Garbage Collection in C Programs

LISP and Java programmers take garbage collection for granted. With the Boehm-Demers-Weiser library, you easily can use it in C and C++ projects, too.

The first word that came to mind when I heard about introducing Garbage Collection techniques into a C or C++ program was “nonsense”. As with any other decent C programmer who loves this language, the thought of leaving the management of my own memory to others seemed nearly offensive. I had a similar feeling 15 years ago, when I first heard about compilers that would generate assembly code on my behalf. I was used to writing my code directly in 6510 opcodes, but that was Commodore 64—and a totally different story.

What Is Garbage Collection?

Garbage Collection (GC) is a mechanism that provides automatic memory reclamation for unused memory blocks. Programmers dynamically allocate memory, but when a block is no longer needed, they do not have to return it to the system explicitly with a free() call. The GC engine takes care of recognizing that a particular block of allocated memory (heap) is not used anymore and puts it back into the free memory area. GC was introduced by John McCarthy in 1958, as the memory management mechanism of the LISP language. Since then, GC algorithms have evolved and now can compete with explicit memory management. Several languages are natively based on GC. Java probably is the most popular one, and others include LISP, Scheme, Smalltalk, Perl and Python. C and C++, in the tradition of a respectable, low-level approach to system resources management, are the most notable exceptions to this list.

Many different approaches to garbage collection exist, resulting in some families of algorithms that include reference counting, mark and sweep and copying GCs. Hybrid algorithms, as well as generational and conservative variants, complete the picture. Choosing a particular GC algorithm usually is not a programmer's task, as the memory management system is imposed by the adopted programming language. An exception to this rule is the Boehm-Demers-Weiser (BDW) GC library, a popular package that allows C and C++ programmers to include automatic memory management into their programs. The question is: Why would they want to do a thing like this?

The Boehm-Demers-Weiser GC Library

The BDW library is a freely available library that provides C and C++ programs with garbage collection capabilities. The algorithm it employs belongs to the family of mark and sweep collectors, where GC is split into two phases. First, a scan of all the live memory is done in order to mark unused blocks. Then, a sweep phase takes care of putting the marked blocks in the free blocks list. The two phases can be, and usually are, performed separately to increase the general response time of the library. The BDW algorithm also is generational; it concentrates free space searches on newer blocks. This is based on the idea that older blocks statistically live longer. To put it another way, most allocated blocks have short lifetimes. Finally, the BDW algorithm is conservative in that it needs to make assumptions on which variables are actually pointers to dynamic data and which ones only look that way. This is a consequence of C and C++ being weakly typed languages.

The BDW collector comes as a static or dynamic library and is installed easily by downloading the corresponding package (see Resources) and running the traditional configure, make and make install commands. Some Linux distributions also come with an already-made package. For example, with Gentoo you need to type only emerge boehm-gc to install it. The installed files include both a shared object (libgc.o) and a static library (libgc.a).

Using the library is a fairly straightforward task; for newly developed programs, you simply call GC_alloc() to get memory and then forget about it when you do not need it anymore. “Forget about it” means setting all the pointers that reference it to NULL. For already existing sources, substitute all allocation calls (malloc, calloc, realloc) with the GC-endowed ones. All free() calls are replaced with nothing at all, but do set any relevant pointers to NULL.

GC_alloc() actually sets the allocated memory to zero to minimize the risk that preexisting values are misinterpreted as valid pointers by the GC engine. Hence, GC_alloc() behaves more like calloc() than malloc().

Using GC in Existing C Programs

If you want to try GC in an existing application, manually editing the source code to change mallocs and frees is not necessary. In order to redirect those calls to the GC version, you basically have three options: using a macro, modifying the malloc hooks and overriding glibc's malloc() with libgc's malloc(). The first approach is the easiest one; you simply need to insert something like:

#define malloc(x) GC_malloc(x)
#define calloc(n,x) GC_malloc((n)*(x))
#define realloc(p,x) GC_realloc((p),(x))
#define free(x) (x) = NULL


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