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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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×O⇒V, because you don’t have O. This
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:
(Add finalizers to the root set?)
Trace from the roots
Trace finalizables (and finalizer closures if not done in 1)
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!