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Java's Garbage-Collected Heap
The Garbage-Collected Heap of the Java Virtual Machine
by Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, August 1996

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Garbage collection algorithms
A great deal of work has been done in the area of garbage collection algorithms. Many different techniques have been developed that could be applied to a JVM. The garbage-collected heap is one area in which JVM designers can strive to make their JVM better than the competition's.

Any garbage collection algorithm must do two basic things. First, it must detect garbage objects. Second, it must reclaim the heap space used by the garbage objects and make it available to the program. Garbage detection is ordinarily accomplished by defining a set of roots and determining reachability from the roots. An object is reachable if there is some path of references from the roots by which the executing program can access the object. The roots are always accessible to the program. Any objects that are reachable from the roots are considered live. Objects that are not reachable are considered garbage, because they can no longer affect the future course of program execution.

In a JVM the root set is implementation dependent but would always include any object references in the local variables. In the JVM, all objects reside on the heap. The local variables reside on the Java stack, and each thread of execution has its own stack. Each local variable is either an object reference or a primitive type, such as int, char, or float. Therefore the roots of any JVM garbage-collected heap will include every object reference on every thread's stack. Another source of roots are any object references, such as strings, in the constant pool of loaded classes. The constant pool of a loaded class may refer to strings stored on the heap, such as the class name, superclass name, superinterface names, field names, field signatures, method names, and method signatures.

Any object referred to by a root is reachable and is therefore a live object. Additionally, any objects referred to by a live object are also reachable. The program is able to access any reachable objects, so these objects must remain on the heap. Any objects that are not reachable can be garbage collected because there is no way for the program to access them.

The JVM can be implemented such that the garbage collector knows the difference between a genuine object reference and a primitive type (for example, an int) that appears to be a valid object reference. However, some garbage collectors may choose not to distinguish between genuine object references and look-alikes. Such garbage collectors are called conservative because they may not always free every unreferenced object. Sometimes a garbage object will be wrongly considered to be live by a conservative collector, because an object reference look-alike refered to it. Conservative collectors trade off an increase in garbage collection speed for occasionally not freeing some actual garbage.

Two basic approaches to distinguishing live objects from garbage are reference counting and tracing. Reference counting garbage collectors distinguish live objects from garbage objects by keeping a count for each object on the heap. The count keeps track of the number of references to that object. Tracing garbage collectors, on the other hand, actually trace out the graph of references starting with the root nodes. Objects that are encountered during the trace are marked in some way. After the trace is complete, unmarked objects are known to be unreachable and can be garbage collected.

Reference counting collectors
Reference counting was an early garbage collection strategy; here a reference count is maintained for each object. When an object is first created its reference count is set to one. When any other object or root is assigned a reference to that object, the object's count is incremented. When a reference to an object goes out of scope or is assigned a new value, the object's count is decremented. Any object with a reference count of zero can be garbage collected. When an object is garbage collected, any objects that it refers to has their reference counts decremented. In this way the garbage collection of one object may lead to the subsequent garbage collection of other objects.

An advantage of this scheme is that it can run in small chunks of time closely interwoven with the execution of the program. This characteristic makes it particularly suitable for real-time environments where the program can't be interrupted for very long. A disadvantage of reference counting is that it does not detect cycles. A cycle is two or more objects that refer to one another, for example, a parent object that has a reference to its child object, which has a reference back to its parent. These objects will never have a reference count of zero even though they may be unreachable by the roots of the executing program. Another disadvantage is the overhead of incrementing and decrementing the reference count each time. Because of these disadvantages, reference counting currently is out of favor. It is more likely that the JVMs you encounter in the real world will use a tracing algorithm in their garbage-collected heaps.

Tracing collectors
Tracing garbage collectors trace out the graph of object references starting with the root nodes. Objects that are encountered during the trace are marked in some way. Marking is generally done by either setting flags in the objects themselves or by setting flags in a separate bitmap. After the trace is complete, unmarked objects are known to be unreachable and can be garbage collected.

The basic tracing algorithm is called mark and sweep. This name refers to the two phases of the garbage collection process. In the mark phase, the garbage collector traverses the tree of references and marks each object it encounters. In the sweep phase unmarked objects are freed, and the resulting memory is made available to the executing program. In the JVM the sweep phase must include finalization of objects.

Some Java objects have finalizers, others do not. Objects with finalizers that are left unmarked after the sweep phase must be finalized before they are freed. Unmarked objects without finalizers may be freed immediately unless referred to by an unmarked finalizable object. All objects referred to by a finalizable object must remain on the heap until after the object has been finalized.

Compacting collectors
Garbage collectors of JVMs will likely have a strategy to combat heap fragmentation. Two strategies commonly used by mark and sweep collectors are compacting and copying. Both of these approaches move objects on the fly to reduce heap fragmentation. Compacting collectors slide live objects over free memory space toward one end of the heap. In the process the other end of the heap becomes one large contiguous free area. All references to the moved objects are updated to refer to the new location.

Updating references to moved objects is sometimes made simpler by adding a level of indirection to object references. Instead of referring directly to objects on the heap, object references refer to a table of object handles. The object handles refer to the actual objects on the heap. When an object is moved, only the object handle must be updated with the new location. All references to the object in the executing program will still refer to the updated handle, which did not move. While this approach simplifies the job of heap defragmentation, it adds a performance overhead to every object access.

Copying collectors
Copying garbage collectors move all live objects to a new area. As the objects are moved to the new area, they are placed side by side, thus eliminating any free spaces that may have separated them in the old area. The old area is then known to be all free space. The advantage of this approach is that objects can be copied as they are discovered by the traversal from the root nodes. There are no separate mark and sweep phases. Objects are copied to the new area on the fly, and forwarding pointers are left in their old locations. The forwarding pointers allow objects encountered later in the traversal that refer to already copied objects to know the new location of the copied objects.

A common copying collector is called stop and copy. In this scheme, the heap is divided into two regions. Only one of the two regions is used at any time. Objects are allocated from one of the regions until all the space in that region has been exhausted. At that point program execution is stopped and the heap is traversed. Live objects are copied to the other region as they are encountered by the traversal. When the stop and copy procedure is finished, program execution resumes. Memory will be allocated from the new heap region until it too runs out of space. At that point the program will once again be stopped. The heap will be traversed and live objects will be copied back to the original region. The cost associated with this approach is that twice as much memory is needed for a given amount of heap space because only half of the available memory is used at any time.

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