Category Archives: MemShrink

A big step towards generational and compacting GC

People frequently ask me for status updates on generational GC, and I usually say I’ll tell them when something notable happens. Well, something notable just happened: exact rooting landed.

What is exact rooting? In order to support generational and/or compacting GC, you need to be able to move GC-allocated things such as objects around. This means you can’t have raw C++ pointers to any objects that might move; instead, you need some kind of indirect pointer that can be updated when necessary.

Unfortunately, both the JS engine and Gecko have a lot of pointers to GC-allocated things. The process of checking and converting them has been the main part of a task called “exact rooting”, and that’s what just finished. This has required an enormous amount of what is essentially very tedious work. Jim Blandy summarized it nicely, as follows.

I’ve never heard of a major project escaping from conservative GC once it had entered that state of sin; nor have I heard of anyone implementing a moving collector after starting with a non-moving collector. So, doing *both* is impressive. I hope it pays off big!

Major kudos to Terrence Cole, Steve Fink, Jon Coppeard, Brian Hackett, and the small army of other helpers who did this. Now that they’ve finished eating this gigantic serving of vegetables, they can move onto dessert, i.e. making the GC generational and compacting.

System-wide memory measurement for Firefox OS

Have you ever wondered exactly how all the physical memory in a Firefox OS device is used?   Wonder no more.  I just landed a system-wide memory reporter which works on any Firefox product running on a Linux system.  This includes desktop Firefox builds on Linux, Firefox for Android, and Firefox OS.

This memory reporter is a bit different to the existing ones, which work entirely within Mozilla processes.  The new reporter provides measurements for the entire system, including every user-space process (Mozilla or non-Mozilla) that is running.  It’s aimed primarily at profiling Firefox OS devices, because we have full control over the code running on those devices, and so it’s there that a system-wide view is most useful.

Here is some example output from a GeeksPhone Keon.

Other Measurements 
397.24 MB (100.0%) -- mem
├──215.41 MB (54.23%) ── free
├──105.72 MB (26.61%) -- processes
│  ├───57.59 MB (14.50%) -- process(/system/b2g/b2g, pid=709)
│  │   ├──42.29 MB (10.65%) -- anonymous
│  │   │  ├──42.25 MB (10.63%) -- outside-brk
│  │   │  │  ├──41.94 MB (10.56%) ── [rw-p] [69]
│  │   │  │  └───0.31 MB (00.08%) ++ (2 tiny)
│  │   │  └───0.05 MB (00.01%) ── brk-heap/[rw-p]
│  │   ├──13.03 MB (03.28%) -- shared-libraries
│  │   │  ├───8.39 MB (02.11%) --
│  │   │  │   ├──6.05 MB (01.52%) ── [r-xp]
│  │   │  │   └──2.34 MB (00.59%) ── [rw-p]
│  │   │  └───4.64 MB (01.17%) ++ (69 tiny)
│  │   └───2.27 MB (00.57%) ++ (2 tiny)
│  ├───21.73 MB (05.47%) -- process(/system/b2g/plugin-container, pid=756)
│  │   ├──12.49 MB (03.14%) -- anonymous
│  │   │  ├──12.48 MB (03.14%) -- outside-brk
│  │   │  │  ├──12.41 MB (03.12%) ── [rw-p] [30]
│  │   │  │  └───0.07 MB (00.02%) ++ (2 tiny)
│  │   │  └───0.02 MB (00.00%) ── brk-heap/[rw-p]
│  │   ├───8.88 MB (02.23%) -- shared-libraries
│  │   │   ├──7.33 MB (01.85%) --
│  │   │   │  ├──4.99 MB (01.26%) ── [r-xp]
│  │   │   │  └──2.34 MB (00.59%) ── [rw-p]
│  │   │   └──1.54 MB (00.39%) ++ (50 tiny)
│  │   └───0.36 MB (00.09%) ++ (2 tiny)
│  ├───14.08 MB (03.54%) -- process(/system/b2g/plugin-container, pid=836)
│  │   ├───7.53 MB (01.89%) -- shared-libraries
│  │   │   ├──6.02 MB (01.52%) ++
│  │   │   └──1.51 MB (00.38%) ++ (47 tiny)
│  │   ├───6.24 MB (01.57%) -- anonymous
│  │   │   ├──6.23 MB (01.57%) -- outside-brk
│  │   │   │  ├──6.23 MB (01.57%) ── [rw-p] [22]
│  │   │   │  └──0.00 MB (00.00%) ── [r--p]
│  │   │   └──0.01 MB (00.00%) ── brk-heap/[rw-p]
│  │   └───0.31 MB (00.08%) ++ (2 tiny)
│  └───12.32 MB (03.10%) ++ (23 tiny)
└───76.11 MB (19.16%) ── other

