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Automatic Garbage Collection

We classify automatic memory reclamation algorithms into two classes: Sweep algorithms are more commonly used in programming languages. In effect, reference counting garbage collectors increase the processing costs (through counter updating) even when there is no need to reclaim anything.

Reference Counting

Each allocated region (object) is given a counter. This counter indicates the number of pointers to the object. It is incremented each time a reference to the object is shared. It is decremented whenever a pointer to the object disappears. When the counter becomes zero, the object is garbage collected.

The advantage of such a system comes from the immediate freeing of regions that are no longer used. Aside from the systematic slowdown of computations, reference counting garbage collectors suffer from another disadvantage: they do not know how to process circular objects. Suppose that Objective CAML had such a mechanism. The following example constructs a temporary value l, a list of characters of where the last element points to the cell containing 'c'. This is clearly a circular value (figure 9.2).

# let rec l = 'c'::'a'::'m'::l in List.hd l ;;
- : char = 'c'

Figure 9.2: Memory representation of a circular list.

At the end of the calculation of this expression each element of the list l has a counter equal to one (even the first element, for the tail points to the head). This value is no longer accessible and yet cannot be reclaimed because its reference counter is not zero. In languages equipped with memory reclamation via reference counting---such as Python---and which allow the construction of circular values, it is necessary to add a memory sweep algorithm.

Sweep Algorithms

Sweep algorithms allow us to explore the graph of accessible values on the heap. This exploration uses a set of roots indicating the beginning of the traversal. These roots are exterior to the heap, stored most often in a stack. In the example in figure 9.1, we can suppose that the values of u and v are roots. The traversal starting from these roots constructs the graph of the values to save: the cells and pointers marked with heavy lines in figure 9.3.

Figure 9.3: Memory reclamation after a garbage collection.

The traversal of this graph necessitates knowing how to distinguish immediate values from pointers in the heap. If a root points to an integer, we must not consider this value to be the address of another cell. In functional languages, this distinction is made by using a few bits of each cell of the heap. We call these bits tag bits. This is why Objective CAML integers only use 31 bits. This option is described in Chapter 12, page ??. We describe other solutions to the problem of distinguishing between pointers and immediate values in this chapter, page ??.

The two most commonly used algorithms are Mark&Sweep, which constructs the list of the free cells in the heap, and Stop&Copy, which copies cells that are still alive to a second memory region.

The heap should be seen as a vector of memory boxes. The representation of the state of the heap for the example of figure 9.1 is illustrated in figure 9.4.

Figure 9.4: State of the heap.

We use the following characteristics to evaluate a sweep algorithm: Localization avoids changing memory pages when traversing a structured value. Compactness avoids fragmentation of the heap and allows allocations equal to the amount of available memory. The efficiency, reclamation factor, and supplementary memory needs are intimately linked to the time and space complexity of the algorithm.


The idea of Mark&Sweep is to keep an up-to-date list of the free cells in the heap called the free list. If, at the time of an allocation request, the list is empty or no longer contains a free cell of a sufficient size, then a Mark&Sweep occurs.

It proceeds in two stages:
  1. the marking of the memory regions in use, starting from a set of roots (called the Mark phase); then
  2. reclamation of the unmarked memory regions by sequentially sweeping through the whole heap (called the Sweep phase).
One can illustrate the memory management of Mark&Sweep by using four ``colorings'' of the heap cells: white, gray1, black, and hached. The mark phase uses the gray; the sweep phase, the hached; and the allocation phase, the white.

The meaning of the gray and black used by marking is as follows: It is necessary to keep the collection of grayed cells in order to be sure that everything has been explored. At the end of the marking each cell is either white or black, with black cells being those that were reached from the roots. Figure 9.5 shows an intermediate marking stage for the example of figure 9.4: the root u has been swept, and the sweeping of v is about to begin.

Figure 9.5: Marking phase.

It's during the sweep phase that the free list is constructed. The sweep phase modifies the colorings as follows: Figure 9.6 shows the evolution of the colors and the construction of the free list.

Figure 9.6: Sweep phase.

Characteristics of Mark&Sweep are that it: The marking phase is generally implemented by a recursive function, and therefore uses space on the execution stack. One can give a completely iterative version of Mark&Sweep that does not require a stack of indefinite size, but it turns out to be less efficient than the partially recursive version.

Finally, Mark&Sweep needs to know the size of values. The size is either encoded in the values themselves, or deduced from the memory address by splitting the heap into regions that allocate objects of a bounded size. The Mark&Sweep algorithm, implemented since the very first versions of Lisp, is still widely used. A part of the Objective CAML garbage collector uses this algorithm.


The principal idea of this garbage collector is to use a secondary memory in order to copy and compact the memory regions to be saved. The heap is divided into two parts: the useful part (called from-space), and the part being re-written (called to-space).

Figure 9.7: Beginning of Stop&Copy.

The algorithm is the following. Beginning from a set of roots, each useful part of the from-space is copied to the to-space; the new address of a relocated value is saved (most often in its old location) in order to update all of the other values that point to this value.

Figure 9.8: Rewriting from from-space into to-space.

The contents of the rewritten cells gives new roots. As long as there are unprocessed roots the algorithm continues.

Figure 9.9: New roots.

In the case of sharing, in other words, when attempting to relocate a value that has already been relocated, it suffices to use the new address.

