Cycle collector landing

November 21st, 2006

Tonight I’ve submitted a mostly-final version of my XPCOM cycle collector for general consumption on the development CVS trunk. It’s a big patch — 230k — and has been in review for several months. In addition to the patch itself, testing builds have been available for a couple weeks. Alas by sheer number-of-files-touched it is likely to still cause lots of regressions I haven’t noticed while testing. There’s also a fair bit of logic in there that I touched but only partly understood. I’ve done my best to integrate reviewer’s comments, but more review and feedback this week would be great. Mostly I’ve been trying to keep it from crashing; unfortunately it’s doing something very delicate that is very easy to get wrong, and crash.

This work removes all the existing “DOM GC” code and replaces it with a general-purpose, multi-language device that can find and disconnect a conservative subset of cyclic garbage in the browser, if the classes involved in the cycle have been modified to play along. This includes both pure XPCOM cycles, and cycles that cross between script language runtimes such as spidermonkey with independent heaps and pointers connected both ways to XPCOM objects. The modifications required to make an XPCOM class participate are reasonably easy to make, and I’ve included a dozen or so examples throughout the DOM and content classes, which should cover all the types previously involved in DOM GC.

There are several runtime knobs, controlled by environment variables.

  • The variable XPCOM_CC_DO_NOTHING, if set, disables the collector entirely: the code is still present — so any regressions caused by reorganization of code may still exist — but it is inert, so it should be possible to isolate regressions due to new dynamic behavior using this variable.
  • The variable XPCOM_CC_REPORT_STATS, if set, causes the collector to print a fair amount of runtime chatter to the standard error stream, describing its activities.
  • The variable XPCOM_CC_FAULT_IS_FATAL, if set, causes runtime logic errors in the collector to trigger a process abort, rather than the standard behavior of disabling the cycle collector for the remainder of the program’s execution.
  • The variable XPCOM_CC_DRAW_GRAPHS, if set, attempts to spawn the graphviz program “dotty” a subprocess
    and feed it a graphic display of any garbage cycle the collector finds, just prior to unlinking the nodes.
  • The variable XPCOM_CC_HOOK_MALLOC, if set, inserts a small additional amount of sanity checking into the collector by ensuring that freed regions are never simultaneously present in the “purple” buffer that the collector ages pointers in.
  • The variable XPCOM_CC_LOG_POINTERS, if set, writes an extremely verbose pointer log to the file “pointer_log” in your current directory. It should only be used in extreme cases such as malfunctioning debuggers.
  • The variable XPCOM_CC_EVENT_DIVISOR, if set to an integer value, controls the resolution of the collector (which is driven from the top-level event loop). If you set this number smaller, more time is spent in the collector but collection increments will be smaller and thus cause shorter pauses. The default value is 64.
  • The variable XPCOM_CC_SCAN_DELAY, if set to an integer value, controls the size of the “purple” buffer pointers are aged in. If you set this number smaller, more time is spent in the collector but there is a shorter delay between forming a garbage cycle and collecting it, so the heap overhead might go down a bit.

In general, unfortunately, you should expect this patch to cause the browser to use somewhat more memory and somewhat more CPU time than before the patch lands. It is not a panacea. The purpose of the patch is only to provide infrastructure for simpler ownership rules. Rather than try to reason about which pointer ought to own which other pointer inside gecko, and which pointers are safe to consider weak or raw, you now get a simple and universal rule. When in doubt you can now:

  • Modify your class to participate in cycle collection
  • Change all the pointer members of your class to owning nsCOMPtrs
  • Ensure that the pointers you can reach transitively through those nsCOMPtrs are also cycle collection participants, or else obviously acyclic subgraphs.

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