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📝️ Garbage Collection - Part 2 - Mark Sweep Collection

January 1 2016
System Design Garbage Collection Memory Management Language Runtimes Technical

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This post provides an intentionally watered-down overview of mark sweep garbage collection algorithm and the tradeoffs involved around it. A lot of the gory implementation details aren’t mentioned.


At a high level, an automatic memory management system has two key responsibilities:

  1. Allocate space for new objects
  2. Reclaim space from dead objects

The sole responsibility of a garbage collector is to reclaim the space used by every object that will no longer be used by any of the execution paths in the program. In order to achieve that, it needs to categorize all objects as either dead or alive. As we mentioned in part 1, most garbage collectors treat reachability as liveness. An object is considered dead if none of the program’s execution paths can reach it. This post assumes that you’ve read part 1 and are familiar with mutator and collector concepts.

Categories Of Garbage Collection Algorithms

Most garbage collection schemes can be categorized as one of the four fundamental approaches :

  • Mark Sweep Collection
  • Mark Compact Collection
  • Copying Collection
  • Reference Counting

It is common for GC implementations to combine multiple approaches (e.g. reference counting supplemented by mark-sweep) to meet performance goals. In this post, we’ll look into the details of mark sweep approach and its trade-offs.

How and when is GC invoked?

Before we jump into the details of mark sweep, let’s quickly understand how/when a GC is triggered. Typically, language runtimes trigger GC when they find that the heap is exhausted and there’s no more memory available to satisfy a memory allocation request by a mutator thread. Its something like:

def memory_allocator(n):
    # Allocate and return 'n' bytes on the heap.
    ref = allocate(n)
    if not ref:
        # Oops. We are out of memory. Invoke GC.
        # Retry allocation
        ref = allocate(n)
        if not ref:
            # Let's give caller a chance to do something about it.
            # i.e. delete references, purge caches etc.
            raise OutOfMemory
    return ref

Mark Sweep

Mark Sweep algorithm is as simple as its name. It consists of a mark phase that is followed up by a sweep phase. During mark phase, the collector walks over all the roots (global variables, local variables, stack frames, virtual and hardware registers etc.) and marks every object that it encounters by setting a bit somewhere in/around that object. And during the sweep phase, it walks over the heap and reclaims memory from all the unmarked objects.

The outline of the basic algorithm is given below in python pseudo-code. Here we assume that the collector is single threaded but there could be multiple mutators. All mutator threads are stopped while the collector runs. This stop-the-world approach seems suboptimal but it greatly simplifies the implementation of collector because mutators can’t change the state under it.

def gc():

def mark_roots():
    candidates = Stack()
    for field in Roots:
        if field != nil && not is_marked(field):

def mark(candidates):
    while not candidates.empty():
        ref = candidates.pop()
        for field in pointers(ref):
            if field != nil && not is_marked(field):

def sweep():
    scan = start_of_heap()
    end = end_of_heap()
    while scan < end:
        if is_marked(scan):
        scan = next_object(scan)

def next_object(address):
    # Parse the heap and return the next object.

Mark Phase

From the pseudo-code, it is clear that mark sweep doesn’t directly identify garbage. Instead it identifies all the objects that are not garbage i.e. alive and then concludes that anything else must be garbage. Marking is a recursive process. Upon finding a live reference, we recurse into its child fields and so on and so forth. Recursive procedure call isn’t a practical method for marking because of time overhead and stack overflow potential. That’s why we are using an explicit stack. This algorithm makes the space cost as well as the time overhead of the marking phase explicit. The maximum depth of the candidates stack depends on the size of the longest path that has to be traced through the object graph. A theoratical worst case might be equal to the number of nodes on the heap, but most real world workloads tend to produce stacks that are comparatively shallow. Nonetheless a safe GC implementation must handle such abnormal situations. In our implementation, we call mark( ) immediately after adding a new object to the candidates mainly to keep the size of the stack under control. The predicament of marking is that GC is needed precisely because of lack of available memory but auxiliary stacks require additional space. Large programs may cause garbage collector itself to run out of space. One benefit of explicit stack is that an overflow can be detected easily and a recovery action can be triggered. Overflow can be detected in many ways. A simple solution is to use an inline check in each push( ). A slightly more efficient method would be to use a guard page and trigger recovery after trapping the guard violation exception. The tradeoffs of both approaches must be understood in the context of the underlying operating system and the hardware. In first approach, the is-full test is likely to cost a couple of instructions (test followed by a branch) but will be repeated every time we examine an object. Second approach requires trapping access violation exception that is generally expensive but will be infrequent.

