There are currently two major ways in which programming languages deal with memory. One is explicit deallocation (as used by C, C++ and assembly language) and the other is garbage collection, which is used by almost everything else.
Explicit deallocation is generally thought of as being very error prone and difficult to get right, but if your language has good features to support it (like destructors in C++) it can be very nearly as easy as garbage collection. It also has some other advantages over garbage collection:
- Less actual memory is needed to accomplish any given task (most garbage collected languages need about twice the memory for any given task as a non-garbage collected language).
- Non-memory resources can be cleared up in the same way as memory.
- Everything is deterministic (which is not the case if you have a garbage collector running on a separate thread).
- Most garbage collectors need to pause your program to work, making them unsuitable for hard real-time systems.
- Locality of reference is better preserved, leading to more cache-friendly memory access patterns.
Garbage collection also has it's own advantages:
- You never need to deallocate memory explicitly - the computer essentially emulates infinite memory for you.
- You don't need to explicitly break (or avoid making) cycles of references - the garbage collector will find them.
- With a moving collector, allocation can be much faster (requiring just a pointer increment).
- If you can always arrange for garbage collection to happen in time that would otherwise be idle, the system can be faster overall.
- With a moving collector, memory fragmentation can be avoided.
Generally I prefer explicit deallocation to garbage collection. This might be because my parents drummed it into me as a child that I should put away my toys when I finished playing with them, not leave them lying around to be tidied away my someone else. The one thing that does bother me about explicit deallocation, though, is the possibility of memory fragmentation. Lately I have been wondering if would be possible to fix this problem whilst retaining the advantages of explicit deallocation. Specifically what got me thinking about this is the crazy memory tricks I implemented for my fractal plotter, and how to generalize it to other programs. The result is something I call ravioli allocation (code here although it doesn't actually do anything at the time of writing).
The idea there is that you have a pile of objects which each take the same amount of memory. So there is a simple algorithm for keeping them defragmented - whenever you deallocate an object, move the highest object in memory into the space it vacated.
There are two difficulties with doing this more generally:
- To move object X, you have to know where all the pointers pointing to it are so you can fix them up. This caused many long and painful debugging sessions with my fractal program.
- All the objects have to be the same size.
The second problem can be solved if the objects are large enough to hold two pointers, by simulating arrays and structures using binary trees (though access time for elements increases a bit - from O(1) to O(log n)).
The first problem can be solved by linking together in a linked list all the pointers which point to the same thing. The list needs to be a doubly linked list because we need to be able to remove a pointer from the list it's in. So, each "high level" pointer really consists of three "low level" pointers - one to the referent itself and two for the previous and next "high level" pointers in the list. An object itself will also need space for two other "low level" pointers - one to the first element of the linked list of pointers pointing to that object, and one to tell the allocator whether it contains 0, 1 or 2 "high level" pointers (this can also be used as a vtable pointer for other purposes).
To avoid splitting objects across cache lines, we want the size of each object to be a power of two, so they will need to be able to hold 8 "low level" pointers (i.e. be 32 bytes on 32-bit systems, 64 bytes on 64-bit systems). That means that each 32-bit object can store 6 32-bit integers or 24 characters. On a 64-bit machine, an object could store 12 32-bit integers or 48 characters. So the small string optimization is very natural with ravioli allocation.
Once we have the ability to move objects around for defragmentation purposes, we might want to move them around for other purposes too. For example, if we expect that whenever object A is used, object B is also very likely to be used (and vice versa) we might want to put them on the same cache line. We can also set up separate memory arenas for separate purposes and move objects between them to improve locality for paging purposes.
One big downside of this system seems to be that deallocation (or moving an object in general) can be quite an expensive operation - chasing one pointer (and one potential cache miss) for each pointer that points to the moved object. However, I suspect that this wouldn't be as expensive as it sounds most of the time, since the objects that we move will tend to be ones which were allocated recently (since they will be in higher memory locations) and won't have been around long enough to have accumulated too many pointers. The objects that tend to have a lot of objects pointing to them will tend to be long lived and will migrate towards the beginning of memory (even if they don't start off there). However, walking this linked list should probably be done with non-temporal loads to avoid polluting the cache with a bunch of objects that you don't really care about. Also, consider the average case - each object can only point to two other objects, which means that the average number of pointers pointing to an object will be at most 2. And there is the nice property that a routine which doesn't deallocate data that it didn't allocate, also won't move data that it didn't allocate, so performance of small routines can be quantified nicely.
There is a fair bit of overhead to all these linked lists - 44% in the best case (one big array) and 300% in the worst case (a linked list of small records). However, some of this is offset against existing overhead (heap information, vtable pointers, fragmentation, existing binary tree pointers, reference counts) so for real programs the costs might be much smaller or even negative.
Multithreading might seem to be a problem at first - one thread can't hold on to a pointer to an object in another thread's heap. However, you can transfer data to or from another thread if the other thread is in a known (waiting) state. You have to be careful transferring data between threads, but that's true anyway.
Local (stack) variables present a bit of a problem - they can't hold pointers (unless you walk the entire stack looking for pointers whenever you deallocate something). One way would be to store "how to get there" (from a global root object which is allocated first and never moves) instead of "where it is" on the stack. Another would be for the stack itself to be allocated on the heap. This is probably the faster solution, and has some nice implications for implementing things like arbitrary closures and continuations. Hardware support would definitely help here though.
 There is a nice synergy between ravioli allocation and reference counting - whenever you change a pointer you remove it from its linked list, and if the linked list then contains zero entries you know you can remove the object you just stopped referencing. Cycles must be explicitly broken, though - you can't have a raw/weak pointer (because it would go stale when the object it referred to moved).
Edit 14th July 2013: