A Forth Garbage Collector

or, more precisely,

Storage Allocation with Automatic Reclamation


When an object (in this paper, an object is just a chunk of memory) is no longer needed, its storage can be reclaimed and reused for other objects. The problem is finding out when an object is no longer needed (in CS terminology: the object dies). The ANS Forth memory-allocation wordset leaves this problem to the programmer: he must put explicit free calls in the program.

For sufficiently complex programs this approach leads to

The program knows that an object is needed locally (in one context), but usually does not know whether an object is needed globally. If it frees the object as soon as it does no longer need it locally, the dangling reference bug rears its ugly head: other contexts try to access memory that has been reused for other purposes; in the best case the result is a crash.

If, OTOH, the program assumes conservatively that the object will be needed when it actually is dead, the result is a memory leak. Depending on the application, this kind of bug is acceptable or disastrous.

There are various programming practices for dealing with the problem of the missing global information: A common approach is to copy the object instead of just passing the address around; in the extreme case, every context has its own copy, and can safely free this copy, when it is done. Needless to say, this is inefficient in both time and space.
Maintenance Problems
For every change of the program that may affect the lifetime of some object the programmer must deal with all contexts in which the object appears. I.e., many abstractions are broken, in particular, abstract data types. I leave the ensuing maintenance troubles to your imagination.
To avoid these problems, high-level languages have automatic storage reclamation, also known as garbage collection. The program just allocates the objects, it does not have to free them explicitly; the system reclaims the memory after the objects die.

The topic of garbage collection regularly comes up in comp.lang.forth, about twice a year. After the last time (in February 1998), I finally sat down and wrote one.

The result is a conservative mark-and-sweep collector. It has an administrative memory overhead of 1.6% (with another 1.6% needed during allocation), which is usually better than the constant per-object overhead of typical implementations of the memory allocation wordset (in addition to this administrative overhead there is also the more significant fragmentation problem, which should be similar for both approaches).


Basically you allocate memory with alloc ( usize -- addr ior ), just as with allocate. There is no need (and no way) to explicitly free this memory. The address returned is naturally aligned for every Forth data type (including dfaligned; natural alignment is alignment to multiples of the data type size). The memory is initialized with zeroes.

However, gc.fs needs to know if there is a reference to the object (if there is none, the object is certainly dead, and its storage can be recycled). You have to follow some rules to make sure gc.fs notices the reference:

You can declare with root-address ( a-addr -- ) that a-addr is a memory location that may contain a reference to an alloced object.

Before you can enjoy these luxuries, you have to load and initialize the garbage collector; there are two ways to do this:

Initialize when loading

You simply load gc.fs with the following three values on the stack: To work well with needs, loading gc.fs does not consume these values, so you have to remove them yourself. A typical loading line might look like
64 1024 * 1024 * ( 64MB ) true false s" gc.fs" included drop 2drop

Separate initialization

This option is useful if you want to put the garbage collector in an image, and initialize after you have loaded the image into the Forth system (on many Forth systems the region allocated during initialization does not survive this operation).

For this, you have to load gc4image.fs with one argument, the flag selecting the mark method (see above). This flag is not consumed by loading the code. E.g.,

false s" gc.fs" included drop
To initialize the garbage collector, you have to set the size and verbosity (see above), and then call init-gc. E.g.:
64 1024 * 1024 * ( 64MB )  gc-setmem
true gc-verbose


In the Forth tradition, gc.fs is not foolproof. It merely turns a global problem into a local problem that is much easier to deal with.

Dangling references

If you have a reference to an object that does not point to the start, or that is in a place where the garbage collector does not look (e.g., the return stack, some variable you have not declared as root-address, or an unaligned cell in an object), then this reference can become a dangling reference.

gc.fs helps you find such bugs in the following way: It writes over the memory as soon as it reclaims it; this makes it easier for you to notice and find the bug. You can force a garbage collection (and its associated memory overwriting) with collect-garbage ( -- ); this can be a good idea just before checking a data structure for consistency during debugging.

Memory consumption

Like every other garbage collector, gc.fs approximates liveness conservatively by assuming that every referenced object will be needed again. You can explicitly destroy references that will not be used again (e.g., by overwriting them with 0) to ensure minimal memory consumption. This is usually not necessary, but for pointers to large data structures it may be worthwhile. It is essential for, e.g., queues implemented as linked lists, where you have to destroy the reference at the tail of the queue to avoid unbounded growth.

Note that destroying a reference is easier than using free: You just have to decide whether one reference is no longer needed (and you can usually do that with local information), whereas with free you have to decide whether all references are no longer needed.

The Forth system has no type information, so gc.fs conservatively has to assume that everything is an address (at least everything that is aligned like an address and is in the right place). As a consequence, some integer can be interpreted as a reference and may cause a dead object to be kept around. Usually, this is no big problem, but if you use huge circular data structures, it can be a problem: a spurious reference to just one object in the data structure will keep the whole data structure alive; at least that's what gc.fs thinks. Similarly, for long linear lists, one spurious reference will on average keep half of the list from being reclaimed. If you have such data structures, be prepared for irregular memory consumption. For more information on this topic, read [boehm93].

Writing where you should not

If you write in places not given to you by the Forth system or gc.fs (e.g., if you write beyond the end of a chunk of memory you alloced), you may damage the data structures used by the garbage collector. This may result in mysterious bugs.

To make it easier to reveal such problems, gc.fs includes some consistency checks of its data structures. At assertion level 2 (2 assert-level ! before loading gc.fs), a number of checks are done, including a consistency check of the freelists before (and, to check against collector bugs, after) each garbage collection. At assertion level 3, the collector additionally checks the freelists before each allocation (this causes an extreme slowdown and is mainly useful for overnight regression test runs).