The data is obtained entirely from the operating system, specifically from /proc/meminfo and the /proc/<pid>/smaps files, which are files provided by the Linux kernel specifically for measuring memory consumption.

I wish that the mem entry at the top was the amount of physical memory available. Unfortunately there is no way to get that on a Linux system, and so it’s instead the MemTotal value from /proc/meminfo, which is “Total usable RAM (i.e. physical RAM minus a few reserved bits and the kernel binary code)”.  And if you’re wondering about the exact meaning of the other entries, as usual if you hover the cursor over an entry in about:memory you’ll get a tool-tip explaining what it means.

The measurements given for each process are the PSS (proportional set size) measurements.  These attribute any shared memory equally among all processes that share it, and so PSS is the only measurement that can be sensibly summed across processes (unlike “Size” or “RSS”, for example).

For each process there is a wealth of detail about static code and data.  (The above example only shows a tiny fraction of it, because a number of the sub-trees are collapsed.  If you were viewing it in about:memory, you could expand and collapse sub-trees to your heart’s content.)  Unfortunately, there is little information about anonymous mappings, which constitute much of the non-static memory consumption.  I have some patches that will add an extra level of detail there, distinguishing major regions such as the jemalloc heap, the JS GC heap, and JS JIT code.  For more detail than that, the existing per-process memory reports in about:memory can be consulted.  Unfortunately the new system-wide reporter cannot be sensibly combined with the existing per-process memory reporters because the latter are unaware of implicit sharing between processes.  (And note that the amount of implicit sharing is increased significantly by the new Nuwa process.)

Because this works with our existing memory reporting infrastructure, anyone already using the script with Firefox OS will automatically get these reports along with all the usual ones once they update their source code, and the system-wide reports can be loaded and viewed in about:memory as usual. On Firefox and Firefox for Android, you’ll need to set the memory.system_memory_reporter flag in about:config to enable it.

My hope is that this reporter will supplant most or all of the existing tools that are commonly used to understand system-wide memory consumption on Firefox OS devices, such as ps, top and procrank.  And there will certainly be other interesting, available OS-level measurements that are not currently obtained. For example, Jed Davis has plans to measure the pmem subsystem.  Please file a bug or email me if you have other suggestions for adding such measurements.

DMD now works on Windows

DMD is our tool for improving Firefox’s memory reporting.  It helps identify where new memory reporters need to be added in order to reduce the “heap-unclassified” value in about:memory.

DMD has always worked well on Linux, and moderately well on Mac (it is crashy for some people).  And it works on Android and B2G.  But it has never worked on Windows.

So I’m happy to report that DMD now does work on Windows, thanks to the excellent efforts of Catalin Iacob.  If you’re on Windows and you’ve been seeing high “heap-unclassified” values, and you’re able to build Firefox yourself, please give DMD a try.

MemShrink progress, final

I was due to write a MemShrink progress report today, but I’ve decided that after almost 2.5 years, my reserves of enthusiasm for these regular reports has been exhausted.  Sorry!

I do still plan to write posts when significant fixes relating to memory consumption are made.  (For example, when generational GC lands, you’ll hear about it here.)  I will also continue to periodically update the MemShrink “big ticket items” list.  And MemShrink meetings will continue, so MemShrink-tagged bugs will still be triaged.  And for those of you who read the weekly Platform meeting notes, I will continue to write MemShrink updates there.  So don’t despair — good things will continue to happen, but they’ll just be marginally less visible.

