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Garbage-collected Objective-C

When was a garbage collector added to Objective-C? If you follow Apple’s work with the language, you might be inclined to believe that it was in 2008 when AutoZone was added as part of Objective-C 2.0 (the AutoZone collector has since been deprecated by Apple, and I’m not sure whether anyone else ever adopted it).

With a slightly wider knowledge of the language’s history, you can push this date back a bit. The GNUstep project—a Free Software reimplementation of Apple’s (formerly NeXT’s) APIs—has been using the Boehm–Demers–Weiser collector for a while. How long? I can’t tell exactly, but a keyword search in the project’s version control logs makes me think that most of the work to support it was done by one person in mid-2002:

r13976 | nico | 2002-06-26 15:34:16 +0100 (Wed, 26 Jun 2002) | 3 lines

Do not add -lobjc_gc -lgc flags when compiling with gc=yes – should now
be added automatically by gnustep-make


r13971 | nico | 2002-06-25 18:28:56 +0100 (Tue, 25 Jun 2002) | 2 lines

Tidyup for gc=yes with old compilers


r13970 | nico | 2002-06-25 18:23:05 +0100 (Tue, 25 Jun 2002) | 2 lines

Tidied code to compile with gc=yes and older compilers


r13969 | nico | 2002-06-25 13:36:11 +0100 (Tue, 25 Jun 2002) | 3 lines

Tidied some indentation; a couple of insignificant changes to have it compile
under gc


r13968 | nico | 2002-06-25 13:15:04 +0100 (Tue, 25 Jun 2002) | 2 lines

Tidied code which wouldn’t compile with gc=yes and gcc < 3.x


r13967 | nico | 2002-06-25 13:13:19 +0100 (Tue, 25 Jun 2002) | 2 lines

Tidied code which was not compiling with the garbage collector


r13966 | nico | 2002-06-25 13:12:17 +0100 (Tue, 25 Jun 2002) | 2 lines

Tidied code which was not compiling with gc=yes

That was, until fairly recently, the earliest example I knew about. Then I discovered a conference talk by Paulo Ferreira:

Reclaiming storage in an object oriented platform supporting extended C++ and Objective-C applications

This is a paper presented at “1991 International Workshop on Object Orientation in Operating Systems”. 1991. That is—obviously—11 years before GNUstep’s GC work and 17 years before Apple released AutoZone.

Comandos

The context in which this work was being done is a platform called Comandos. I’d never heard of that before—and I thought I knew Objective-C!

Judging from the report linked above, Comandos is a platform for distributed and parallel object-oriented software, based on UNIX but supporting multiple variants. The fact that it was created in 1986 means that both the languages supported—Objective-C and C++—were new at the time. Indeed the project was contemporary with the development of NeXTSTEP, which was publicly released to developers in 1988.

The 1994 summary report doesn’t mention Objective-C: just C++, Eiffel and a bespoke language called Guide. It’s possible that the platform supported ObjC simply because they used gcc which picked up ObjC support during the life of Comandos; however this seems unlikely as there would be significant work in making Objective-C objects work with their platform’s distributed messaging interface and persistence subsystem.

Why ObjC should be one of two languages mentioned (along with C++) in the 1991 paper on garbage collection, but zero of three mentioned (C++, Eiffel, Guide) in 1994 will have to remain a mystery for now. Looking into the references for Ferreira’s paper, I can find one mention of Objective-C as the inspiration for their own, custom C-based message dispatch system, but no indication that they actually used Objective-C.

The Garbage Collector

I’m not really an expert at garbage collectors. In fact, I have no idea what I’m doing. I appreciate them when they’re around, and leak or crash things occasionally when they’re not.

To my uneducated eye, the description of the Ferreira 1991 garbage collector and Apple’s description of their collector (no link I’m afraid, it was session 940 at WWDC 2008) look quite different. AutoZone is conservative (like B-W-D) and only works on Objective-C objects. Ferreira’s collector operates, like B-W-D, on any memory block including new C++ instances and C heap allocations. Apple’s collector is supposed to avoid blocking wherever it can, a constraint not mentioned in the Ferreira paper.

All of Comandos, GNUstep and Cocoa (Apple’s Objective-C framework) have systems for distributed objects that complicate collection: does some remote process have a handle on memory in my address space? The proxy system used by Cocoa and GNUstep make it easy to answer this question. Comandos used a different technique, where objects local to a process were “volatile” and objects shared between processes were “persistent”. Persistent objects were subject to a different lifecycle management process, so the Ferreira GC didn’t interact with them.

As an aside, Apple’s garbage collector also needed to provide a “mixed mode”—support for code that could be loaded into either a garbage-collected or manually managed process.

Conclusions

Memory management is hard. Making programmers do it themselves leads to all sorts of problems. Doing it automatically is also hard, and many different approaches have been tried over the last few decades. Interestingly, Apple has (for the moment) settled on a “none of the above” approach, using a compiler-inserted reference counting system based on the manual ownership tracking previously implemented by the frameworks.

What interests me most about this paper on Objective-C garbage collection is not so much its technical content (which it’s actually rather light on, containing only conversational overviews of the algorithms and no information about results), but the fact that it existed at all and I, as someone who considers himself an experienced Objective-C programmer, did not know anything about it or its project.

That’s why I started this blog [Ed: referring to the blog these posts are imported from] by discussing it. A necessary prerequisite to deciding whether the literature has something useful to tell us is knowing about its existence. I’m really surprised that it took so long for me to find out about something that’s almost directly related to my everyday work. Mind you, maybe I shouldn’t feel too bad: the author of AutoZone told me he hadn’t heard of it, either.