for simple cases like [->++<] (multiply by two into the next cell) as well as more complex cases like [>-<->>+++<<].

Cell Bounds Analysis

BF programs can use up to 100,000 cells, all of which must be zero-initialised. However, most programs don't use the whole range.

bfc uses static analysis to work out how many cells a BF program may use, so it doesn't need to allocate or zero-initialise more memory than necessary.

>><< only uses three cells
[>><<] uses three cells at most
[>><<]>>> uses four cells at most
[>] may use any number of cells, so we must assume 100,000

Speculative Execution

bfc executes as much as it can at compile time. For some programs (such as hello_world.bf) this optimises away the entire program to just writing to stdout. bfc doesn't even need to allocate memory for cells in this situation.

$ cargo run -- sample_programs/hello_world.bf --dump-llvm
@known_outputs = constant [13 x i8] c"Hello World!\0A"

declare i32 @write(i32, i8*, i32)

define i32 @main() {
  %0 = call i32 @write(i32 0, i8* getelementptr inbounds ([13 x i8]* @known_outputs, i32 0, i32 0), i32 13)
  ret i32 0

Infinite Loops

bfc sets a maximum number of execution steps, avoiding infinite loops hanging the compiler. As a result +[] will have + executed (so our initial cell value is 1 and [] will be in the compiled output.

Runtime Values

If a program reads from stdin, speculation execution stops. As a result, >, will have > executed (setting the initial cell pointer to 1) and , will be in the compiled output.

Loop Execution

If loops can be entirely executed at compile time, they will be removed from the resulting binary. Partially executed loops will be included in the output, but runtime execution can begin at an arbitrary position in the loop.

For example, consider +[-]+[+,]. We can execute +[-]+ entirely, but [+,] depends on runtime values. The compiled output contains [+,], but we start execution at the , (continuing execution from where compile time execution had to stop).


GPLv2 or later license. Sample programs are largely written by other authors and are under other licenses.

Other projects optimising BF

There are also some interesting other projects for optimising BF programs:


~29K SLoC