Depths of the Query System


  • Dependency: a query executed as part of another query. If query A executes query B, then A is said to depend on B.

  • Preamble: the code that happens before the main query body is run; the contents of QUERY_BEGIN.

Recomputation Model

One of the main concerns of the query system when generations and incremental compilation are involved is avoiding as much work as possible. To this end, the query system avoids re-running queries if their results would not change. Since queries are deterministic 1, a query’s output cannot change if all of its dependencies remain the same. Therefore, the query system’s goal is to check dependencies to see if they changed, which, in turn, requires checking the dependencies’ dependencies, and so on. As a result, recomputation begins with a depth-first traversal of the dependency graph.

Conceptually, if none of the input (leaf) queries have changed, then none of the queries depending on them have changed, and so on – and no recomputation needs to happen, anywhere. However, there are cases even when input queries do change, but recomputation can be avoided for most functions. In particular, this can happen if a dependency’s inputs do change, but its outputs don’t. However, since queries are implemented using plain and unrestricted C++, there isn’t a general way of knowing how a change of inputs will affect the output without running the query. Therefore, to detect such cases of unchanged output, queries whose inputs changed must be re-run. See Example of Avoiding Recomputation for some code that demonstrates avoiding recomputation.

The depth-first traversal, combined with the need to recompute queries to check if their output has changed, means that dependencies are re-computed before the function that called them is re-computed. In other words, rather being recomputed top-down (from the top-level query down to its dependencies), dependencies are recomputed bottom-up. This has several implications for the way that context state should be managed (see State Implications).

Once any of a query’s dependencies’ outputs is determined to have changed, there’s no use checking its other dependencies – any dependency changing is sufficient to need to recompute the whole dependent query. Moreover, whether or not other dependencies ought to be run may depend on the result of the changed query (see Changing Dependency Graph Example). Thus, bottom-up recomputation suspends, and the dependent query is called. At this point, the query’s function runs as normal, its dependency queries are called as they are encountered in the C++ source code, which may invoke their own dependencies being computed, and so on. Thus, starting from the query-to-be-recomputed, we are once again back to a top-down mode of execution. However, at any point during this top-down execution, if the query needs to determine if a dependency needs to be recomputed, another bottom-up traversal will be needed. Thus, the execution of a query is a layering of top-down and bottom-up (re)computations.

The recomputation-to-check-output requirement has one more practical effect. If a dependency is determined to have changed, this has occurred by re-running it. That means that when the parent query is called to in turn determine its new value, once it reaches the call to the changed dependency, the result will already be known, and the saved value will be used. More concretely, suppose a particular query depends on queries A, B, and C. Suppose also that all three of these queries would produce a new output in new revision. In this case, when the parent query is invoked, the output of A would already have been recomputed, whereas B and C would still be awaiting recomputation; the use of A would result in returning a cached result, whereas the uses of B and C would result in invoking these queries’ functions. In short, you cannot expect all query dependencies to be computed in the same manner (bottom up or top down).

The Preamble is Always Called

One important thing to note is that, once you’ve decided that recomputation is necessary, “recomputing” the query is pretty much the same as computing it in the first place. At the time of writing, “recompute” is just a shim for calling the query function with the previously-supplied arguments. However, the query function’s body includes the preamble, and thus, the preamble is re-run whenever a query’s result is recomputed.

The preamble does a few things, such as check if a query needs to be recomputed 2, push it onto a query stack (which records dependencies). If you are implementing logic that is sensitive to the kind of things that occur in the preamble, keep this in mind.

Example of Avoiding Recomputation

Here’s an example of when an input query changes, but a top-level query need not change. Suppose you’re reading a string from some input query, computing its length, and then performing an expensive computation with that somehow solely depends on the length.

SomeDataStructure& expensiveQuery(Context* context) {
    QUERY_BEGIN(expensiveQuery, context);
    auto strLen = lengthQuery(context);
    auto result = doSomeExpensiveComputation(strLen);
    return QUERY_END(result);

size_t lengthQuery(Context* context) {
    QUERY_BEGIN(lengthQuery, context);
    auto str = inputQuery(context);
    auto result = str.size();
    return QUERY_END(result);

std::string inputQuery(Context* context) {
    QUERY_BEGIN_INPUT(inputQuery, context);
    auto result = "";
    return QUERY_END(result);

Now, consider the following sequence of steps.

int main() {
    QUERY_STORE_INPUT_RESULT(inputQuery, context, "hello");
    auto firstResult = expensiveQuery(context);

    context->advanceToNextRevision(false /* prepareToGC */);
    QUERY_STORE_INPUT_RESULT(inputQuery, context, "world");
    auto secondResult = expensiveQuery(context);

Note that "hello" and "world" have the same length; thus, lengthQuery will return the same value, even though the input has changed. Since queries are deterministic and pure, this means that expensiveQuery should produce the same result. Thus, even after an input query change, the expensive computation can be avoided.

