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18.2.2 Conservative Garbage Collection

Aside from the latent typing, the major source of constraints on a Scheme implementation's data representation is the garbage collector. The collector must be able to traverse every live object in the heap, to determine which objects are not live.

There are many ways to implement this, but Guile uses an algorithm called mark and sweep. The collector scans the system's global variables and the local variables on the stack to determine which objects are immediately accessible by the C code. It then scans those objects to find the objects they point to, et cetera. The collector sets a mark bit on each object it finds, so each object is traversed only once. This process is called tracing.

When the collector can find no unmarked objects pointed to by marked objects, it assumes that any objects that are still unmarked will never be used by the program (since there is no path of dereferences from any global or local variable that reaches them) and deallocates them.

In the above paragraphs, we did not specify how the garbage collector finds the global and local variables; as usual, there are many different approaches. Frequently, the programmer must maintain a list of pointers to all global variables that refer to the heap, and another list (adjusted upon entry to and exit from each function) of local variables, for the collector's benefit.

The list of global variables is usually not too difficult to maintain, since global variables are relatively rare. However, an explicitly maintained list of local variables (in the author's personal experience) is a nightmare to maintain. Thus, Guile uses a technique called conservative garbage collection, to make the local variable list unnecessary.

The trick to conservative collection is to treat the stack as an ordinary range of memory, and assume that every word on the stack is a pointer into the heap. Thus, the collector marks all objects whose addresses appear anywhere in the stack, without knowing for sure how that word is meant to be interpreted.

Obviously, such a system will occasionally retain objects that are actually garbage, and should be freed. In practice, this is not a problem. The alternative, an explicitly maintained list of local variable addresses, is effectively much less reliable, due to programmer error.

To accommodate this technique, data must be represented so that the collector can accurately determine whether a given stack word is a pointer or not. Guile does this as follows:

Thus, given any random word w fetched from the stack, Guile's garbage collector can consult the table to see if w falls within a known heap segment, and check w's alignment. If both tests pass, the collector knows that w is a valid pointer to a cell, intentional or not, and proceeds to trace the cell.

Note that heap segments do not contain all the data Guile uses; cells for objects like vectors and strings contain pointers to other memory areas. However, since those pointers are internal, and not shared among many pieces of code, it is enough for the collector to find the cell, and then use the cell's type to find more pointers to trace.