are ephemerons primitive?

28 November 2022 9:11 PM (mark functions | bdw | garbage collection | ephemerons | finalizers | finalization | guardians | weak references | js | guile | scheme | igalia)

Good evening :) A quick note, tonight: I've long thought that ephemerons are primitive and can't be implemented with mark functions and/or finalizers, but today I think I have a counterexample.

For context, one of the goals of the GC implementation I have been working on on is to replace Guile's current use of the Boehm-Demers-Weiser (BDW) conservative collector. Of course, changing a garbage collector for a production language runtime is risky, and for Guile one of the mitigation strategies for this work is that the new collector is behind an abstract API whose implementation can be chosen at compile-time, without requiring changes to user code. That way we can first switch to BDW-implementing-the-new-GC-API, then switch the implementation behind that API to something else.

Abstracting GC is a tricky problem to get right, and I thank the MMTk project for showing that this is possible -- you have user-facing APIs that need to be implemented by concrete collectors, but also extension points so that the user can provide some compile-time configuration too, for example to provide field-tracing visitors that take into account how a user wants to lay out objects.

Anyway. As we discussed last time, ephemerons are usually have explicit support from the GC, so we need an ephemeron abstraction as part of the abstract GC API. The question is, can BDW-GC provide an implementation of this API?

I think the answer is "yes, but it's very gnarly and will kill performance so bad that you won't want to do it."

the contenders

Consider that the primitives that you get with BDW-GC are custom mark functions, run on objects when they are found to be live by the mark workers; disappearing links, a kind of weak reference; and finalizers, which receive the object being finalized, can allocate, and indeed can resurrect the object.

BDW-GC's finalizers are a powerful primitive, but not one that is useful for implementing the "conjunction" aspect of ephemerons, as they cannot constrain the marker's idea of graph connectivity: a finalizer can only prolong the life of an object subgraph, not cut it short. So let's put finalizers aside.

Weak references have a tantalizingly close kind of conjunction property: if the weak reference itself is alive, and the referent is also otherwise reachable, then the weak reference can be dereferenced. However this primitive only involves the two objects E and K; there's no way to then condition traceability of a third object V to E and K.

We are left with mark functions. These are an extraordinarily powerful interface in BDW-GC, but somewhat expensive also: not inlined, and going against the grain of what BDW-GC is really about (heaps in which the majority of all references are conservative). But, OK. They way they work is, your program allocates a number of GC "kinds", and associates mark functions with those kinds. Then when you allocate objects, you use those kinds. BDW-GC will call your mark functions when tracing an object of those kinds.

Let's assume firstly that you have a kind for ephemerons; then when you go to mark an ephemeron E, you mark the value V only if the key K has been marked. Problem solved, right? Only halfway: you also have to handle the case in which E is marked first, then K. So you publish E to a global hash table, and... well. You would mark V when you mark a K for which there is a published E. But, for that you need a hook into marking V, and V can be any object...

So now we assume additionally that all objects are allocated with user-provided custom mark functions, and that all mark functions check if the marked object is in the published table of pending ephemerons, and if so marks values. This is essentially what a proper ephemeron implementation would do, though there are some optimizations one can do to avoid checking the table for each object before the mark stack runs empty for the first time. In this case, yes you can do it! Additionally if you register disappearing links for the K field in each E, you can know if an ephemeron E was marked dead in a previous collection. Add a pre-mark hook (something BDW-GC provides) to clear the pending ephemeron table, and you are in business.

yes, but no

So, it is possible to implement ephemerons with just custom mark functions. I wouldn't want to do it, though: missing the mostly-avoid-pending-ephemeron-check optimization would be devastating, and really what you want is support in the GC implementation. I think that for the BDW-GC implementation in whippet I'll just implement weak-key associations, in which the value is always marked strongly unless the key was dead on a previous collection, using disappearing links on the key field. That way a (possibly indirect) reference from a value V to a key K can indeed keep K alive, but oh well: it's a conservative approximation of what should happen, and not worse than what Guile has currently.

Good night and happy hacking!

ephemerons and finalizers

31 October 2022 12:21 PM (garbage collection | ephemerons | finalizers | finalization | guardians | weak references | js | guile | scheme | igalia)

Good day, hackfolk. Today we continue the series on garbage collection with some notes on ephemerons and finalizers.

conjunctions and disjunctions

First described in a 1997 paper by Barry Hayes, which attributes the invention to George Bosworth, ephemerons are a kind of weak key-value association.

Thinking about the problem abstractly, consider that the garbage collector's job is to keep live objects and recycle memory for dead objects, making that memory available for future allocations. Formally speaking, we can say:

  • An object is live if it is in the root set

  • An object is live it is referenced by any live object.

This circular definition uses the word any, indicating a disjunction: a single incoming reference from a live object is sufficient to mark a referent object as live.

Ephemerons augment this definition with a conjunction:

  • An object V is live if, for an ephemeron E containing an association betweeen objects K and V, both E and K are live.

This is a more annoying property for a garbage collector to track. If you happen to mark K as live and then you mark E as live, then you can just continue to trace V. But if you see E first and then you mark K, you don't really have a direct edge to V. (Indeed this is one of the main purposes for ephemerons: associating data with an object, here K, without actually modifying that object.)

During a trace of the object graph, you can know if an object is definitely alive by checking if it was visited already, but if it wasn't visited yet that doesn't mean it's not live: we might just have not gotten to it yet. Therefore one common implementation strategy is to wait until tracing the object graph is done before tracing ephemerons. But then we have another annoying problem, which is that tracing ephemerons can result in finding more live ephemerons, requiring another tracing cycle, and so on. Mozilla's Steve Fink wrote a nice article on this issue earlier this year, with some mitigations.

finalizers aren't quite ephemerons

All that is by way of introduction. If you just have an object graph with strong references and ephemerons, our definitions are clear and consistent. However, if we add some more features, we muddy the waters.

Consider finalizers. The basic idea is that you can attach one or a number of finalizers to an object, and that when the object becomes unreachable (not live), the system will invoke a function. One way to imagine this is a global association from finalizable object O to finalizer F.

As it is, this definition is underspecified in a few ways. One, what happens if F references O? It could be a GC-managed closure, after all. Would that prevent O from being collected?

Ephemerons solve this problem, in a way; we could trace the table of finalizers like a table of ephemerons. In that way F would only be traced if O is live already, so that by itself it wouldn't keep O alive. But then if O becomes dead, you'd want to invoke F, so you'd need it to be live, so reachability of finalizers is not quite the same as ephemeron-reachability: indeed logically all F values in the finalizer table are live, because they all will be invoked at some point.

In the end, if F references O, then F actually keeps O alive. Whether this prevents O from being finalized depends on our definition for finalizability. We could say that an object is finalizable if it is found to be unreachable after a full trace, and the finalizers F are in the root set. Or we could say that an object is finalizable if it is unreachable after a partial trace, in which finalizers are not themselves in the initial root set, and instead we trace them after determining the finalizable set.

Having finalizers in the initial root set is unfortunate: there's no quick check you can make when adding a finalizer to signal this problem to the user, and it's very hard to convey to a user exactly how it is that an object is referenced. You'd have to add lots of gnarly documentation on top of the already unavoidable gnarliness that you already had to write. But, perhaps it is a local maximum.

Incidentally, you might think that you can get around these issues by saying "don't reference objects from their finalizers", and that's true in a way. However it's not uncommon for finalizers to receive the object being finalized as an argument; after all, it's that object which probably encapsulates the information necessary for its finalization. Of course this can lead to the finalizer prolonging the longevity of an object, perhaps by storing it to a shared data structure. This is a risk for correct program construction (the finalized object might reference live-but-already-finalized objects), but not really a burden for the garbage collector, except in that it's a serialization point in the collection algorithm: you trace, you compute the finalizable set, then you have to trace the finalizables again.

ephemerons vs finalizers

The gnarliness continues! Imagine that O is associated with a finalizer F, and also, via ephemeron E, some auxiliary data V. Imagine that at the end of the trace, O is unreachable and so will be dead. Imagine that F receives O as an argument, and that F looks up the association for O in E. Is the association to V still there?

Guile's documentation on guardians, a finalization-like facility, specifies that weak associations (i.e. ephemerons) remain in place when an object becomes collectable, though I think in practice this has been broken since Guile switched to the BDW-GC collector some 20 years ago or so and I would like to fix it.

