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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
Rating: 4 stars4 stars4 stars4 stars4 stars / 73
June 21, 2005
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
  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++ - What About auto_ptr?
(Page 4 of 12 )

As many readers will know, C++ defines a library class called auto_ptr. Because an auto_ptr automatically frees the memory to which it points when it goes out of scope, you might think that it would be of use when developing a garbage collector, perhaps forming the foundation. This is not the case, however. The auto_ptr class is designed for a concept that the ISO C++ Standard calls “strict ownership,” in which an auto_ptr “owns” the object to which it points. This ownership can be transferred to another auto_ptr, but in all cases some auto_ptr will own the object until it is destroyed. Furthermore, an auto_ptr is assigned an address of an object only when it is initialized. After that, you can’t change the memory to which an auto_ptr points, except by assigning one auto_ptr to another. Because of auto_ptr’s “strict ownership” feature, it is not particularly useful when creating a garbage collector, and it is not used by the garbage collectors in this book.

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A Simple C++ Garbage Collector

The entire garbage collector is shown here. As explained, the garbage collector works by creating a new pointer type that provides built-in support for garbage collection based on reference counting. The garbage collector is single-threaded, which means that it is quite portable and does not rely upon (or make assumptions about) the execution environment. This code should be stored in a file called gc.h.

There are two things to notice as you look through the code. First, most of the member functions are quite short and are defined inside their respective classes in the interest of efficiency. Recall that a function defined within its class is automatically in-lined, which eliminates the overhead of a function call. Only a few functions are long enough to require their definition to be outside their class.

Secondly, notice the comment near the top of the file. If you want to watch the action of the garbage collector, simply turn on the display option by defining the macro called DISPLAY. For normal use, leave DISPLAY undefined.

// A single-threaded garbage collector.
#include <iostream>
#include <list>
#include <typeinfo>
#include <cstdlib>
using namespace std;
// To watch the action of the garbage collector, define DISPLAY.
// #define DISPLAY
// Exception thrown when an attempt is made to
// use an Iter that exceeds the range of the
// underlying object.
//
class OutOfRangeExc {
 
// Add functionality if needed by your application.
};
// An iterator-like class for cycling through arrays
// that are pointed to by GCPtrs. Iter pointers
// ** do not ** participate in or affect garbage
// collection. Thus, an Iter pointing to
// some object does not prevent that object
// from being recycled.
//
template <class T> class Iter {
  T *ptr;   // current pointer value
 
T *end;   // points to element one past end
 
T *begin; // points to start of allocated array
  unsigned length; // length of sequence
public:
 
Iter() {
    ptr = end = begin = NULL;
    length = 0;
 
}
 
Iter(T *p, T *first, T *last) {
    ptr = p;
    end = last;
    begin = first;
    length = last - first;
  }
  // Return length of sequence to which this
  // Iter points.
  unsigned size() { return length; }
 
// Return value pointed to by ptr.
  // Do not allow out-of-bounds access.
  T &operator*() {
   
if( (ptr >= end) || (ptr < begin) )
      throw OutOfRangeExc();
    return *ptr;
  }
 
// Return address contained in ptr.
  // Do not allow out-of-bounds access.
  T *operator->() {
   
if( (ptr >= end) || (ptr < begin) )
      throw OutOfRangeExc();
    return ptr;
  }
 
// Prefix ++.
 
Iter operator++() {
    ptr++;
    return *this;
 
}
 
// Prefix --.
 
Iter operator--() {
    ptr--;
    return *this;
 
}
 
// Postfix ++.
  Iter operator++(int notused) {
    T *tmp = ptr;
   
ptr++;
    return Iter<T>(tmp, begin, end);
  }
  // Postfix --.
  Iter operator--(int notused) {
    T *tmp = ptr;
   
ptr--;
    return Iter<T>(tmp, begin, end);
  }
  // Return a reference to the object at the
  // specified index. Do not allow out-of-bounds
  // access.
  T &operator[](int i) {
   
if( (i < 0) || (i >= (end-begin)) )
      throw OutOfRangeExc();
    return ptr[i];
  }
 
// Define the relational operators.
  bool operator==(Iter op2) {
    return ptr == op2.ptr;
  }
  bool operator!=(Iter op2) {
    return ptr != op2.ptr;
  }
 
bool operator<(Iter op2) {
    return ptr < op2.ptr;
  }
  bool operator<=(Iter op2) {
    return ptr <= op2.ptr;
  }
 
bool operator>(Iter op2) {
    return ptr > op2.ptr;
 
}
 
bool operator>=(Iter op2) {
    return ptr >= op2.ptr;
  }
 
// Subtract an integer from an Iter.
 
Iter operator-(int n) {
    ptr -= n;
    return *this;
 
}
 
// Add an integer to an Iter.
 
