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The execution model of a program on a microprocessor corresponds to that of imperative programming. More precisely, a program is a series of instructions whose execution modifies the memory state of the machine. Memory consists mainly of values created and manipulated by the program. However, like any computer resource, available memory has a finite size; a program trying to use more memory than the system provides will be in an incoherent state. For this reason, it is necessary to reuse the space of values that are at a given moment no longer used by future computations during continued execution. Such memory management has a strong influence on program execution and its efficiency.

The action of reserving a block of memory for a certain use is called allocation. We distinguish static allocation, which happens at program load time, i.e. before execution starts, from dynamic allocation, which happens during program execution. Whereas statically allocated memory is never reclaimed during execution, dynamically allocated regions are susceptible to being freed, or to being reused during execution.

Explicit memory management is risky for two reasons: Explicit memory management by the programmer requires much care to avoid these two possibilities. This task becomes rather difficult if programs manipulate complicated data structures, and in particular if data structures share common regions of memory.

To free the programmer from this difficult exercise, automatic memory management mechanisms have been introduced into numerous programming languages. The main idea is that at any moment during execution, the only dynamically allocated values potentially useful to the program are those whose addresses are known by the program, directly or indirectly. All values that can no longer be reached at that moment cannot be accessed in the future and thus their associated memory can be reclaimed. This deallocation can be effected either immediately when a value becomes unreachable, or later when the program requires more free space than is available.

Objective CAML uses a mechanism called garbage collection (GC) to perform automatic memory management. Memory is allocated at value construction (i.e., when a constructor is applied) and it is freed implicitly. Most programs do not have to deal with the garbage collector directly, since it works transparently behind the scenes. However, garbage collection can have an effect on efficiency for allocation-intensive programs. In such cases, it is useful to control the GC parameters, or even to invoke the collector explicitly. Moreover, in order to interface Objective CAML with other languages (see chapter 12), it is necessary to understand what constraints the garbage collector imposes on data representations.

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