A Beginner’s Guide to Garbage Collection

I was just reading an interesting paper about garbage collection (GC), and realized that I’d never written about it here, so I thought maybe I’d write a couple of articles about it. I’m going to start by talking about the two most basic techniques: mark and sweep collection, and reference counting. In future posts, I’ll move on to talk about various neat things in the world of GC.

So let’s start at the beginning. What is garbage collection?

When you’re writing a program, you need to store values in memory. Most of the time, if you want to do something interesting, you need to be able to work with lots of different values. You read data from your user, and you need to be able to create a place to store it. So (simplifying a bit) you ask your operating system to give you some memory to work with. That’s called memory allocation.

The thing about memory allocation is that the amount of memory that a computer has is finite. If you keep on grabbing more of your computer’s memory, you’re eventually going to run out. So you need to be able to both grab new memory when you need it, and then give it back when you’re done.

In many languages (for example, C or C++), that’s all done manually. You need to write code that says when you want to grab a chunk of memory, and you also need to say when you’re done with it. Your program needs to keep track of how long it needs to use a chunk of memory, and give it back when it’s done. Doing it that way is called manual memory management.

For some programs, manual memory management is the right way to go. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to get right. When you’re building a complicated system with a lot of interacting pieces, keeping track of who’s using a given piece of memory can become extremely complicated. It’s hard to get right – and when you don’t get it right, your program allocates memory and never gives it back – which means that over time, it will be using more and more memory, until there’s none left. That’s called a memory leak. It’s very hard to write a complicated system using manual memory management without memory leaks.

You might reasonably ask, what makes it so hard? You’re taking resources from the system, and using them. Why can’t you just give them back when you’re done with them?

It’s easiest to explain using an example. I’m going to walk through a real-life example from one of my past jobs.

I was working on a piece of software that managed the configuration of services for a cluster management platform. In the system, there were many subsystems that needed to be configured, but we wanted to have one configuration. So we had a piece of configuration that was used to figure out what resources were needed to run a service. There was another piece that was used to figure out where log messages would get stored. There was another piece that specified what was an error that was serious enough to page an engineer. There was another piece that told the system how to figure out which engineer to page. And so on.

We’d process the configuration, and then send pieces of it to the different subsystems that needed them. Often, one subsystem would then need to grab information from the piece of configuration that was the primary responsibility of a different subsystem. For example, when there’s an major error, and you need to page an engineer, we wanted to include a link to the appropriate log in the page. So the pager needed to be able to get access to the logging configuration.

The set of components that worked as part of this configuration system wasn’t fixed. People could add new components as new things got added to the system. Each component would register which section of the configuration it was interested in – but then, when it received its configuration fragment, it could also ask for other pieces of the configuration that it needed.

So, here’s the problem. Any given piece of the configuration could be used by 1, or 2, or 3, or 4, or 20 different components. Which piece of the system should be responsible for knowing when all of the other components are done using it? How can it keep track of that?

That’s the basic problem with manual memory management. It’s easy in easy cases, but in complex systems with overlapping realms of responsibility, where multiple systems are sharing data structures in memory, it’s difficult to build a system where there’s one responsible agent that knows when everyone is done with a piece of memory.

It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult. In a system like the one above, the way that we made it work was by doing a lot of copying of data. Instead of having one copy of a chunk of evaluated configuration which was shared among multiple readers, we’d have many copies of the same thing – one for each component. That worked, but it wasn’t free. We ended up needing to use well over ten times as much memory as we could have using shared data structures. When you’ve got a system that could work with a gigabyte of data, multiplying it by ten is a pretty big deal! Even if you’ve got a massive amount of memory available, making copies of gigabytes of data takes a lot of time!

The most important point here is to understand just how hard it is to get this stuff right. I’ve been a software engineer for a long time, and I’ve worked on a lot of systems. Until the advent of the Rust programming language, I’d never seen a single long-running system built with manual memory management that didn’t have a memory leak somewhere. (I’ll talk more about Rust and how it manages to accomplish this in a later post.)

So manual memory management is very hard to get right, and it can potentially be pretty expensive. On the other hand, it’s predictable: you know, when you write your code, what the costs of managing memory will be, because you wrote the code that does it. And, if you get it right, you can control exacly how much memory your program is using at any time.

The alternative to manual memory management is to somehow make the program automatically keep track of memory, and get rid of it when it’s no longer used. But how do you know when something is no longer used?

It’s pretty easy. You call a chunk of memory live if it can be reached by any variable in the program. If it can’t, it’s garbage, and you can get rid of it. Garbage collection is any mechanism in a programming language or execution environment that automatically figures out when something is garbage, and releases it.

There are two basic methods that we can use to figure out which chunks of memory contain live values, and which are garbage. They’re called reference counting and mark-sweep. (There’s a pool of people who are going to get angry at this definition because, they argue, reference counting isn’t garbage collection. They insist that reference counting is something fundmentally different, and that only mark-sweep is really garbage collection. Obviously I disagree. The definition that I’m using is that anything which automatically releases unused memory is garbage collection.)