One nice solution falls out if you prohibit resuscitation by not including finalizer closures in the root set and not passing the finalizable object to the finalizer function. In that way you will never be able to look up E×OV, because you don't have O. This is the path that JavaScript has taken, for example, with WeakMap and FinalizationRegistry.

However if you allow for resuscitation, for example by passing finalizable objects as an argument to finalizers, I am not sure that there is an optimal answer. Recall that with resuscitation, the trace proceeds in three phases: first trace the graph, then compute and enqueue the finalizables, then trace the finalizables. When do you perform the conjunction for the ephemeron trace? You could do so after the initial trace, which might augment the live set, protecting some objects from finalization, but possibly missing ephemeron associations added in the later trace of finalizable objects. Or you could trace ephemerons at the very end, preserving all associations for finalizable objects (and their referents), which would allow more objects to be finalized at the same time.

Probably if you trace ephemerons early you will also want to trace them later, as you would do so because you think ephemeron associations are important, as you want them to prevent objects from being finalized, and it would be weird if they were not present for finalizable objects. This adds more serialization to the trace algorithm, though:

  1. (Add finalizers to the root set?)

  2. Trace from the roots

  3. Trace ephemerons?

  4. Compute finalizables

  5. Trace finalizables (and finalizer closures if not done in 1)

  6. Trace ephemerons again?

These last few paragraphs are the reason for today's post. It's not clear to me that there is an optimal way to compose ephemerons and finalizers in the presence of resuscitation. If you add finalizers to the root set, you might prevent objects from being collected. If you defer them until later, you lose the optimization that you can skip steps 5 and 6 if there are no finalizables. If you trace (not-yet-visited) ephemerons twice, that's overhead; if you trace them only once, the user could get what they perceive as premature finalization of otherwise reachable objects.

In Guile I think I am going to try to add finalizers to the root set, pass the finalizable to the finalizer as an argument, and trace ephemerons twice if there are finalizable objects. I think this wil minimize incoming bug reports. I am bummed though that I can't eliminate them by construction.

Until next time, happy hacking!

the sticky mark-bit algorithm

22 October 2022 8:42 AM (garbage collection | mark-sweep | sticky mark bit | whippet | demers | javascriptcore | igalia | gc)

Good day, hackfolk!

The Sticky Mark-Bit Algorithm

Also an intro to mark-sweep GC

7 Oct 2022 – Igalia

Andy Wingo

A funny post today; I gave an internal presentation at work recently describing the so-called "sticky mark bit" algorithm. I figured I might as well post it here, as a gift to you from your local garbage human.

Automatic Memory Management

“Don’t free, the system will do it for you”

Eliminate a class of bugs: use-after-free

Relative to bare malloc/free, qualitative performance improvements

  • cheap bump-pointer allocation
  • cheap reclamation/recycling
  • better locality

Continuum: bmalloc / tcmalloc grow towards GC

Before diving in though, we start with some broad context about automatic memory management. The term mostly means "garbage collection" these days, but really it describes a component of a system that provides fresh memory for new objects and automatically reclaims memory for objects that won't be needed in the program's future. This stands in contrast to manual memory management, which relies on the programmer to free their objects.

Of course, automatic memory management ensures some valuable system-wide properties, like lack of use-after-free vulnerabilities. But also by enlarging the scope of the memory management system to include full object lifetimes, we gain some potential speed benefits, for example eliminating any cost for free, in the case of e.g. a semi-space collector.

Automatic Memory Management

Two strategies to determine live object graph

  • Reference counting
  • Tracing

What to do if you trace

  • Mark, and then sweep or compact
  • Evacuate

Tracing O(n) in live object count

I should mention that reference counting is a form of automatic memory management. It's not enough on its own; unreachable cycles in the object reference graph have to be detected either by a heap tracer or broken by weak references.

It used to be that we GC nerds made fun of reference counting as being an expensive, half-assed solution that didn't work very well, but there have been some fundamental advances in the state of the art in the last 10 years or so.

But this talk is more about the other kind of memory management, which involves periodically tracing the graph of objects in the heap. Generally speaking, as you trace you can do one of two things: mark the object, simply setting a bit indicating that an object is live, or evacuate the object to some other location. If you mark, you may choose to then compact by sliding all objects down to lower addresses, squeezing out any holes, or you might sweep all holes into a free list for use by further allocations.

Mark-sweep GC (1/3)

freelist := []

  if freelist is empty: collect()
  return freelist.pop()

  if freelist is empty: abort

Concretely, let's look closer at mark-sweep. Let's assume for the moment that all objects are the same size. Allocation pops fresh objects off a freelist, and collects if there is none. Collection does a mark and then a sweep, aborting if sweeping yielded no free objects.

Mark-sweep GC (2/3)

  worklist := []
  for ref in get_roots():
    if mark_one(ref):
  while worklist is not empty:
    for ref in trace(worklist.pop()):
      if mark_one(ref):

  for ref in heap:
    if marked(ref):

Going a bit deeper, here we have some basic implementations of mark and sweep. Marking starts with the roots: edges from outside the automatically-managed heap indicating a set of initial live objects. You might get these by maintaining a stack of objects that are currently in use. Then it traces references from these roots to other objects, until there are no more references to trace. It will visit each live object exactly once, and so is O(n) in the number of live objects.

Sweeping requires the ability to iterate the heap. With the precondition here that collect is only ever called with an empty freelist, it will clear the mark bit from each live object it sees, and otherwise add newly-freed objects to the global freelist. Sweep is O(n) in total heap size, but some optimizations can amortize this cost.

Mark-sweep GC (3/3)

marked := 1

  return *(uintptr_t*)ref
set_tag(ref, tag):
  *(uintptr_t*)ref = tag

  return (get_tag(ref) & 1) == marked
  if marked(ref): return false;
  set_tag(ref, (get_tag(ref) & ~1) | marked)
  return true
  set_tag(ref, (get_tag(ref) ^ 1))

Finally, some details on how you might represent a mark bit. If a ref is a pointer, we could store the mark bit in the first word of the objects, as we do here. You can choose instead to store them in a side table, but it doesn't matter for today's example.


Freelist implementation crucial to allocation speed

Non-contiguous allocation suboptimal for locality

World is stopped during collect(): “GC pause”

mark O(n) in live data, sweep O(n) in total heap size

Touches a lot of memory

The salient point is that these O(n) operations happen when the world is stopped. This can be noticeable, even taking seconds for the largest heap sizes. It sure would be nice to have the benefits of GC, but with lower pause times.

Optimization: rotate mark bit

  marked ^= 1

  if freelist is empty: abort


Avoid touching mark bits for live data

Incidentally, before moving on, I should mention an optimization to mark bit representation: instead of clearing the mark bit for live objects during the sweep phase, we could just choose to flip our interpretation of what the mark bit means. This allows unmark_one to become a no-op.

Reducing pause time

Parallel tracing: parallelize mark. Clear improvement, but speedup depends on object graph shape (e.g. linked lists).

Concurrent tracing: mark while your program is running. Tricky, and not always a win (“Retrofitting Parallelism onto OCaml”, ICFP 2020).

Partial tracing: mark only a subgraph. Divide space into regions, record inter-region links, collect one region only. Overhead to keep track of inter-region edges.

Now, let's revisit the pause time question. What can we do about it? In general there are three strategies.

Generational GC

Partial tracing

Two spaces: nursery and oldgen

Allocations in nursery (usually)

Objects can be promoted/tenured from nursery to oldgen

Minor GC: just trace the nursery

Major GC: trace nursery and oldgen

“Objects tend to die young”

Overhead of old-to-new edges offset by less amortized time spent tracing

Today's talk is about partial tracing. The basic idea is that instead of tracing the whole graph, just trace a part of it, ideally a small part.

A simple and effective strategy for partitioning a heap into subgraphs is generational garbage collection. The idea is that objects tend to die young, and that therefore it can be profitable to focus attention on collecting objects that were allocated more recently. You therefore partition the heap graph into two parts, young and old, and you generally try to trace just the young generation.

The difficulty with partitioning the heap graph is that you need to maintain a set of inter-partition edges, and you do so by imposing overhead on the user program. But a generational partition minimizes this cost because you never do an only-old-generation collection, so you don't need to remember new-to-old edges, and mutations of old objects are less common than new.

