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Copying Garbage Collection in the Presence of Ambiguous References

Report ID:
May 1988
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Garbage collection algorithms rely on invariants to permit the identification of pointers and to correctly locate accessible objects. These invariants translate into constraints on object layouts and programming conventions governing pointer use. There are recent variations of collectors in which the invariants are relaxed. Typically, rules governing pointer use are relaxed, and a "conservative" collection algorithm that treats all potential pointers as valid is used. Such pointers are "ambiguous" because integers and other data can masquerade as pointers. Ambiguous pointers cannot be modified and hence the objects they reference cannot be moved. Consequently, conservative collectors are based on mark-and-sweep algorithms. Copying algorithms, while more efficient, have not been used because they move objects and adjust pointers. This paper describes a variation of a copying garbage collector that can be used in the presence of ambiguous references. The algorithm constrains the layout and placement of objects, but not the location of referencing pointers. It simply avoids copying objects that are referenced directly by ambiguous pointers, reclaiming their storage on a subsequent collection when they are no longer ambiguously referenced. An implementation written in the ANSI C programming language is given.

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