Alternative for Garbage Collector

0 votes
asked Apr 8, 2010 by chris

I'd like to know the best alternative for a garbage collector, with its pros and cons. My priority is speed, memory is less important. If there is garbage collector which doesn't make any pause, let me know.

I'm working on a safe language (i.e. a language with no dangling pointers, checking bounds, etc), and garbage collection or its alternative has to be used.

7 Answers

0 votes
answered Jan 8, 2010 by vinay-pandey

there is no better alternate to garbage collector, you can dispose the object on your own but it is not a good idea. unless you are really sure of what you are doing dont bother about garbage collection as modern garbage collectors are good at their work.

0 votes
answered Jan 11, 2010 by will-hartung

If memory doesn't matter, then what @Thomas says applies. Considering the gargantuan memory spaces of modern hardware, this may very well be a viable option -- it really depends on the process.

Manual memory management doesn't necessarily solve your problems directly, but it does give you complete control over WHEN memory events happen. Generic malloc, for example, is not an O(1) operation. It does all sorts of potentially horrible things in there, both within the heap managed by malloc itself as well as the operating system. For example, ya never know when "malloc(10)" may cause the VM to page something out, now your 10 bytes of RAM have an unknown disk I/O component -- oops! Even worse, that page out could be YOUR memory, which you'll need to immediately page back in! Now c = *p is a disk hit. YAY!

But if you are aware of these, then you can safely set up your code so that all of the time critical parts effectively do NO memory management, instead they work off of pre-allocated structures for the task.

With a GC system, you may have a similar option -- it depends on the collector. I don't think the Sun JVM, for example, has the ability to be "turned off" for short periods of time. But if you work with pre-allocated structures, and call all of your own code (or know exactly what's going on in the library routine you call), you probably have a good chance of not hitting the memory manager.

Because, the crux of the matter is that memory management is a lot of work. If you want to get rid of memory management, the write old school FORTRAN with ARRAYs and COMMON blocks (one of the reasons FORTRAN can be so fast). Of course, you can write "FORTRAN" in most any language.

With modern languages, modern GCs, etc., memory management has been pushed aside and become a "10%" problem. We are now pretty sloppy with creating garbage, copying memory, etc. etc., because the GCs et al make it easy for us to be sloppy. And for 90% of the programs, this is not an issue, so we don't worry about. Nowadays, it's a tuning issue, late in the process.

So, your best bet is set it all up at once, use it, then toss it all away. The "use it" part is where you will get consistent, reliable results (assuming enough memory on the system of course).

0 votes
answered Jan 11, 2010 by igor-zevaka

It's a common fallacy that managed languages are not suitable for high performance low latency scenarios. Yes, with limited resources (such as an embedded platform) and sloppy programming you can shoot yourself in the foot just as spectacularly as with C++ (and that can be VERY VERY spectacular).

This problem has come whilst developing games in Java/C# and the solution was to utilise a memory pool and not let object die, hence not needing garbage collector to run when you don't expect it. This is really the same approach as with low latency unmanaged systems - TO TRY REALLY REALLY HARD NOT TO ALLOCATE MEMORY.

So, considering the fact that implementing such system in Java/C# is very similar to C++, the advantage of doing it the girly man way(managed), you have the "niceness" of other language features that free up your mental clock cycles to concentrate on important things.

0 votes
answered Apr 8, 2010 by binary-worrier

With C++ it's possible to make a heap allocation ONCE for your objects, then reuse that memory for subsequent objects, I've seen it work and it was blindingly fast.

It's only applicable to a certian set of problems, and it's difficult to do it right, but it is possible.

One of the joys of C++ is you have complete control over memory management, you can decide to use classic new/delete, or implement your own reference counting or Garbage Collection.

However - here be dragons - you really, really need to know what you're doing.

0 votes
answered Apr 8, 2010 by thomas-pornin

If speed matters but memory does not, then the fastest and simplest allocation strategy is to never free. Allocation is simply a matter of bumping a pointer up. You cannot get faster than that.

Of course, never releasing anything has a huge potential for overflowing available memory. It is very rare that memory is truly "unimportant". Usually there is a large but finite amount of available memory. One strategy is called "region based allocation". Namely you allocate memory in a few big blocks called "regions", with the pointer-bumping strategy. Release occurs only by whole regions. This strategy can be applied with some success if the problem at hand can be structured into successive "tasks", each having its own region.