Generational GC

Usual implementation: semispace nursery and mark-compact oldgen

Tenuring via evacuation from nursery to oldgen

Excellent locality in nursery

Very cheap allocation (bump-pointer)

But... evacuation requires all incoming edges to an object to be updated to new location

Requires precise enumeration of all edges

Usually the generational partition is reflected in the address space: there is a nursery and it is in these pages and an oldgen in these other pages, and never the twain shall meet. To tenure an object is to actually move it from the nursery to the old generation. But moving objects requires that the collector be able to enumerate all incoming edges to that object, and then to have the collector update them, which can be a bit of a hassle.


No precise stack roots, neither in generated nor C++ code

Compare to V8’s Handle<> in C++, stack maps in generated code

Stack roots conservative: integers that happen to hold addresses of objects treated as object graph edges

(Cheaper implementation strategy, can eliminate some bugs)

Specifically in JavaScriptCore, the JavaScript engine of WebKit and the Safari browser, we have a problem. JavaScriptCore uses a technique known as "conservative root-finding": it just iterates over the words in a thread's stack to see if any of those words might reference an object on the heap. If they do, JSC conservatively assumes that it is indeed a reference, and keeps that object live.

Of course a given word on the stack could just be an integer which happens to be an object's address. In that case we would hold on to too much data, but that's not so terrible.

Conservative root-finding is again one of those things that GC nerds like to make fun of, but the pendulum seems to be swinging back its way; perhaps another article on that some other day.


Automatic memory management eliminates use-after-free...

...except when combined with manual memory management

Prevent type confusion due to reuse of memory for object of different shape

addrof/fakeobj primitives:

Type-segregated heaps

No evacuation: no generational GC?

The other thing about JSC is that it is constantly under attack by malicious web sites, and that any bug in it is a step towards hackers taking over your phone. Besides bugs inside JSC, there are bugs also in the objects exposed to JavaScript from the web UI. Although use-after-free bugs are impossible with a fully traceable object graph, references to and from DOM objects might not be traceable by the collector, instead referencing GC-managed objects by reference counting or weak references or even manual memory management. Bugs in these interfaces are a source of exploitable vulnerabilities.

In brief, there seems to be a decent case for trying to mitigate use-after-free bugs. Beyond the nuclear option of not freeing, one step we could take would be to avoid re-using memory between objects of different shapes. So you have a heap for objects with 3 fields, another objects with 4 fields, and so on.

But it would seem that this mitigation is at least somewhat incompatible with the usual strategy of generational collection, where we use a semi-space nursery. The nursery memory gets re-used all the time for all kinds of objects. So does that rule out generational collection?

Sticky mark bit algorithm

  if is_major: flip()
  if freelist is empty:
    if is_major: abort

  worklist := []
  if not is_major:
    worklist += remembered_set
    remembered_set := []

Turns out, you can generationally partition a mark-sweep heap.

Recall that to visit each live object, you trace the heap, setting mark bits. To visit them all again, you have to clear the mark bit between traces. Our first collect implementation did so in sweep, via unmark_one; then with the optimization we switched to clear them all before the next trace in flip().

Here, then, the trick is that you just don't clear the mark bit between traces for a minor collection (tracing just the nursery). In that way all objects that were live at the previous collection are considered the old generation. Marking an object is tenuring, in-place.

There are just two tiny modifications to mark-sweep to implement sticky mark bit collection: one, flip the mark bit only on major collections; and two, include a remembered set in the roots for minor collections.

Sticky mark bit algorithm

Mark bit from previous trace “sticky”: avoid flip for minor collections

Consequence: old objects not traced, as they are already marked

Old-to-young edges: the “remembered set”

Write barrier

write_field(object, offset, value):
  object[offset] = value

The remembered set is maintained by instrumenting each write that the program makes with a little call out to code from the garbage collector. This code is the write barrier, and here we use it to add to the set of objects that might reference new objects. There are many ways to implement this write barrier but that's a topic for another day.


Parallel GC: Multiple collector threads

Concurrent GC: mark runs while JS program running; “riptide”; interaction with write barriers

Generational GC: in-place, non-moving GC generational via sticky mark bit algorithm

Alan Demers, “Combining generational and conservative garbage collection: framework and implementations”, POPL ’90

So returning to JavaScriptCore and the general techniques for reducing pause times, I can summarize to note that it does them all. It traces both in parallel and concurrently, and it tries to trace just newly-allocated objects using the sticky mark bit algorithm.


A little-used algorithm

Motivation for JSC: conservative roots

Original motivation: conservative roots; write barrier enforced by OS-level page protections

Revived in “Sticky Immix”

Better than nothing, not quite as good as semi-space nursery

I find that people that are interested in generational GC go straight for the semispace nursery. There are some advantages to that approach: allocation is generally cheaper in a semispace than in a mark space, locality among new objects is better, locality after tenuring is better, and you have better access locality during a nursery collection.

But if for some reason you find yourself unable to enumerate all roots, you can still take advantage of generational collection via the sticky mark-bit algorithm. It's a simple change that improves performance, as long as you are able to insert write barriers on all heap object mutations.

The challenge with a sticky-mark-bit approach to generations is avoiding the O(n) sweep phase. There are a few strategies, but more on that another day perhaps.

And with that, presentation done. Until next time, happy hacking!

on "correct and efficient work-stealing for weak memory models"

3 October 2022 8:24 AM (concurrency | atomics | parallelism | garbage collection | work stealing | igalia)

Hello all, a quick post today. Inspired by Rust as a Language for High Performance GC Implementation by Yi Lin et al, a few months ago I had a look to see how the basic Rust concurrency facilities that they used were implemented.

One of the key components that Lin et al used was a Chase-Lev work-stealing double-ended queue (deque). The 2005 article Dynamic Circular Work-Stealing Deque by David Chase and Yossi Lev is a nice read defining this data structure. It's used when you have a single producer of values, but multiple threads competing to claim those values. This is useful when implementing per-CPU schedulers or work queues; each CPU pushes on any items that it has to its own deque, and pops them also, but when it runs out of work, it goes to see if it can steal work from other CPUs.

The 2013 paper Correct and Efficient Work-Stealing for Weak Memory Models by Nhat Min Lê et al updates the Chase-Lev paper by relaxing the concurrency primitives from the original big-hammer sequential-consistency operations used in the Chase-Lev paper to an appropriate mix of C11 relaxed, acquire/release, and sequentially-consistent operations. The paper therefore has a C11 translation of the original algorithm, and a proof of correctness. It's quite pleasant. Here's the a version in Rust's crossbeam crate, and here's the same thing in C.

I had been using this updated C11 Chase-Lev deque implementation for a while with no complaints in a parallel garbage collector. Each worker thread would keep a local unsynchronized work queue, which when it grew too large would donate half of its work to a per-worker Chase-Lev deque. Then if it ran out of work, it would go through all the workers, seeing if it could steal some work.

My use of the deque was thus limited to only the push and steal primitives, but not take (using the language of the Lê et al paper). take is like steal, except that it takes values from the producer end of the deque, and it can't run concurrently with push. In practice take only used by the the thread that also calls push. Cool.

Well I thought, you know, before a worker thread goes to steal from some other thread, it might as well see if it can do a cheap take on its own deque to see if it could take back some work that it had previously offloaded there. But here I ran into a bug. A brief internet search didn't turn up anything, so here we are to mention it.

Specifically, there is a bug in the Lê et al paper that is not in the Chase-Lev paper. The original paper is in Java, and the C11 version is in, well, C11. The issue is.... integer overflow! In brief, push will increment bottom, and steal increments top. take, on the other hand, can decrement bottom. It uses size_t to represent bottom. I think you see where this is going; if you take on an empty deque in the initial state, you create a situation that looks just like a deque with (size_t)-1 elements, causing garbage reads and all kinds of delightful behavior.

The funny thing is that I looked at the proof and I looked at the industrial applications of the deque and I thought well, I just have to transcribe the algorithm exactly and I'll be golden. But it just goes to show that proving one property of an algorithm doesn't necessarily imply that the algorithm is correct.

new month, new brainworm

1 September 2022 10:12 AM (webassembly | wasi | component model | kubernetes | igalia | compilers | containers)

Today, a brainworm! I had a thought a few days ago and can't get it out of my head, so I need to pass it on to another host.

