Lesson 1.20: K Backends and the Haskell Backend

The purpose of this lesson is to teach about the multiple backends of K, in particular the Haskell Backend which is the complement of the backend we have been using so far.

K Backends

Thus far, we have not discussed the distinction between the K frontend and the K backends at all. We have simply assumed that if you run kompile on a K definition, there will be a compiler backend that will allow you to execute the K definition you have compiled.

K actually has multiple different backends. The one we have been using so far implicitly, the default backend, is called the LLVM Backend. It is designed to support efficient, optimized concrete execution and search. It does this by compiling your K definition to LLVM bitcode and then using LLVM to generate machine code for it that is compiled and linked and executed. However, K is a formal methods toolkit at the end of the day, and the primary goal many people have when defining a programming language in K is to ultimately be able to perform more advanced verification on programs in their programming language.

It is for this purpose that K also provides the Haskell Backend, so called because it is implemented in Haskell. While we will cover the features of the Haskell Backend in more detail in the next two lessons, the important thing to understand is that it is a separate backend which is optimized for more formal reasoning about programming languages. While it is capable of performing concrete execution, it does not do so as efficiently as the LLVM Backend. In exchange, it provides more advanced features.

Choosing a backend

You can choose which backend to use to compile a K definition by means of the --backend flag to kompile. By default, if you do not specify this flag, it is equivalent to if you had specified --backend llvm. However, to use the Haskell Backend instead, you can simply say kompile --backend haskell on a particular K definition.

As an example, here is a simple K definition that we have seen before in the previous lesson (lesson-20.k):

module LESSON-20 imports INT rule I => I +Int 1 requires I <Int 100 endmodule

Previously we compiled this definition using the LLVM Backend, but if we instead execute the command kompile lesson-20.k --backend haskell, we will get an interpreter for this K definition that is implemented in Haskell instead. Unlike the default LLVM Backend, the Haskell Backend is not a compiler per se. It does not generate new Haskell code corresponding to your programming language and then compile and execute it. Instead, it is an interpreter which reads the generated IR from kompile and implements in Haskell an interpreter that is capable of interpreting any K definition.

Note that on arm64 macOS (Apple Silicon), there is a known issue with the Compact library that causes crashes in the Haskell backend. Pass the additional flag --no-haskell-binary to kompile to resolve this.


Try running the program 0 in this K definition on the Haskell Backend and compare the final configuration to what you would get compiling the same definition with the LLVM Backend.

Legacy backends

As a quick note, K does provide one other backend, which exists primarily as legacy code which should be considered deprecated. This is the Java Backend. The Java Backend is essentially a precursor to the Haskell Backend. We will not cover this backend in any detail since it is deprecated, but we still mention it here for the purposes of understanding.


  1. Compile your solution to Lesson 1.18, Problem 2 with the Haskell Backend and execute some programs. Compare the resulting configurations with the output of the same program on the LLVM Backend. Note that if you are getting different behaviors on the Haskell backend, you might have some luck debugging by passing --search to krun when using the LLVM backend.

Next lesson

Once you have completed the above exercises, you can continue to Lesson 1.21: Unification and Symbolic Execution.