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A Simple Garbage Collector for C++

The use of dynamically allocated memory must be managed, because it has a tremendous effect on the performance of your programs. The current trend in handling dynamic memory seems to be shifting toward an automated approach. While C++ uses the manual approach for managing dynamic memory, this does not mean that it can't be automated in that language -- thus giving the C++ programmer the best of both worlds. This article explains how to do it. It is excerpted from chapter two of The Art of C++, written by Herbert Schildt (McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2004; ISBN: 0072255129).

Author Info:
By: McGraw-Hill/Osborne
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June 21, 2005
  1. · A Simple Garbage Collector for C++
  2. · Comparing the Two Approaches to Memory Management
  3. · Choosing a Garbage Collection Algorithm
  4. · What About auto_ptr?
  5. · An Overview of the Garbage Collector Classes
  6. · GCPtr In Detail
  7. · The Overloaded Assignment Operators
  8. · GCInfo
  9. · How to Use GCPtr
  10. · Allocating Arrays
  11. · A Larger Demonstration Program
  12. · Load Testing

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A Simple Garbage Collector for C++ - Comparing the Two Approaches to Memory Management
(Page 2 of 12 )

Before developing a garbage collector for C++, it is useful to compare garbage collection to the manual method that is built-in to C++. Normally, the use of dynamic memory in C++ requires a two-step process. First, memory is allocated from the heap via new. Second, when that memory is no longer needed, it is released by delete. Thus, each dynamic allocation follows this sequence:

  p = new some_object;
  // ...
  delete p;

In general, each use of new must be balanced by a matching delete. If delete is not used, the memory is not released, even if that memory is no longer needed by your program.

Garbage collection differs from the manual approach in one key way: it automates the release of unused memory. Therefore, with garbage collection, dynamic allocation is a one-step operation. For example, in Java and C#, memory is allocated for use by new, but it is never explicitly freed by your program. Instead, the garbage collector runs periodically, looking for pieces of memory to which no other object points. When no other object points to a piece of dynamic memory, it means that there is no program element using that memory. When it finds a piece of unused memory, it frees it. Thus, in a garbage collection system, there is no delete operator, nor a need for one, either.

At first glance, the inherent simplicity of garbage collection makes it seem like the obvious choice for managing dynamic memory. In fact, one might question why the manual method is used at all, especially by a language as sophisticated as C++. However, in the case of dynamic allocation, first impressions prove deceptive because both approaches involve a set of trade-offs. Which approach is most appropriate is decided by the application. The following sections describe some of the issues involved.

The Pros and Cons of Manual Memory Management

The main benefit of manually managing dynamic memory is efficiency. Because there is no garbage collector, no time is spent keeping track of active objects or periodically looking for unused memory. Instead, when the programmer knows that the allocated object is no longer needed, the programmer explicitly frees it and no additional overhead is incurred. Because it has none of the overhead associated with garbage collection, the manual approach enables more efficient code to be written. This is one reason why it was necessary for C++ to support manual memory management: it enabled the creation of high-performance code.

Another advantage to the manual approach is control. Although requiring the programmer to handle both the allocation and release of memory is a burden, the benefit is that the programmer gains complete control over both halves of the process. You know precisely when memory is being allocated and precisely when it is being released. Furthermore, when you release an object via delete, its destructor is executed at that point rather than at some later time, as can be the case with garbage collection. Thus, with the manual method you can control precisely when an allocated object is destroyed.

Although it is efficient, manual memory management is susceptible to a rather annoying type of error: the memory leak. Because memory must be freed manually, it is possible (even easy) to forget to do so. Failing to release unused memory means that the memory will remain allocated even if it is no longer needed. Memory leaks cannot occur in a garbage collection environment because the garbage collector ensures that unused objects are eventually freed. Memory leaks are a particularly troublesome problem in Windows programming, where the failure to release unused resources slowly degrades performance.

Other problems that can occur with C++ís manual approach include the premature releasing of memory that is still in use, and the accidental freeing of the same memory twice. Both of these errors can lead to serious trouble. Unfortunately, they may not show any immediate symptoms, making them hard to find.

The Pros and Cons of Garbage Collection

There are several different ways to implement garbage collection, each offering different performance characteristics. However, all garbage collection systems share a set of common attributes that can be compared against the manual approach. The main advantages to garbage collection are simplicity and safety. In a garbage collection environment, you explicitly allocate memory via new, but you never explicitly free it. Instead, unused memory is automatically recycled. Thus, it is not possible to forget to release an object or to release an object prematurely. This simplifies programming and prevents an entire class of problems. Furthermore, it is not possible to accidentally free dynamically allocated memory twice. Thus, garbage collection provides an easy-to-use, error-free, reliable solution to the memory management problem.