Sweep Phase

The implementation of sweep( ) is fairly straight-forward. It scans the heap in a linear fashion and frees any unmarked object. It does pose parsability constraints on our heap layout. The implementation of next_object(address) must be able to return the next object on the heap. Generally, it is sufficient for the heap to be parseable only in one direction. Most GC enabled language runtimes tag an object’s data with an object header. The header contains information like object’s metadata i.e. type, size, hashcode, mark bits, sync block etc. Typically an object’s header is placed immediately before an object’s data. Thus object’s reference doesn’t point to the first byte of the allocated heap cell, but into the middle of the cell, right after the object header. This facilitates upward parsing of the heap. A common implementation of free(address) will fill the freed cell with a pre-determined filler pattern that is recognized by the heap parsing logic.

Issues And Tradeoffs

  • Cache Performance: It is typical for most application’s performance to be dominated by the utilization efficiency of hardware cache. These days the L1-L3 caches can be accessed in 2 to 10 CPU cycles and it takes upwards of 100 cycles to hit the RAM. Caches boost performance for applications that exhibit good temporal and spatial locality. A program exhibits temporal locality if it accesses a memory location that was recently accessed before. And a program shows high spatial locality if it accesses adjacent memory locations in a scan-like fashion. Unfortunately, in mark sweep algorithm, the mark phase kind of sucks when it comes to temporal and spatial locality. In mark( ) we typically read and write an object’s header only once (assuming that most objects are popular and are referenced by only a single pointer). We read the mark bit and if the object hasn’t already been marked, its unlikely to be accessed again. Hardware prefetching (speculative or thorugh explicit prefetch instructions) isn’t suitable for such wild pointer chasing. One common technique to improve cache performance is to put the mark bits in a separate bitmap instead of making them part of object headers. The format, location and space needed for the bitmap depends on many factors like heap size, object alignment requirements, hardware cache sizes etc. These marking bitmaps offer concrete performance advantage to the mark sweep algorithm. For example, marking doesn’t need to modify objects, multiple objects may be marked using a single instruction (bit whacking against a bitmap word). Since it modifies fewer words which means fewer dirty cache lines which implies less cache flushes. Sweeping doesn’t need to read any live objects and instead can fully rely on the bitmap for heap scan.
  • Speed: The complexity of mark phase is O(L) where L is the size of live objects reachable from all the roots. And the time complexity of sweep phase is O(H) where H is the number of heap cells. It might be tempting to assume that O(H) dominates O(L) given that H > L, but in reality the sweep phase show great cache performance due to high spatial locality and the actual speed of the overall collection is dominated by the O(L) due to all the cache unfriendly pointer chasing.
  • Space Overhead: The mark sweep algorithm offers better space utilization compared to reference counting algorithms plus it can handle cyclical structures cleanly without imposing any pointer manipulation overhead. Marking is an expensive operation and that’s why its performed infrequently (only when absolutely required). Just like other tracing algorithms, it requires some headroom on the heap for its operation. Furthermore, since mark sweep doesn’t compact the heap, the system could suffer from higher internal fragmentation resulting in decreased heap utilization (especially for larger allocations).
  • Mutator Overhead: Mark sweep puts almost no coordination overhead with mutator’s read or write operations. It’s only interfacing with the mutators is through the object allocation routine and even there the overhead is minimal.
  • Allocator Overhead: Generally, mark sweep systems do require complex allocators that understand and support heap parsing and bitmap manipulation. Also, heap managers might have to introduce non-trivial implementation strategies to deal with internal fragmentation. On the other hand, not moving objects makes mark sweep a suitable candidate for use in non-cooperative environments where language runtime doesn’t coordinate with garbage collector (it can happen if the GC was introduced as an after thought in the language design). Another advantage of not moving is that the object addresses don’t change and there is no need to patch them after the sweep phase.
  • Invasiveness: Like all tracing algorithms, mark sweep is invasive. The collector interrupts the client program while all active objects are identified. These pauses could be substantial for some memory bound workloads. Typically the GC frequency increases as the heap becomes fuller.


This concludes a high level overview of mark sweep garbage collection approach. Mark sweep is a class of garbage collection algorithms and each of them involves subtle tradeoffs. Some notable algorithms include:

  • Dijkstra’s Tri-color Marking: It is one of the most widely used algorithm in mark sweep category. It is particularly useful for implementing increment and concurrent collectors. Go Language (1.5) uses it.
  • Lazy Sweep and Prefetching: There’s a whole class of algorithms dedicated to improving GC performance using lazy sweeping and prefetching. See this, this, and this for details.

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