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2.9 Memory management in GNU Smalltalk

The GNU Smalltalk virtual machine is equipped with a garbage collector, a facility that reclaims the space occupied by objects that are no longer accessible from the system roots. The collector is composed of several parts, each of which can be invoked by the virtual machine using various tunable strategies, or invoked manually by the programmer.

These parts include a generation scavenger, a mark & sweep collectory with an incremental sweep phase, and a compactor. All these facilities work on different memory spaces and differs from the other in its scope, speed and disadvantages (which are hopefully balanced by the availability of different algorithms). What follows is a description of these algorithms and of the memory spaces they work in.

NewSpace is the memory space where young objects live. It is composed of three sub-spaces: an object-creation space (Eden) and two SurvivorSpaces. When an object is first created, it is placed in Eden. When Eden starts to fill up (i.e., when the number of used bytes in Eden exceeds the scavenge threshold), objects that are housed in Eden or in the occupied SurvivorSpace and that are still reachable from the system roots are copied to the unoccupied SurvivorSpace. As an object survives different scavenging passes, it will be shuffled by the scavenger from the occupied SurvivorSpace to the unoccupied one. When the number of used bytes in SurvivorSpace is high enough that the scavenge pause might be excessively long, the scavenger will move some of the older surviving objects from NewSpace to OldSpace. In the garbage collection jargon, we say that such objects are being tenured to OldSpace.

This garbage collection algorithm is designed to reclaim short-lived objects, that is those objects that expire while residing in NewSpace, and to decide when enough data is residing in NewSpace that it is useful to move some of it in OldSpace. A copying garbage collector is particularly efficient in an object population whose members are more likely to die than survive, because this kind of scavenger spends most of its time copying survivors, who will be few in number in such populations, rather than tracing corpses, who will be many in number. This fact makes copying collection especially well suited to NewSpace, where a percentage of 90% or more objects often fails to survive across a single scavenge.

The particular structure of NewSpace has many advantages. On one hand, having a large Eden and two small SurvivorSpaces has a smaller memory footprint than having two equally big semi-spaces and allocating new objects directly from the occupied one (by default, GNU Smalltalk uses 420=300+60*2 kilobytes of memory, while a simpler configuration would use 720=360*2 kilobytes). On the other hand, it makes tenuring decisions particularly simple: the copying order is such that short-lived objects tend to be copied last, while objects that are being referred from OldSpace tend to be copied first: this is because the tenuring strategy of the scavenger is simply to treat the destination SurvivorSpace as a circular buffer, tenuring objects with a First-In-First-Out policy.

An object might become part of the scavenger root set for several reasons: objects that have been tenured are roots if their data lives in an OldSpace page that has been written to since the last scavenge (more on this later), plus all objects can be roots if they are known to be referenced from C code or from the Smalltalk stacks.

In turn, some of the old objects can be made to live in a special area, called FixedSpace. Objects that reside in FixedSpace are special in that their body is guaranteed to remain at a fixed address (in general, GNU Smalltalk only ensures that the header of the object remains at a fixed address in the Object Table). Because the garbage collector can and does move objects, passing objects to foreign code which uses the object’s address as a fixed key, or which uses a ByteArray as a buffer, presents difficulties. One can use CObject to manipulate C data on the malloc heap, which indeed does not move, but this can be tedious and requires the same attentions to avoid memory leaks as coding in C. FixedSpace provides a much more convenient mechanism: once an object is deemed fixed, the object’s body will never move through-out its life-time; the space it occupies will however still be returned automatically to the FixedSpace pool when the object is garbage collected. Note that because objects in FixedSpace cannot move, FixedSpace cannot be compacted and can therefore suffer from extensive fragmentation. For this reason, FixedSpace should be used carefully. FixedSpace however is rebuilt (of course) every time an image is brought up, so a kind of compaction of FixedSpace can be achieved by saving a snapshot, quitting, and then restarting the newly saved image.

Memory for OldSpace and FixedSpace is allocated using a variation of the system allocator malloc: in fact, GNU Smalltalk uses the same allocator for its own internal needs, for OldSpace and for FixedSpace, but it ensures that a given memory page never hosts objects that reside in separate spaces. New pages are mapped into the address space as needed and devoted to OldSpace or FixedSpace segments; similarly, when unused they may be subsequently unmapped, or they might be left in place waiting to be reused by malloc or by another Smalltalk data space.

Garbage that is created among old objects is taken care of by a mark & sweep collector which, unlike the scavenger which only reclaims objects in NewSpace, can only reclaim objects in OldSpace. Note that as objects are allocated, they will not only use the space that was previously occupied in the Eden by objects that have survived, but they will also reuse the entries in the global Object Table that have been freed by object that the scavenger could reclaim. This quest for free object table entries can be combined with the sweep phase of the OldSpace collector, which can then be done incrementally, limiting the disruptive part of OldSpace garbage collection to the mark phase.