Libraries should permit custom allocators

Some C and C++ libraries permit the use of custom allocators, which are registered through some kind of external API.  For example, the following libraries used by Firefox provide this facility.

  • FreeType provides this via the FT_MemoryRec_ argument of the FT_New_Library() function.
  • ICU provides this via the u_setMemoryFunctions() function.
  • SQLite provides this via the sqlite3_config() function.

This gives the users of these libraries additional flexibility that can be very helpful.  For example, in Firefox we provide custom allocators that measure the size of all the live allocations done by the library;  these measurements are shown in about:memory.

In contrast, libraries that don’t allow custom allocator are very hard to account for in about:memory.  Such libraries are major contributors to the dreaded “heap-unclassified” value in about:memory.  These include Cairo and the WebRTC libraries.

Now, supporting custom allocators in a library takes some effort.  You have to be careful to always allocate in a fashion that will use the custom allocators if they have been registered.  Direct calls to vanilla allocation/free functions like malloc(), realloc(), and free() must be avoided.  For example, SpiderMonkey allows custom allocators (although Firefox doesn’t need to use that functionality), and I just fixed a handful of cases where it was accidentally using vanilla allocation/free functions.

But, it’s a very useful facility to provide, and I encourage all library writers to consider it.

MemShrink progress, week 121–124

It’s been a quiet but steady four weeks for MemShrink with 19 bugs fixed, including several leaks.

The only fix that I feel is worth highlighting is bug 918207, in which I added support for fast, coarse-grained measurement of a tab’s memory consumption.  The implemented machinery isn’t currently exposed through the UI, though there are two bugs open that will use it:  a simple one that will implement a command for the developer toolbar, and a more complex one that will implement a constantly-updating memory monitor widget for the devtools pane.

See you next time!

MemShrink progress, week 117–120

Lots of important MemShrink stuff has happened in the last 27 days:  22 bugs were fixed, and some of them were very important indeed.


Timothy Nikkel fixed bug 847223, which greatly reduces peak memory consumption when loading image-heavy pages.  The combination of this fix and the fix from bug 689623 — which Timothy finished earlier this year and which shipped in Firefox 24 — have completely solved our longstanding memory consumption problems with image-heavy pages!  This was the #1 item on the MemShrink big ticket items list.

To give you an idea of the effect of these two fixes, I did some rough measurements on a page containing thousands of images, which are summarized in the graph below.

Improvements in Firefox's Memory Consumption on One Image-heavy Page

First consider Firefox 23, which had neither fix, and which is represented by the purple line in the graph.  When loading the page, physical memory consumption would jump to about 3 GB, because every image in the page was decoded (a.k.a. decompressed).  That decoded data was retained so long as the page was in the foreground.

Next, consider Firefox 24 (and 25), which had the first fix, and which is represented by the green line on the graph.  When loading the page, physical memory consumption would still jump to almost 3 GB, because the images are still decoded.  But it would soon drop down to a few hundred MB, as the decoded data for non-visible images was discarded, and stay there (with some minor variations) while scrolling around the page. So the scrolling behaviour was much improved, but the memory consumption spike still occurred, which could still cause paging, out-of-memory problems, and the like.

Finally consider Firefox 26 (currently in the Aurora channel), which has both fixes, and which is represented by the red line on the graph.  When loading the page, physical memory jumps to a few hundred MB and stays there.  Furthermore, the loading time for the page dropped from ~5 seconds to ~1 second, because the unnecessary decoding of most of the images is skipped.

These measurements were quite rough, and there was quite a bit of variation, but the magnitude of the improvement is obvious.  And all these memory consumption improvements have occurred without hurting scrolling performance.  This is fantastic work by Timothy, and great news for all Firefox users who visit image-heavy pages.

[Update: Timothy emailed me this:  “Only minor thing is that we still need to turn it on for b2g. We flipped the pref for fennec on central (it’s not on aurora though). I’ve been delayed in testing b2g though, hopefully we can flip the pref on b2g soon. That’s the last major thing before declaring it totally solved.”]