Iter operator+(int n) {
    ptr += n;
    return *this;
 
}
 
// Return number of elements between two Iters.
  int operator-(Iter<T> &itr2) {
    return ptr - itr2.ptr;
  }
};
// This class defines an element that is stored
// in the garbage collection information list.
//
template <class T> class GCInfo {
public:
 
unsigned refcount; // current reference count
 
T *memPtr; // pointer to allocated memory
 
/* isArray is true if memPtr points
     to an allocated array. It is false
     otherwise. */
 
bool isArray; // true if pointing to array
 
/* If memPtr is pointing to an allocated
     array, then arraySize contains its size */
  unsigned arraySize; // size of array
 
// Here, mPtr points to the allocated memory.
  // If this is an array, then size specifies
 
// the size of the array.
 
GCInfo(T *mPtr, unsigned size=0) {
    refcount = 1;
    memPtr = mPtr;
    if(size != 0)
     
isArray = true;
    else
      isArray = false;
   
arraySize = size;
  }
};
// Overloading operator== allows GCInfos to be compared.
// This is needed by the STL list class.
template <class T> bool operator==(const GCInfo<T> &ob1,
               
const GCInfo<T> &ob2) {
  return (ob1.memPtr == ob2.memPtr);
}
// GCPtr implements a pointer type that uses
// garbage collection to release unused memory.
// A GCPtr must only be used to point to memory
// that was dynamically allocated using new.
// When used to refer to an allocated array,
// specify the array size.
//
template <class T, int size=0> class GCPtr {
 
// gclist maintains the garbage collection list.
  static list<GCInfo<T> > gclist;
 
// addr points to the allocated memory to which
  // this GCPtr pointer currently points.
  T *addr;
 
/* isArray is true if this GCPtr points
     to an allocated array. It is false
     otherwise. */
 
bool isArray; // true if pointing to array
 
// If this GCPtr is pointing to an allocated
  // array, then arraySize contains its size.
  unsigned arraySize; // size of the array
 
static bool first; // true when first GCPtr is created
 
// Return an iterator to pointer info in gclist.
  typename list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator findPtrInfo(T *ptr);
public:
 
// Define an iterator type for GCPtr<T>.
  typedef Iter<T> GCiterator;
 
// Construct both initialized and uninitialized objects.
  GCPtr(T *t=NULL) {
   
// Register shutdown() as an exit function.
    if(first) atexit(shutdown);
    first = false;
   
list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
   
p = findPtrInfo(t);
   
// If t is already in gclist, then
    // increment its reference count.
    // Otherwise, add it to the list.
    if(p != gclist.end())
     
p->refcount++; // increment ref count
   
else {
      // Create and store this entry.
      GCInfo<T> gcObj(t, size);
      gclist.push_front(gcObj);
    }
   
addr = t;
    arraySize = size;
    if(size > 0) isArray = true;
    else isArray = false;
    #ifdef DISPLAY
     
cout << "Constructing GCPtr. ";
      if(isArray)
        cout << " Size is " << arraySize << endl;
      else
        cout << endl;
    #endif
  }
 
// Copy constructor.
  GCPtr(const GCPtr &ob) {
    list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
   
p = findPtrInfo(ob.addr);
    p->refcount++; // increment ref count
   
addr = ob.addr;
    arraySize = ob.arraySize;
    if(arraySize > 0) isArray = true;
    else isArray = false;
    #ifdef DISPLAY
     
cout << "Constructing copy.";
      if(isArray)
        cout << " Size is " << arraySize << endl;
      else
        cout << endl;
    #endif
  }
 
// Destructor for GCPTr.
  ~GCPtr();
 
// Collect garbage. Returns true if at least
  // one object was freed.
  static bool collect();
 
// Overload assignment of pointer to GCPtr.
  T *operator=(T *t);
 
// Overload assignment of GCPtr to GCPtr.
  GCPtr &operator=(GCPtr &rv);
 
// Return a reference to the object pointed
  // to by this GCPtr.
  T &operator*() {
   
return *addr;
  }
 
// Return the address being pointed to.
  T *operator->() { return addr; }
 
// Return a reference to the object at the
  // index specified by i.
  T &operator[](int i) {
   
return addr[i];
  }
 
// Conversion function to T *.
  operator T *() { return addr; }
 
// Return an Iter to the start of the allocated memory. 
  Iter<T> begin() {
    int size;
   
if(isArray) size = arraySize;
    else size = 1;
   
return Iter<T>(addr, addr, addr + size);
  }
 
// Return an Iter to one past the end of an allocated array.
  Iter<T> end() {
    int size;
   
if(isArray) size = arraySize;
    else size = 1;
    return Iter<T>(addr + size, addr, addr + size);
  }
 
// Return the size of gclist for this type
  // of GCPtr.
  static int gclistSize() { return gclist.size(); }
 
// A utility function that displays gclist.
  static void showlist();
 