Figure 9.10: Sharing.

At the end of garbage collection, all of the roots are updated to point to their new addresses. Finally, the roles of the two parts are reversed for the next garbage collection.

Figure 9.11: Reversing the two parts.

The principal characteristics of this garbage collector are the following:

Other Garbage Collectors

Many other techniques, often derived from the two preceding, have been used: either in particular applications, e.g., the manipulation of large matrices in symbolic calculations, or in a general way linked to compilation techniques. Generational garbage collectors allow optimizations based on the age of the values. Conservative garbage collectors are used where there is not an explicit differentiation between immediate values and pointers (for example, when one translates into C). Finally, incremental garbage collectors allow us to avoid a noticeable slow-down at the time of garbage collection activation.

Generational Garbage Collection

Functional programs are, in general, programs that allocate frequently. We notice that a very large number of values have a very short lifetime2. On the other hand, when a value has survived several garbage collections, it is quite likely to survive for a while longer. In order to avoid complete traversal of the heap---as in Mark&Sweep---during each memory reclamation, we would like to be able to traverse only the values that have survived one or more garbage collections. Most frequently, it is among the young values that we will recover the most space. In order to take advantage of this property, we give objects dates, either a time-stamp or the number of garbage collections survived. To optimize garbage collection, we use different algorithms according to the age of the values: As a value ages it should take part less and less in the most frequent garbage collections. The difficulty, therefore, is taking count of only the region of memory occupied by young objects. In a purely functional language, that is, a language without assignment, younger objects reference older objects, and on the other hand, older objects do not possess pointers to younger objects because they were created before the young objects existed. Therefore, these garbage collection techniques lend themselves well to functional languages, with the exception of those with delayed evaluation which can in fact evaluate the constituents of a structure after evaluating the structure itself. On the other hand, for functional languages with assignment it is always possible to modify part of an older object to refer to a younger object. The problem then is to save young memory regions referenced only by an older value. For this, it is necessary to keep an up-to-date table of references from old objects to young objects in order to have a correct garbage collection. We study the case of Objective CAML in the following section.

Conservative Garbage Collectors

To this point, all of the garbage collection techniques presume knowing how to tell a pointer from an immediate value. Note that in functional languages with parametric polymorphism values are uniformly represented, and in general occupy one word of memory3. This is what allows having generic code for polymorphic functions.

However, this restriction on the range for integers may not be acceptable. In this case, conservative garbage collectors make it possible to avoid marking immediate values such as integers. In this case, every value uses an entire memory word without any tag bits. In order to avoid traversing a memory region starting from a root actually containing an integer, we use an algorithm for discriminating between immediate values and pointers that relies on the following observations: Thus each heap value that is valid from the point of view of being an address into the heap is considered to be a pointer and the garbage collector tries to keep this region, including those cases where the value is in fact an immediate value. These cases may become very rare by using specific memory pages according to the size of the objects. It is not possible to guarantee that the entire unused heap is collected. This is the principal defect of this technique. However, we remain certain that only unused regions are reclaimed.

In general, conservative garbage collectors are conservative, i.e., they do not relocate objects. Indeed, as the garbage collector considers some immediate values as pointers, it would be harmful to change their value. Nevertheless, some refinements can be introduced for building the sets of roots, which allow to relocate corresponding to clearly known roots.

Garbage collection techniques for ambiguous roots are often used when compiling a functional language into C, seen here as a portable assembler. They allow the use of immediate C values coded in a memory word.

Incremental Garbage Collection

One of the criticisms frequently made of garbage collection is that it stops the execution of a running program for a time that is perceptible to the user and is unbounded. The first is embarrassing in certain applications, for instance, rapid-action games where the halting of the game for a few seconds is too often prejudicial to the player, as the execution restarts without warning. The latter is a source of loss of control for applications which must process a certain number of events in a limited time. This is typically the case for embedded programs which control a physical device such as a vehicle or a machine tool. These applications, which are real-time in the sense that they must respond in a bounded time, most often avoid using garbage collectors.

Incremental garbage collectors must be able to be interrupted during any one of their processing phases and be able to restart while assuring the safety of memory reclamation. They give a sufficiently satisfactory method for dealing with the former case, and can be used in the latter case by enforcing a programming discipline that clearly isolates the software components that use garbage collection from those that do not.

Let us reconsider the Mark&Sweep example and see what adaptations are necessary in order to make it incremental. There are essentially two:
  1. how to be sure of having marked everything during the marking phase?
  2. how to allocate during either the marking phase or the reclamation phase?
If Mark&Sweep is interrupted in the Mark phase, it is necessary to assure that cells allocated between the interruption of marking and its restart are not unduly reclaimed by the Sweep that follows. For this, we mark cells allocated during the interruption in black or gray in anticipation.

If the Mark&Sweep is interrupted during the Sweep phase, it can continue as usual in re-coloring the allocated cells white. Indeed, as the Sweep phase sequentially traverses the heap, the cells allocated during the interruption are localized before the point where the sweep restarts, and they will not be re-examined before the next garbage collection cycle.

Figure 9.12 shows an allocation during the reclamation phase. The root w is created by:

# let w = 'f'::v;;
val w : char list = ['f'; 'z'; 'a'; 'm']

Figure 9.12: Allocation during reclamation.

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