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Re: Calling C from OCaml, GC problems
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Date: 2000-02-18 (09:47)
From: Markus Mottl <mottl@m...>
Subject: Re: Calling C from OCaml, GC problems
>  1. the ocaml doc (paragraph 15.5) states that CAMLparam and CAMLreturn
>     macros should be used. However, example code in 15.7 does not use
>     them (even if functions have value typed parameters). The Unix
>     interfacing code ocaml-2.04/otherlibs/unix/) doesn't use those macro
>     either. Faulty doc?  Are those macros not mandatory? What is the
>     rationale?

"CAMLparam" + "CAMLreturn" are used in cases where the C-program has to
allocate memory on the OCaml-heap. This can, however, trigger a garbage
collection. If you are unlucky, the values you have received from OCaml are
not referenced from any other value in OCaml anymore, i.e. they are not

The garbage collector may therefore reclaim the values in question. If you
still need them in the C-program and you try to access them later, you
might cause a segfault, because the memory of these values has been freed -
or even worse: you manipulate some new value which was allocated in this
place, which may cause problems much later.

To prevent this from happening, you have to "secure" the values by using
the macros mentioned above. "CAMLparam" ensures that the values stay
reachable for the time you still need them, "CAMLreturn" removes this
protection again and returns the value.

You need not protect the value parameters if you do not allocate anything
on the OCaml-heap or if you do not need them anymore before doing the next
allocation. This is probably the case in the Unix-library, where you mostly
just extract some system value (file descriptors, etc.) and pass it to the
appropriate system call.

>  2. when compiling, I've tons of warning like this:
>     Did I use wrongly those CAML* macros?

I know that the macros require parenthesis now (OCaml 2.99) - so you will
probably have to put them around "result" in "CAMLreturn result" to stay

Otherwise the CAML-macros seem to be ok, but I am not quite sure about your
correct use of values like (e.g. "MANAGER m"). I'd have to see the whole
code, unfortunately, your host is unreachable at the moment...

>  3. The code is running on small examples but segfault on bigger
>     ones. From gdb backtrace, it seems clear that my bug is releated to
>     a GC problem:

This might be a problem of wrong "protection" of some values: small
examples are unlikely to cause many allocations. This means that the
probability of causing and finding the bug is lower.

Unfortunately, depending on what C does with the values, the problem can be
hidden for quite some time until the code really causes a segfault. So the
true location of the problem may be far from the point in the source where
the fault appears.

>     The bdd library is using itself a memory management library calling
>     sbrk(2). Can it trigger problems with OCaml GC (like the GC going
>     into bdd structures)?

Hm, no idea. The man page of "sbrk" says somewhere:

  It is unspecified whether the pointer returned by sbrk() is aligned
  suitably for any purpose.

And the OCaml manual says:

  Any word-aligned pointer to an address outside the heap can be safely
  cast to and from the type value. This includes pointers returned
  by malloc, and pointers to C variables (of size at least one word)
  obtained with the & operator.

It is beyond my understanding whether this might be the cause of problems,
but "sbrk" seems to be somewhat dangerous in this respect.

Good luck chasing the bug!

- Markus Mottl

Markus Mottl,,