docs/intro.pod - The Parrot Primer

Welcome to Parrot ^

This is an update to the article 'Parrot: Some Assembly Required' which appeared on for the 0.0.2 release of Parrot. It's intended as being the best way for the newcomer to Parrot to learn what Parrot is and how to use it.

What is Parrot? ^

First, though, what is Parrot, and why are we making such a fuss about it? Well, if you haven't been living in a box for the past years, you'll know that the Perl community has embarked on the design and implementation of a new version of Perl, both the language and the interpreter.

Parrot is related to Perl 6, but it is not Perl 6. To find out what it actually is, we need to know a little about how Perl works. When you feed your program into perl, it is first compiled into an internal representation, or bytecode; then this bytecode is fed to an almost separate subsystem inside perl to be interpreted. So there are two distinct phases of perl's operation - compilation to bytecode, and interpretation of bytecode. This is not unique to Perl; other languages following this design include Python, Ruby, Tcl and, believe it or not, even Java.

In previous versions of Perl, this arrangement has been pretty ad hoc: there hasn't been any overarching design to the interpreter or the compiler, and the interpreter has ended up being pretty reliant on certain features of the compiler. Nevertheless, the interpreter (some languages call it a Virtual Machine) can be thought of as a software CPU - the compiler produces "machine code" instructions for the virtual machine, which it then executes, much like a C compiler produces machine code to be run on a real CPU.

Perl 6 plans to separate out the design of the compiler and the interpreter. This is why we've come up with a subproject, which we've called Parrot, which has a certain, limited amount of independence from Perl 6. Parrot is destined to be the Perl 6 Virtual Machine, the software CPU on which we will run Perl 6 bytecode. We're working on Parrot before we work on the Perl 6 compiler because it's much easier to write a compiler once you've got a target to compile to!

The name "Parrot" was chosen after the 2001 April Fool's Joke which had Perl and Python collaborating on the next version of their interpreters. This is meant to reflect the idea that we'd eventually like other languages to use Parrot as their VM; in a sense, we'd like Parrot to become a "common language runtime" for dynamic languages.

Where we're at ^

It should be stressed we're still in the early stages of development.

But don't let that put you off! Parrot is still very much usable; we've already a lot of languages (in different state of completeness) which compile down to Parrot bytecode. Please have a look at the languages/ subdirectory.

At the moment, it's possible to write simple programs in Parrot assembly language, use an assembler to convert them to machine code and then execute them on a test interpreter. We have support for a wide variety of ordinary and transcendental mathematical operations, some rudimentary string support, and some conditional operators.

How to get it ^

So let's get ourselves a copy of Parrot, so that we can start investigating how to program in the Parrot assembler.

Periodic, numbered releases will appear on CPAN (we're currently on version 0.2.2), but at this stage of the project an awful lot is changing between releases. To really keep up to date with Parrot, we should get our copy from the SVN repository. Here's how we do that:

  svn co parrot

You can find more instructions at:

Now we have downloaded Parrot, we need to build it; so:

 % cd parrot
 % perl
 Parrot Configure
 Copyright (C) 2001-2003 The Perl Foundation.  All Rights Reserved.

 Since you're running this script, you obviously have
 Perl 5--I'll be pulling some defaults from its configuration.

The Configure script will then attempt to discover your local configuration automatically; you can supply the --ask switch if you wish to configure the build manually. You might also have a look at:

 % perl --help

Once Configure has finished successfully, type make (or the name of your local make program). With any luck, Parrot will successfully build. (If it doesn't, the address to complain to is at the end of this introduction...)

The test suite ^

Now we should run some tests; so type make test and you should see a readout like the following:

 perl t/harness --gc-debug --running-make-test  -b t/op/*.t t/pmc/*.t \
      t/native_pbc/*.t imcc/t/*/*.t t/src/*.t
 All tests successful, 40 subtests skipped.
 Files=95, Tests=1386, 125 wallclock secs (56.96 cusr + 23.71 csys = 80.67 CPU)

(Of course, there might be more tests than this, but you get the idea; tests may be skipped - for one reason or another - but none of them should fail!)

