Ruby 2.0 features a new garbage collection algorithm, called Bitmap Marking. To understand how this new approach works, a brief look at the ruby design is needed, starting with ruby.h.

All ruby objects are referenced through variables of the type VALUE in the C code: a VALUE is an unsigned integer that can be an immediate value (integer, float, symbol, true, false , nil) or a pointer to a RBasic structure. A RBasic structure holds two fields, flags and klass. There are many macros that can be used to check the type of an object just by accessing those flags, BUILTIN_TYPE is one of those and it is defined as follows:

#define BUILTIN_TYPE(x) (int)(((struct RBasic*)(x))->flags & T_MASK)

The type of an object can be one of those in the enum ruby_value_type, some of them are:

enum ruby_value_type {
RUBY_T_NONE   = 0x00,

RUBY_T_CLASS  = 0x02,
RUBY_T_FLOAT  = 0x04,
RUBY_T_ARRAY  = 0x07,
RUBY_T_HASH   = 0x08,
RUBY_T_FILE   = 0x0b,
RUBY_T_DATA   = 0x0c,
RUBY_T_MATCH  = 0x0d,

So how does it work in practice? Let’s have a look at RString: it is a struct that holds a RBasic struct inside. When you want to check if a VALUE is a string, the first thing that rb_type(VALUE obj) does is to check if it is an immediate value. If not, it will be cast to RBasic and the flags will be accessed by BUILTIN_TYPE. The result can be compared to RUBY_T_STRING: if it matches, it is safe to cast (again) the VALUE to RString. Please note that the RBasic structure is still accessible with the new pointer, as it is included into RString!

struct RString {
struct RBasic basic;
union {
    struct {
	long len;
	char *ptr;
	union {
	    long capa;
	    VALUE shared;
	} aux;
    } heap;
    char ary[RSTRING_EMBED_LEN_MAX + 1];
} as;

RString has actually more features than RBasic, it can contain an array of characters directly (on a 32 bits system the max size is 12 + 1 bytes) or it can contain a reference to a string allocated elsewhere. Casting RBasic structures to other types is valid for all ruby objects, and this feature is exploited by the GC to allocate space easily.

Now that the basic strategies of VALUE handling used by the ruby interpreter are known, we can move on to gc.c. RVALUE is a wrapper structure used to hold any of the previously discussed ones. This is the base “unit” that will be used to allocate and free memory.

 typedef struct RVALUE {
union {
    struct {
	VALUE flags;		/* always 0 for freed obj */
	struct RVALUE *next;
    } free;
    struct RBasic  basic;
    struct RObject object;
    struct RClass  klass;
    struct RFloat  flonum;
    struct RString string;
    struct RArray  array;
    struct RRegexp regexp;
    struct RHash   hash;
    struct RData   data;
    struct RTypedData   typeddata;
    struct RStruct rstruct;
    struct RBignum bignum;
    struct RFile   file;
    struct RNode   node;
    struct RMatch  match;
    struct RRational rational;
    struct RComplex complex;
} as;

Ruby tracks allocated memory in structures called heaps_slot. Each of them includes a pointer to a linked list of RVALUE structures. Let’s follow the flow of the code when a new object is created, I cut out not relevant lines:

static VALUE
newobj(VALUE klass, VALUE flags)
rb_objspace_t *objspace = &rb_objspace;
VALUE obj;


obj = (VALUE)objspace->heap.free_slots->freelist;
objspace->heap.free_slots->freelist = RANY(obj)->;
if (objspace->heap.free_slots->freelist == NULL) {
    unlink_free_heap_slot(objspace, objspace->heap.free_slots);

MEMZERO((void*)obj, RVALUE, 1);

return obj;

A RVALUE object is taken from a global freelist and the head of the list is shifted forwards. This obj is a pointer to a memory area which is big enough to store any ruby structure: RString, RArray… When this list becomes empty, the GC is called and it will try to free some RVALUE. If not possible, a new heaps_slot (or more) will be allocated.

Now that is known how objects are allocated, we can inspect the two phases of the garbage collector. The phases are named mark and sweep. In the first phase all the objects still reachable are marked. In the sweep phase all the objects not marked are identified and added to the freelist we mentioned before. Additionally, while traversing the lists all marks are reset to prepare the objects for the next GC round.

Starting from the function garbage_collect, we can dig into the mark phase, handled by the function gc_marks. The real job is done by the function gc_mark_stacked_objects, which consists in a giant switch-case statement that handles all the RVALUE subtypes differently. In the sweep phase, which starts in gc_sweep, all the RVALUE objects without a mark are added to the freelist that is used to allocate new objects.

In the next post I’ll focus on the improvements introduced by the garbage collector of Ruby 2.0 and maybe provide some benchmark result.

I am Riccardo, I studied computer engineering at the University of Trieste (Italy) and then got a M.Sc. in the same field at the University of Stuttgart (Germany). I now live in Zurich, Switzerland.

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