Several runs of the mark & sweep collector can lead to fragmentation (where objects are allocated from several pages, and then become garbage in an order such that a bunch of objects remain in each page and the system is not able to recycle them). For this reason, the system periodically tries to compact OldSpace. It does so simply by looping through every old object and copying it into a new OldSpace. Since the OldSpace allocator does not suffer from fragmentation until objects start to be freed nor after all objects are freed, at the end of the copy all the pages in the fragmented OldSpace will have been returned to the system (some of them might already have been used by the compacted OldSpace), and the new, compacted OldSpace is ready to be used as the system OldSpace. Growing the object heap (which is done when it is found to be quite full even after a mark & sweep collection) automatically triggers a compaction.

You can run the compactor without marking live objects. Since the amount of garbage in OldSpace is usually quite limited, the overhead incurred by copying potentially dead objects is small enough that the compactor still runs considerably faster than a full garbage collection, and can still give the application some breathing room.

Keeping OldSpace and FixedSpace in the same heap would then make compaction of OldSpace (whereby it is rebuilt from time to time in order to limit fragmentation) much less effective. Also, the malloc heap is not used for FixedSpace objects because GNU Smalltalk needs to track writes to OldSpace and FixedSpace in order to support efficient scavenging of young objects.

To do so, the grey page table9 contains one entry for each page in OldSpace or FixedSpace that is thought to contain at least a reference to an object housed in NewSpace. Every page in OldSpace is created as grey, and is considered grey until a scavenging pass finds out that it actually does not contain pointers to NewSpace. Then the page is recolored black10, and will stay black until it is written to or another object is allocated in it (either a new fixed object, or a young object being tenured). The grey page table is expanded and shrunk as needed by the virtual machine.

Drawing an histogram of object sizes shows that there are only a few sources of large objects on average (i.e., objects greater than a page in size), but that enough of these objects are created dynamically that they must be handled specially. Such objects should not be allocated in NewSpace along with ordinary objects, since they would fill up NewSpace prematurely (or might not even fit in it), thus accelerating the scavenging rate, reducing performance and resulting in an increase in tenured garbage. Even though this is not an optimal solution because it effectively tenures these objects at the time they are created, a benefit can be obtained by allocating these objects directly in FixedSpace. The reason why FixedSpace is used is that these objects are big enough that they don’t result in fragmentation11; and using FixedSpace instead of OldSpace avoids that the compactor copies them because this would not provide any benefit in terms of reduced fragmentation.

Smalltalk activation records are allocated from another special heap, the context pool. This is because it is often the case that they can be deallocated in a Last-In-First-Out (stack) fashion, thereby saving the work needed to allocate entries in the object table for them, and quickly reusing the memory that they use. When the activation record is accessed by Smalltalk, however, the activation record must be turned into a first-class OOP12. Since even these objects are usually very short-lived, the data is however not copied to the Eden: the eviction of the object bodies from the context pool is delayed to the next scavenging, which will also empty the context pool just like it empties Eden. If few objects are allocated and the context pool turns full before the Eden, a scavenging is also triggered; this is however quite rare.

Optionally, GNU Smalltalk can avoid the overhead of interpretation by executing a given Smalltalk method only after that method has been compiled into the underlying microprocessor’s machine code. This machine-code generation is performed automatically, and the resulting machine code is then placed in malloc-managed memory. Once executed, a method’s machine code is left there for subsequent execution. However, since it would require way too much memory to permanently house the machine-code version of every Smalltalk method, methods might be compiled more than once: when a translation is not used at the time that two garbage collection actions are taken (scavenges and global garbage collections count equally), the incremental sweeper discards it, so that it will be recomputed if and when necessary.



The denomination grey comes from the lexicon of tri-color marking, which is an abstraction of every possible garbage collection algorithm: in tri-color marking, grey objects are those that are known to be reachable or that we are not interested in reclaiming, yet have not been scanned to mark the objects that they refer to as reachable.


Black objects are those that are known to be reachable or that we are not interested in reclaiming, and are known to have references only to other black or grey objects (in case you’re curious, the tri-color marking algorithm goes on like this: object not yet known to be reachable are white, and when all objects are either black or white, the white ones are garbage).


Remember that free pages are shared among the three heaps, that is, OldSpace, FixedSpace and the malloc heap. When a large object is freed, the memory that it used can be reused by malloc or by OldSpace allocation


This is short for Ordinary Object Pointer.

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