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XCode 4 ships a buggy compiler

By Hongli Lai on December 30th, 2011

You may have heard of LLVM, a compiler infrastructure library. You may have heard of GCC, the GNU C and C++ compiler. Those two are completely separate software products, but there exists llvm-gcc which is a GCC frontend that utilizes LLVM. All OS X versions <= Snow Leopard originally shipped with regular gcc, but as of Xcode 4 (which is also the default on OS X Lion) Apple has switched to llvm-gcc as their default compiler. “Hurray”, some people may think, as they heard that LLVM generates better code and/or is faster than default GCC. Unfortunately, the reality is not that great.

llvm-gcc is unmaintained and is considered deprecated by its developers. It has many bugs that will never be fixed. Unfortunately these are not obscure bugs that few people will notice: today, while working on Ruby Enterprise Edition, we encountered several! Calling alloca(0) should return a pointer to the top of the stack. On llvm-gcc however, that code returns NULL but only when compiled with -O2! llvm-gcc also generates subtly different code that causes the MBARI patch set to fail completely.

To make matters worse, consider this program:

#include <alloca.h>

main() {
    if (alloca(0) != NULL) {
        return 0;
    } else {
        return 1;

Question: when compiled with “llvm-gcc -O2”, does this program exit with 0 or with 1?

That was a trick question. It always returns with 0, even when alloca(0) is broken and actually returns NULL. Turns out the optimizer in -O2 thinks that alloca(0) doesn’t return NULL (even though it does) and replaces if (alloca(0) != NULL) with if (true).

It is unfortunate that we have to declare OS X’s default compiler as being broken. We do not recommend its use. Instead, we recommend people to use /usr/bin/gcc-4.2 (which is the non-LLVM GCC compiler) instead of /usr/bin/gcc (which is a symlink to /usr/bin/llvm-gcc). You can enable this on most build systems by setting these two environment variables:

export CC=gcc-4.2
export CXX=g++-4.2

On a side note, Ruby Enterprise Edition 2011.12 is being released. The official announcement hasn’t been written yet, but we’ve made haste because of the recent Ruby security vulnerability. You can already get the files on the Ruby Enterprise Edition website. An announcement will follow soon.


some people have pointed out that they consider alloca(0) undefined. I guess it depends on the way you interpret the documentation. It would seem pretty clear to me what alloca(0) means, just like what memcpy(x, y, 0) means, but it’s understandable when some people would interpret it as undefined.
Still, alloca(0) failing is only one of the problems that prevented Ruby from compiling properly.

Why alloca(0)?

alloca(0) is used in Ruby Enterprise Edition’s conservative garbage collector, as a way to detect the end of the stack. There’s a bunch of fallback #ifdefs in the code: on platforms that don’t have alloca, it detects the end of the stack by calling a forced-non-inline function which returns the address of its sole local variable, but that assumes that the compiler supports the ‘noinline’ keyword. In any case, all of versions depend on highly platform-specific behavior.