Dynamic resizing

In an earlier discussion (March 1997), Mark Andrew Amerman wanted to be able to resize objects after allocation; he was even prepared to pay for this by requiring another indirection for every access.

Although gc.fs does not support dynamic resizing directly, you can have it at the cost of an extra indirection, with the following programming technique:

In addition to the object to be resized, allocate a one-cell object: the handle, which contains a pointer to the object. Always access the object indirectly, do not keep direct pointers to it. In this way you know that only the handle points to the object to be resized, so when you want to resize it, you can simply allocate an object of the new size, copy the contents from the old to the new object, and store the address of the new object in the handle.

This gives you resizable objects, at the price that Amerman was willing to pay, without imposing any additional overhead for non-resizable objects.


gc.fs generally uses only a part of the memory it manages. This policy allows you to give it a huge amount of memory to manage, as preparation for the worst case, without consuming that much real (and, for good OSes, even virtual) memory before it is necessary.

The amount of memory actually used is determined in the following way:

memory= (a * livemem / b) + c
Where livemem is the amount of memory in live objects after the last garbage collection, and a, b, and c are tunable parameters. By default, a/b is 3, and c is 256KB.

You can tune these parameters for your application: You can reduce the memory, at the cost of a higher number of garbage collections, or you can increase it to reduce the number of garbage collections. Note that if you reduce memory too much (to less than about 2*livemem), the number of garbage collections rises extremely. And if a garbage-collection does not free an appropriate memory chunk, alloc will grab more memory regardless of the limit.

The following code sequence demonstrates the adjustment of parameters by resetting them to their default values:

also garbage-collector
3 1 ( a b ) size-factor 2!
256 1024 * ( c ) grain/ size-offset !
The graph shows the effects of setting the limit to a fixed amount of memory. The benchmark (also described in Section Efficiency) constantly has 500-1000 live objects of size 16-80 bytes (average: 51 bytes). Note that the amount of memory actually used is about 50KB during most of the benchmark unless the limit is higher (so reducing the limit below that just makes the benchmark run slower without having a significant effect on memory consumption). The jaggedness of the timings in the middle area is probably due to the freelist implementation and the random sizes of the allocated objects.


Many people think that garbage collection is slower than explicit deallocation with free.

In general, this is wrong: copying collectors make it possible to use a very fast, allot-like allocator, and the collection overhead can be made arbitrarily small by using more memory (techniques like generational garbage collectors make it possible to reduce collection overhead without taking as much memory). In contrast, a memory allocator with explicit deallocation has to manage a freelist, which creates quite a bit of overhead.

However, a conservative non-copying collector also has to manage a freelist, so it will typically be somewhat slower than using explicit deallocation. But if we take the inefficiency of the programming techniques used to handle explicit deallocation into account, and spend the time we saved on programming and debugging correct frees for performance tuning, garbage collection is easily faster.

You may be more interested in real timings than in theoretical discussions, therefore I have converted one of the test programs into a benchmark: bench-gc.fs. It allocates 250,000 objects of size 2 cells+0..63 aus (10,793,040 bytes on a byte-addressed 32-bit machine); 1,000 of these objects (41,800 bytes) are alive at the end.

You can load bench-gc.fs with a parameter between 1 and 6 on the stack, resulting in different storage allocation options. You can run the whole suite with make bench on your system. The following table shows the parameter, the storage allocation option, and the time used (user time or user+system time) on Gforth-0.3.0 on a 486-66 running Linux.

1 GC with default tuning           23.33
2 alloc-nocollect and free-chunk   32.63
3 allocate and free                 5.64
4 GC tuned for no collection       10.55+0.66
5 allocate                          4.76+1.02
6 allot                             4.67+0.61
Note that this benchmark does hardly more than allocating and forgeting objects, making these operations the dominant factor in its run-time. For an application that does something useful, the difference between the rows will be smaller.

The first row shows garbage collection as it is normally used, the second uses the freelist management words of the garbage collector to implement explicit deallocation (i.e., without using the garbage collector). Comparing these two numbers is probably the fairest comparison of the two approaches. Surprisingly, explicit deallocation is slower (by a factor of 1.4) than garbage collection here. I have some theories to explain this, but no empirical support for any of them. Anyway, this evidence suggests that the overhead of garbage collection is small compared to the time spent in freelist management.

Of course, for explicit deallocation one would usually use allocate and free. The result of using this combination is shown in the third row. On Gforth it is much faster than the two gc.fs-based solutions. My explanation for this is:

The other three rows are for allocation without deallocation. In contrast to the first three rows, which had almost no system time (<0.05s), here we see some signficant system times, which probably is due to the 10+MB used by these benchmarks (for security reasons the OS must zero the pages it gives to a process). For the following discussion only the user time is important.

By comparing row 1, 2 and 4 we see the overhead of garbage collection, freeing and freelist management (for row 4 the freelist is empty, and therefore fast). The comparison of line 4 and 5 again shows the performance advantage of optimized C code over Gforth's threaded code. A comparison of row 4 and row 6 shows that even with an empty freelist, alloc has a significant overhead over allot: checking that the freelist is empty, remembering the borders between objects, checking whether a garbage collection should be performed, zeroing the returned memory.


Lars Krueger added the separate initialization.


You can find out more about conservative (and other) garbage collection on Hans-Juergen Boehm's garbage collection page (especially recommended: Allocation and GC Myths slides).
[boehm93] Hans-Juergen Boehm.
Space efficient conservative garbage collection. In SIGPLAN '93 Conference on Programming Language Design and Implementation, pages 197-206, 1993. SIGPLAN Notices 28(6).
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