What steps would the query system take? When expensiveQuery is invoked for the second time, the query system will observe that it hasn’t been computed yet as of the second generation, and would attempt to determine whether or not recomputation should take place. To do so, it will perform the depth-first graph traversal with recomputation, as described above. The only leaf of the dependency graph in this example is inputQuery; this query has been explicitly set by the user, so it won’t be re-run. However, it will be marked as “requiring recompute” and lengthQuery would be re- run because of that. However, lengthQuery will return the same result as before. Thus, the recomputation check for expensiveQuery will find that none of its dependencies have changed, and skip running it.

A more compilation-oriented example is that of typechecking an expression. A user might add a space somewhere in the middle of a function call, but the resulting AST would be the same, and thus, typechecking would not need to occur.

Changing Dependency Graph Example

Once one of a query’s dependencies is known to have changed, we stop executing the dependencies, and execute the query itself. One of the reasons for this is that queries that were run in the previous execution may not need to be run at all. Consider the following example.

bool queryWithConditional(Context* context) {
    QUERY_BEGIN(queryWithConditional, context);
    int result = queryA(context);
    if (result == 0) {
        result = queryB(context);
    return QUERY_END(result);

Suppose query A returns 0 initially. In that case, both query A and query B would be dependencies of queryWithConditional. However, if the result of query A changes to something nonzero, re-running query B would be unnecessary: it would never be called in the parent query’s body. Not only that, but re-running query B could be incorrect: if it issued errors, these errors would be shown to the user, even though there’s no reason why they should be.

A slightly more complicated case is as follows.

bool queryWithConditional(Context* context) {
    QUERY_BEGIN(queryWithConditional, context);
    bool queryAResult = queryA(context);
    int result;
    if (queryAResult) {
        result = queryB(context);
    } else {
        result = queryC(context);
    return QUERY_END(result);

Suppose that in the above example, query A returns true in the first generation, and false in the second generation. When it’s initially computed, queryWithConditional would have queries A and B as its dependencies. However, once the result of query A changes, it would be incorrect to re-run query B (for the same reason as before). Additionally, query C, though not listed as a dependency, will need to be executed, possibly for the first time. This will happen when queryWithConditional is itself recomputed. In the end, queryWithConditional will have queries A and C as its dependencies.

From a correctness perspective, an important consequence of these examples is that dependencies should be checked in the order that they were originally called. Otherwise, we might end up recomputing a query that would no longer need to be called. Because of this, the query system stores an ordered list of dependencies, and traverses it first-to-last.

State Implications

The occasional bottom-up nature of recomputing queries means that Context state changes temporarily made by a parent query may or may not be visible to a child query. Consider the following example:

bool childQuery(Context* context) {
    QUERY_BEGIN(childQuery, context);
    auto result = context->someStateFlagSet;
    return QUERY_END(result);

bool parentQuery(Context* context) {
    QUERY_BEGIN(parentQuery, context);
    context->someStateFlagSet = true;
    auto result = childQuery(context);
    context->someStateFlagSet = false;
    return QUERY_END(result);

int main() {
    Context* context; // Assume initialized with some real value
    auto firstResult = parentQuery(context);
    context->advanceToNextRevision(false /* prepareToGC */);
    auto secondResult = secondResult(context);

The firstResult variable will be set to true, as one would expect. The parent query would first be called, set the parent flag, and then call the child query. The child query would read the flag and return it.

The secondResult variable will be set to false. In an effort to determine whether or not the parentQuery needs to be recomputed, the query system will begin a depth-first search. It will therefore first need to determine if childQuery has changed; to do so, it must recompute the result. Thus, it calls childQuery, which reads context->someStateFlagSet, and determines that the flag is not set (after all, it was set to false by parentQuery!). Thus, the query returns false – a different value than it returned last time – prompting parentQuery to be recomputed. Within the parent query, the cached value of childQuery is used, and the parentQuery returns false, too.

Does this mean the query system is broken? No, it does not. Modifying global state is an effect, and thus parentQuery is not a “law-abiding” query.

So queries cannot rely on any Context state? Well, not necessary. Sometimes storing state in the context is useful. For instance, a query might request that errors from its child queries not be issued to the user (e.g. if it’s trying to perform a computation that might fail, but that failure is a potential and expected result). So, queries might want to rely on (mutable) context state – however, this cannot be done in query code alone; the context’s implementation must be adjusted to be aware of the state. My hope is that this document contains enough information about the query’s system behavior to help support such an adjustment.


or at least supposed to be, under the assumptions of the query system


at the time of writing – and yes, that does mean that if recompute is called from inside a “needs recompute” function, another “needs recompute” will be performed.