In reference counting, each block of memory that gets allocated includes a counter called its reference count. Every time you create a new way of referring to something – by assigning it to a variable, or passing it as a parameter, assigning it to a field of another data structure – you add one to the reference count of the block of memory that contains it. Every time you remove a way of referencing something – by changing a variable, or returning from a function call, or garbage collecting a data structure that referenced it, you decrement its reference count by one. When the reference count for a block of memory hits zero, you can release it.

It’s simple, and it’s predictable. You know that the moment you stop using something, it’s going to get released. That’s great! But there are some problems with reference counting. First, you need to make sure that every single time you change anything, you correctly update the reference counts. Miss any updates, and either things will get released before you’re done with them, or things won’t get released and you’ll leak memory. The other, potentially bigger problem, is that there are a bunch of data structures where simple reference counting doesn’t work. For example, think of a doubly-linked list. That’s a list of values, stored so that each value in the list contains pointers to both the element ahead of it in the list, and to the element behind it in the list. Every element in that list always has at least one thing pointing to it. So none of their reference counts will ever be zero, and no element of the list will ever get collected! (There are ways around that, which we’ll talk about in a later post.)

The other main garbage collection technique is called mark-sweep. In mark-sweep, you have a two-phase process: in the mark phase, you walk over all of the data structures figuring out what’s still being used, and in the sweep phase, you free up anything that isn’t getting used.

In the marking phase, you start with a set of pointers called the root set. The root set consists of the things that you know are being used: the values of all of the variables in the parts of your program that are running, and anything that’s being referenced by the execution environment.

You create a marking queue, consisting initially of the root-set. Then you start to process the queue. For each element in the queue, if it hasn’t been marked yet, you mark it as alive, and then you add everything that it contains a reference to to the queue. If it was already marked as live, you just skip over it: it’s done.

Once the mark phase is done, everything that can possibly be referenced by your running program has been marked as live. So now you can sweep: go through the memory space of your program, and release anything that wasn’t marked as live. Boom: you’ve just gotten rid of everything that’s no longer needed.

Naive mark-sweep has one really big problem: your program can’t change anything during the mark phase! That means that any time you want to release some unusued memory, you need to stop the execution of your program while the garbage collection is going through memory, figuring out what’s still alive.

Personally, I really love working in garbage collected languages. In modern GC systems, the pauses are relatively non-intrusive, and the execution time cost of them is often significantly less than the additional copy-costs of manual collection. But it’s far from a panacaea: it doesn’t even completely prevent memory leaks! (One of the things that surprised me quite a bit earlier in my career was discovering a huge memory leak in a Java program.)

Anyway, that’s the intro to the general ideas. In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about a lot of different things in the area of memory management and garbage collection. I’m mostly going to focus on mark-sweep: reference counting is a very simple idea, and most of the applications of it focus on maintaining that simplicity. But in the world of mark-sweep, there’s a ton of interesting stuff: semispaces (which make the sweep phase of GC faster and more effective), generational garbage collection (which makes the GC system faster, and reduces the number of pauses), incremental collection (which allows the mark phase to be done without stopping the whole program), and various techniques used to implement all of this, like read-barriers, write barriers, and colored pointers.

5 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Garbage Collection”

  1. Garbage collection is one of the big changes I’ve seen in programming languages over my life. Go back 25 years, to 1992, and only academic languages, scripting languages and Lisp were garbage collected, and no one would think of writing a lot of the stuff in Python that’s done now. So a bunch of stuff was written in C and in a primitive version of C++ that doesn’t support the more sophisticated memory management of modern versions. Now virtually all new programs are GCed, using JVM or .NET languages, or Python/Perl/Ruby.

  2. Why are C/C++ not garbage collected by your definition? A variable will go out of scope after a block ends, so unless that variable contains pointers, the memory will be freed, right?

    1. In C++, a stack-allocated value goes out of scope when a block ends – but a dynamically allocated block of memory doesn’t get released unless someone releases it.

      If we only have stack-allocated values, then there’s no need to have garbage collection at all. (And, in fact, there are languages like that. At one point,I worked on a programming language which only has stack-allocated values.) The catch, though, is that without dynamically allocated values, you’re limiting what kinds of computations you can write. With no form of dynamic memory allocation, you can’t be Turing complete – there will be computations that you cannot implement.

      Rust provides a much better example of that. In Rust, you can use something that it, essentially, a sophisticated version of C++ scope-based memory management, and you can make it work for almost any
      program, at the cost of doing a lot of work managing sharing and ownership.

      1. Thank you, your comment clarifies the definition of garbage collection for me. None of the explanations I have heard talks about the difference between the stack and the heap. So whenever we talk about memory allocation we talk about the heap right?

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