[Update 2: This has hit Hacker News.]


Cervantes Yu landed Nuwa, which is a low-level optimization of B2G.  Quoting from the big ticket items list (where this was item #3):

Nuwa… aims to give B2G a pre-initialized template process from which every subsequent process will be forked… it greatly increases the ability for B2G processes to share unchanging data.  In one test run, this increased the number of apps that could be run simultaneously from five to nine

Nuwa is currently disabled by default, so that Cervantes can fine-tune it, but I believe it’s intended to ship with B2G version 1.3.  Fingers crossed it makes it!

Memory Reporting

I made some major simplifications to our memory reporting infrastructure, paving the way for future improvements.

First, we used to have two kinds of memory reporters:  uni-reporters (which report a single measurement) and multi-reporters (which report multiple measurements).  Multi-reporters, unsurprisingly, subsume uni-reporters, and so I got rid of uni-reporters, which simplified quite a bit of code.

Second, I removed about:compartments and folded its functionality into about:memory.  I originally created about:compartments at the height of our zombie compartment problem.  But ever since Kyle Huey made it more or less impossible for add-ons to cause zombie compartments, about:compartments has hardly been used.   I was able to fold about:compartments’ data into about:memory, so there’s no functionality loss, and this change simplified quite a bit more code.  If you visit about:compartments now you’ll get a message telling you to visit about:memory.

Third, I removed the smaps (size/rss/pss/swap) memory reporters.  These were only present on Linux, they were of questionable utility, and they complicated about:memory significantly.

Finally, I fixed a leak in about:memory.  Yeah, it was my fault.  Sorry!


The Mozilla summit is coming up!  In fact, I’m writing this report a day earlier than normal because I will be travelling to Toronto tomorrow.  Please forgive any delayed responses to comments, because I will be travelling for almost 24 hours to get there.

MemShrink progress, week 113–116

It’s been a relatively quiet four weeks for MemShrink, with 17 bugs fixed.  (Relatedly, in today’s MemShrink meeting we only had to triage 10 bugs, which is the lowest we’ve had for ages.)  Among the fixed bugs were lots for B2G leaks and leak-like things, many of which are hard to explain, but are important for the phone’s stability.

Fabrice Desré made a couple of notable B2G non-leak fixes.

On desktop, Firefox users who view about:memory may notice that it now sometimes mentions more than one process.  This is due to the thumbnails child process, which generates the thumbnails seen on the new tab page, and which occasionally is spawned and runs briefly in the background.  about:memory copes with this child process ok, but the mechanism it uses is sub-optimal, and I’m planning to rewrite it to be nicer and scale better in the presence of multiple child processes, because that’s a direction we’re heading in.

Finally, some sad news:  Justin Lebar, whose name should be familiar to any regular reader of these MemShrink reports, has left Mozilla.  Justin was a core MemShrink-er from the very beginning, and contributed greatly to the success of the project.  Thanks, Justin, and best of luck in the future!

MemShrink progress, week 109–112

There’s been a lot of focus on B2G memory consumption in the past four weeks.  Indeed, of the 38 MemShrink bugs fixed in that time, a clear majority of them relate in some way to B2G.

In particular, Justin Lebar, Kyle Huey and Andrew McCreight have done a ton of important work tracking down leaks in both Gecko and Gaia.  Many of these have been reported by B2G partner companies doing stress testing such as opening and closing apps 100s or 1000s of times over long period.  Some examples (including three MemShrink P1s) are here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.  There are still some P1s remaining (e.g. here, here, here).  This work is painstaking and requires lots of futzing around with low-level tools such as the GC/CC logs, unfortunately.

Relatedly, Justin modified the JS memory reporter to report “notable” strings, which includes smallish strings that are duplicated many times, a case that has occurred on B2G a couple of times.  Justin also moved some of the “heap-*” reports that previously lived in about:memory’s “Other measurements” section into the “explicit” tree.  This makes “explicit” closer to “resident” a lot of the time, which is a useful property.

