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Memory management

Inko's VM uses garbage collection for reclaiming memory. Both the garbage collector and allocator are based on Immix.


The allocator allocates memory in 8 KB blocks of aligned memory. Objects are allocated into these blocks using bump allocation.

Garbage collector

The garbage collector is a parallel, generational garbage collector. Multiple processes can be collected in parallel, and objects are traced in parallel using a pool of OS threads.

A process can't run while it's being garbage collected, but only the process to garbage collect will be suspended, while all others can continue to run as normal.

The source code for the Immix implementation and allocator can be found in the directory vm/src/immix. The garbage collection code is found in the directory vm/src/gc.

Object aging

Each generation is divided into one or more "buckets". A bucket is a data structure that contains such as the blocks of memory that belong to it, various histograms used by the garbage collector, and meta data such as the age of the objects in the bucket.

Each generation has one or more buckets, acting as survivor spaces. The young generation has four buckets, of which one is the "eden space". The eden space is the bucket where new objects are allocated into. The bucket with age 0 is the eden space.

The age of the objects in a bucket is tracked as a signed integer stored in the bucket. For the young generation, the starting ages are as follows:

Bucket Age
0 0
1 -1
2 -2
3 -3

Bucket 0 has age 0, making it the current eden space. Every garbage collection cycle the ages of these buckets are incremented. This means that after a garbage collection cycle the ages will be as follows:

Bucket Age
0 1
1 0
2 -1
3 -2

Now bucket 1 is the eden space, because its age is 0. This process will continue indefinitely. When a bucket reaches age 3, its live objects are copied into the next generation, and its age is reset to 0.

This setup is somewhat similar to a circular buffer, and is based on the fact that all objects either age or become garbage, instead of staying the same age. Using this system removes the need for copying objects every time they age, reducing the time spent garbage collecting. This is quite important because while the garbage collector is parallel, it requires a certain amount of synchronisation when copying objects, and this can be quite expensive depending on the number of objects to copy.

Reclaiming objects

Immix doesn't reclaim individual objects, instead it reclaims entire blocks of memory. This greatly speeds up garbage collection performance, but also poses a bit of a problem: if an object wraps a certain structure (e.g. a socket), we would leak that structure.

Inko's VM solves this by finalising such structures when reusing their memory. When we are about to allocate a new object, we first check if the memory contains an object that has yet to be finalised. If so, we finalise it before overwriting the memory.

Finalisation is not exposed to the language, instead it's a system used to reclaim memory of certain data structures (sockets, file handles, and so on), without having to do this during a garbage collection cycle.

While the VM tries its best to finalise all data that needs to be finalised, it doesn't guarantee that this will happen or when. The VM can't make such a guarantee as bugs or other forms of unexpected behaviour may prevent finalising of certain data.

Process heaps

Each process has its own heap, which allows the garbage collector to collect processes independently; without having to pause all processes. When sending a message, the message is (deep) copied into the receiving process' heap.

Permanent heap

The permanent heap is a global heap that is not garbage collected. This heap is primarily used for storing permanent objects, such as modules. Objects in this heap can never refer to non permanent objects, so writing any non permanent class to a permanent object will result in a copy being written instead. This removes the need for the GC having to check the permanent heap to determine if a process-local object can be garbage collected, at the cost of requiring a bit more memory.

Object layout

Each object is 32 bytes in size, and contains 3 fields:

  1. A pointer to the prototype of the object, if any.
  2. A pointer to the attributes map of the object, if any.
  3. A pointer to the value wrapped by the object, if any.

The value pointer may point to a file, a socket, an array of other objects, and so on. This produces the following layout:

| prototype (8 bytes)  |
| attributes (8 bytes) |
| value (16 bytes)     |

The attributes field is a tagged pointer, which can have the lower three bits set as follows:

Lower two bits Meaning
000 The field contains a regular pointer to the attributes.
001 The GC is forwarding the current object.
010 The field is a forwarding pointer that should be resolved.
100 This object has is remembered in the remembered set.

Encoding this data directly into the attributes saves us an extra 8 bytes of memory per object. Some of these bits can be combined. For example, if the lower three bits are 110 then it means the object is both remembered and is forwarded.

The attributes field is a pointer to a HashMap, allocated when necessary.

The value is 16 bytes because it's a Rust enum, which contains both a pointer to the value and an 8 byte "tag" that specifies what kind of value is wrapped.

While this particular setup requires some extra indirection (instead of embedding certain values directly), it drastically simplifies the allocator and garbage collector, as all objects are of an identical size.


We are considering changing the memory layout of objects in the future. See the issue ObjectValue should be allocated in Immix heap for more information.

Allocation optimisations

Integers that fit in a 62 bits signed integer are not heap allocated, instead the VM uses tagged pointers. 64 bits integers are heap allocated, while integers larger than 64 bits are allocated as arbitrary precision integers. When an integer is tagged, the first lower bit of the pointer is set to 1.

Tagging an integer is done as follows:

let integer: i64 = 1024
let tagged = (integer << 1) | 1;

println!("{:b}", tagged); // => 100000000001

Strings use atomic reference counting, without support for weak references. This allows strings to be sent to different processes, without the need for copying.

All integer, float, and string literals (10, 'hello', 10.5, etc.) are allocated on the permanent heap when the VM parses a bytecode image.