Taking Off the Gloves with Reference Counting Immix

Rifat Shahriyar, Stephen M. Blackburn, Xi Yang, Kathryn S McKinley

Published by ACM SIGPLAN Conference on Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications (OOPSLA)

Despite some clear advantages and recent advances, reference counting remains a poor cousin to high-performance tracing garbage collectors. The advantages of reference counting include a) immediacy of reclamation, b) incrementality, and c) local scope of its operations. After decades of languishing with hopelessly bad performance, recent work narrowed the gap between reference counting and the fastest tracing collectors to within 10%. Though a major advance, this gap remains a substantial barrier to adoption in performance-conscious application domains. Our work identifies heap organization as the principal source of the remaining performance gap. We present the design, implementation, and analysis of a new collector, RCImmix, that replaces reference counting’s traditional free-list heap organization with the line and block heap structure introduced by the Immix collector. The key innovations of RCImmix are 1) to combine traditional reference counts with per-line live object counts to identify reusable memory and 2) to eliminate fragmentation by integrating copying with reference counting of new objects and with backup tracing cycle collection. In RCImmix, reference counting offers efficient collection and the line and block heap organization delivers excellent mutator locality and efficient allocation. With these advances, RCImmix closes the 10% performance gap, outperforming a highly tuned production generational collector. By removing the performance barrier, this work transforms reference counting into a serious alternative for meeting high performance objectives for garbage collected languages.