Implementing a safe garbage collector in Rust

In my last post I introduced an Emacs Lisp VM I was writing in Rust. My stated goal at the time was to complete a garbage collector. I think Rust has some really interesting properties that will make building garbage collectors easier and safer. Many of the techniques used in my GC are not original and have been developed by other Rustaceans in previous projects. Updated: 2022-09-06

Why use garbage collection?

Virtually all non-trivial programs need some way to reuse memory. Rust does this by tracking every allocation statically to determine when it’s no longer in use. However, this system is not flexible enough for some applications. In these cases Rust gives you Rc, the reference counting cell. This cell tracks the number of owners of a piece of memory at runtime. Reference counting has the advantage that is relatively easy to implement and integrates seamlessly with non-rc code. However, it also has two big downsides: It’s slower1 and it can’t detect cyclic data (which lisp is full of). For these reasons (and others) dynamic languages often use garbage collection (GC) to manage data.

Why is GC hard?

In his book Crafting Interpreters Robert Nystrom has a whole section dedicated to some of the “nasty bugs” you can have in a garbage collector. The problem lies in identifying all objects that are accessible in the heap. Once you have an object you know is live, it’s fairly easy to trace through anything it points to and find other live data. But how do you find the pointers that don’t have anything pointing to them? These pointers are problematically scattered across the stack or stored in machine registers. If you miss even one you open yourself up to memory unsafety.

How does Emacs solve this problem?

Emacs (and many C based GC implementations) solves this by recognizing that the stack is just a block of memory2. If an object can’t be reached from the stack, it can’t be reached at all. So when garbage collection is triggered, they will dump all registers to the stack and scan the it for anything that “looks like” a pointer. I say looks like because we can’t actually know if something is a pointer or a number in the range of a pointer. There is no type information in the hardware. So anything that might be a pointer is treated as a pointer and traced. However because we aren’t sure, we can’t move any of the gc data. In my implementation we are building a “precise” collector that knows exactly what’s a pointer and what’s not. That rules out blind stack scanning.

Let’s start from the beginning

When we allocate a new object, we know that it is unaliased (nothing has a pointer to it). But as soon as we give that pointer to user code, it becomes exposed. Problem is, we need to know when it safe to call drop and release the memory. In C, it is up to the user to call free when they are done with it. But Rust tracks the liveness of the data with the type system. The Rust rule is this: There can be many immutable references to an object or one mutable reference (but not both). If you have immutable references, they get invalidated as soon as a mutable reference is used.

Affine types

This key property of Rust (called affine types) is what is used in the gc library Jospehine. They use Rust’s borrow checker to ensure no references are live after collection. We do the same. All pointers into the GC heap are borrowed from our allocator (called Context) via an immutable reference. When we call garbage_collect, we take a &mut Context, ensuring that all heap references are no longer accessible.

let cx: &'ob Context = ...;
let object: Object<'ob> = cx.add("foo");
cx.garbage_collect(); // Object is no longer accessible

However, if we invalidate all references to the GC heap when we call garbage_collect, we can’t access our data at all afterwards. We obviously need something more here.


What we really want is to have some pointers preserved across calls to garbage_collect. But we need to make sure the gc knows about these special pointers, or it will free the data they point to. We call these special pointers roots.

We have a similar problem with normal data structures. We need to get a reference to a value after we mutate something. How do we solve this problem in that case? Take the example below:

let mut map = HashMap::new();
let key = "my key";
map.insert(key, 13); // insert at key
let value1 = map.get(key).unwrap(); // get a reference to our item
let _ = &mut map; // take a mutable reference, invalidating our value1
let value2 = map.get(key).unwrap(); // Use key to get our data back again

Here we are storing our data inside the map and using some unique token (the key) to keep track of our value inside the data structure when we lose access to our reference. We can do the same thing with our gc Context. We store the roots inside before we garbage collect.

struct Context {
    roots: HashMap<Token, Object>,

However we have at least two problems with this:

First, what do we use for a token? Everytime we need to root something we need a token that is unique. Even if we generated something random there is still a chance we could have two roots with the same Token, which would lead to memory unsafety.

Which leads to the second problem: once something is no longer rooted, how do we remove it from the Context? We could require the user to manually call remove when they no longer need a root, but any failure to do so would result in leaking memory. That is not a good API.