So, imagine a world in which there is a a drive to build a kind of Kubernetes on top of WebAssembly. Kubernetes nodes are generally containers, associated with additional metadata indicating their place in overall system topology (network connections and so on). (I am not a Kubernetes specialist, as you can see; corrections welcome.) Now in a WebAssembly cloud, the nodes would be components, probably also with additional topological metadata. VC-backed companies will duke it out for dominance of the WebAssembly cloud space, and in a couple years we will probably emerge with an open source project that has become a de-facto standard (though it might be dominated by one or two players).

In this world, Kubernetes and Spiffy-Wasm-Cloud will coexist. One of the success factors for Kubernetes was that you can just put your old database binary inside a container: it's the same ABI as when you run your database in a virtual machine, or on (so-called!) bare metal. The means of composition are TCP and UDP network connections between containers, possibly facilitated by some kind of network fabric. In contrast, in Spiffy-Wasm-Cloud we aren't starting from the kernel ABI, with processes and such: instead there's WASI, which is more of a kind of specialized and limited libc. You can't just drop in your database binary, you have to write code to get it to conform to the new interfaces.

One consequence of this situation is that I expect WASI and the component model to develop a rich network API, to allow WebAssembly components to interoperate not just with end-users but also other (micro-)services running in the same cloud. Likewise there is room here for a company to develop some complicated network fabrics for linking these things together.

However, WebAssembly-to-WebAssembly links are better expressed via typed functional interfaces; it's more expressive and can be faster. Not only can you end up having fine-grained composition that looks more like lightweight Erlang processes, you can also string together components in a pipeline with communications overhead approaching that of a simple function call. Relative to Kubernetes, there are potential 10x-100x improvements to be had, in throughput and in memory footprint, at least in some cases. It's the promise of this kind of improvement that can drive investment in this area, and eventually adoption.

But, you still have some legacy things running in containers. What to do? Well... Maybe recompile them to WebAssembly? That's my brain-worm.

A container is a file system image containing executable files and data. Starting with the executable files, they are in machine code, generally x64, and interoperate with system libraries and the run-time via an ABI. You could compile them to WebAssembly instead. You could interpret them as data, or JIT-compile them as webvm does, or directly compile them to WebAssembly. This is the sort of thing you hire Fabrice Bellard to do ;) Then you have the filesystem. Let's assume it is stateless: any change to the filesystem at runtime doesn't need to be preserved. (I understand this is a goal, though I could be wrong.) So you could put the filesystem in memory, as some kind of addressable data structure, and you make the libc interface access that data structure. It's something like the microkernel approach. And then you translate whatever topological connectivity metadata you had for Kubernetes to your Spiffy-Wasm-Cloud's format.

Anyway in the end you have a WebAssembly module and some metadata, and you can run it in your WebAssembly cloud. Or on the more basic level, you have a container and you can now run it on any machine with a WebAssembly implementation, even on other architectures (coucou RISC-V!).

Anyway, that's the tweet. Have fun, whoever gets to work on this :)

accessing webassembly reference-typed arrays from c++

23 August 2022 10:35 AM (webassembly | compilers | llvm | emscripten | igalia | gc | reference types | clang)

The WebAssembly garbage collection proposal is coming soonish (really!) and will extend WebAssembly with the the capability to create and access arrays whose memory is automatically managed by the host. As long as some system component has a reference to an array, it will be kept alive, and as soon as nobody references it any more, it becomes "garbage" and is thus eligible for collection.

(In a way it's funny to define the proposal this way, in terms of what happens to garbage objects that by definition aren't part of the program's future any more; really the interesting thing is the new things you can do with live data, defining new data types and representing them outside of linear memory and passing them between components without copying. But "extensible-arrays-structs-and-other-data-types" just isn't as catchy as "GC". Anyway, I digress!)

One potential use case for garbage-collected arrays is for passing large buffers between parts of a WebAssembly system. For example, a webcam driver could produce a stream of frames as reference-typed arrays of bytes, and then pass them by reference to a sandboxed WebAssembly instance to, I don't know, identify cats in the images or something. You get the idea. Reference-typed arrays let you avoid copying large video frames.

A lot of image-processing code is written in C++ or Rust. With WebAssembly 1.0, you just have linear memory and no reference-typed values, which works well for these languages that like to think of memory as having a single address space. But once you get reference-typed arrays in the mix, you effectively have multiple address spaces: you can't address the contents of the array using a normal pointer, as you might be able to do if you mmap'd the buffer into a program's address space. So what do you do?

reference-typed values are special

The broader question of C++ and GC-managed arrays is, well, too broad for today. The set of array types is infinite, because it's not just arrays of i32, it's also arrays of arrays of i32, and arrays of those, and arrays of records, and so on.

So let's limit the question to just arrays of i8, to see if we can make some progress. So imagine a C function that takes an array of i8:

void process(array_of_i8 array) {
  // ?

If you know WebAssembly, there's a clear translation of the sort of code that we want:

(func (param $array (ref (array i8)))
  ; operate on local 0

The WebAssembly function will have an array as a parameter. But, here we start to run into more problems with the LLVM toolchain that we use to compile C and other languages to WebAssembly. When the C front-end of LLVM (clang) compiles a function to the LLVM middle-end's intermediate representation (IR), it models all local variables (including function parameters) as mutable memory locations created with alloca. Later optimizations might turn these memory locations back to SSA variables and thence to registers or stack slots. But, a reference-typed value has no bit representation, and it can't be stored to linear memory: there is no alloca that can hold it.

Incidentally this problem is not isolated to future extensions to WebAssembly; the externref and funcref data types that landed in WebAssembly 2.0 and in all browsers are also reference types that can't be written to main memory. Similarly, the table data type which is also part of shipping WebAssembly is not dissimilar to GC-managed arrays, except that they are statically allocated at compile-time.

At Igalia, my colleagues Paulo Matos and Alex Bradbury have been hard at work to solve this gnarly problem and finally expose reference-typed values to C. The full details and final vision are probably a bit too much for this article, but some bits on the mechanism will help.

Firstly, note that LLVM has a fairly traditional breakdown between front-end (clang), middle-end ("the IR layer"), and back-end ("the MC layer"). The back-end can be quite target-specific, and though it can be annoying, we've managed to get fairly good support for reference types there.

In the IR layer, we are currently representing GC-managed values as opaque pointers into non-default, non-integral address spaces. LLVM attaches an address space (an integer less than 224 or so) to each pointer, mostly for OpenCL and GPU sorts of use-cases, and we abuse this to prevent LLVM from doing much reasoning about these values.

This is a bit of a theme, incidentally: get the IR layer to avoid assuming anything about reference-typed values. We're fighting the system, in a way. As another example, because LLVM is really oriented towards lowering high-level constructs to low-level machine operations, it doesn't necessarily preserve types attached to pointers on the IR layer. Whereas for WebAssembly, we need exactly that: we reify types when we write out WebAssembly object files, and we need LLVM to pass some types through from front-end to back-end unmolested. We've had to change tack a number of times to get a good way to preserve data from front-end to back-end, and probably will have to do so again before we end up with a final design.

Finally on the front-end we need to generate an alloca in different address spaces depending on the type being allocated. And because reference-typed arrays can't be stored to main memory, there are semantic restrictions as to how they can be used, which need to be enforced by clang. Fortunately, this set of restrictions is similar enough to what is imposed by the ARM C Language Extensions (ACLE) for scalable vector (SVE) values, which also don't have a known bit representation at compile-time, so we can piggy-back on those. This patch hasn't landed yet, but who knows, it might land soon; in the mean-time we are going to run ahead of upstream a bit to show how you might define and use an array type definition. Further tacks here are also expected, as we try to thread the needle between exposing these features to users and not imposing too much of a burden on clang maintenance.

accessing array contents

All this is a bit basic, though; it just gives you enough to have a local variable or a function parameter of a reference-valued type. Let's continue our example:

void process(array_of_i8 array) {
  uint32_t sum;
  for (size_t idx = 0; i < __builtin_wasm_array_length(array); i++)
    sum += (uint8_t)__builtin_wasm_array_ref_i8(array, idx);
  // ...