Reporting Problems ^

If you have problems with parrot, please send a message to with a description of your problem. Please include the myconfig file that was generated as part of the build process.

Parrot Concepts ^

Before we dive into programming Parrot assembly, let's take a brief look at some of the concepts involved.

Types ^

The Parrot CPU has four basic data types:


An integer type; guaranteed to be wide enough to hold a pointer.


An architecture-independent floating point type.


An abstracted, encoding-independent string type.


Other types like a (perl) scalar or an array.

The first three types are pretty much self-explanatory; the final type, Parrot Magic Cookies, are slightly more difficult to understand. But that's OK! We'll talk more about PMCs at the end of the article.

Registers ^

The current Perl 5 virtual machine is a stack machine - it communicates values between operations by keeping them on a stack. Operations load values onto the stack, do whatever they need to do, and put the result back onto the stack. This is very easy to work with, but it's very slow: to add two numbers together, you need to perform three stack pushes and two stack pops. Worse, the stack has to grow at runtime, and that means allocating memory just when you don't want to be allocating it.

So Parrot's going to break with the established tradition for virtual machines, and use a register architecture, more akin to the architecture of a real hardware CPU. This has another advantage: we can use all the existing literature on how to write compilers and optimizers for register-based CPUs for our software CPU!

Parrot has specialist registers for each type: 32 INTVAL registers, 32 FLOATVAL registers, 32 string registers and 32 PMC registers. In Parrot assembler, these are named I0...I31, N0...N31, S0...S31, P0...P31.

Now let's look at some assembler. We can set these registers with the set operator:

    set I1, 10
    set N1, 3.1415
    set S1, "Hello, Parrot"

All Parrot ops have the same format: the name of the operator, the destination register, and then the operands.

Operations ^

There are a variety of operations you can perform: the file docs/core_ops.pod documents them, along with a little more about the assembler syntax. For instance, we can print out the contents of a register, or a constant:

    print "The contents of register I1 is: "
    print I1
    print "\n"

Or we can perform mathematical functions on registers:

    add I1, I1, I2  # Add the contents of I2 to the contents of I1
    mul I3, I2, I4  # Multiply I2 by I4 and store in I3
    inc I1          # Increment I1 by one
    dec N3, 1.5     # Decrement N3 by 1.5

We can even perform some simple string manipulation:

    set S1, "fish"
    set S2, "bone"
    concat S1, S2             # S1 is now "fishbone"
    substr S4, S1, 0, 1, "w"  # S1 is now "wishbone"
    length I1, S1             # I1 is 8

Branches ^

Code gets a little boring without flow control; for starters, Parrot knows about branching and labels. The branch op is equivalent to Perl's goto:

          branch TERRY
 JOHN:    print "fjords\n"
          branch END
 MICHAEL: print " pining"
          branch GRAHAM
 TERRY:   print "It's"
          branch MICHAEL
 GRAHAM:  print " for the "
          branch JOHN
 END:     end

It can also do simple tests for whether or not a register contains a true value:

          set I1, 12
          set I2, 5
          mod I3, I1, I2
          if I3, REMAIND
          print "5 is an integer divisor of 12"
          branch DONE
 REMAIND: print "5 divides 12 with remainder "
          print I3
 DONE:    print "\n"

Note that if branches to REMAIND if I3 contains a true (i.e. non-zero) value; if I3 is zero, execution falls through to the next statement. Here's what that would look like in Perl, for comparison:

    $i1 = 12;
    $i2 = 5;
    $i3 = $i1 % $i2;
    if ($i3) {
      print "5 divides 12 with remainder ";
      print $i3;
    } else {
      print "5 is an integer divisor of 12";
    print "\n";

And speaking of comparison, we have the full range of numeric comparators: eq, ne, lt, gt, le and ge. Note that you can't use these operators on arguments of disparate types; you may even need to add the suffix _i or _n to the op to tell it what type of argument you are using - although the assembler ought to divine this for you, by the time you read this.