// Clear gclist when program exits.
  static void shutdown();
};
// Creates storage for the static variables
template <class T, int size>
  list<GCInfo<T> > GCPtr<T, size>::gclist;
template <class T, int size>
  bool GCPtr<T, size>::first = true;
// Destructor for GCPtr.
template <class T, int size>
GCPtr<T, size>::~GCPtr() {
  list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
 
p = findPtrInfo(addr);
if(p->refcount) p->refcount--; // decrement ref count
 
#ifdef DISPLAY
    cout << "GCPtr going out of scope.\n";
  #endif
 
// Collect garbage when a pointer goes out of scope.  
  collect();
 
// For real use, you might want to collect
  // unused memory less frequently, such as after
  // gclist has reached a certain size, after a
  // certain number of GCPtrs have gone out of scope,
  // or when memory is low.
}
// Collect garbage.  Returns true if at least
// one object was freed.
template <class T, int size>
bool GCPtr<T, size>::collect() {
 
bool memfreed = false;
 
#ifdef DISPLAY
    cout << "Before garbage collection for ";
    showlist();
 
#endif
 
list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
  do {
   
// Scan gclist looking for unreferenced pointers.
   
for(p = gclist.begin(); p != gclist.end(); p++) {
      // If in-use, skip.
      if(p->refcount > 0) continue;
     
memfreed = true;
     
// Remove unused entry from gclist.
      gclist.remove(*p);
      // Free memory unless the GCPtr is null.
      if(p->memPtr) {
        if(p->isArray) {
          #ifdef DISPLAY
            cout << "Deleting array of size "
                
<< p->arraySize << endl;
          #endif
          delete[] p->memPtr; // delete array
       
}
        else {
          #ifdef DISPLAY
            cout << "Deleting: "
                
<< *(T *) p->memPtr << "\n";
          #endif
          delete p->memPtr; // delete single element
       
}
      }
     
// Restart the search.
      break;
    }
  
} while(p != gclist.end());
 
#ifdef DISPLAY
    cout << "After garbage collection for ";
    showlist();
 
#endif
 
return memfreed;
}
// Overload assignment of pointer to GCPtr.
template <class T, int size>
T * GCPtr<T, size>::operator=(T *t) {
 
list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
 
// First, decrement the reference count
  // for the memory currently being pointed to.
  p = findPtrInfo(addr);
  p->refcount--;
 
// Next, if the new address is already
  // existent in the system, increment its
  // count. Otherwise, create a new entry
 
// for gclist.
  p = findPtrInfo(t);
  if(p != gclist.end())
   
p->refcount++;
 
else {
    // Create and store this entry.
    GCInfo<T> gcObj(t, size);
    gclist.push_front(gcObj);
 
}
 
addr = t; // store the address.
 
return t;
}
// Overload assignment of GCPtr to GCPtr.
template <class T, int size>
GCPtr<T, size> & GCPtr<T, size>::operator=(GCPtr &rv) {
 
list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
  // First, decrement the reference count
  // for the memory currently being pointed to.
  p = findPtrInfo(addr);
  p->refcount--;
 
// Next, increment the reference count of
  // the new address.
  p = findPtrInfo(rv.addr);
  p->refcount++; // increment ref count
 
addr = rv.addr;// store the address.
 
return rv;
}
// A utility function that displays gclist.
template <class T, int size>
void GCPtr<T, size>::showlist() {
 
list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
 
cout << "gclist<" << typeid(T).name() << ", "
       << size << ">:\n";
  cout << "memPtr     refcount    value\n";
 
if(gclist.begin() == gclist.end()) {
   
cout << "           -- Empty --\n\n";
    return;
  }
  for(p = gclist.begin(); p != gclist.end(); p++) {
    cout << "[" << (void *)p->memPtr << "]"
      << "       " << p->refcount << "       ";
    if(p->memPtr) cout << " " << *p->memPtr;
    else cout << "  ---";
    cout << endl;
  }
  cout << endl;
}
// Find a pointer in gclist.
template <class T, int size>
typename list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator
 
GCPtr<T, size>::findPtrInfo(T *ptr) {
 
list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
 
// Find ptr in gclist.
  for(p = gclist.begin(); p != gclist.end(); p++)
    if(p->memPtr == ptr)
      return p;
 
return p;
}
// Clear gclist when program exits.
template <class T, int size>
void GCPtr<T, size>::shutdown() {
 
if(gclistSize() == 0) return; // list is empty
 
list<GCInfo<T> >::iterator p;
 
for(p = gclist.begin(); p != gclist.end(); p++) {
    // Set all reference counts to zero
    p->refcount = 0;
  }
 
#ifdef DISPLAY
    cout << "Before collecting for shutdown() for "
    << typeid(T).name() << "\n";
 
#endif
 
collect();
 
#ifdef DISPLAY
    cout << "After collecting for shutdown() for "
         << typeid(T).name() << "\n";
  #endif
}


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