Writing an LLVM Pass

Introduction — What is a pass?


This document deals with the new pass manager. LLVM uses the legacy pass manager for the codegen pipeline. For more details, see Writing an LLVM Pass (legacy PM version) and Using the New Pass Manager.

The LLVM pass framework is an important part of the LLVM system, because LLVM passes are where most of the interesting parts of the compiler exist. Passes perform the transformations and optimizations that make up the compiler, they build the analysis results that are used by these transformations, and they are, above all, a structuring technique for compiler code.

Unlike passes under the legacy pass manager where the pass interface is defined via inheritance, passes under the new pass manager rely on concept-based polymorphism, meaning there is no explicit interface (see comments in PassManager.h for more details). All LLVM passes inherit from the CRTP mix-in PassInfoMixin<PassT>. The pass should have a run() method which returns a PreservedAnalyses and takes in some unit of IR along with an analysis manager. For example, a function pass would have a PreservedAnalyses run(Function &F, FunctionAnalysisManager &AM); method.

We start by showing you how to construct a pass, from setting up the build, creating the pass, to executing and testing it. Looking at existing passes is always a great way to learn details.

Quick Start — Writing hello world

Here we describe how to write the “hello world” of passes. The “HelloWorld” pass is designed to simply print out the name of non-external functions that exist in the program being compiled. It does not modify the program at all, it just inspects it.

The code below already exists; feel free to create a pass with a different name alongside the HelloWorld source files.

Setting up the build

First, configure and build LLVM as described in Getting Started with the LLVM System.

Next, we will reuse an existing directory (creating a new directory involves messing around with more CMake files than we want). For this example, we’ll use llvm/lib/Transforms/Utils/HelloWorld.cpp, which has already been created. If you’d like to create your own pass, add a new source file into llvm/lib/Transforms/Utils/CMakeLists.txt (assuming you want your pass in the Transforms/Utils directory.

Now that we have the build set up for a new pass, we need to write the code for the pass itself.

Basic code required

Now that the build is setup for a new pass, we just have to write it.

First we need to define the pass in a header file. We’ll create llvm/include/llvm/Transforms/Utils/HelloWorld.h. The file should contain the following boilerplate:


#include "llvm/IR/PassManager.h"

namespace llvm {

class HelloWorldPass : public PassInfoMixin<HelloWorldPass> {
  PreservedAnalyses run(Function &F, FunctionAnalysisManager &AM);

} // namespace llvm


This creates the class for the pass with a declaration of the run() method which actually runs the pass. Inheriting from PassInfoMixin<PassT> sets up some more boilerplate so that we don’t have to write it ourselves.

Our class is in the llvm namespace so that we don’t pollute the global namespace.

Next we’ll create llvm/lib/Transforms/Utils/HelloWorld.cpp, starting with

#include "llvm/Transforms/Utils/HelloWorld.h"

… to include the header file we just created.

using namespace llvm;

… is required because the functions from the include files live in the llvm namespace. This should only be done in non-header files.

Next we have the pass’s run() definition:

PreservedAnalyses HelloWorldPass::run(Function &F,
                                      FunctionAnalysisManager &AM) {
  errs() << F.getName() << "\n";
  return PreservedAnalyses::all();

… which simply prints out the name of the function to stderr. The pass manager will ensure that the pass will be run on every function in a module. The PreservedAnalyses return value says that all analyses (e.g. dominator tree) are still valid after this pass since we didn’t modify any functions.

That’s it for the pass itself. Now in order to “register” the pass, we need to add it to a couple places. Add the following to llvm/lib/Passes/PassRegistry.def in the FUNCTION_PASS section

FUNCTION_PASS("helloworld", HelloWorldPass())

… which adds the pass under the name “helloworld”.

llvm/lib/Passes/PassRegistry.def is #include’d into llvm/lib/Passes/PassBuilder.cpp multiple times for various reasons. Since it constructs our pass, we need to also add the proper #include in llvm/lib/Passes/PassBuilder.cpp:

#include "llvm/Transforms/Utils/HelloWorld.h"

This should be all the code necessary for our pass, now it’s time to compile and run it.

Running a pass with opt

Now that you have a brand new shiny pass, we can build opt and use it to run some LLVM IR through the pass.

$ ninja -C build/ opt
# or whatever build system/build directory you are using

$ cat /tmp/a.ll
define i32 @foo() {
  %a = add i32 2, 3
  ret i32 %a

define void @bar() {
  ret void

$ build/bin/opt -disable-output /tmp/a.ll -passes=helloworld

Our pass ran and printed the names of functions as expected!

Testing a pass

Testing our pass is important to prevent future regressions. We’ll add a lit test at llvm/test/Transforms/Utils/helloworld.ll. See LLVM Testing Infrastructure Guide for more information on testing.

$ cat llvm/test/Transforms/Utils/helloworld.ll
; RUN: opt -disable-output -passes=helloworld %s 2>&1 | FileCheck %s

; CHECK: {{^}}foo{{$}}
define i32 @foo() {
  %a = add i32 2, 3
  ret i32 %a

; CHECK-NEXT: {{^}}bar{{$}}
define void @bar() {
  ret void

$ ninja -C build check-llvm
# runs our new test alongside all other llvm lit tests


Required passes

A pass that defines a static isRequired() method that returns true is a required pass. For example:

class HelloWorldPass : public PassInfoMixin<HelloWorldPass> {
  PreservedAnalyses run(Function &F, FunctionAnalysisManager &AM);

  static bool isRequired() { return true; }

A required pass is a pass that may not be skipped. An example of a required pass is AlwaysInlinerPass, which must always be run to preserve alwaysinline semantics. Pass managers are required since they may contain other required passes.

An example of how a pass can be skipped is the optnone function attribute, which specifies that optimizations should not be run on the function. Required passes will still be run on optnone functions.

For more implementation details, see PassInstrumentation::runBeforePass().

Registering passes as plugins

LLVM provides a mechanism to register pass plugins within various tools like clang or opt. A pass plugin can add passes to default optimization pipelines or to be manually run via tools like opt. For more information, see Using the New Pass Manager.

Create a CMake project at the root of the repo alongside other projects. This project must contain the following minimal CMakeLists.txt:

add_llvm_pass_plugin(MyPassName source.cpp)

See the definition of add_llvm_pass_plugin for more CMake details.

The pass must provide at least one of two entry points for the new pass manager, one for static registration and one for dynamically loaded plugins:

  • llvm::PassPluginLibraryInfo get##Name##PluginInfo();

  • extern "C" ::llvm::PassPluginLibraryInfo llvmGetPassPluginInfo() LLVM_ATTRIBUTE_WEAK;

Pass plugins are compiled and linked dynamically by default. Setting LLVM_${NAME}_LINK_INTO_TOOLS to ON turns the project into a statically linked extension.

For an in-tree example, see llvm/examples/Bye/.

To make PassBuilder aware of statically linked pass plugins:

// Declare plugin extension function declarations.
#define HANDLE_EXTENSION(Ext) llvm::PassPluginLibraryInfo get##Ext##PluginInfo();
#include "llvm/Support/Extension.def"


// Register plugin extensions in PassBuilder.
#define HANDLE_EXTENSION(Ext) get##Ext##PluginInfo().RegisterPassBuilderCallbacks(PB);
#include "llvm/Support/Extension.def"

To make PassBuilder aware of dynamically linked pass plugins:

// Load plugin dynamically.
auto Plugin = PassPlugin::Load(PathToPlugin);
if (!Plugin)
// Register plugin extensions in PassBuilder.