Some Parrot Programs ^

Now let's have a look at a few simple Parrot programs to give you a feel for the language.

Displaying the Time ^

This little program displays the Unix epoch time every second: (or so)

         set I3, 3000000
 REDO:   time I1
         print I1
         print "\n"
         set I2, 0
 SPIN:   inc I2
         le I2, I3, SPIN
         branch REDO

First, we set integer register 3 to contain 3 million - that's a completely arbitrary number, due to the fact that Parrot averages a massive six million ops per second on my machine. Then the program consists of two loops: the outer loop stores the current Unix time in integer register 1, prints it out, prints a new line, and resets register 2 to zero. The inner loop increments register 2 until it reaches the 3 million we stored in register 3. When it is no longer less than (or equal to) 3 million, we go back to the REDO of the outer loop. In essence, we're just spinning around a busy loop to waste some time.

How do we run this? Copy the assembler to a file showtime.pasm, and inside your Parrot directory, run:

      parrot showtime.pasm

This will assemble and run the code in showtime.pasm. You can also create an assembled bytecode from the assembler by running:

      parrot -o showtime.pbc showtime.pasm

(.pbc is the file extension for Parrot bytecode.)

To run this bytecode type

      parrot showtime.pbc

Finding a Fibonacci number ^

The Fibonacci series is defined like this: take two numbers, 1 and 1. Then repeatedly add together the last two numbers in the series to make the next one: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on. The Fibonacci number fib(n) is the n'th number in the series. Here's a simple Parrot assembler program which finds the first 20 Fibonacci numbers:

 # Some simple code to print some Fibonacci numbers
 # Leon Brocard <>

         print   "The first 20 fibonacci numbers are:\n"
         set     I1, 0
         set     I2, 20
         set     I3, 0
         set     I4, 1
 REDO:   set     I5, I4
         add     I4, I3, I4
         set     I3, I5
         print   I3
         print   "\n"
         inc     I1
         lt      I1, I2, REDO
 DONE:   end

This is the equivalent code in Perl:

        print "The first 20 fibonacci numbers are:\n";
        my $i = 0;
        my $target = 20;
        my $a = 0;
        my $b = 1;
        until ($i == $target) {
           my $num = $b;
           $b += $a;
           $a = $num;
           print $a,"\n";

Further examples ^

Additional examples of what can be done with Parrot assembler can be found in the parrot/examples/ subdirectory, and on the web at

Where Next? ^

Parrot is obviously developing very rapidly, and we've still got a long way to go before we are ready to a compiler to this platform. This section is for those who are interested in helping us take Parrot further.

Vtable datatypes ^

PMCs are almost like Perl 5's SVs and Python's Objects, only more so. A PMC is an object of some type, which can be instructed to perform various operations. So when we say

      inc P1

to increment the value in PMC register 1, the increment method is called on the PMC - and it's up to the PMC how it handles that method.

PMCs are how we plan to make Parrot language-independent - a Perl PMC would have different behavior from a Python PMC or a Tcl PMC. The individual methods are function pointers held in a structure called a vtable, and each PMC has a pointer to the vtable which implements the methods of its "class". Hence a Perl interpreter would link in a library full of Perl-like classes and its PMCs would have Perl-like behaviour.

The PMC types available are described in doc/vtables.pod; you can create a new PMC with

    new P0, <typename>

and then use any of the instructions in ops/core.ops and ops/pmc.ops which support PMCs. doc/vtables.pod also tells you how to implement your own PMC vtable classes.

Getting involved ^

We've got a good number of people working away on Parrot, but we could always use a few more. To help out, you'll need a subscription to the perl6-internals mailing list, (, where all the development takes place. You should also keep up to date with the SVN version of Parrot; if you want to be alerted to SVN commits, you can subscribe to the cvs-parrot mailing list ( SVN commit access is given to those who take responsibility for a particular area of Parrot, or who often submit high-quality patches.

The projects home page is

So don't delay - pick up a Parrot today!