The overlord Reference Manual

Table of Contents

Next: , Previous: , Up: (dir)   [Contents][Index]

The overlord Reference Manual

This is the overlord Reference Manual, version 28, generated automatically by Declt version 2.3 "Robert April" on Wed Mar 14 04:23:06 2018 GMT+0.

Next: , Previous: , Up: Top   [Contents][Index]

1 Introduction


Overlord is an experimental build/module system for Common Lisp, inspired by Redo and Racket.

Overlord addresses three problems which might seem unrelated, but which, on closer examination, turn out to the same problem:

  1. It lets you reproducibly specify the desired state of a Lisp system which is to be saved as an image.

  2. It provides a general-purpose build system (a superset of Make, inspired by Redo).

  3. It provides a module system for implementing languages as libraries (inspired by Racket).

Table of Contents

Advice for users

Overlord is experimental. For the most part, trying to document the API at this stage would be futile. Instead, this README discusses the concepts behind Overlord. If you’re looking for the current syntax, consult the test suite and the files it uses.

(If you are interested in reading the code, here are the more interesting parts:

The rest is support.)

Before loading Overlord, it would be a good idea to make sure you are running the latest version of ASDF.

Note that, to run the test suite, you will need to download Core Lisp, and, if not on Windows, you must have the touch program in your search path. (On Windows, Powershell is used instead).

Overlord stores its persistent data structures in a cache directory. On Linux, this is $XDG_CACHE_HOME/overlord. The data structures stored there are versioned. Since this version number is increasing rapidly, it might worth checking the cache directory from time to time to delete obsolete files.

Overlord is developed and tested on Clozure and SBCL. In the future it may support other Lisp implementations, but that is not a priority. Lisp implementations that do not support image-based persistence (e.g. ECL) are unlikely to receive support.

Overlord supports building in parallel using threads. Targets can request that their dependencies be built in parallel by using pdepends-on instead of depends-on. However, threads are not enabled by default. If you want to try building in parallel, execute:

(setf (overlord:use-threads-p) t)

It is not recommended that you try parallelizing targets that call the Lisp compiler. (This includes importing modules.) On SBCL the Lisp compiler is protected by a global lock, and trying to use it from multiple threads can result in deadlock.

When I say “experimental”, I mean it. Anything may change at any time.

About Quicklisp

Overlord is now in Quicklisp. This does not mean Overlord is done: it remains pre-alpha. But it does mean that bleeding-edge development will now take place in a separate dev branch.

Embedding languages

Overlord enables languages as libraries. Overlord languages have several important properties:

  1. Languages are first-class. Modules live in their own files, just like Lisp code, and are compiled into FASLs, just like Lisp code.

  2. Languages can use any syntax. Unlike embedded DSLs, which are limited by what can be done with reader macros, full languages can use any parser they like.

  3. Languages are interoperable. Lisp code can import modules written in embedded languages, and modules written in embedded languages can import other modules – even modules written in other languages.

  4. Languages are reusable. Support for meta-languages allows different languages to share the same parser or for the same language to be written in more than one syntax.

One goal of the language implementation is to provide a reasonable level of integration with Emacs. A prototype Emacs minor mode is included in <elisp/overlord.el>. Using overlord-minor-mode lets you recompile a module using C-c C-k, and lets you view the Lisp code that the file expands into using C-c RET – just like an ordinary macroexpansion.

Language examples

Here are some example language embeddings:

  1. overlord/demo/js. A simple demo language built on CL-JavaScript. Shows how to convert a pre-existing CL language implementation to work with Overlord.

  2. Bosom Serpent. Shows how to wrap a foreign runtime (Python, using burgled-batteries) as an Overlord module.

  3. cl-yesql. Lisp port of Clojure’s yesql. Includes a parser, and shows how (and why) to load the same file in different languages.

  4. cl-https-everywhere. In-process HTTPS Everywhere rulesets. Shows how to combine Overlord’s support for languages with direct use of the build system.

  5. Core Lisp. A hygiene-compatible implementation of the Lisp dialect ISLISP (itself a conceptual subset of Common Lisp). Shows how to use Overlord to build “language towers.”

Overlord vs. ASDF

Overlord expects to be used alongside ASDF, with ASDF responsible for compiling and loading Lisp code, and Overlord doing everything else.

Overlord is mostly independent of ASDF. It still, however, needs ASDF to resolve relative pathnames in Lisp code. Depending on ASDF in this respect is probably not unreasonable, since making it easy to locate a system’s files is what ASDF was designed for.

(Note that, while Overlord is mostly independent of ASDF the program, it still depends on ASDF the project, because it builds on the UIOP portability layer.)

