Piler System

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The PILER Decompilation System

The PILER decompilation system is documented in [ Barb74 ]. However, this document is probably only available in Microfiche form, and would be difficult for many to access. As the first attempt at a general decompiler, I thought it was worth summarising in a little more detail.

The PILER decompiler system follows (almost) the classic three phase structure:

  • Interpretation of the subject (input) program's "commands" (the Interpreter)
  • Analysis of the source program for function and data usage (the Analyser)
  • Expression of the source program in the target language (the Converter)

Each of these phases is a totally separate program, and could be run on three different machines! The interpreter phase was always run on the source machine.


A reproduction of Figure 2 of [Barb74], complete with upper case text.

The "interpreter" phase

The "interpreter" phase (not a program interpreter as we would use the term now) ran on the source machine, and has the input program loaded with it (just insert the cards into the deck!). The interpreter therefore used the loader and operating system of the source machine. The output of this phase (the first intermediate representation) was called Micro Form. This was supposed to be general, but reflected the narrow variety of machines at that time. Instead of making this a clean interface, they decided that Micro Form could be in any form that was convenient for the interpreter phase, as long as the subroutine RMR (Read Microform Record) in the Analyser phase could read it.

The interpreter phase had three subphases: loader, analysis (not the same as the analysis phase; this subphase just attempts to separate code from data), and interpretation. The analysis subphase generated several data structures: a memory map, symbol table, subroutine table, data reference table, and an input/output buffer table. It seems that the opcode field was often used to decide if a word was instruction, data, or I/O control. "Secondary microforms" were appended for indexed instructions and the like.

Micro Form

Microform was the low level intermediate representation. It was 3 address.

The analyser phase

This phase could be run on any computer, not necessarily the source or target machines. The basic procedures were (from [Barb74]):

  • First level analysis. Memory mapping for separation of program instructions and data. Division of program into logical blocks. Preliminary "timing analysis". Flagging of indexed or modified branch addresses and operation codes. Subroutine analysis.

  • Data analysis. Historical use of data locations and registers. Formats of data.

  • Second level analysis. Analysis of modified addresses and operation codes and completion of first level analysis and data analysis for any additional segments. Program reduction.

  • "Timing analysis". Assignments of computational priorities based on data usage requirements.

  • Third level analysis. Reduction of program to functional level, rather than instructive level.

  • Preparation of flowchart blocks.

  • Preparation of Intermediate Form subject program.

The folowing programs were part of the analyser phase:

  • Reader (contains the Read Microform Record (RMR) subroutine)
  • Data handler
  • Analyser
  • Flow charter
  • Program modifier (accepts directives from the user to modify the subject program).

The Reader was overlaid by the analyser. Its job was to read the Mircoform.

Some of the analyses included jump elimination and crude loop analysis. "Register usage analysis" seems to have been a crude form of dataflow analysis, but pattern based! There were 9 patterns (somewhat high level, e.g. any load followed by another load to the same register). Most patterns seemed to be aimed at removing registers from the intermediate form. (Those not removed were assigned "pseudo memory locations".)

In summary, the analyses were not very general, but with the simple machines of the day, they seemed to get away with it.

The "timing analysis" does not appear to be associated with the execution time of instructions, but more about sequence of uses of data. Perhaps it was to do with splitting live ranges, or to somehow cope with self modifying code. It seems to have been associated with the "precedence hierarchy" of logical blocks (basic blocks), to "free the program from programmer- and hardware- dictated arbitrariness", and to "locate elements which depend on their relative position in the program flow for their content or meaning".

The intermediate form has such high level concepts as indexes (indexed variables, such as arrays). However, it falls short of structuring actual DO (etc) loops (which is the job of the Converter).

The Data Handler seems to have been an internal housekeeping program, handling the details of overlapped I/O, look-ahead, "re-linking" records after a deletion or insertion, and so on.

It was possible to make changes to the program by "modifying" the flowchart (the Program Modifier). This was achieved with commands (input on punched cards); the following is a subset:

SELECT Block Identifier.

INSERT BLock Identifier IN PATH __.

EXIT PATH __ TO Block Identifier.

DATA Flow chart symbol,Size,Data Block.

If the inserted block was a subroutine: RETURN PATH _ TO Block Identifier. (Subroutines seemed to have multiple exits in those days.)

DELETE Block Identifier.


Flow chart modification affected only the intermediate form.

Intermediate Form

Intermediate Form is the high level intermediate representation. It was designed with the following languages as likely targets: FORTRAN, COBOL, ALGOL, JOVIAL, and PL/1. To give a flavour, here are some of the codes:

Mathematical Symbols

001  Plus                010  Reciprocal
002  Minus               011  Exponent
003  Unary minus         012  Boolean OR
004  Inverse subtract    013          AND
005  Multiply            014          EXTRACT
006  Divide              015          EXCLUSIVE OR
007  Inverse divide      016          EQUIVALENT
020  Equals              017          CONDITIONAL
Internal Functions
140 I/O      Subfields
             01  Test        10  Input
             02  Position    20  Close
             04  Output      40  Open

040  Round               050  Modulo
041  Normalise           051  Remainder
042  Adjoin              052  Absolute value
043  Largest integer     053  Set ON (-,1)
044  Smallest integer    054  Set OFF (+,0)
045  Maximum
046  Minimum
100  Test
101  Compare             Subfield
102  Search              01  Match
103  Sort                02  Mismatch
104  Enter               03  Max value in array
105  Move                04  Min value in array
                         05  Greater than comparand
                         06  Greater or equal to comparand
                         07  Less or equal to comparand
                         10  Between limits of 2 comparands
                         11  Next lower than comparand
                         12  Next higher than comparand
120 Internal procedure
130 External procedure

Operand types:

01    Constant
02    Literal
04    Variable
05    Subscripted variable
06    Subscript
10    Function
11-16 Parameters as 01-06 above
20    I/O list
30    Format list

The Converter phase

This phase wrote the high level language. Apparently there were so many dialects of COBOL in those days, that they suggested that the Converter should handle all the variations. They wrote "skeletal converters" for FORTRAN and COBOL (they claim that most of their effort was spent on the analysis phase).


ALthough this appears to have been a genuine attempt at a flexible, general system, it seems to have assumed many characteristics of machines common in its day, but not common now. It is a real shame that it was never properly finished (as far as I can tell), e.g. that more interpreter phases were never written.

-- MikeVanEmmerik - 07 Jul 2003