Programming Languages

From Capabilities to Regions: Enabling Efficient Compilation of Lexical Effect Handlers

by Marius Müller, Philipp Schuster, Jonathan Lindegaard Starup, Klaus Ostermann, and Jonathan Immanuel Brachthäuser

In Proc. Int’l Conf. Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages and Applications (OOPSLA), 2023.

This publication is related to the Effects research project.


Effect handlers are a high-level abstraction that enables programmers to use effects in a structured way. They have gained a lot of popularity within academia and subsequently also in industry. However, the abstraction often comes with a significant runtime cost and there has been intensive research recently on how to reduce this price. A promising approach in this regard is to implement effect handlers using a CPS translation and to provide sufficient information about the nesting of handlers. With this information the CPS translation can decide how effects have to be lifted through handlers, i.e., which handlers need to be skipped, in order to handle the effect at the correct place. A structured way to make this information available is to use a calculus with a region system and explicit subregion evidence. Such calculi, however, are quite verbose, which makes them impractical to use as a source-level language. We present a method to infer the lifting information for a calculus underlying a source-level language. This calculus uses second-class capabilities for the safe use of effects. To do so, we define a typed translation to a calculus with regions and evidence and we show that this lift-inference translation is typability- and semantics-preserving. On the one hand, this exposes the precise relation between the second-class property and the structure given by regions. On the other hand, it closes a gap in a compiler pipeline enabling efficient compilation of the source-level language. We have implemented lift inference in this compiler pipeline and conducted benchmarks which indicate that the approach is indeed working.