(Note also that relying on ASDF means there is a discrepancy in the handling of relative pathnames in Overlord modules vs. Lisp files. Relative pathnames in Overlord modules are relative to the file that contains the module, but relative pathnames in Lisp files are relative to the base of the system they are loaded in. This is, unfortunately, unlikely to change.)

Overlord vs. Redo

Redo is a build system. Actually, Redo is a family of build systems, sharing a design due to Daniel J. Bernstein.

In the design space of build systems, Redo is a remarkable local optimum: it is both very powerful and very simple. It is not the most powerful build system possible, or the very simplest, but it certainly provides the most leverage.

Overlord generalizes the idea of a build system so that its dependency graph can include both files on disk and state in the Lisp system. It manages the state stored by Lisp itself, in symbols, and provides ways to manage other kinds of state. This generalized build system is modeled on Redo.

Note that, like Redo, but unlike ASDF or Make, Overlord does not care about the ordering of timestamps. Timestamps (along with other metadata) are stored in the database, and a file or other target is considered changed as long as the timestamp is different, regardless of whether it is newer or older than other timestamps.


Overlord has basic integration with the command line.

It is possible to run Overlord using either cl-launch or Roswell. The cl-launch script is in cl-launch/overlord. The Roswell script is in roswell/overlord.ros. They each use the same syntax.

A word of warning

One thing that might not be obvious about Redo-style build systems is that they afford unusually good opportunities for parallelism. Overlord only uses parallelism when it is explicitly requested, but even without parallelism, it tries to discourage reliance on side effects by, whenever possible, randomizing the order in which targets are built.

Overlord and Lisp images

During development, as targets are defined and re-defined, and rebuilt or not rebuilt, the actual state of the Lisp world will drift away from the one specified by Overlord’s dependency graph. Before dumping an image such discrepancies must be resolved. It is obviously undesirable, for example, for an image built on one machine to try to lazy-load a module on another machine where the source of that module is unavailable. (Actually it would be a disaster, since that source file might be provided maliciously.)

Thus, before an image is saved, Overlord needs to do two things:

  1. Finalize the state of the image by making sure that all defined targets have been built.

  2. Disable itself.

If you use uiop:dump-image to save the image, you don’t need to do anything; Overlord will finalize the state of the image, and disable itself, automatically.

If you are using implementation-specific means to save an image, however, you will need to arrange to call overlord:freeze before the image is saved.

The default policy is to allow the restored image to be unfrozen, and development to be resumed, by calling overlord:unfreeze. This is probably what you want when, say, saving an image on a server. In other scenarios, however — like delivering a binary – you may want to strip the build system from the image entirely. This is possible by changing Overlord’s “freeze policy”, using the freeze-policy accessor.

;;; The default: can be reversed after
;;; loading the image by calling
;;; `overlord:unfreeze`.
(setf (overlord:freeze-policy) t)

;;; Irreversible: before saving the
;;; image, Overlord should destroy its
;;; internal state.
(setf (overlord:freeze-policy) :hard)

Overlord vs. Racket

Overlord’s approach to making languages is inspired by Racket. Racket is a language in the Lisp family, descended from Scheme. Its distinction is its focus on making languages. An impressive amount of thought, effort, and research has gone into making the whole Racket environment act as a toolkit for making languages. Racket users are both encouraged and expected to solve their problems by making special-purpose languages; and Racket itself is implemented, from a simple, Scheme-like core, as a tower of languages.

(If you want to investigate for yourself, you can find a gentle introduction to making languages with Racket in Beautiful Racket.)

You might be wondering what making languages has to do with a build system. The answer is that, once we have a build system that allows Lisp bindings as targets, the idea of a language falls out naturally. The most abstraction a file-to-file build system can support is a pattern – an abstract relationship between two files. But what is an abstract relationship between a file and a Lisp binding? The relationship is a language; the Lisp object is a module.

Overlord models its support for making languages on Racket. It is not a direct imitation of Racket, however. In particular, the goal of Overlord is to provide a module system that is fundamentally dynamic at the level of modules: it should always be possible to redefine a module, just as it is always possible (in Lisp itself) to redefine a function.


A Overlord module is a file in a language. The language can be specified in two ways.

The language can be specified as part of the file itself, with a special first line. The special first line looks like this:

#lang my-lang

This is called (following Racket) a hash lang.

The language of a module can also be specified as part of the import syntax. Since the language is not an inherent part of the file, the same file can be loaded as a module in more than one language. And each language-file combination gets its own, completely independent module.


