The GC: As A Managed Memory Allocator

Most Garbage Collectors aren’t limited to just tracing the garbage (unused objects) and scheduling it for deletion, but also manage memory as a whole including allocating it.

Data segment

The kernel of an Operating System takes care of mapping physical memory (RAM/Swap memory/IO memory/Cache’s) to virtual memory available to a process. A process is allocated a few segment’s of memory. The one that is important to memory allocators is the Data Segment.

The Data Segment is the segment which contains memory which is used for random access by the program. The size of the Data Segment can be changed using the sbrk or brk C function, which asks the kernel for more memory to be mapped for the process, which then returns a pointer to the start of the newly allocated space. (providing a negative value will result in decreasing the data segment size).


A non-Gc memory manager/allocator are malloc and its friends. Malloc uses sbrk to obtain memory for the Data Segment to allocate memory from as almost all other allocators. It prefixes and suffixes all blocks of free or allocated memory by size fields so it can walk through the whole heap. It puts in each freeblock a pointer to the next and previous freeblock, which makes freeblocks easy to insert and find.

Freeing a block is simply adding into the freeblock chain and setting a bit to flag it is a free block. Allocating a block is simply walking the freeblock chain until a freeblock is found that can hold the required size, and adds new size’s and flags to the new freeblock and updates the pointers one block previous and next into the freeblock chain to match the new offset of the freeblock.

The big problem with malloc is fragmentation. sbrk could be required to be called to enlarge the heap size to create a freeblock big enough for the allocation although there is enough freespace for that allocation, which is scattered and not contiguous.

Modern implementations of malloc feature tricks to prefer perfect fits and automaticly coalesce freeblocks to create bigger blocks, which all makes malloc a whole lot slower than it should be with still quite a lot of memory fragmentation.

Gc managed pointers and malloc

Most Gc’s implement their own memory allocator routines instead of using malloc, usually even overriding the old malloc. This is because Gc’s usually know more about the requirements of the application than malloc itself.

It gets even better when the Gc knows all pointers to the managed heap. In this case a Gc could decide to move an object, update the pointers that linked to it, and save a lot of space from fragmentation. This is easily implemented when dealing with a interpreted language which uses a Gc for it knows all types runtime. It even can be done in C, but that requires all pointers both inside as outside the managed heap that point into the managed heap to be registered.

The difficult part is to find all pointers pointing to a certain object. This usually requires the whole heap to be walked, once or twice. Waiting until a reasonable amount of objects would be subject to move, and then doing one big move of all those objects, and possibly other operations requiring heap walks while doing it anyway as one big “garbage collection” would be way more efficient than doing this all ‘live’. In the first pass each object subject to move could be tagged with the new location and on the second pass all pointers would be checked and adjusted accordingly.

Unmanaged code interop

The big problem of being able to move managed memory is keeping track of all pointers into the managed memory. If you would want to store a file handle in managed memory you would have a hard time when the internals of file access keep contain pointers to your file handle.

Fixed allocations, which remain stationary would solve the issue but this could, sadly enough, result in fragmentation of your heap. When all objects can be moved it is very easy to move, but when there are fixed objects somewhere in the heap, complicated ‘fitting’ algorithms must be used which decrease performance.

Fixing memory temporarily, or preventing a GC temporarily is a much cleaner solution to the problem. In some cases this just isn’t possible and big blocks with their own malloc style allocator could be used to handle unmanaged memory so that it won’t interfere too much with the normal managed memeory. On most *nix systems mmap could be used to map additional usable memory to the virtual memory space of the process. Which is slower than bsrk and create some extra overhead, but it will avoid fragmentation in managed heap due to fixed blocks.


It is only usefull for a Gc to implement its own malloc when it can move its objects, or when there is a clear advantage to implementing the malloc close to the Gc, which could be for instance to more easily walk through all objects in the heap without having to implement a walk algorithm for each malloc used accross different platforms.

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