Accurate Garbage Collection with LLVM
  1. Introduction
  2. Interfaces for user programs
  3. Implementing a garbage collector
  4. GC implementations available

Written by Chris Lattner


Garbage collection is a widely used technique that frees the programmer from having to know the life-times of heap objects, making software easier to produce and maintain. Many programming languages rely on garbage collection for automatic memory management. There are two primary forms of garbage collection: conservative and accurate.

Conservative garbage collection often does not require any special support from either the language or the compiler: it can handle non-type-safe programming languages (such as C/C++) and does not require any special information from the compiler. The Boehm collector is an example of a state-of-the-art conservative collector.

Accurate garbage collection requires the ability to identify all pointers in the program at run-time (which requires that the source-language be type-safe in most cases). Identifying pointers at run-time requires compiler support to locate all places that hold live pointer variables at run-time, including the processor stack and registers.

Conservative garbage collection is attractive because it does not require any special compiler support, but it does have problems. In particular, because the conservative garbage collector cannot know that a particular word in the machine is a pointer, it cannot move live objects in the heap (preventing the use of compacting and generational GC algorithms) and it can occasionally suffer from memory leaks due to integer values that happen to point to objects in the program. In addition, some aggressive compiler transformations can break conservative garbage collectors (though these seem rare in practice).

Accurate garbage collectors do not suffer from any of these problems, but they can suffer from degraded scalar optimization of the program. In particular, because the runtime must be able to identify and update all pointers active in the program, some optimizations are less effective. In practice, however, the locality and performance benefits of using aggressive garbage allocation techniques dominates any low-level losses.

This document describes the mechanisms and interfaces provided by LLVM to support accurate garbage collection.

GC features provided and algorithms supported

LLVM provides support for a broad class of garbage collection algorithms, including compacting semi-space collectors, mark-sweep collectors, generational collectors, and even reference counting implementations. It includes support for read and write barriers, and associating meta-data with stack objects (used for tagless garbage collection). All LLVM code generators support garbage collection, including the C backend.

We hope that the primitive support built into LLVM is sufficient to support a broad class of garbage collected languages, including Scheme, ML, scripting languages, Java, C#, etc. That said, the implemented garbage collectors may need to be extended to support language-specific features such as finalization, weak references, or other features. As these needs are identified and implemented, they should be added to this specification.

LLVM does not currently support garbage collection of multi-threaded programs or GC-safe points other than function calls, but these will be added in the future as there is interest.

Interfaces for user programs

This section describes the interfaces provided by LLVM and by the garbage collector run-time that should be used by user programs. As such, this is the interface that front-end authors should generate code for.

Identifying GC roots on the stack: llvm.gcroot
void %llvm.gcroot(<ty>** %ptrloc, <ty2>* %metadata)

The llvm.gcroot intrinsic is used to inform LLVM of a pointer variable on the stack. The first argument contains the address of the variable on the stack, and the second contains a pointer to metadata that should be associated with the pointer (which must be a constant or global value address). At runtime, the llvm.gcroot intrinsic stores a null pointer into the specified location to initialize the pointer.

Consider the following fragment of Java code:

         Object X;   // A null-initialized reference to an object

This block (which may be located in the middle of a function or in a loop nest), could be compiled to this LLVM code:

   ;; In the entry block for the function, allocate the
   ;; stack space for X, which is an LLVM pointer.
   %X = alloca %Object*

   ;; "CodeBlock" is the block corresponding to the start
   ;;  of the scope above.
   ;; Initialize the object, telling LLVM that it is now live.
   ;; Java has type-tags on objects, so it doesn't need any
   ;; metadata.
   call void %llvm.gcroot(%Object** %X, sbyte* null)

   ;; As the pointer goes out of scope, store a null value into
   ;; it, to indicate that the value is no longer live.
   store %Object* null, %Object** %X
Allocating memory from the GC
sbyte *%llvm_gc_allocate(unsigned %Size)

The llvm_gc_allocate function is a global function defined by the garbage collector implementation to allocate memory. It returns a zeroed-out block of memory of the appropriate size.

Reading and writing references to the heap
sbyte *%llvm.gcread(sbyte *, sbyte **)
void %llvm.gcwrite(sbyte*, sbyte*, sbyte**)

Several of the more interesting garbage collectors (e.g., generational collectors) need to be informed when the mutator (the program that needs garbage collection) reads or writes object references into the heap. In the case of a generational collector, it needs to keep track of which "old" generation objects have references stored into them. The amount of code that typically needs to be executed is usually quite small (and not on the critical path of any computation), so the overall performance impact of the inserted code is tolerable.

