Introduction to Programming Languages/Binding

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A source file has many names whose properties need to be determined. The meaning of these properties might be determined at different phases of the life cycle of a program. Examples of such properties include the set of values associated with a type; the type of a variable; the memory location of the compiled function; the value stored in a variable, and so forth. Binding is the act of associating properties with names. Binding time is the moment in the program's life cycle when this association occurs.

Many properties of a programming language are defined during its creation. For instance, the meaning of key words such as while or for in C, or the size of the integer data type in Java, are properties defined at language design time. Another important binding phase is the language implementation time. The size of integers in C, contrary to Java, were not defined when C was designed. This information is determined by the implementation of the compiler. Therefore, we say that the size of integers in C is determined at the language implementation time.

Many properties of a program are determined at compilation time. Among these properties, the most important are the types of the variables in statically typed languages. Whenever we annotate a variable as an integer in C or Java, or whenever the compiler infers that a variable in Haskell or SML has the integer data type, this information is henceforward used to generate the code related to that variable. The location of statically allocated variables, the layout of the [activation records] of function and the control flow graph of statically compiled programs are other properties defined at compilation time.

If a program uses external libraries, then the address of the external functions will be known only at link time. It is in this moment that the runtime environment finds where is located the printf function that a C program calls, for instance. However, the absolute addresses used in the program will only be known at loading time. At that moment we will have an image of the executable program in memory, and all the dependences will have been already solved by the loader.

Finally, there are properties which we will only know once the program executes. The actual values stored in the variables is perhaps the most important of these properties. In dynamically typed languages we will only know the types of variables during the execution of the program. Languages that provide some form of late binding will only lets us know the target of a function call at runtime, for instance.

As an example, let us take a look at the program below, implemented in C. In line 1, we have defined three names: int, i and x. One of them represents a type while the others represent the declaration of two variables. The specification of the C language defines the meaning of the keyword int. The properties related to this specification are bound when the language is defined. There are other properties that are left out of the language definition. An example of this is the range of values for the int type. In this way, the implementation of a compiler can choose a particular range for the int type that is the most natural for a specific machine. The type of variables i and x in the first line is bound at compilation time. In line 4, the program calls the function do_something whose definition can be in another source file. This reference is solved at link time. The linker tries to find the function definition for generating the executable file. At loading time, just before a program starts running, the memory location for main, do_something, i and x are bound. Some bindings occur when the program is running, i.e., at runtime. An example is the possible values attributed to i and x during the execution of the program.

1 int i, x = 0;
2 void main() {
3   for (i = 1; i <= 50; i++)
4     x += do_something(x);
5 }

The same implementation can also be done in Java, which is as follows:

1 public class Example {
2  int i, x = 0;
4     public static void main(String[] args) {
5     for (i = 1; i <= 50; i++) {
6        x += do_something(x);
7        }
8     }
9 }

Interpreted Programs