On-Stack Replacement

:: by Ming-Ho Yee

Last semester, I took a course where the final project was to write a survey paper on “a topic in the intersection between computer systems and your area.” So I wrote about on-stack replacement.


On-stack replacement (OSR) is a programming language implementation technique that allows a running program to switch to a different version of code. For example, a program could start executing optimized code, and then transfer to and start executing unoptimized code. This was the original use case for OSR, to facilitate debugging of optimized code.

After its original use was established, OSR shifted to a different use case: optimizing programs. OSR allows the run-time system to detect if a program is executing an inefficient loop, recompile and optimize the method that contains the loop, and then transfer control to the newly compiled method. Another strategy is to optimize code based on some assumptions, then, if the assumptions are invalidated at run-time, transfer control back to the original, unoptimized code.

In this survey paper, we study how OSR was first introduced as a means for debugging, how it came to be used for program optimizations, its implementation as a reusable library, and other directions of research.

If you’re interested, you can find a copy here or on Overleaf.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in tracing JITs for dynamic languages.