Standing on the shoulders of boats

Thankfully, I am not the first person to think about this problem. Saoirse has a blog post about some novel observations on rooting in Rust. This was implemented in his gc library shifgrethor. I will summarize this approach below.

The first observation is that if you don’t drop or move a type on the stack, then its lifetime is perfectly stack-like. Shocking I know, but the really cool part about this is that we can use it to define the way we store the roots in Context. What if instead of storing them as a map, we store them as a stack instead? When something is rooted, it is pushed on the stack. When it drops, it is popped from the stack. This also solves our problem of creating a unique Token to find our object, because when we drop we know that our item will always be the top of the root stack. So no Token needed.

In order for this to work we have to make sure the object can’t move. This sounds just like the pinning! We define a new macro root! that works similarly to pin_mut!. This ensures that our objects behave in a stack-like manner, greatly simplifying the implementation.

As far as keeping our references around post garbage collection, we know that so long as our object is rooted it will be valid. We can keep a reference into the Gc heap until we unroot (i.e. the root goes out of scope). Our root! macro will change our reference from borrowing from Context to borrowing from the root. So long as the root is live, our reference is valid; Even if we garbage collect.

let object = cx.add("new");
// add the object to the root stack, enabling it to live past collection
root!(object, cx);
cx.garbage_collect(); // gc will mark the object as live
println!("{object}"); // Object is still accessible

Returning from functions

There is one more ergonomic problem we want to solve here. Suppose we have the function below:

fn foo<'a>(cx: &'a mut Context) -> Object<'a> {

The function takes a &mut Context, and at the end it returns an Object with the same lifetime. Seems fine right? Not so. The Rust lifetime rules require that the mutable borrow of Context now lasts for the lifetime 'a! This means we can’t reuse Context while the Object is borrowing from it. We could just root! the object, but that adds overhead to every call. In my interpreter, nearly every method takes &mut Context, so that would get expensive fast.

To work around this we create a new macro rebind!

rebind!(object, cx);

This macro releases the mutable borrow and reborrows the object with an immutable borrow. This frees Context to be used by other code while still being sound.

Preventing escapes

This approach works fine for rooting a single object, but what if we have a whole collection of objects? You might be tempted to think that would be an non-issue, but consider the problem below:

let rooted: &mut Vec<Object<'root>> = ...; // we have a vec of root objects
let object: Object<'cx> = cx.add("new"); // object is bound to cx
rooted.push(object); // object is now bound to rooted
cx.garbage_collect(); // Object is marked as live and not freed

// Object is no longer rooted, but still bound to the root lifetime
let escape: Object<'root> = rooted.pop().unwrap();
cx.garbage_collect(); // Object is freed
println!("{escape}"); // Oh No! Use after Free!

We cannot move references out without some way of making sure they stay rooted. Thankfully shifgrethor comes to the rescue here again with its Gc type.

Once again we can model after the pin API, since we are trying to solve a similar problem. If you have a Pin<P> you know that the data point to by P will not move. Similarly, we create a Root<T> type that guarantees T will not move and it’s rooted. We use the struct_root! macro to take a data structure T and return a &mut Root<T> to it.

let cx: Context = ...;
struct_root!(my_struct, cx);
let _: &mut Root<Vec<Object>> = my_struct;
// get a reference to vec from root
let len = my_struct.len();
// use a special function to mutate
// use projection
let slice: &[Root<Object>] = my_struct.as_slice();
// Object with lifetime bound to root
let object: Object<'_> = slice[0].as_obj();

With this API, we can safely get a &T out when we need to. But mutating the T requires unsafe methods (like map_unchecked_mut) to ensure we don’t expose roots as in the example above. Using a similar approach to pin projection you can get a Root to the fields of a rooted struct. For example if you have a &Root<(T, U)> it is safe get a &Root<T> or &Root<U>. For some the std lib types (vec, hashmap, option, etc) I have already implemented some safe mutation methods like push. If you have a structure that is just built out of these stdlib data structures, you could use a proc macro to derive the “root projection” methods for it.

The problem with aliasing

There is still one subtle problem here. You see, we now have a &mut Root<T>, and when we garbage collect, we will trace through T with &T. However &mut T guarantees that that it is unique. To break this invariant means undefined behavior. Shifgrethor does not handle this, instead requiring that all roots be immutable (even forbidding interior mutability). Ugh.