In Overlord, a language is just a package. The package exports a reader and an expander. The symbol named read-module is the package reader. The symbol named module-progn is the package expander.

The important thing: when the package’s reader is called, that same package is also bound as the current package. It is then the responsibility of the reader to make sure any symbols it reads in, or inserts into the expansion, are interned in the correct package. (There is a shortcut for this, overlord:reintern.)

(There is one exception to the rule of language=package. If another package exists, having the same name, but ending in -user, and this other package inherits from the original package, then this user package is the package that is made current while reading (and expanding). E.g. a file beginning with #lang cl would actually be read in using the cl-user package, not the cl package itself.)

Note that the reader is responsible for returning a single form, which is the module. That is, the form returned by the package reader should already be wrapped in the appropriate module-progn. The exported binding for module-progn is only looked up when the language is being used as the expander for a meta-language.

(Meta-languages are for language authors who want to reuse an existing syntax.)

Defining languages

Any package can be used as a hash lang, as long as its name is limited to certain characters ([a-zA-Z0-9/_+-]). Of course this name can also be a nickname.

(Note that resolution of package names is absolute, even in a Lisp implementation that supports package-local nicknames.)

It is recommended, although not required, that your language package inherit from overlord/cl rather than from cl. The result is the same, except that overlord/cl globally shadows Common Lisp’s binding and definition forms so they can, in turn, be shadowed locally by language implementations.

The package must at least export a binding for one of read-module, for direct use, or module-progn, for use with a meta-language. Preferably, it would export both.

If the syntax of your language makes it possible to determine exports statically, you should also define and export static-exports. If your language defines static-exports, then Overlord can statically check the validity of import forms.

(This also has implications for phasing. If your language doesn’t provide a static-exports binding, then the only way Overlord can expand a request to import all bindings from a module is by loading that module at compile time to get a list of its exports.)

Imports and exports

What Overlord imports and exports are not values, but bindings. Bindings are indirect (and immutable): they refer to the module, rather than to the value of the export. This allows for modules to be reloaded at any time. It is even possible to unload modules.

The overhead of this indirection is very low, but when necessary it can be avoided.

Note that exports in Overlord, with one exception, form a single namespace. This is in order to keep the notation for imports simple. Importing from a language with multiple namespaces into a language with multiple namespaces would create a Cartesian product problem.

The one exception is macros. A single namespace for run-time bindings and macros would not make sense in Overlord where modules can be dynamically reloaded.

Because Overlord imports bindings rather than values, modules are always loaded lazily. A module is never actually loaded until a function imported from it is called, or a variable imported from it is looked up.

Finally, Overlord allows local imports: imports that only take effect within the body of a with-imports form.

The combination of lazy loading and local imports may mean that, in some cases, needless imports are minimized. For example, a module that is only used inside of a macro might only be loaded when the macro is expanded at compile time. However, this does not apply when saving images: all known modules are loaded before the image is saved. The real effect of pervasive lazy loading is that, since you do not know when, or in what order, modules will be loaded, you must not rely on load-time side effects.

Simple modules

Most of the time, your language’s package expander will return a simple-module form.

(overlord:simple-module (#'moo)
  (defun make-moo (o)
    (concat "M" (make-string o :initial-element #\o)))

  (defun moo (&optional (o 2))
    (print (make-moo o))))

This exports a single name, moo, bound to a function that says “Moo” with a varying amount of “oo”.

What makes simple modules simple is that they cannot export macros. If you do want to export macros, you need something more complex (see below).

The simple-module form is is built on the support for internal definitions in Serapeum (the local macro), and shares its limitations with regard to the precedence of macro definitions. Macro definitions must precede all function or variable definitions, and all expressions.

Macro exports

Overlord’s syntax for import and export supports macros.

The ability to export macros from modules is not useful in itself. It only becomes useful in the presence of certain forms of macro hygiene. After experimenting with different ways to do this, I have concluded that the correct thing to do, if you want your language to be able to export macros, is to embed a hygiene-compatible language in Lisp, and then compile your language to that.

I’m not being flippant. Embedding a hygiene-compatible language in CL is not just doable; it’s already been done. As a proof of concept, I have converted Pascal’s Costanza’s hygiene-compatible implementation of ISLISP in Common Lisp (“Core Lisp”) to work with Overlord’s module system. This version of Core Lisp lives in its own repository.

How macro exports are supported is one aspect of the Overlord module system that is very likely to change.

Future work

Things I might or might not do, but sure would like to link to if someone else did them.

