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FAQ: Prolog Resource Guide 1/2 [Monthly posting]
Section - [1-10] Is there a straight-forward way of compiling Prolog to C?

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Two methods of compiling Prolog to C have been reported in the
   -  WAM-based approaches
   -  Continuation-based approaches

The WAM-based approach compiles Prolog programs into a sequence of C
function or macro calls to WAM instructions. A brief description of
this method and some results are given in the paper:

   Michael R. Levy and R. Nigel Horspool, "Translating Prolog to C: a
   WAM-based Approach", in Proceedings of the Second Compulog Network
   Area Meeting on Programming Languages, and the Workshop on Logic
   Languages in Pisa, May 1993. (Available by anonymous ftp from

The best tutorial for writing a WAM-based compiler or WAM emulator is
Hassan Ait-Kaci's book, "Warren's Abstract Machine: A Tutorial
Reconstruction" (see [1-3] above). 

A "quick-and-dirty" method is to implement the WAM functions as described
in Ait-Kaci's tutorial, to label each call with a C case label, and then throw
a giant switch(P) statement around the entire sequence of calls, where P
is the WAM program counter.  On return from any instruction that modifies
P, a "goto Start" must be inserted. (This method was posted by Rob
Scott, <>, based on the JANUS papers by Saraswat.)

This strategy will work, but does not allow you to modularize your
prolog program. Predicates in prolog seem to generate 8 to 15 WAM
instructions per clause, so (assuming very roughly a clause per
line)you might expect your 1,000 line program to expand to a switch
statement containing up to 15,000 lines. Some C compilers can't handle
such a big switch statement.

Levy and Horspool solve this problem by compiling each Prolog
predicate to a seperate C function. A dispatch loop mechanism is used
to call the C functions. C switch statements are used only inside the
functions.  A predicate that calls another predicate sets P to contain
the address of the C function that implements the called predicate,
(and sets another register called W in their scheme) and then returns
to the dispatcher instead of calling the predicate. This bypasses the
C run-time stack.  This lets one exploit WAM optimizations (like LCO)
and yet retain the ability to create many modules. Their system
performs well when compared with byte-code compilers, but translated
code runs slower than code produced by native code compilers.  On the
other hand, it outputs portable ANSI C that can run on any machine
with a C compiler.

Henderson, Somogyi, and Conway's paper "Compiling Logic Programs to C
using GNU C as a portable assembler" 
mentions some optimizations to the above approach, and also describes
another approach used in the Mercury compiler which achieves
efficiency comparable to direct native-code generation by using GNU C
extensions.  They use conditional compilation (#ifdef) to enable use
of these extensions, so the generated C code will still run on other
ANSI C compilers, although the GNU C extensions improve performance
for Mercury by nearly a factor of three.

Other approaches to translating to C use continuations. The idea here
is to translate every Prolog predicate to a C function that has
an additional argument, namely a continuation function. If the function
fails, it simply returns, but if it succeeds, it executes the continuation.
When the function regains control from the continuation, it can then try
to generate a new solution. Here are two references
that describe systems built using continuations:

   J. L. Weiner and S. Ramakrishnan, "A Piggy-Back Compiler for Prolog",
   in Proceedings of SIGPLAN T88 Conference on Programming Language
   Design and Implementation, Atlanta, Georgia, 1988, pages 288-296.

   J. L. Boyd and G. M. Karam, "Prolog in C", Carleton University,
   Ottawa, 1988. 

Oliver Ridoux <> reports that a
continuation-based approach works well when used to compile
LambdaProlog. His scheme translates every predicate into a function
that uses and modifies the success and failure continuations, with
recursion in the predicate becoming iteration in the continuation
passing mechanism. Inside the function one uses whichever intermediate
machine one fancies. Clauses within the function can be either the
branches of a switch statement or simply labelled when using a C
system that can store labels. This approach can still generate
monstrous C programs that blow up the C compiler, but the C programs
aren't as large as those generated by a one module to a function
scheme. Approaches that replace recursion in a predicate with
recursion in a function tend to overload the C stack and lead to
sloppy memory management.  Two technical reports describing Ridoux's
approach are available by anonymous ftp from
as pm/*.ps.Z and mailv06/*.ps.Z.

Michael Covington <> points out that a very simple
approach is to write a Prolog interpreter in C, then store the Prolog
program in that program's data! This will, of course, execute slowly.
One might imagine all sorts of other schemes. For example, a query
could be treated as a stack of "suspensions" (with the left-most goal
on top).  The top suspension is executed by selecting the appropriate
clause (possibly using indexing), and then, if necessary, pushing new
suspensions on the stack (the body of the clause whose head unified
with the current suspension).

Another question to ask is this: Is there any reason why you should want to
convert Prolog to C at all? George Saab of Quintus Corp. pointed out that,
with Quintus Prolog, you can create a standard .o file from a Prolog file,
which can then be linked with your other .o files to create an executable.
What's more, your Prolog code can be called from C code and vice versa.

On ther hand, the advantage of distributing "Prolog objects" as C rather than
.o files is portability.

M. Gaspari  and G. Attardi describe an approach to translating Prolog to C
based on the provision of a common runtime architecture. This is
described in 

   G. Attardi and M. Gaspari, "Multilanguage Interoperability", in
   Proceedings of The 3rd International Symposium, PLILP 91, 
   Springer Verlag, LNCS #528, 1991.

[Note: Thanks to Michael Levy, Department of Computer Science,
University of Victoria, <>, for writing this section.]

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