Last week I landed bug 1132183, a pretty large patch rewriting the implementation of this in SpiderMonkey.

How this Works In JS

In JS, when a function is called, an implicit this argument is passed to it. In strict mode, this inside the function just returns that value:

function f() { "use strict"; return this; }; // 123

In non-strict functions, this always returns an object. If the this-argument is a primitive value, it's boxed (converted to an object):

function f() { return this; }; // returns an object: new Number(123)

Arrow functions don't have their own this. They inherit the this value from their enclosing scope:

function f() {
    "use strict";
    () => this; // `this` is 123

And, of course, this can be used inside eval:

function f() {
    "use strict";
    eval("this"); // 123

Finally, this can also be used in top-level code. In that case it's usually the global object (lots of hand waving here).

How this Was Implemented

Until last week, here's how this worked in SpiderMonkey:

  • Every stack frame had a this-argument,
  • Each this expression in JS code resulted in a single bytecode op (JSOP_THIS),
  • This bytecode op boxed the frame's this-argument if needed and then returned the result.

Special case: to support the lexical this behavior of arrow functions, we emitted JSOP_THIS when we defined (cloned) the arrow function and then copied the result to a slot on the function. Inside the arrow function, JSOP_THIS would then load the value from that slot.

There was some more complexity around eval: eval-frames also had their own this-slot, so whenever we did a direct eval we'd ensure the outer frame had a boxed (if needed) this-value and then we'd copy it to the eval frame.

The Problem

The most serious problem was that it's fundamentally incompatible with ES6 derived class constructors, as they initialize their 'this' value dynamically when they call super(). Nested arrow functions (and eval) then have to 'see' the initialized this value, but that was impossible to support because arrow functions and eval frames used their own (copied) this value, instead of the updated one.

Here's a worst-case example:

class Derived extends Base {
    constructor() {
        var arrow = () => this;

        // Runtime error: `this` is not initialized inside `arrow`.

        // Call Base constructor, initialize our `this` value.

        // The arrow function now returns the initialized `this`.

We currently (temporarily!) throw an exception when arrow functions or eval are used in derived class constructors in Firefox Nightly.

Boxing this lazily also added extra complexity and overhead. I already mentioned how we had to compute this whenever we used eval.

The Solution

To fix these issues, I made this a real binding:

  • Non-arrow functions that use this or eval define a special .this variable,
  • In the function prologue, we get the this-argument, box it if needed (with a new op, JSOP_FUNCTIONTHIS) and store it in .this,
  • Then we simply use that variable each time this is used.

Arrow functions and eval frames no longer have their own this-slot, they just reference the .this variable of the outer function. For instance, consider the function below:

function f() {
    return () =>;

We generate bytecode similar to the following pseudo-JS:

function f() {
    var .this = BoxThisIfNeeded(this);
    return () => (.this).foo();

I decided to call this variable .this, because it nicely matches the other magic 'dot-variable' we already had, .generator. Note that these are not valid variable names so JS code can't access them. I only had to make sure with-statements don't intercept the .this lookup when this is used inside a with-statement...

Doing it this way has a number of benefits: we only have to check for primitive this values at the start of the function, instead of each time this is accessed (although in most cases our optimizing JIT could/can eliminate these checks, when it knows the this-argument must be an object). Furthermore, we no longer have to do anything special for arrow functions or eval; they simply access a 'variable' in the enclosing scope and the engine already knows how to do that.

In the global scope (and in eval or arrow functions in the global scope), we don't use a binding for this (I tried this initially but it turned out to be pretty complicated). There we emit JSOP_GLOBALTHIS for each this-expression, then that op gets the this value from a reserved slot on the lexical scope. This global this value never changes, so the JITs can get it from the global lexical scope at compile time and bake it in as a constant :) (Well.. in most cases. The embedding can run scripts with a non-syntactic scope chain, in that case we have to do a scope walk to find the nearest lexical scope. This should be uncommon and can be optimized/cached if needed.)

The Debugger

The main nuisance was fixing the debugger: because we only give (non-arrow) functions that use this or eval their own this-binding, what do we do when the debugger wants to know the this-value of a frame without a this-binding?

Fortunately, the debugger (DebugScopeProxy, actually) already knew how to solve a similar problem that came up with arguments (functions that don't use arguments don't get an arguments-object, but the debugger can request one anyway), so I was able to cargo-cult and do something similar for this.

Other Changes

Some other changes I made in this area:

  • In bug 1125423 I got rid of the innerObject/outerObject/thisValue Class hooks (also known as the holy grail). Some scope objects had a (potentially effectful) thisValue hook to override their this behavior, this made it hard to see what was going on. Getting rid of that made it much easier to understand and rewrite the code.
  • I posted patches in bug 1227263 to remove the this slot from generator objects, eval frames and global frames.
  • IonMonkey was unable to compile top-level scripts that used this. As I mentioned above, compiling the new JSOP_GLOBALTHIS op is pretty simple in most cases; I wrote a small patch to fix this (bug 922406).


We changed the implementation of this in Firefox 45. The difference is (hopefully!) not observable, so these changes should not break anything or affect code directly. They do, however, pave the way for more performance work and fully compliant ES6 Classes! :)