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## Maintaining the Illusion of Infinite Memory

The representation method outlined in section  solves the problem of implementing list structure, provided that we have an infinite amount of memory. With a real computer we will eventually run out of free space in which to construct new pairs. However, most of the pairs generated in a typical computation are used only to hold intermediate results. After these results are accessed, the pairs are no longer needed--they are garbage. For instance, the computation

(accumulate + 0 (filter odd? (enumerate-interval 0 n)))

constructs two lists: the enumeration and the result of filtering the enumeration. When the accumulation is complete, these lists are no longer needed, and the allocated memory can be reclaimed. If we can arrange to collect all the garbage periodically, and if this turns out to recycle memory at about the same rate at which we construct new pairs, we will have preserved the illusion that there is an infinite amount of memory.

In order to recycle pairs, we must have a way to determine which allocated pairs are not needed (in the sense that their contents can no longer influence the future of the computation). The method we shall examine for accomplishing this is known as garbage collection. Garbage collection is based on the observation that, at any moment in a Lisp interpretation, the only objects that can affect the future of the computation are those that can be reached by some succession of car and cdr operations starting from the pointers that are currently in the machine registers. Any memory cell that is not so accessible may be recycled.

There are many ways to perform garbage collection. The method we shall examine here is called stop-and-copy. The basic idea is to divide memory into two halves: working memory'' and free memory.'' When cons constructs pairs, it allocates these in working memory. When working memory is full, we perform garbage collection by locating all the useful pairs in working memory and copying these into consecutive locations in free memory. (The useful pairs are located by tracing all the car and cdr pointers, starting with the machine registers.) Since we do not copy the garbage, there will presumably be additional free memory that we can use to allocate new pairs. In addition, nothing in the working memory is needed, since all the useful pairs in it have been copied. Thus, if we interchange the roles of working memory and free memory, we can continue processing; new pairs will be allocated in the new working memory (which was the old free memory). When this is full, we can copy the useful pairs into the new free memory (which was the old working memory).

Implementation of a stop-and-copy garbage collector

We now use our register-machine language to describe the stop-and-copy algorithm in more detail. We will assume that there is a register called root that contains a pointer to a structure that eventually points at all accessible data. This can be arranged by storing the contents of all the machine registers in a pre-allocated list pointed at by root just before starting garbage collection. We also assume that, in addition to the current working memory, there is free memory available into which we can copy the useful data. The current working memory consists of vectors whose base addresses are in registers called the-cars and the-cdrs, and the free memory is in registers called new-cars and new-cdrs.

Garbage collection is triggered when we exhaust the free cells in the current working memory, that is, when a cons operation attempts to increment the free pointer beyond the end of the memory vector. When the garbage-collection process is complete, the root pointer will point into the new memory, all objects accessible from the root will have been moved to the new memory, and the free pointer will indicate the next place in the new memory where a new pair can be allocated. In addition, the roles of working memory and new memory will have been interchanged--new pairs will be constructed in the new memory, beginning at the place indicated by free, and the (previous) working memory will be available as the new memory for the next garbage collection. Figure  shows the arrangement of memory just before and just after garbage collection.

The state of the garbage-collection process is controlled by maintaining two pointers: free and scan. These are initialized to point to the beginning of the new memory. The algorithm begins by relocating the pair pointed at by root to the beginning of the new memory. The pair is copied, the root pointer is adjusted to point to the new location, and the free pointer is incremented. In addition, the old location of the pair is marked to show that its contents have been moved. This marking is done as follows: In the car position, we place a special tag that signals that this is an already-moved object. (Such an object is traditionally called a broken heart.) In the cdr position we place a forwarding address that points at the location to which the object has been moved.

After relocating the root, the garbage collector enters its basic cycle. At each step in the algorithm, the scan pointer (initially pointing at the relocated root) points at a pair that has been moved to the new memory but whose car and cdr pointers still refer to objects in the old memory. These objects are each relocated, and the scan pointer is incremented. To relocate an object (for example, the object indicated by the car pointer of the pair we are scanning) we check to see if the object has already been moved (as indicated by the presence of a broken-heart tag in the car position of the object). If the object has not already been moved, we copy it to the place indicated by free, update free, set up a broken heart at the object's old location, and update the pointer to the object (in this example, the car pointer of the pair we are scanning) to point to the new location. If the object has already been moved, its forwarding address (found in the cdr position of the broken heart) is substituted for the pointer in the pair being scanned. Eventually, all accessible objects will have been moved and scanned, at which point the scan pointer will overtake the free pointer and the process will terminate.

