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Cello High Level C

Garbage Collection

Cello provides a basic garbage collector which can be used to avoid having to manually deallocate memory.

Garbage collectable objects are allocated via the new function and can be (optionally) deleted via del. The Garbage Collector in Cello can also be disabled at compile time using the flag -DCELLO_NGC without affecting the standard library, which uses del either way to manage its memory. When disabled, memory must be manually managed with new and del. To allocate memory while avoiding the Garbage Collector (without completely disabling it) the new_raw and del_raw functions can be used.

There are a few things to be aware of when using the Cello Garbage Collector:

  • Reachability

Garbage Collectable objects must be reachable via local variables on the stack, or via some chain of other GC allocated Cello objects that are themselves reachable. They must not be stored in global/static variables, or in locations only reachable via non-Cello structures. Additionally each thread in Cello has its own Garbage Collector which runs locally, so objects should not be allocated in one thread, and only reachable from another. To store Cello objects in global/static locations or inside non-Cello structures the new_root function should be used, and the corresponding objects deleted manually with del_root. Due to these limitations it can be better to think of the Cello Garbage Collector as a kind of lazy RAII which calls object destructors some time after the object goes out of scope.

  • The Mark Class

By default the Cello Garbage collector just scans the memory of an object to find pointers to other Cello objects it has allocated, but this behaviour can be overridden by implementing the Mark class. If you create a Cello type that does it's own memory allocation and stores Cello Objects inside of that memory you can define this class to allow it to interact correctly with the GC.

  • Real Time Collection

Garbage Collection in Cello is still somewhat new and experimental. It uses a naive stop-the-world mark and sweep algorithm. This can result in quite long pauses so it is not appropriate for real-time applications.

  • Uninitialised Values

The Garbage Collector scans the stack memory, and this naturally contains uninitialised values. Although it does this safely, if you are running a Cello program through Valgrind these accesses will be reported as errors. Other than this Cello, shouldn't have any memory errors in Valgrind, so the easiest way to disable these to examine any real problems is to run Valgrind with the option --undef-value-errors=no.

  • Portability

There there is simply no way to create a completely portable garbage collector in C. But unlike the Boehm Garbage Collector, the Cello Garbage Collector doesn't need to use any platform specific tricks. All it relies on is the assumption that the architecture uses a call stack to implement function frames. This means it should be safe to use for more or less all architectures found in the wild.

How it works

So how can garbage collection be done in C?

For a basic mark and sweep garbage collector you need two things. The first thing you need is a list of all of the objects that have been allocated. The second is a list of all the objects that are still in scope - all the objects that are reachable by program/programmer.

The mark and sweep garbage collector then just compares these two lists. If an object has been allocated, but is unreachable by the program/programmer, then it can be deleted. It really is as simple as that.

The list of allocated objects is usually pretty easy to obtain. You just make it so that your memory allocation function records all the allocations it makes. As long as all allocations go via this function you'll be fine. In Cello all allocations of garbage collectable objects have to go via new so there is no trouble recording whenever a new object is allocated.

The list of reachable objects is usually much harder to obtain. In languages such as Java, which run on a virtual machine, this can be made by traversing the data structures that represent the program running on the virtual machine, finding all references to objects and following any more references those objects contain.

In this case the list of reachable objects is not explicitly computed. Instead the comparison is done implicitly by marking and then sweeping. First all of the reachable objects are marked, starting from local and global variables and recursively following references in the program all objects are marked, until there are no longer any unmarked objects to be found. Then the list of allocated objects is swept by going over and deleting any that are remaining unmarked.

But C works at a lower level of abstraction than these languages. There is no convenient list of "objects" or "references" to follow. In C we are dealing with raw memory and all of this structure doesn't exist. Luckily, because Cello acts as a runtime system on top of native C, we can use it alongside a few crafty tricks to try and rebuild much of this structure - and in doing so create a basic Garbage Collector limited to Cello objects.

We can start with the observation that, in general, memory in C exists in three locations - the heap, the stack, and the data segment. This means if an object is reachable by the program there must exist a pointer to it in one of these areas.

Given a list of all of the allocations made by our GC we should be able to search these memory locations (excluding the list of allocations itself) and if we find a pointer to any memory allocated by the GC we know it is still reachable by the program and so should not be deleted. If we find no pointers to an allocation it must no longer be used by the program and so it can be deleted. Now the question is how to search these memory locations. Where are they? And what are their bounds?

For the data segment unfortunately there is no portable way to find out, so in the case of the Cello Garbage Collector we simply ignore it and tell users not to allocate global variables with the garbage collector!

Similarly for the heap - it is reasonable to ask our users to only reference garbage collectable Cello objects from other Cello objects. This means we limit our search to heap objects created via Cello. Our Cello runtime knowns the allocation size for each heap object allocated, so we can scan the memory at each object for pointers to other Cello objects. If the object does some custom memory allocation we can get it to implement the Mark type class to tell us directly what objects it points to.

