JIT compilation is often about custom code generation or simple DSLs. But what if we have actual source code for a general programming language and want to compile it at runtime? We need a frontend that compiles it to LLVM IR first before we feed it into the JIT. Clang is a proper frontend for C++, but what’s the simplest way to use it in this context?

It’s a direct consequence from the last post: The Clang driver forks itself for each translation unit with a pre-processed set of arguments that invoke the cc1 frontend tool, which does the actual compile job. We can do the same from our own project:

  1. Save C++ source code to temporary file on disk
  2. Invoke cc1 to compile source file to bitcode file
  3. Stream back the bitcode file into a LLVM module
  4. Feed the module into the JIT

This is obviously necessary in order to integrate Clang into our project. Please find a sample CMakeLists.txt with the required additions here. If you’re on Linux consider using the LLD linker to speed up your builds! The sample has an option to use LLD that works with Clang.

Invoke cc1 tool

The simplest way is a hack: The entry point to cc1 is not the main function but cc1_main and it’s implemented in a separate translation unit. This means that we can simply include the cpp without a symbol conflict at link-time, as we do have our own main but no cc1_main.

A rough sketch could look like this:

// Hack: cc1 lives in "tools" next to "include"
#include <../tools/driver/cc1_main.cpp>

// Simplified argument set
std::vector<const char *> argsX { "-emit-llvm", "-emit-llvm-bc", "-std=c++14", "-stdlib=libc++", "-resource-dir", "/path/to/llvm-clang-build/lib/clang/4.0.1/", "-o", "/tmp/bitcode.bc", "-x", "c++", "/tmp/source.cpp" };

if (int res = cc1_main(argsX, "", nullptr))

std::unique_ptr<llvm::Module> M = readModuleFromBitcodeFile("bitcode.bc");

Actual cc1 arguments

We can figure out which arguments to pass to cc1 to do the job, by invoking clang and prepending the command line with -### to run only the driver and print transformed arguments:

$ clang -### -g -c -emit-llvm -o /tmp/bitcode.bc /tmp/source.cpp

Most of the arguments are defaults so you don’t actually need to set them. This said, for any reasonable C++ code you will at least need to set -resource-dir.

Set -resource-dir

Clang comes with a resource directory that contains vendor-specific include files like standard headers and intrinsics definitions. As the contents is also specific for each version of Clang, it needs to be shipped with the executable. In a developer environment, however, it can easily be inferred from the LLVM/Clang build while configuring CMake:


With a little preprocessor magic it can be inserted to the argsX vector like this:


std::vector<const char *> argsX {
  "-emit-llvm", "-emit-llvm-bc", "-std=c++14", "-stdlib=libc++",
  "-o", "/tmp/bitcode.bc", "-x", "c++", "/tmp/source.cpp"

That’s it! Add a little infrastructure around it and go compile with Clang at runtime. Please find a complete implementation in my JitFromScratch example project on GitHub.

Happy hacking!