The most basic way to extend C to access these otherwise opaque values is to expose some builtins, say __builtin_wasm_array_length and so on. Probably you need different intrinsics for each scalar array element type (i8, i16, and so on), and one for arrays which return reference-typed values. We'll talk about arrays of references another day, but focusing on the i8 case, the C builtin then lowers to a dedicated LLVM intrinsic, which passes through the middle layer unscathed.

In C++ I think we can provide some nicer syntax which preserves the syntactic illusion of array access.

I think this is going to be sufficient as an MVP, but there's one caveat: SIMD. You can indeed have an array of i128 values, but you can only access that array's elements as i128; worse, you can't load multiple data from an i8 array as i128 or even i32.

Compare this to to the memory control proposal, which instead proposes to map buffers to non-default memories. In WebAssembly, you can in theory (and perhaps soon in practice) have multiple memories. The easiest way I can see on the toolchain side is to use the address space feature in clang:

void process(uint8_t *array __attribute__((address_space(42))),
             size_t len) {
  uint32_t sum;
  for (size_t idx = 0; i < len; i++)
    sum += array[idx];
  // ...

How exactly to plumb the mapping between address spaces which can only be specified by number from the front-end to the back-end is a little gnarly; really you'd like to declare the set of address spaces that a compilation unit uses symbolically, and then have the linker produce a final allocation of memory indices. But I digress, it's clear that with this solution we can use SIMD instructions to load multiple bytes from memory at a time, so it's a winner with respect to accessing GC arrays.

Or is it? Perhaps there could be SIMD extensions for packed GC arrays. I think it makes sense, but it's a fair amount of (admittedly somewhat mechanical) specification and implementation work.

& future

In some future bloggies we'll talk about how we will declare new reference types: first some basics, then some more integrated visions for reference types and C++. Lots going on, and this is just a brain-dump of the current state of things; thoughts are very much welcome.

just-in-time code generation within webassembly

18 August 2022 3:36 PM (webassembly | dynamic languages | jit | compilers | guile | igalia | scheme | wasi | python | wasmtime | javascript | spidermonkey)

Just-in-time (JIT) code generation is an important tactic when implementing a programming language. Generating code at run-time allows a program to specialize itself against the specific data it is run against. For a program that implements a programming language, that specialization is with respect to the program being run, and possibly with respect to the data that program uses.

The way this typically works is that the program generates bytes for the instruction set of the machine it's running on, and then transfers control to those instructions.

Usually the program has to put its generated code in memory that is specially marked as executable. However, this capability is missing in WebAssembly. How, then, to do just-in-time compilation in WebAssembly?

webassembly as a harvard architecture

In a von Neumman machine, like the ones that you are probably reading this on, code and data share an address space. There's only one kind of pointer, and it can point to anything: the bytes that implement the sin function, the number 42, the characters in "biscuits", or anything at all. WebAssembly is different in that its code is not addressable at run-time. Functions in a WebAssembly module are numbered sequentially from 0, and the WebAssembly call instruction takes the callee as an immediate parameter.

So, to add code to a WebAssembly program, somehow you'd have to augment the program with more functions. Let's assume we will make that possible somehow -- that your WebAssembly module that had N functions will now have N+1 functions, and with function N being the new one your program generated. How would we call it? Given that the call instructions hard-code the callee, the existing functions 0 to N-1 won't call it.

Here the answer is call_indirect. A bit of a reminder, this instruction take the callee as an operand, not an immediate parameter, allowing it to choose the callee function at run-time. The callee operand is an index into a table of functions. Conventionally, table 0 is called the indirect function table as it contains an entry for each function which might ever be the target of an indirect call.

With this in mind, our problem has two parts, then: (1) how to augment a WebAssembly module with a new function, and (2) how to get the original module to call the new code.

late linking of auxiliary webassembly modules

The key idea here is that to add code, the main program should generate a new WebAssembly module containing that code. Then we run a linking phase to actually bring that new code to life and make it available.

System linkers like ld typically require a complete set of symbols and relocations to resolve inter-archive references. However when performing a late link of JIT-generated code, we can take a short-cut: the main program can embed memory addresses directly into the code it generates. Therefore the generated module would import memory from the main module. All references from the generated code to the main module can be directly embedded in this way.

The generated module would also import the indirect function table from the main module. (We would ensure that the main module exports its memory and indirect function table via the toolchain.) When the main module makes the generated module, it also embeds a special patch function in the generated module. This function would add the new functions to the main module's indirect function table, and perform any relocations onto the main module's memory. All references from the main module to generated functions are installed via the patch function.

We plan on two implementations of late linking, but both share the fundamental mechanism of a generated WebAssembly module with a patch function.

dynamic linking via the run-time

One implementation of a linker is for the main module to cause the run-time to dynamically instantiate a new WebAssembly module. The run-time would provide the memory and indirect function table from the main module as imports when instantiating the generated module.

The advantage of dynamic linking is that it can update a live WebAssembly module without any need for re-instantiation or special run-time checkpointing support.

In the context of the web, JIT compilation can be triggered by the WebAssembly module in question, by calling out to functionality from JavaScript, or we can use a "pull-based" model to allow the JavaScript host to poll the WebAssembly instance for any pending JIT code.

For WASI deployments, you need a capability from the host. Either you import a module that provides run-time JIT capability, or you rely on the host to poll you for data.

static linking via wizer

Another idea is to build on Wizer's ability to take a snapshot of a WebAssembly module. You could extend Wizer to also be able to augment a module with new code. In this role, Wizer is effectively a late linker, linking in a new archive to an existing object.

Wizer already needs the ability to instantiate a WebAssembly module and to run its code. Causing Wizer to ask the module if it has any generated auxiliary module that should be instantiated, patched, and incorporated into the main module should not be a huge deal. Wizer can already run the patch function, to perform relocations to patch in access to the new functions. After having done that, Wizer (or some other tool) would need to snapshot the module, as usual, but also adding in the extra code.

As a technical detail, in the simplest case in which code is generated in units of functions which don't directly call each other, this is as simple as just appending the functions to the code section and then and appending the generated element segments to the main module's element segment, updating the appended function references to their new values by adding the total number of functions in the module before the new module was concatenated to each function reference.

late linking appears to be async codegen

From the perspective of a main program, WebAssembly JIT code generation via late linking appears the same as aynchronous code generation.

For example, take the C program:

struct Value;
struct Func {
  struct Expr *body;
  void *jitCode;

void recordJitCandidate(struct Func *func);
uint8_t* flushJitCode(); // Call to actually generate JIT code.

struct Value* interpretCall(struct Expr *body,
                            struct Value *arg);

struct Value* call(struct Func *func,
                   struct Value* val) {
  if (func->jitCode) {
    struct Value* (*f)(struct Value*) = jitCode;
    return f(val);
  } else {
    return interpretCall(func->body, val);

Here the C program allows for the possibility of JIT code generation: there is a slot in a Func instance to fill in with a code pointer. If this program generates code for a given Func, it won't be able to fill in the pointer -- it can't add new code to the image. But, it could tell Wizer to do so, and Wizer could snapshot the program, link in the new function, and patch &func->jitCode. From the program's perspective, it's as if the code becomes available asynchronously.


So many words, right? Let's see some code! As a sketch for other JIT compiler work, I implemented a little Scheme interpreter and JIT compiler, targetting WebAssembly. See for the source. You compile it like this:

$ /opt/wasi-sdk/bin/clang++ -O2 -Wall \
   -mexec-model=reactor \
   -Wl,--growable-table \
   -Wl,--export-table \
   -DLIBRARY=1 \
   -fno-exceptions \ -o interplib.wasm

Here we are compiling with WASI SDK. I have version 14.

The -mexec-model=reactor argument means that this WASI module isn't just a run-once thing, after which its state is torn down; rather it's a multiple-entry component.

The two -Wl, options tell the linker to export the indirect function table, and to allow the indirect function table to be augmented by the JIT module.

The -DLIBRARY=1 is used by; you can actually run and debug it natively but that's just for development. We're instead compiling to wasm and running with a WASI environment, giving us fprintf and other debugging niceties.

The -fno-exceptions is because WASI doesn't support exceptions currently. Also we don't need them.

WASI is mainly for non-browser use cases, but this module does so little that it doesn't need much from WASI and I can just polyfill it in browser JavaScript. So that's what we have here:

loading wasm-jit...