Appendix: Overlord for Redoers

| Redo | Overlord | | ------------- | ------------- | | redo | build | | redo-ifchange | depends-on | | redo-ifcreate | depends-not |

Build systems manage state in the file system. In Common Lisp, we have a bundle of state which, in many ways, resembles a file system: a set of persistent, mutable locations with first-class, hierarchical addresses. Symbols have value cells and function cells (mutable locations); they have property lists; they are used as keys in arbitrary namespaces (more locations); they can be persisted, in fasl files and in saved images; and they are each uniquely addressed with a path (package name, symbol name).

The obvious difference between Overlord and Redo in practice is that Redo uses shell scripts, while Overlord’s “scripts” are written in Lisp. (It is unimportant because, after all, you can run shell commands from Lisp, or somehow call Lisp from the shell.) On the one hand, embedding shell syntax in Lisp is clumsy; on the other hand, Lisp special variables are much superior to any shell-based means for passing information between parent and child scripts. (See §5.4.2 in Grosskurth 2007.)

The important thing to remember about Overlord is that, because the goal of Overlord is to maintain the consistency of the whole Lisp system, there is only one project. Targets are resolved (i.e. relative pathnames are made absolute) at compile time, not run time, relative to the base inferred for the package which is current at the time they are defined. And because all targets are absolute, the directory which is current at the time the build takes place does not matter.

The fact that there is only one project also changes how patterns are handled. Since patterns do not belong to a particular project, they need another form of namespacing. Accordingly patterns are given names (when they are defined with defpattern) and must be invoked by name.

All that said, Overlord is a surprisingly faithful implementation of Redo. It differs from Redo principally in having a very different idea of what can be a target.

Like most practical Redo implementations, Overlord does not (by default) hash files to determine if they have changed. The timestamp of the file, however, is treated as a hash-like value: the file is rebuilt whenever it changes. This avoids both the problems of hashing (slow) and the problems of timestamp ordering (unreliable clocks).

One way Overlord deviates from the Redo model is in how it decides what is or is not a target. In Redo, this depends on the state of the file system – a prerequisite is a target under two conditions: it does not exist, or it exists and has an entry in the database. In Overlord, however, the database is discarded with every time the version of Overlord is incremented. The same goes for the Lisp implementation. You could easily end up in a condition where a target is treated as a source file because it exists, and has no entry in the newly created database. So, instead of relying on the database to determine what is or is not a target, Overlord treats an existing X as a target if and only if there is a build script for X. (If X does not exist, then it is still always treated as a target.)

Another way Overlord deviates from the Redo model is in how it builds file targets. While it is possible to opt in to Redo-like behavior – writing to a temp file that is atomically renamed to replace the target – scripts can also overwrite the target directly. This allows the script to choose not to write to the file if its output has not changed (e.g. using overlord:write-file-if-changed). In this way we achieve the same results as redo-stamp – the ability of a target to declare itself unchanged – without complicating the underlying model.

Appendix: Overlord for Racketeers

In Racket, languages are defined in two steps. In Racket, a language is a module. This module defines a reader, which returns syntax, and an expander, which gives that syntax meaning.

That can’t work in Common Lisp, where meaning is assigned at read time, when a symbol is interned in one or another package.

In Racket the expander is entirely responsible for giving the code meaning. In Overlord the expander has less to do, because the code has been assigned meaning at read time, but it is still important for lexical bindings and whole-program transformations.

Where in Racket you would write

(module my-module MY-LANG forms ...)

to wrap FORMS with the binding of #%module-begin from MY-LANG, in Overlord you just write:

(MY-LANG:module-progn forms....)

Although for convenience you can write

(overlord:module-progn-in :MY-LANG forms...)

But this just delays resolving module-progn from read time to macro-expansion time.

Note that the reader is responsible for returning a single form, which is the module. That is, the form returned by the package reader should already be wrapped in the appropriate module-progn. The exported binding for module-progn is only looked up when the language is being used as the expander for a meta-language.

Meta-languages are for language authors who want to reuse an existing syntax. E.g., if you want to define a language that uses s-expressions, in Racket you can write:

#lang s-exp my-lang

In Overlord you can do something similar:

#lang overlord/s-exp my-lang

What happens here is simply that the overlord/s-exp language finds the package my-lang and binds it to *package* before it starts reading in forms.

Macro exports

Unlike in Racket, macros must be imported explicitly as macros, because implicitly distinguishing functions and macros does not make sense when it is possible to reload modules.

I am not sure that support for macros in the module system is useful. In Racket, where languages and modules are the same thing, modules must export macros as language extensions. In Overlord, modules are one thing, and languages are something else – packages.

That said, I could hardly call the module system “Racket-inspired” with a straight face if it didn’t support exporting macros from modules.