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Created December 27, 2012 20:01
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The simplest algorithm of Mark and Sweep garbage collection technique.
* Mark and Sweep Garbage Collection technique.
* MIT Style License
* by Dmitry Soshnikov
// This diff describes the simplest version of mark and sweep
// GC in order to understand the basic idea. In real practice the
// implementation can be much tricker and more optimized.
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// Objects allocation and the "roots"
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// For simplicitly represent the "heap" (the memory where
// our objects are stored) as a plain array.
var heap = [];
// Let's do some heap and pointers manipulations, allocate some
// objects and put some references from one objects to another.
// Allocate "a" object.
var a = {name: 'a'};
// Side note: the "Roots".
// A "Root" is a place from where we start our GC analysis.
// For simplicity we assume the root is the first element of the
// heap array. To make the GC we should follow all reachable pointers
// starting from the root. Note: in real practive of course there are
// many roots (e.g. all global variables, or at lower level -- all objects
// directly reachable from registers and stack frames).
function root() {
return heap[0];
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// Reachable objects
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// Object "b" is allocated and is reachable from "a", so the chain is:
// root -> a -> b
var b = {name: 'b'};
a.b = b;
// Object "c" is allocated and is also reachable from "a": root -> a -> c
var c = {name: 'c'};
a.c = c;
// However, later it's reference from "a" is removed:
delete a.c;
// Now "c" is a candidate for GC.
// Object "d" is allocated and is reachable from "b" (which in trun is
// reachable from "a": root -> a -> b -> d
var d = {name: 'd'};
b.d = d;
// But then the "b" reference is removed from "a".
delete a.b;
// This means that "d" still has the reference to it from "b", but it's
// not reachable (since the "b" itself is not reachable anymore).
// root -> a --X--> b -> d
// Notice the important point: that an object has some references to it
// doesn't mean it cannot be GC'ed. The creteria is "reachability", but not the
// reference counting here.
// After these manipulations the heap still contains four objects:
// [{a}, {b}, {c}, {d}], but only the "a" object is reachable
// (starting from the root).
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// Mark and Sweep GC
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// Mark and Sweep GC works in two phases
// (yes, not surprizingly, the Mark phase, and the Sweep phase).
function gc() {
// In Mark phase we trace all reachable objects.
// And in the sweep phase collect the garbage.
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// Mark phase.
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// The "mark" phase traverses all reachable objects starting from
// the root and _mark_ them explicitly as reachable (by just setting
// the so-called "mark bit" to 1).
function mark() {
// Initialy in our "todo" list (the list of _reachable_
// objects to analyze) is only the root object.
var todo = [root()];
// while we have some objects to follow...
while (todo.length) {
// pick the next object to process
var o = todo.pop();
// If the object is not marked yet:
if (!o.__markBit__) {
// then we mark it
o.__markBit__ = 1;
// and add _all reachable_ pointers from
// this "o" object to our todo list.
for (var k in o) if (typeof o[k] == 'object') {
// Note: traversing of all reachable objects could be
// done recursively of course in the example above. Or at lower
// level by traversign "reverse-pointers" to find the way back
// after we analyzed one rout of the objects graph.
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// Sweep phase.
// ----------------------------------------------------------
// After we have all reachable objects marked, we can start
// the sweep phase. We simply traverse the heap and move
// all unmarked (that is, unreachable objects) to the free list.
function sweep() {
heap = heap.filter(function(o) {
// If the object is marked, keep it and reset the mark bit
// back to zero (for future GC cycles).
if (o.__markBit__ == 1) {
o.__markBit__ = 0;
return true;
} else {
// Remove garbage object ("move to free list")
return false;
// Before GC: [{a}, {b}, {c}, {d}]
console.log('Heap before GC:', heap);
// Run GC
// After GC: [{a}]
console.log('Heap after GC:', heap);
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