With the data segment ignored, and the heap easily scanned, this leaves the final, and arguably most important location for pointers to Cello objects, the stack. Now in almost all reasonable implementations of C the stack is a continuous area of memory that grows down (or sometimes up, although that doesn't make much difference) for each function call. It contains all the local variables used by functions as well as various other housekeeping data. By getting the memory address of the top of the stack, and of the bottom, we can scan over all the memory in-between and check it for pointers to Cello objects.

Assuming the stack grows from top to bottom we can get a conservative approximation of the bottom of the stack by just taking the address of some local variable:

void* Cello_GC_Stack_Bot() {
  void* p = NULL;
  return &p;

But before we do this we need to ensure two things. First we want to make sure we flush all of the values in the registers onto the stack so that we don't miss a pointer hiding in a register, and secondly we want to make sure the Cello_GC_Stack_Bot function isn't inlined by the compiler. We can spill the registers into stack memory in a somewhat portable way with setjmp - which puts the registers into a jmp_buf variable. And we can ensure that the function is not inlined by only calling the marking function via a function pointer, who's value is decided using a volatile variable (volatile variables are immune to optimisations). Then we know that the Cello_GC_Stack_Bot function will return an address that will definitely cover the spilled registers and everything else on the stack above our call.

void Cello_GC_Mark_Prelude() {
  jmp_buf env;

  volatile int noinline = 1;
  void (*mark_stack)(void) = noinline
    ? Cello_GC_Mark_Stack
    : (var(*)(void))(NULL);


Getting the top of the stack is a little more difficult, but assuming user programs start from main we can use a very cheeky macro to wrap it in a custom function that first registers the address of some local variable with the Cello GC, and then calls the user program:

int Cello_Main(int argc, char** argv);

#define main(...) \
  main(int argc, char** argv) { \
    var stk = NULL;
    Cello_GC_Init(&stk); \
    return Cello_Main(argc, argv); \
  }; \
  int Cello_Main(int argc, char** argv)

Using these techniques we can get a safe approximate upper and lower bound to the area of stack memory that should contain all the relevant pointers to garbage collectable objects. Now all we need to do is scan this memory range and mark any pointers we find referenced.

void Cello_Mark(void) {

  var top = Cello_GC_Stack_Top();
  var bot = Cello_GC_Stack_Bot();

  for (var p = top; p <= bot; p += sizeof(var)) {


But how can we tell if some block of memory is actually a pointer? We don't want to be following pointers recklessly or else we might cause a segfault. Now in general there is no way to distinguish between some memory that looks like a pointer, and an actual pointer itself - but there are a couple of heuristics that we can use to disregard lots of potential addresses.

First - pointers must be memory aligned - which means for 64-bit machines they can only be located every 8-byte boundary, and must only point to some value on an 8-byte boundary. This means the pointer value must be a multiple of the pointer size, and the address of the pointer must be a multiple of the pointer size. We can also keep track of the maximum and minimum pointer addresses we've allocated and quickly disregard anything outside of these bounds.

These simple measures will stop us following bad or invalid pointers in almost all cases, but we need to narrow it down even further because a bad memory access could crash the program. For this purpose a hash table is maintained which stores all the pointers which have been allocated by Cello. It can be used to quickly check if a pointer is to an allocated Cello object.

Here is what the function Cello_GC_Mark_Item roughly looks like. It does these brief checks and then on success does the actual marking and recursion.

void Cello_GC_Mark_Item(var a) {

  if (a % sizeof(var) is 0
  and a >= minptr
  and a <= maxptr
  and     Cello_GC_Allocated(a)
  and not Cello_GC_Marked(a)) {


The recursion function is also simple. It either calls the mark function on the Cello object, or scans the memory at that location and tries to mark each segment of memory as if it were a pointer - just like the stack data.

static void Cello_GC_Recurse(struct GC* gc, var ptr) {

  var type = type_of(ptr);

  struct Mark* m = type_instance(type, Mark);
  if (m and m->mark) {
    m->mark(ptr, gc, (void(*)(var,void*))GC_Mark_Item);

  struct Size* s = type_instance(type, Size);
  if (s and s->size) {
    for (size_t i = 0; i < s->size(); i += sizeof(var)) {
      var p = ((char*)ptr) + i;
      GC_Mark_Item(gc, *((var*)p));


This completes all that is required for the marking stage. The sweeping stage is equally simple. It just deletes all Cello Objects not marked! Again roughly it looks like this:

void Cello_Sweep(void) {

  for (size_t i = 0; i < Cello_GC_NumItems(); i++) {
    var ptr = Cello_GC_Item(i);
    if (Cello_GC_Marked(ptr)) {
    } else {


Now when a user asks for a new allocation via new and memory usage has exceeded some bound we simply call Cello_Mark and Cello_Sweep to free any available memory.

As you probably suspected, in reality there is a little more going on, with various optimisations and tweaks to what is shown in the code snippits here, but the Cello Garbage Collector is still very simple, safe and portable - if a little slow!

Overall I hope I've shown that simple Garbage Collection for limited environments is not only possible in C - it is fairly simple to implement and understand.

References / Resources