Exploring Kotlin IR

Brian Norman
5 min readFeb 10, 2020

At the time of writing this article, Kotlin IR is experimental. As such, information contained in this article about IR could be out-of-date or incorrect. If official documentation for Kotlin IR exists, please refer to it first.

Ever since learning about them, I’ve been very interested in Kotlin compiler plugins. Even the limited list of official supported plugins hint at the potential available. A plugin like kotlin-serialization shows how it is possible to generate code for marshalling a Kotlin class. A plugin like allopen shows it’s possible to transform classes to be non-final at runtime. It’s Java annotation processing; but with more power.

My adventure into this world started a few months ago when I once again looked longingly at a Groovy language feature called Power Assertions. If you are unfamiliar with this language feature, it was original developed by the Spock testing framework, and introduced in Groovy 1.7. It’s goal is to show the value of everything involved in the assertion which failed.

a = 10
b = 9

assert 91 == a * b

// Output:
// Exception thrown
// Assertion failed:
// assert 91 == a * b
// | | | |
// | 10| 9
// | 90
// false
// at ConsoleScript2.run(ConsoleScript2:4)

This context as to why the assertion failed is indeed something to desire. Many libraries in the JVM ecosystem (AssertJ, Hamcrest, Truth, Kluent, Atrium, Strikt, etc) provide meaningful error messages but they are usually limited to the known types of the library. Many of these libraries have ways to provide custom assertion extensions so you can provide something meaningful when testing your own classes. But I’ve always seen this as boiler plate and found it tedious to write.

Introducing: kotlin-power-assert

kotlin-power-assert is a Kotlin compiler plugin which finds every call to kotlin.assert(...) and transforms it to include all the expressions in the assertion in the error message.

val hello = "Hello"
assert(hello.length == "World".substring(1, 4).length) { "Incorrect length" }
// Output:
// java.lang.AssertionError: Incorrect length
// assert(hello.length == "World".substring(1, 4).length)
// | | | | |
// | | | | 3
// | | | orl
// | | false
// | 5
// Hello
// at <stacktrace>

This is done via an IrGenerationExtension which is a specific kind of extension to the Kotlin compiler. From this extension point, you are given access to the IR layout of the file being compiled and are allowed to transform it before the Kotlin compiler continues to the next phase of compilation.

If you want to learn more about the architecture of Kotlin compiler plugins I highly recommend watching Kevin Most’s presentation from KotlinConf 2018 which goes into details not covered here.

Kotlin IR

Kotlin IR, or Kotlin Intermediate Representation, is the new internal representation used by the Kotlin compiler when it parses Kotlin source files. It uses this representation to than perform a series of “lowerings” which transform the code.

These lowering operations include tailrec transformation, string concatenation to StringBuilder, suspend function transformation, and for-loop optimizations. These lowerings are then performed in phases, with more general transformations performed first. Once all lowerings are complete, each compiler backend, one for each supported platform (JVM, JS, or Native), takes the IR and translates it into the platform specific representation.

By using an intermediate representation, the Kotlin compiler is able to share lowerings across all the compiler backends. It also allows developers to write a single compiler plugin which will work on all platforms. Otherwise a plugin which wants to support all Kotlin platforms would need to write a transformation for each platform specific representation.

Transfroming Kotlin IR

Kotlin IR is represented as a tree of elements. To navigate, you can use an IrElementVisitor which will visit each IrElement. If you want to transform the code, you can use an IrElementTransformer which will allow you to manipulate the elements visited and even return a completely different element in place of the one being visited. To create an IR tree of your own, you can use the many builder functions available.

As Kotlin IR is still experimental, only a few of the official compiler plugins have been converted to also support IR. However, many lowerings are currently available which provide good examples to explore.

Transforming assert() Calls

So with a little background on Kotlin IR, how is the assertion function transformed to include additional information?

It all starts with an IrElementTransformer which navigates the IR tree and visits each instance of an IrCall. This represents every call to any function. If the function being called is assert(), then the call needs to be transformed.

Next, the IR tree is navigated from that point, finding every instance of an IrExpression. An expression is anything that can return a value: function calls, variable/field access, constants, if/when expressions, etc.

Then every IrExpression found is moved to a temporary variable (via irTemporary builder) and replaced with an access expression to the temporary variable (via irGet builder). This allows the error message to access the same temporary variables used by the assertion condition.

Once the assertion expressions are transformed, the assertion call is replaced with a series of if statements (using irIfThen builder) and throw statements (using irThrow builder). The constructor call to AssertionError can then include all the temporary variables, formatted appropriately and include the source code of the original assert() call.

Finally, to get the source code for the original assert() call, start with getting the source code for the entire file. This can be accessed through visiting the IrFile and using the path extension function to get the path to the source file being compiled. From there, source code range information can be retrieved from each IrElement using the fileEntry from the parent IrFile.

override fun visitFile(declaration: IrFile): IrFile {
file = declaration
fileSource = File(declaration.path).readText()

override fun visitCall(expression: IrCall): IrExpression {
val callSource = fileSource.substring(expression.startOffset, expression.endOffset)
val callIndent = file.fileEntry.getSourceRangeInfo(expression.startOffset, expression.endOffset).startColumnNumber

Putting all this information together, the expression temporary variables are sorted based on start column and included in the assertion message string with some “fancy” formatting (using irConcat and irString builders).

Unfortunately, in reality it is more complicated that what was just described. Boolean expressions which include && or || tend to make things more complicated due to short-circuiting. But hopefully this simplification helps you understand what is going on behind the scenes.

Writing Your Own Plugin

If you have an idea for a Kotlin compiler plugin, the first thing I recommend is to use the fantastic library kotlin-compile-testing. This library will allow you to compile code in unit tests and to even load the compiled code so you can test it’s behavior.

The second thing I recommend is to set your expectations correctly. As Kotlin IR is still experimental, there are still a number of things which do not work well. It could be a while before Kotlin IR is the default mode for the Kotlin compiler. Make sure you are comfortable with these risks before using or writing a compiler plugin based on IR.

And finally, clone and load up the Kotlin git repository. Being able to navigate through all the IR code and lowerings was incredible useful to find examples on how to perform different transformations.