We can specify the stop-and-copy algorithm as a sequence of instructions for a register machine. The basic step of relocating an object is accomplished by a subroutine called relocate-old-result-in-new. This subroutine gets its argument, a pointer to the object to be relocated, from a register named old. It relocates the designated object (incrementing free in the process), puts a pointer to the relocated object into a register called new, and returns by branching to the entry point stored in the register relocate-continue. To begin garbage collection, we invoke this subroutine to relocate the root pointer, after initializing free and scan. When the relocation of root has been accomplished, we install the new pointer as the new root and enter the main loop of the garbage collector.

begin-garbage-collection
(assign free (const 0))
(assign scan (const 0))
(assign old (reg root))
(assign relocate-continue (label reassign-root))
(goto (label relocate-old-result-in-new))
reassign-root
(assign root (reg new))
(goto (label gc-loop))


In the main loop of the garbage collector we must determine whether there are any more objects to be scanned. We do this by testing whether the scan pointer is coincident with the free pointer. If the pointers are equal, then all accessible objects have been relocated, and we branch to gc-flip, which cleans things up so that we can continue the interrupted computation. If there are still pairs to be scanned, we call the relocate subroutine to relocate the car of the next pair (by placing the car pointer in old). The relocate-continue register is set up so that the subroutine will return to update the car pointer.

gc-loop
(test (op =) (reg scan) (reg free))
(branch (label gc-flip))
(assign old (op vector-ref) (reg new-cars) (reg scan))
(assign relocate-continue (label update-car))
(goto (label relocate-old-result-in-new))


At update-car, we modify the car pointer of the pair being scanned, then proceed to relocate the cdr of the pair. We return to update-cdr when that relocation has been accomplished. After relocating and updating the cdr, we are finished scanning that pair, so we continue with the main loop.

update-car
(perform
(op vector-set!) (reg new-cars) (reg scan) (reg new))
(assign old (op vector-ref) (reg new-cdrs) (reg scan))
(assign relocate-continue (label update-cdr))
(goto (label relocate-old-result-in-new))

update-cdr
(perform
(op vector-set!) (reg new-cdrs) (reg scan) (reg new))
(assign scan (op +) (reg scan) (const 1))
(goto (label gc-loop))


The subroutine relocate-old-result-in-new relocates objects as follows: If the object to be relocated (pointed at by old) is not a pair, then we return the same pointer to the object unchanged (in new). (For example, we may be scanning a pair whose car is the number 4. If we represent the car by n4, as described in section , then we want the relocated'' car pointer to still be n4.) Otherwise, we must perform the relocation. If the car position of the pair to be relocated contains a broken-heart tag, then the pair has in fact already been moved, so we retrieve the forwarding address (from the cdr position of the broken heart) and return this in new. If the pointer in old points at a yet-unmoved pair, then we move the pair to the first free cell in new memory (pointed at by free) and set up the broken heart by storing a broken-heart tag and forwarding address at the old location. Relocate-old-result-in-new uses a register oldcr to hold the car or the cdr of the object pointed at by old.

relocate-old-result-in-new
(test (op pointer-to-pair?) (reg old))
(branch (label pair))
(assign new (reg old))
(goto (reg relocate-continue))
pair
(assign oldcr (op vector-ref) (reg the-cars) (reg old))
(test (op broken-heart?) (reg oldcr))
(assign new (reg free)) ; new location for pair
;; Update free pointer.
(assign free (op +) (reg free) (const 1))
;; Copy the car and cdr to new memory.
(perform (op vector-set!)
(reg new-cars) (reg new) (reg oldcr))
(assign oldcr (op vector-ref) (reg the-cdrs) (reg old))
(perform (op vector-set!)
(reg new-cdrs) (reg new) (reg oldcr))
;; Construct the broken heart.
(perform (op vector-set!)
(reg the-cars) (reg old) (const broken-heart))
(perform
(op vector-set!) (reg the-cdrs) (reg old) (reg new))
(goto (reg relocate-continue))
(assign new (op vector-ref) (reg the-cdrs) (reg old))
(goto (reg relocate-continue))


At the very end of the garbage-collection process, we interchange the role of old and new memories by interchanging pointers: interchanging the-cars with new-cars, and the-cdrs with new-cdrs. We will then be ready to perform another garbage collection the next time memory runs out.

gc-flip
(assign temp (reg the-cdrs))
(assign the-cdrs (reg new-cdrs))
(assign new-cdrs (reg temp))
(assign temp (reg the-cars))
(assign the-cars (reg new-cars))
(assign new-cars (reg temp))


Next: The Explicit-Control Evaluator Up: Storage Allocation and Garbage Previous: Memory as Vectors
Ryan Bender
2000-04-17