To support garbage collectors that use read or write barriers, LLVM provides the llvm.gcread and llvm.gcwrite intrinsics. The first intrinsic has exactly the same semantics as a non-volatile LLVM load and the second has the same semantics as a non-volatile LLVM store, with the additions that they also take a pointer to the start of the memory object as an argument. At code generation time, these intrinsics are replaced with calls into the garbage collector (llvm_gc_read and llvm_gc_write respectively), which are then inlined into the code.

If you are writing a front-end for a garbage collected language, every load or store of a reference from or to the heap should use these intrinsics instead of normal LLVM loads/stores.

Garbage collector startup and initialization
void %llvm_gc_initialize(unsigned %InitialHeapSize)

The llvm_gc_initialize function should be called once before any other garbage collection functions are called. This gives the garbage collector the chance to initialize itself and allocate the heap spaces. The initial heap size to allocate should be specified as an argument.

Explicit invocation of the garbage collector
void %llvm_gc_collect()

The llvm_gc_collect function is exported by the garbage collector implementations to provide a full collection, even when the heap is not exhausted. This can be used by end-user code as a hint, and may be ignored by the garbage collector.

Implementing a garbage collector

Implementing a garbage collector for LLVM is fairly straight-forward. The LLVM garbage collectors are provided in a form that makes them easy to link into the language-specific runtime that a language front-end would use. They require functionality from the language-specific runtime to get information about where pointers are located in heap objects.

The implementation must include the llvm_gc_allocate and llvm_gc_collect functions, and it must implement the read/write barrier functions as well. To do this, it will probably have to trace through the roots from the stack and understand the GC descriptors for heap objects. Luckily, there are some example implementations available.

Implementing llvm_gc_read and llvm_gc_write
void *llvm_gc_read(void*, void **)
void llvm_gc_write(void*, void *, void**)

These functions must be implemented in every garbage collector, even if they do not need read/write barriers. In this case, just load or store the pointer, then return.

If an actual read or write barrier is needed, it should be straight-forward to implement it.

Callback functions used to implement the garbage collector

Garbage collector implementations make use of call-back functions that are implemented by other parts of the LLVM system.

Tracing GC pointers from the program stack
void llvm_cg_walk_gcroots(void (*FP)(void **Root, void *Meta));

The llvm_cg_walk_gcroots function is a function provided by the code generator that iterates through all of the GC roots on the stack, calling the specified function pointer with each record. For each GC root, the address of the pointer and the meta-data (from the llvm.gcroot intrinsic) are provided.

Tracing GC pointers from static roots
Tracing GC pointers from heap objects

The three most common ways to keep track of where pointers live in heap objects are (listed in order of space overhead required):

  1. In languages with polymorphic objects, pointers from an object header are usually used to identify the GC pointers in the heap object. This is common for object-oriented languages like Self, Smalltalk, Java, or C#.
  2. If heap objects are not polymorphic, often the "shape" of the heap can be determined from the roots of the heap or from some other meta-data [Appel89, Goldberg91, Tolmach94]. In this case, the garbage collector can propagate the information around from meta data stored with the roots. This often eliminates the need to have a header on objects in the heap. This is common in the ML family.
  3. If all heap objects have pointers in the same locations, or pointers can be distinguished just by looking at them (e.g., the low order bit is clear), no book-keeping is needed at all. This is common for Lisp-like languages.

The LLVM garbage collectors are capable of supporting all of these styles of language, including ones that mix various implementations. To do this, it allows the source-language to associate meta-data with the stack roots, and the heap tracing routines can propagate the information. In addition, LLVM allows the front-end to extract GC information from in any form from a specific object pointer (this supports situations #1 and #3).

Making this efficient

GC implementations available

To make this more concrete, the currently implemented LLVM garbage collectors all live in the llvm/runtime/GC/* directories in the LLVM source-base. If you are interested in implementing an algorithm, there are many interesting possibilities (mark/sweep, a generational collector, a reference counting collector, etc), or you could choose to improve one of the existing algorithms.

SemiSpace - A simple copying garbage collector

SemiSpace is a very simple copying collector. When it starts up, it allocates two blocks of memory for the heap. It uses a simple bump-pointer allocator to allocate memory from the first block until it runs out of space. When it runs out of space, it traces through all of the roots of the program, copying blocks to the other half of the memory space.

Possible Improvements

If a collection cycle happens and the heap is not compacted very much (say less than 25% of the allocated memory was freed), the memory regions should be doubled in size.


[Appel89] Runtime Tags Aren't Necessary. Andrew W. Appel. Lisp and Symbolic Computation 19(7):703-705, July 1989.

[Goldberg91] Tag-free garbage collection for strongly typed programming languages. Benjamin Goldberg. ACM SIGPLAN PLDI'91.

[Tolmach94] Tag-free garbage collection using explicit type parameters. Andrew Tolmach. Proceedings of the 1994 ACM conference on LISP and functional programming.

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Last modified: $Date: 2007/05/23 18:10:20 $