Each time you enter a Scheme expression, it will be parsed to an internal tree-like intermediate language. You can then run a recursive interpreter over that tree by pressing the "Evaluate" button. Press it a number of times, you should get the same result.

As the interpreter runs, it records any closures that it created. The Func instances attached to the closures have a slot for a C++ function pointer, which is initially NULL. Function pointers in WebAssembly are indexes into the indirect function table; the first slot is kept empty so that calling a NULL pointer (a pointer with value 0) causes an error. If the interpreter gets to a closure call and the closure's function's JIT code pointer is NULL, it will interpret the closure's body. Otherwise it will call the function pointer.

If you then press the "JIT" button above, the module will assemble a fresh WebAssembly module containing JIT code for the closures that it saw at run-time. Obviously that's just one heuristic: you could be more eager or more lazy; this is just a detail.

Although the particular JIT compiler isn't much of interest---the point being to see JIT code generation at all---it's nice to see that the fibonacci example sees a good speedup; try it yourself, and try it on different browsers if you can. Neat stuff!

not just the web

I was wondering how to get something like this working in a non-webby environment and it turns out that the Python interface to wasmtime is just the thing. I wrote a little harness that can do the same thing that we can do on the web; just run as `python3`, after having `pip3 install wasmtime`:

$ python3
Calling eval(0x11eb0) 5 times took 1.716s.
Calling jitModule()
jitModule result: <wasmtime._module.Module object at 0x7f2bef0821c0>
Instantiating and patching in JIT module
Calling eval(0x11eb0) 5 times took 1.161s.

Interestingly it would appear that the performance of wasmtime's code (0.232s/invocation) is somewhat better than both SpiderMonkey (0.392s) and V8 (0.729s).


This work is just a proof of concept, but it's a step in a particular direction. As part of previous work with Fastly, we enabled the SpiderMonkey JavaScript engine to run on top of WebAssembly. When combined with pre-initialization via Wizer, you end up with a system that can start in microseconds: fast enough to instantiate a fresh, shared-nothing module on every HTTP request, for example.

The SpiderMonkey-on-WASI work left out JIT compilation, though, because, you know, WebAssembly doesn't support JIT compilation. JavaScript code actually ran via the C++ bytecode interpreter. But as we just found out, actually you can compile the bytecode: just-in-time, but at a different time-scale. What if you took a SpiderMonkey interpreter, pre-generated WebAssembly code for a user's JavaScript file, and then combined them into a single freeze-dried WebAssembly module via Wizer? You get the benefits of fast startup while also getting decent baseline performance. There are many engineering considerations here, but as part of work sponsored by Shopify, we have made good progress in this regard; details in another missive.

I think a kind of "offline JIT" has a lot of value for deployment environments like Shopify's and Fastly's, and you don't have to limit yourself to "total" optimizations: you can still collect and incorporate type feedback, and you get the benefit of taking advantage of adaptive optimization without having to actually run the JIT compiler at run-time.

But if we think of more traditional "online JIT" use cases, it's clear that relying on host JIT capabilities, while a good MVP, is not optimal. For one, you would like to be able to freely emit direct calls from generated code to existing code, instead of having to call indirectly or via imports. I think it still might make sense to have a language run-time express its generated code in the form of a WebAssembly module, though really you might want native support for compiling that code (asynchronously) from within WebAssembly itself, without calling out to a run-time. Most people I have talked to that work on WebAssembly implementations in JS engines believe that a JIT proposal will come some day, but it's good to know that we don't have to wait for it to start generating code and taking advantage of it.

& out

If you want to play around with the demo, do take a look at the wasm-jit Github project; it's fun stuff. Happy hacking, and until next time!

coarse or lazy?

7 August 2022 9:44 AM (garbage collection | immix | guile | gnu | igalia | evacuation | concurrency | sweeping)

sweeping, coarse and lazy

One of the things that had perplexed me about the Immix collector was how to effectively defragment the heap via evacuation while keeping just 2-3% of space as free blocks for an evacuation reserve. The original Immix paper states:

To evacuate the object, the collector uses the same allocator as the mutator, continuing allocation right where the mutator left off. Once it exhausts any unused recyclable blocks, it uses any completely free blocks. By default, immix sets aside a small number of free blocks that it never returns to the global allocator and only ever uses for evacuating. This headroom eases defragmentation and is counted against immix's overall heap budget. By default immix reserves 2.5% of the heap as compaction headroom, but [...] is fairly insensitive to values ranging between 1 and 3%.

To Immix, a "recyclable" block is partially full: it contains surviving data from a previous collection, but also some holes in which to allocate. But when would you have recyclable blocks at evacuation-time? Evacuation occurs as part of collection. Collection usually occurs when there's no more memory in which to allocate. At that point any recyclable block would have been allocated into already, and won't become recyclable again until the next trace of the heap identifies the block's surviving data. Of course after the next trace they could become "empty", if no object survives, or "full", if all lines have survivor objects.

In general, after a full allocation cycle, you don't know much about the heap. If you could easily know where the live data and the holes were, a garbage collector's job would be much easier :) Any algorithm that starts from the assumption that you know where the holes are can't be used before a heap trace. So, I was not sure what the Immix paper is meaning here about allocating into recyclable blocks.

Thinking on it again, I realized that Immix might trigger collection early sometimes, before it has exhausted the previous cycle's set of blocks in which to allocate. As we discussed earlier, there is a case in which you might want to trigger an early compaction: when a large object allocator runs out of blocks to decommission from the immix space. And if one evacuating collection didn't yield enough free blocks, you might trigger the next one early, reserving some recyclable and empty blocks as evacuation targets.

when do you know what you know: lazy and eager

Consider a basic question, such as "how many bytes in the heap are used by live objects". In general you don't know! Indeed you often never know precisely. For example, concurrent collectors often have some amount of "floating garbage" which is unreachable data but which survives across a collection. And of course you don't know the difference between floating garbage and precious data: if you did, you would have collected the garbage.

Even the idea of "when" is tricky in systems that allow parallel mutator threads. Unless the program has a total ordering of mutations of the object graph, there's no one timeline with respect to which you can measure the heap. Still, Immix is a stop-the-world collector, and since such collectors synchronously trace the heap while mutators are stopped, these are times when you can exactly compute properties about the heap.

Let's retake the question of measuring live bytes. For an evacuating semi-space, knowing the number of live bytes after a collection is trivial: all survivors are packed into to-space. But for a mark-sweep space, you would have to compute this information. You could compute it at mark-time, while tracing the graph, but doing so takes time, which means delaying the time at which mutators can start again.

Alternately, for a mark-sweep collector, you can compute free bytes at sweep-time. This is the phase in which you go through the whole heap and return any space that wasn't marked in the last collection to the allocator, allowing it to be used for fresh allocations. This is the point in the garbage collection cycle in which you can answer questions such as "what is the set of recyclable blocks": you know what is garbage and you know what is not.

Though you could sweep during the stop-the-world pause, you don't have to; sweeping only touches dead objects, so it is correct to allow mutators to continue and then sweep as the mutators run. There are two general strategies: spawn a thread that sweeps as fast as it can (concurrent sweeping), or make mutators sweep as needed, just before they allocate (lazy sweeping). But this introduces a lag between when you know and what you know—your count of total live heap bytes describes a time in the past, not the present, because mutators have moved on since then.

For most collectors with a sweep phase, deciding between eager (during the stop-the-world phase) and deferred (concurrent or lazy) sweeping is very easy. You don't immediately need the information that sweeping allows you to compute; it's quite sufficient to wait until the next cycle. Moving work out of the stop-the-world phase is a win for mutator responsiveness (latency). Usually people implement lazy sweeping, as it is naturally incremental with the mutator, naturally parallel for parallel mutators, and any sweeping overhead due to cache misses can be mitigated by immediately using swept space for allocation. The case for concurrent sweeping is less clear to me, but if you have cores that would otherwise be idle, sure.

eager coarse sweeping

Immix is interesting in that it chooses to sweep eagerly, during the stop-the-world phase. Instead of sweeping irregularly-sized objects, however, it sweeps over its "line mark" array: one byte for each 128-byte "line" in the mark space. For 32 kB blocks, there will be 256 bytes per block, and line mark bytes in each 4 MB slab of the heap are packed contiguously. Therefore you get relatively good locality, but this just mitigates a cost that other collectors don't have to pay. So what does eager marking over these coarse 128-byte regions buy Immix?

