an optimistic evacuation of my wordhoard

21 June 2022 12:21 PM (garbage collection | immix | guile | gnu | igalia | mmap | evacuation | compaction)

Good morning, mallocators. Last time we talked about how to split available memory between a block-structured main space and a large object space. Given a fixed heap size, making a new large object allocation will steal available pages from the block-structured space by finding empty blocks and temporarily returning them to the operating system.

Today I'd like to talk more about nothing, or rather, why might you want nothing rather than something. Given an Immix heap, why would you want it organized in such a way that live data is packed into some blocks, leaving other blocks completely free? How bad would it be if instead the live data were spread all over the heap? When might it be a good idea to try to compact the heap? Ideally we'd like to be able to translate the answers to these questions into heuristics that can inform the GC when compaction/evacuation would be a good idea.

lospace and the void

Let's start with one of the more obvious points: large object allocation. With a fixed-size heap, you can't allocate new large objects if you don't have empty blocks in your paged space (the Immix space, for example) that you can return to the OS. To obtain these free blocks, you have four options.

  1. You can continue lazy sweeping of recycled blocks, to see if you find an empty block. This is a bit time-consuming, though.

  2. Otherwise, you can trigger a regular non-moving GC, which might free up blocks in the Immix space but which is also likely to free up large objects, which would result in fresh empty blocks.

  3. You can trigger a compacting or evacuating collection. Immix can't actually compact the heap all in one go, so you would preferentially select evacuation-candidate blocks by choosing the blocks with the least live data (as measured at the last GC), hoping that little data will need to be evacuated.

  4. Finally, for environments in which the heap is growable, you could just grow the heap instead. In this case you would configure the system to target a heap size multiplier rather than a heap size, which would scale the heap to be e.g. twice the size of the live data, as measured at the last collection.

If you have a growable heap, I think you will rarely choose to compact rather than grow the heap: you will either collect or grow. Under constant allocation rate, the rate of empty blocks being reclaimed from freed lospace objects will be equal to the rate at which they are needed, so if collection doesn't produce any, then that means your live data set is increasing and so growing is a good option. Anyway let's put growable heaps aside, as heap-growth heuristics are a separate gnarly problem.

The question becomes, when should large object allocation force a compaction? Absent growable heaps, the answer is clear: when allocating a large object fails because there are no empty pages, but the statistics show that there is actually ample free memory. Good! We have one heuristic, and one with an optimum: you could compact in other situations but from the point of view of lospace, waiting until allocation failure is the most efficient.


Moving on, another use of empty blocks is when shrinking the heap. The collector might decide that it's a good idea to return some memory to the operating system. For example, I enjoyed this recent paper on heuristics for optimum heap size, that advocates that you size the heap in proportion to the square root of the allocation rate, and that as a consequence, when/if the application reaches a dormant state, it should promptly return memory to the OS.

Here, we have a similar heuristic for when to evacuate: when we would like to release memory to the OS but we have no empty blocks, we should compact. We use the same evacuation candidate selection approach as before, also, aiming for maximum empty block yield.


What if you go to allocate a medium object, say 4kB, but there is no hole that's 4kB or larger? In that case, your heap is fragmented. The smaller your heap size, the more likely this is to happen. We should compact the heap to make the maximum hole size larger.

side note: compaction via partial evacuation

The evacuation strategy of Immix is... optimistic. A mark-compact collector will compact the whole heap, but Immix will only be able to evacuate a fraction of it.

It's worth dwelling on this a bit. As described in the paper, Immix reserves around 2-3% of overall space for evacuation overhead. Let's say you decide to evacuate: you start with 2-3% of blocks being empty (the target blocks), and choose a corresponding set of candidate blocks for evacuation (the source blocks). Since Immix is a one-pass collector, it doesn't know how much data is live when it starts collecting. It may not know that the blocks that it is evacuating will fit into the target space. As specified in the original paper, if the target space fills up, Immix will mark in place instead of evacuating; an evacuation candidate block with marked-in-place objects would then be non-empty at the end of collection.

In fact if you choose a set of evacuation candidates hoping to maximize your empty block yield, based on an estimate of live data instead of limiting to only the number of target blocks, I think it's possible to actually fill the targets before the source blocks empty, leaving you with no empty blocks at the end! (This can happen due to inaccurate live data estimations, or via internal fragmentation with the block size.) The only way to avoid this is to never select more evacuation candidate blocks than you have in target blocks. If you are lucky, you won't have to use all of the target blocks, and so at the end you will end up with more free blocks than not, so a subsequent evacuation will be more effective. The defragmentation result in that case would still be pretty good, but the yield in free blocks is not great.

In a production garbage collector I would still be tempted to be optimistic and select more evacuation candidate blocks than available empty target blocks, because it will require fewer rounds to compact the whole heap, if that's what you wanted to do. It would be a relatively rare occurrence to start an evacuation cycle. If you ran out of space while evacuating, in a production GC I would just temporarily commission some overhead blocks for evacuation and release them promptly after evacuation is complete. If you have a small heap multiplier in your Immix space, occasional partial evacuation in a long-running process would probably reach a steady state with blocks being either full or empty. Fragmented blocks would represent newer objects and evacuation would periodically sediment these into longer-lived dense blocks.

mutator throughput

Finally, the shape of the heap has its inverse in the shape of the holes into which the mutator can allocate. It's most efficient for the mutator if the heap has as few holes as possible: ideally just one large hole per block, which is the limit case of an empty block.

The opposite extreme would be having every other "line" (in Immix terms) be used, so that free space is spread across the heap in a vast spray of one-line holes. Even if fragmentation is not a problem, perhaps because the application only allocates objects that pack neatly into lines, having to stutter all the time to look for holes is overhead for the mutator. Also, the result is that contemporaneous allocations are more likely to be placed farther apart in memory, leading to more cache misses when accessing data. Together, allocator overhead and access overhead lead to lower mutator throughput.

When would this situation get so bad as to trigger compaction? Here I have no idea. There is no clear maximum. If compaction were free, we would compact all the time. But it's not; there's a tradeoff between the cost of compaction and mutator throughput.

I think here I would punt. If the heap is being actively resized based on allocation rate, we'll hit the other heuristics first, and so we won't need to trigger evacuation/compaction based on mutator overhead. You could measure this, though, in terms of average or median hole size, or average or maximum number of holes per block. Since evacuation is partial, all you need to do is to identify some "bad" blocks and then perhaps evacuation becomes attractive.

gc pause

Welp, that's some thoughts on when to trigger evacuation in Immix. Next time, we'll talk about some engineering aspects of evacuation. Until then, happy consing!

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