Finally, Luke Wagner greatly reduced the peak memory usage seen during parsing large asm.js examples.  For the Unreal demo, this reduced the peak from 881MB to 6MB, and reduced start-up time by 1.5 seconds!  Luke also slightly reduced the size of JSScript, which is one of the very common structures on the JS GC heap, thus reducing pressure on the GC heap, which is always a good thing.


MemShrink progress, week 105–108

This is the first of the every-four-weeks MemShrink reports that I’m now doing.  The 21 bugs fixed in the past four weeks include 11 leak fixes, which is great, but I won’t bother describing them individually.  Especially when I have several other particularly impressive fixes to describe…

Image Handling

Back in March I described how Timothy Nikkel had greatly improved Firefox’s handling of image-heavy pages.  Unfortunately, the fix had to be disabled in Firefox 22 and Firefox 23 because it caused jerky scrolling on pages with lots of small images, such as Pinterest.

Happily, Timothy has now fixed those problems, and so his previous change has been re-enabled in Firefox 24.  This takes a big chunk out of the #1 item on the MemShrink big ticket items list.  Fantastic news!

Lazy Bytecode Generation

Brian Hackett finished implementing lazy bytecode generation.  This change means that JavaScript functions don’t have bytecode generated for them until they run.  Because lots of websites use libraries like jQuery, in practice a lot of JS functions are never run, and we’ve found this can reduce Firefox’s memory consumption by 5% or more on common workloads!  That’s a huge, general improvement.

Furthermore, it significantly reduces the number of things that are allocated on the GC heap (i.e. scripts, strings, objects and shapes that are created when bytecode for a function is generated).  This reduces pressure on the GC which makes it less likely we’ll have bad GC behaviour (e.g. pauses, or too much memory consumption) in cases where the GC heuristics aren’t optimal.

The completion of this finished off item #5 on the old Memshrink big ticket items list.  Great stuff.  This will be in Firefox 24.

Add-on Memory Reporting

Nils Maier implemented add-on memory reporting in about:memory.  Here’s some example output from my current session.

├───33,345,136 B (05.08%) -- add-ons
│   ├──18,818,336 B (02.87%) ++ {d10d0bf8-f5b5-c8b4-a8b2-2b9879e08c5d}
│   ├──11,830,424 B (01.80%) ++ {59c81df5-4b7a-477b-912d-4e0fdf64e5f2}
│   └───2,696,376 B (00.41%) ++

It’s obvious that Tree Style Tabs is taking up 2.7 MB.  What about the other two entries?  It’s not immediately obvious, but if I look in about:support at the “extensions” section I can see that they are AdBlock Plus and ChatZilla.

If you’re wondering why those add-ons are reported as hex strings, it’s due to a combination of the packaging of each individual add-on, and the fact that the memory reporting code is C++ and the add-on identification code is JS and there aren’t yet good APIs to communicate between the two.  (Yes, it’s not ideal and should be improved, but it’s a good start.)  Also, not all add-on memory is reported, just that in JS compartments;  old-style XUL add-ons in particular can have their memory consumption under-reported.

Despite the shortcomings, this is a big deal.  Users have been asking for this information for years, and we’ve finally got it.  (Admittedly, the fact that we’ve tamed add-on leaks makes it less important than it used to be, but it’s still cool.)  This will also be in Firefox 24.


Gregor Wagner has landed a nice collection of patches to help the Twitter and Notes+ apps on B2G.

While on the topic of B2G, in today’s MemShrink meeting we discussed the ongoing problem of slow memory leaks in the main B2G process.  Such leaks can cause the phone to crash or become flaky after its been running for hours or days or weeks, and they’re really painful to reproduce and diagnose.  Our partners are finding these leaks when doing multi-hour stress tests as part of their QA processes.  In contrast, Mozilla doesn’t really have any such testing, and as a result we are reacting, flat-footed, to external reports, rather than catching them early ourselves.  This is a big problem because users will rightly expect to have their phones run for weeks (or even months) without rebooting.

Those of us present at the meeting weren’t quite sure how we can improve our QA situation to look for these leaks.  I’d be interested to hear any suggestions.  Thanks!