For more generic solutions, if you want real-time allocation (i.e. guaranteed limits on the response time from allocation requests) then garbage collection is the way to go. A real-time GC may look like this: objects are allocated with a pointer-bumping strategy. Also, on every allocation, the allocator performs a little bit of garbage collection, in which "live" objects are copied somewhere else. In a way the GC runs "at the same time" than the application. This implies a bit of extra work for accessing objects, because you cannot move an object and update all pointers to point to the new object location while keeping the "real-time" promise. Solutions may imply barriers, e.g. an extra indirection. Generational GC allow for barrier-free access to most objects while keeping pause times under strict bounds.

This article is a must-read for whoever wants to study memory allocation, in particular garbage collection.

0 votes
answered Apr 11, 2010 by mikera

I suspect you will be best sticking with garbage collection (as per the JVM) unless you have a very good reason otherwise. Modern GCs are extremely fast, general purpose and safe. Unless you can design your language to take advantage of a very specific special case (as in one of the above allocators) then you are unlikely to beat the JVM.

The only really compelling reason I see nowadays as an argument against modern GC is latency issues caused by GC pauses. These are small, rare and not really an issue for most purposes (e.g. I've successfully written 3D engines in Java), but they still can cause problems in very tight realtime situations.

Having said that, there may still be some special cases where a different memory allocation scheme may make sense so I've listed a few interesting options below:

An example of a very fast, specialised memory management approach is the "per frame" allocator used in many games. This works by incrementing a single pointer to allocate memory, and at the end of a time period (typically a visual "frame") all objects are discarded at once by simply setting the pointer back to the base address and overwriting them in the next allocation. This can be "safe", however the constraints of object lifetime would be very strict. Might be a winner if you can guarantee that all memory allocation is bounded in size and only valid for the scope of handling e.g. a single server request.

Another very fast approach is to have dedicated object pools for different classes of object. Released objects can just be recycled in the pool, using something like a linked list of free object slots. Operating systems often used this kind of approach for common data structures. Again however you need to watch object lifetime and explicitly handle disposals by returning objects to the pool.

Reference counting looks superficially good but usually doesn't make sense because you frequently have to dereference and update the count on two objects whenever you change a pointer value. This cost is usually worse than the advantage of having simple and fast memory management, and it also doesn't work in the presence of cyclic references.

Stack allocation is extremely fast and can run safely. Depending on your language, it is possible to make do without a heap and run entirely on a stack based system. However I suspect this will somewhat constrain your language design so that might be a non-starter. Still might be worth considering for certain DSLs.

Classic malloc/free is pretty fast and can be made safe if you have sufficient constraints on object creation and lifetime which you may be able to enforce in your language. An example would be if e.g. you placed significant constraints on the use of pointers.

Anyway - hope this is useful food for thought!

0 votes
answered Apr 29, 2010 by dragontamer5788

As an "alternative" to garbage collection, C++ specifically has smart pointers. boost::shared_ptr<> (or std::tr1::shared_ptr<>) works exactly like Python's reference counted garbage collection. In my eyes, shared_ptr IS garbage collection. (although you may need to do a few weak_ptr<> stuff to make sure that circular references don't happen)

I would argue that auto_ptr<> (or in C++0x, the unique_ptr<>...) is a viable alternative, with its own set of benefits and tradeoffs. Auto_ptr has a clunky syntax and can't be used in STL containers... but it gets the job done. During compile-time, you "move" the ownership of the pointer from variable to variable. If a variable owns the pointer when it goes out of scope, it will call its destructor and free the memory. Only one auto_ptr<> (or unique_ptr<>) is allowed to own the real pointer. (at least, if you use it correctly).

As another alternative, you can store everything on the stack and just pass references around to all the functions you need.

These alternatives don't really solve the general memory management problem that garbage collection solves. Nonetheless, they are efficient and well tested. An auto_ptr doesn't use any more space than the pointer did originally... and there is no overhead on dereferencing an auto_ptr. "Movement" (or assignment in Auto_ptr) has a tiny amount of overhead to keep track of the owner. I haven't done any benchmarks, but I'm pretty sure they're faster than garbage collection / shared_ptr.

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