Unfortunately, the simplicity and safety of garbage collection come at a price. The first cost is the overhead incurred by the garbage collection mechanism. All garbage collection schemes consume some CPU cycles because the reclamation of unused memory is not a cost-free process. This overhead does not occur with the manual approach.

A second cost is loss of control over when an object is destroyed. Unlike the manual approach, in which an object is destroyed (and its destructor called) at a known point in timeówhen a delete statement is executed on that objectógarbage collection does not have such a hard and fast rule. Instead, when garbage collection is used, an object is not destroyed until the collector runs and recycles the object, which may not occur until some arbitrary time in the future. For example, the collector might not run until the amount of free memory drops below a certain point. Furthermore, it is not always possible to know the order in which objects will be destroyed by the garbage collector. In some cases, the inability to know precisely when an object is destroyed can cause trouble because it also means that your program canít know precisely when the destructor for a dynamically allocated object is called.

For garbage collection systems that run as a background task, this loss of control can escalate into a potentially more serious problem for some types of applications because it introduces what is essentially nondeterministic behavior into a program. A garbage collector that executes in the background reclaims unused memory at times that are, for all practical purposes, unknowable. For example, the collector will usually run only when free CPU time is available. Because this might vary from one program run to the next, from one computer to next, or from one operating system to the next, the precise point in program execution at which the garbage collector executes is effectively nondeterministic. This is not a problem for many programs, but it can cause havoc with real-time applications in which the unexpected allocation of CPU cycles to the garbage collector could cause an event to be missed.

You Can Have It Both Ways

As the preceding discussions explained, both manual management and garbage collection maximize one feature at the expense of another. The manual approach maximizes efficiency and control at the expense of safety and ease of use. Garbage collection maximizes simplicity and safety but pays for it with a loss of runtime performance and control. Thus, garbage collection and manual memory management are essentially opposites, each maximizing the traits that the other sacrifices. This is why neither approach to dynamic memory management can be optimal for all programming situations.

Although opposites, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. They can coexist. Thus, it is possible for the C++ programmer to have access to both approaches, choosing the proper method for the task at hand. All one needs to do is create a garbage collector for C++, and this is the subject of the rest of this chapter.

Creating a Garbage Collector in C++

Because C++ is a rich and powerful language, there are many different ways to implement a garbage collector. One obvious, but limited, approach is to create a garbage collector base class, which is then inherited by classes that want to use garbage collection. This would enable you to implement garbage collection on a class-by-class basis. This solution is, unfortunately, too narrow to be satisfying.

A better solution is one in which the garbage collector can be used with any type of dynamically allocated object. To provide such a solution, the garbage collector must:

  1. Coexist with the built-in, manual method provided by C++.

  2. Not break any preexisting code. Moreover, it must have no impact whatsoever on existing code.

  3. Work transparently so that allocations that use garbage collection are operated on in the same way as those that donít.

  4. Allocate memory using new in the same way that C++ís built-in approach does.

  5. Work with all data types, including the built-in types such as int and double.

  6. Be simple to use.

In short, the garbage collection system must be able to dynamically allocate memory using a mechanism and syntax that closely resemble that already used by C++ and not affect existing code. At first thought, this might seem to be a daunting task, but it isnít.

Understanding the Problem

The key challenge that one faces when creating a garbage collector is how to know when a piece of memory is unused. To understand the problem, consider the following sequence:

  int *p;
  p = new int(99);
  p = new int(100);

Here, two int objects are dynamically allocated. The first contains the value 99 and a pointer to this value is stored in p. Next, an integer containing the value 100 is allocated, and its address is also stored in p, thus overwriting the first address. At this point, the memory for int(99) is not pointed to by p (or any other object) and can be freed. The question is, how does the garbage collector know that neither p nor any other object points to int(99)?

Here is a slight variation on the problem:

  int *p, *q;
p = new int(99);
q = p; // now, q points to same memory as p
p = new int(100);

In this case, q points to the memory that was originally allocated for p. Even though p is then pointed to a different piece of memory, the memory that it originally pointed to canít be freed because it is still in use by q. The question: how does the garbage collector know this fact? The precise way that these questions are answered is determined by the garbage collection algorithm employed.


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