How about we use UnsafeCell? It is full of dark magic that lets us do thing we couldn’t normally do.

* reads documentation *

Note that only the immutability guarantee for shared references is affected by UnsafeCell. The uniqueness guarantee for mutable references is unaffected. There is no legal way to obtain aliasing &mut, not even with UnsafeCell<T>.

Oh, biscuits. What other options do we have? I am sure Rust has an AliasCell that let’s us work around this, right?

* googles frantically *

Nope. Though apparently we’re not the only ones who need this. The std lib created a hack to avoid miscompilations when aliasing mutable references, which is used in Tokio as well. We could take that route (and I was really tempted to) but let’s see if there is another way we could fix this.

A level of indirection

The real problem is that we can’t have &T and &mut T pointing to the same location in memory. So what if we have them point to different locations? We have the real data in memory, and then the Root type just has a pointer to it instead of wrapping it.

pub(crate) struct Root<'a, T> {
    data: *mut T,
    safety: PhantomData<&'a ()>,

Holding a &mut Root<T> does not alias with T, which lets the garbage collector do its work without undefined behavior. How do we actually get at the T though? We can define a new wrapper type Rt (similar to Rc) which lets us access T under the following conditions:

  1. We can borrow &Rt from a &Root at any time. There is no unsoundness here. In fact we will just implement Deref to make this easier.
  2. We can borrow &mut Rt from a &mut Root if we have a &Context. This ensures that we can never call garbage collect while our mutable reference is live, because garbage collect requires a mutable borrow of Context!
impl<T> Root<'_, T> {
    fn as_mut<'a>(&'a mut self, _cx: &'a Context) -> &'a mut Rt<T> {
        unsafe { self.deref_mut_unchecked() }

A Safe GC

So there you have it! A safe, precise, garbage collector in stable Rust! Now, this comes with a few caveats. It is often said that solving a general problem is three times harder then solving a specific problem. I am solving the specific problem here; creating a GC for my VM. It’s not ready to ship as a general purpose library without more work. But I am confident it could be made into a library if needed. Right now the garbage collector is about as naive as possible. But future changes will be under-the-hood improvements that don’t change the API.

What I think is really cool is that the API is safe! You can’t create this in C or C++; The type system is not powerful enough. Rust enables us to have “fearless garbage collection”, and no longer be scared of the “nasty bugs” that we might create. As an anecdote, I was pleasantly surprised to find that when I turned on reclaiming memory in my gc, everything just worked first time; No memory leaks, no use-after-free. The API just took care of it at compile time. Miri was satisfied as well.

Overall, I am pretty happy with how it turned out. That being said, there is a lot of unsafe code behind the scenes. I am the only person that has reviewed it, and I am not smart enough to get everything right. I created a unsound? Label on Github that tracks some of the code I have the least confidence in. If you are initiated in the dark arts of the nomicon, I would love for you to prove me wrong.

I am going to continue work on bootstrapping more elisp files to eventually bootstrap the elisp byte compiler and use that to test my VM. I was forced to take break from that effort and implement the garbage collector because I kept using too much memory! Implementing the garbage collector was a much bigger rabbit hole than I expected. Hopefully this will help move the community forward on the quest for a Rust GC.

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  1. Why is reference counting slower then garbage collection? There is a lot that goes into it, but it boils down to two main issues:

    1. Every time you copy a Rc pointer you need to update the reference count. This involves reading the memory, updating the count, and writing it back. Compare that to an “normal” pointer copy where you don’t need to even access the memory at all. GC’s do have to trace the memory eventually, but this overhead can be moved to a time when it will have less impact (or even moved to another thread). RC overhead needs to happen real time, and happens every time.
    2. RC can fall victim to “destructor avalanche” when the root of a chain of objects goes out of scope. This results in unbounded pause times. Modern GC’s by contrast are usually incremental, and will do work in small chunks to preventing long pauses.

    With all of these issues, there are techniques to try and mitigate them and get some performance back. But even a naive GC can often beat a well optimized RC implementation. And optimized GC (like JVM or V8) will always outclass reference counting. See this SO post and follow up post for more. ↩︎

  2. I don’t think this is true in Rust though. My best guess is that scanning the stack would violate some of Rust’s aliasing rules and be UB. ↩︎