Firstly, eager sweeping buys you eager identification of empty blocks. If your large object space needs to steal blocks from the mark space, but the mark space doesn't have enough empties, it can just trigger collection and then it knows if enough blocks are available. If no blocks are available, you can grow the heap or signal out-of-memory. If the lospace (large object space) runs out of blocks before the mark space has used all recyclable blocks, that's no problem: evacuation can move the survivors of fragmented blocks into these recyclable blocks, which have also already been identified by the eager coarse sweep.

Without eager empty block identification, if the lospace runs out of blocks, firstly you don't know how many empty blocks the mark space has. Sweeping is a kind of wavefront that moves through the whole heap; empty blocks behind the wavefront will be identified, but those ahead of the wavefront will not. Such a lospace allocation would then have to either wait for a concurrent sweeper to advance, or perform some lazy sweeping work. The expected latency of a lospace allocation would thus be higher, without eager identification of empty blocks.

Secondly, eager sweeping might reduce allocation overhead for mutators. If allocation just has to identify holes and not compute information or decide on what to do with a block, maybe it go brr? Not sure.

lines, lines, lines

The original Immix paper also notes a relative insensitivity of the collector to line size: 64 or 256 bytes could have worked just as well. This was a somewhat surprising result to me but I think I didn't appreciate all the roles that lines play in Immix.

Obviously line size affect the worst-case fragmentation, though this is mitigated by evacuation (which evacuates objects, not lines). This I got from the paper. In this case, smaller lines are better.

Line size affects allocation-time overhead for mutators, though which way I don't know: scanning for holes will be easier with fewer lines in a block, but smaller lines would contain more free space and thus result in fewer collections. I can only imagine though that with smaller line sizes, average hole size would decrease and thus medium-sized allocations would be harder to service. Something of a wash, perhaps.

However if we ask ourselves the thought experiment, why not just have 16-byte lines? How crazy would that be? I think the impediment to having such a precise line size would mainly be Immix's eager sweep, as a fine-grained traversal of the heap would process much more data and incur possibly-unacceptable pause time overheads. But, in such a design you would do away with some other downsides of coarse-grained lines: a side table of mark bytes would make the line mark table redundant, and you eliminate much possible "dark matter" hidden by internal fragmentation in lines. You'd need to defer sweeping. But then you lose eager identification of empty blocks, and perhaps also the ability to evacuate into recyclable blocks. What would such a system look like?

Readers that have gotten this far will be pleased to hear that I have made some investigations in this area. But, this post is already long, so let's revisit this in another dispatch. Until then, happy allocations in all regions.

unintentional concurrency

20 July 2022 9:26 PM (garbage collection | immix | guile | gnu | igalia | evacuation | concurrency)

Good evening, gentle hackfolk. Last time we talked about heuristics for when you might want to compact a heap. Compacting garbage collection is nice and tidy and appeals to our orderly instincts, and it enables heap shrinking and reallocation of pages to large object spaces and it can reduce fragmentation: all very good things. But evacuation is more expensive than just marking objects in place, and so a production garbage collector will usually just mark objects in place, and only compact or evacuate when needed.

Today's post is more details!


Just because it's been, oh, a couple decades, I would like to reintroduce a term I learned from Marnanel years ago on advogato, a nerdy group blog kind of a site. As I recall, there is a word that originates in the Oxbridge social environment, "narg", from "Not A Real Gentleman", and which therefore denotes things that not-real-gentlemen do: nerd out about anything that's not, like, fox-hunting or golf; or generally spending time on something not because it will advance you in conventional hierarchies but because you just can't help it, because you love it, because it is just your thing. Anyway, in the spirit of pursuits that are really not What One Does With One's Time, this post is dedicated to the word "nargery".

side note, bis: immix-style evacuation versus mark-compact

In my last post I described Immix-style evacuation, and noted that it might take a few cycles to fully compact the heap, and that it has a few pathologies: the heap might never reach full compaction, and that Immix might run out of free blocks in which to evacuate.

With these disadvantages, why bother? Why not just do a single mark-compact pass and be done? I implicitly asked this question last time but didn't really answer it.

For some people will be, yep, yebo, mark-compact is the right answer. And yet, there are a few reasons that one might choose to evacuate a fraction of the heap instead of compacting it all at once.

The first reason is object pinning. Mark-compact systems assume that all objects can be moved; you can't usefully relax this assumption. Most algorithms "slide" objects down to lower addresses, squeezing out the holes, and therefore every live object's address needs to be available to use when sliding down other objects with higher addresses. And yet, it would be nice sometimes to prevent an object from being moved. This is the case, for example, when you grant a foreign interface (e.g. a C function) access to a buffer: if garbage collection happens while in that foreign interface, it would be nice to be able to prevent garbage collection from moving the object out from under the C function's feet.

Another reason to want to pin an object is because of conservative root-finding. Guile currently uses the Boehm-Demers-Weiser collector, which conservatively scans the stack and data segments for anything that looks like a pointer to the heap. The garbage collector can't update such a global root in response to compaction, because you can't be sure that a given word is a pointer and not just an integer with an inconvenient value. In short, objects referenced by conservative roots need to be pinned. I would like to support precise roots at some point but part of my interest in Immix is to allow Guile to move to a better GC algorithm, without necessarily requiring precise enumeration of GC roots. Optimistic partial evacuation allows for the possibility that any given evacuation might fail, which makes it appropriate for conservative root-finding.

Finally, as moving objects has a cost, it's reasonable to want to only incur that cost for the part of the heap that needs it. In any given heap, there will likely be some data that stays live across a series of collections, and which, once compacted, can't be profitably moved for many cycles. Focussing evacuation on only the part of the heap with the lowest survival rates avoids wasting time on copies that don't result in additional compaction.

(I should admit one thing: sliding mark-compact compaction preserves allocation order, whereas evacuation does not. The memory layout of sliding compaction is more optimal than evacuation.)

multi-cycle evacuation

Say a mutator runs out of memory, and therefore invokes the collector. The collector decides for whatever reason that we should evacuate at least part of the heap instead of marking in place. How much of the heap can we evacuate? The answer depends primarily on how many free blocks you have reserved for evacuation. These are known-empty blocks that haven't been allocated into by the last cycle. If you don't have any, you can't evacuate! So probably you should keep some around, even when performing in-place collections. The Immix papers suggest 2% and that works for me too.

Then you evacuate some blocks. Hopefully the result is that after this collection cycle, you have more free blocks. But you haven't compacted the heap, at least probably not on the first try: not into 2% of total space. Therefore you tell the mutator to put any empty blocks it finds as a result of lazy sweeping during the next cycle onto the evacuation target list, and then the next cycle you have more blocks to evacuate into, and more and more and so on until after some number of cycles you fall below some overall heap fragmentation low-watermark target, at which point you can switch back to marking in place.

I don't know how this works in practice! In my test setups which triggers compaction at 10% fragmentation and continues until it drops below 5%, it's rare that it takes more than 3 cycles of evacuation until the heap drops to effectively 0% fragmentation. Of course I had to introduce fragmented allocation patterns into the microbenchmarks to even cause evacuation to happen at all. I look forward to some day soon testing with real applications.


Just as a terminological note, in the world of garbage collectors, "parallel" refers to multiple threads being used by a garbage collector. Parallelism within a collector is essentially an implementation detail; when the world is stopped for collection, the mutator (the user program) generally doesn't care if the collector uses 1 thread or 15. On the other hand, "concurrent" means the collector and the mutator running at the same time.

Different parts of the collector can be concurrent with the mutator: for example, sweeping, marking, or evacuation. Concurrent sweeping is just a detail, because it just visits dead objects. Concurrent marking is interesting, because it can significantly reduce stop-the-world pauses by performing most of the computation while the mutator is running. It's tricky, as you might imagine; the collector traverses the object graph while the mutator is, you know, mutating it. But there are standard techniques to make this work. Concurrent evacuation is a nightmare. It's not that you can't implement it; you can. But it's very very hard to get an overall performance win from concurrent evacuation/copying.

So if you are looking for a good bargain in the marketplace of garbage collector algorithms, it would seem that you need to avoid concurrent copying/evacuation. It's an expensive product that would seem to not buy you very much.

All that is just a prelude to an observation that there is a funny source of concurrency even in some systems that don't see themselves as concurrent: mutator threads marking their own roots. To recall, when you stop the world for a garbage collection, all mutator threads have to somehow notice the request to stop, reach a safepoint, and then stop. Then the collector traces the roots from all mutators and everything they reference, transitively. Then you let the threads go again. Thing is, once you get more than a thread or four, stopping threads can take time. You'd be tempted to just have threads notice that they need to stop, then traverse their own stacks at their own safepoint to find their roots, then stop. But, this introduces concurrency between root-tracing and other mutators that might not have seen the request to stop. For marking, this concurrency can be fine: you are just setting mark bits, not mutating the roots. You might need to add an additional mark pattern that can be distinguished from marked-last-time and marked-the-time-before-but-dead-now, but that's a detail. Fine.

But if you instead start an evacuating collection, the gates of hell open wide and toothy maws and horns fill your vision. One thread could be stopping and evacuating the objects referenced by its roots, while another hasn't noticed the request to stop and is happily using the same objects: chaos! You are trying to make a minor optimization to move some work out of the stop-the-world phase but instead everything falls apart.

Anyway, this whole article was really to get here and note that you can't do ragged-stops with evacuation without supporting full concurrent evacuation. Otherwise, you need to postpone root traversal until all threads are stopped. Perhaps this is another argument that evacuation is expensive, relative to marking in place. In practice I haven't seen the ragged-stop effect making so much of a difference, but perhaps that is because evacuation is infrequent in my test cases.

Zokay? Zokay. Welp, this evening's nargery was indeed nargy. Happy hacking to all collectors out there, and until next time.

an optimistic evacuation of my wordhoard

21 June 2022 12:21 PM (garbage collection | immix | guile | gnu | igalia | mmap | evacuation | compaction)

Good morning, mallocators. Last time we talked about how to split available memory between a block-structured main space and a large object space. Given a fixed heap size, making a new large object allocation will steal available pages from the block-structured space by finding empty blocks and temporarily returning them to the operating system.

Today I'd like to talk more about nothing, or rather, why might you want nothing rather than something. Given an Immix heap, why would you want it organized in such a way that live data is packed into some blocks, leaving other blocks completely free? How bad would it be if instead the live data were spread all over the heap? When might it be a good idea to try to compact the heap? Ideally we'd like to be able to translate the answers to these questions into heuristics that can inform the GC when compaction/evacuation would be a good idea.

lospace and the void

Let's start with one of the more obvious points: large object allocation. With a fixed-size heap, you can't allocate new large objects if you don't have empty blocks in your paged space (the Immix space, for example) that you can return to the OS. To obtain these free blocks, you have four options.

  1. You can continue lazy sweeping of recycled blocks, to see if you find an empty block. This is a bit time-consuming, though.

  2. Otherwise, you can trigger a regular non-moving GC, which might free up blocks in the Immix space but which is also likely to free up large objects, which would result in fresh empty blocks.

  3. You can trigger a compacting or evacuating collection. Immix can't actually compact the heap all in one go, so you would preferentially select evacuation-candidate blocks by choosing the blocks with the least live data (as measured at the last GC), hoping that little data will need to be evacuated.

  4. Finally, for environments in which the heap is growable, you could just grow the heap instead. In this case you would configure the system to target a heap size multiplier rather than a heap size, which would scale the heap to be e.g. twice the size of the live data, as measured at the last collection.

If you have a growable heap, I think you will rarely choose to compact rather than grow the heap: you will either collect or grow. Under constant allocation rate, the rate of empty blocks being reclaimed from freed lospace objects will be equal to the rate at which they are needed, so if collection doesn't produce any, then that means your live data set is increasing and so growing is a good option. Anyway let's put growable heaps aside, as heap-growth heuristics are a separate gnarly problem.

The question becomes, when should large object allocation force a compaction? Absent growable heaps, the answer is clear: when allocating a large object fails because there are no empty pages, but the statistics show that there is actually ample free memory. Good! We have one heuristic, and one with an optimum: you could compact in other situations but from the point of view of lospace, waiting until allocation failure is the most efficient.


Moving on, another use of empty blocks is when shrinking the heap. The collector might decide that it's a good idea to return some memory to the operating system. For example, I enjoyed this recent paper on heuristics for optimum heap size, that advocates that you size the heap in proportion to the square root of the allocation rate, and that as a consequence, when/if the application reaches a dormant state, it should promptly return memory to the OS.

Here, we have a similar heuristic for when to evacuate: when we would like to release memory to the OS but we have no empty blocks, we should compact. We use the same evacuation candidate selection approach as before, also, aiming for maximum empty block yield.


What if you go to allocate a medium object, say 4kB, but there is no hole that's 4kB or larger? In that case, your heap is fragmented. The smaller your heap size, the more likely this is to happen. We should compact the heap to make the maximum hole size larger.

side note: compaction via partial evacuation

The evacuation strategy of Immix is... optimistic. A mark-compact collector will compact the whole heap, but Immix will only be able to evacuate a fraction of it.

It's worth dwelling on this a bit. As described in the paper, Immix reserves around 2-3% of overall space for evacuation overhead. Let's say you decide to evacuate: you start with 2-3% of blocks being empty (the target blocks), and choose a corresponding set of candidate blocks for evacuation (the source blocks). Since Immix is a one-pass collector, it doesn't know how much data is live when it starts collecting. It may not know that the blocks that it is evacuating will fit into the target space. As specified in the original paper, if the target space fills up, Immix will mark in place instead of evacuating; an evacuation candidate block with marked-in-place objects would then be non-empty at the end of collection.

In fact if you choose a set of evacuation candidates hoping to maximize your empty block yield, based on an estimate of live data instead of limiting to only the number of target blocks, I think it's possible to actually fill the targets before the source blocks empty, leaving you with no empty blocks at the end! (This can happen due to inaccurate live data estimations, or via internal fragmentation with the block size.) The only way to avoid this is to never select more evacuation candidate blocks than you have in target blocks. If you are lucky, you won't have to use all of the target blocks, and so at the end you will end up with more free blocks than not, so a subsequent evacuation will be more effective. The defragmentation result in that case would still be pretty good, but the yield in free blocks is not great.

In a production garbage collector I would still be tempted to be optimistic and select more evacuation candidate blocks than available empty target blocks, because it will require fewer rounds to compact the whole heap, if that's what you wanted to do. It would be a relatively rare occurrence to start an evacuation cycle. If you ran out of space while evacuating, in a production GC I would just temporarily commission some overhead blocks for evacuation and release them promptly after evacuation is complete. If you have a small heap multiplier in your Immix space, occasional partial evacuation in a long-running process would probably reach a steady state with blocks being either full or empty. Fragmented blocks would represent newer objects and evacuation would periodically sediment these into longer-lived dense blocks.

mutator throughput

Finally, the shape of the heap has its inverse in the shape of the holes into which the mutator can allocate. It's most efficient for the mutator if the heap has as few holes as possible: ideally just one large hole per block, which is the limit case of an empty block.

The opposite extreme would be having every other "line" (in Immix terms) be used, so that free space is spread across the heap in a vast spray of one-line holes. Even if fragmentation is not a problem, perhaps because the application only allocates objects that pack neatly into lines, having to stutter all the time to look for holes is overhead for the mutator. Also, the result is that contemporaneous allocations are more likely to be placed farther apart in memory, leading to more cache misses when accessing data. Together, allocator overhead and access overhead lead to lower mutator throughput.

When would this situation get so bad as to trigger compaction? Here I have no idea. There is no clear maximum. If compaction were free, we would compact all the time. But it's not; there's a tradeoff between the cost of compaction and mutator throughput.

I think here I would punt. If the heap is being actively resized based on allocation rate, we'll hit the other heuristics first, and so we won't need to trigger evacuation/compaction based on mutator overhead. You could measure this, though, in terms of average or median hole size, or average or maximum number of holes per block. Since evacuation is partial, all you need to do is to identify some "bad" blocks and then perhaps evacuation becomes attractive.

gc pause

Welp, that's some thoughts on when to trigger evacuation in Immix. Next time, we'll talk about some engineering aspects of evacuation. Until then, happy consing!