SGen – The Major Collectors


In the last post of my series on SGen, Mono’s new garbage collector, I talked about the young generation, called the nursery, and its collector. In this post I shall talk about the old, or major, generation and the two different collectors that implement it.

The older of the two, the copying collector, is mostly used for reference nowadays. It has been supplanted by the Mark-and-Sweep collector in practical use because it performs better in most cases and still has room for improvement.

The Mono man page gives details on how to specify which collector to use and how to change their parameters with the environment variable MONO_GC_PARAMS.


The copying major collector is a very simple copying garbage collector. Instead of using one big consecutive region of memory, however, it uses fixed-size blocks (of 128 KB) that are allocated and freed on demand. Within those blocks allocation is done by pointer bumping.

At a major collection all objects for which this is possible are copied to newly allocated blocks. Pinned objects clearly cannot be copied, so they stay in place. All blocks that have been vacated completely are freed. In the ones that still contain pinned objects we zero the regions that are now empty. We don’t actually reuse that space in those blocks but just keep them around until all their objects have become unpinned. This is clearly an area where things can be improved.

Why two collectors?

The copying collector was implemented when SGen was still young. It shares most of the copying machinery with the nursery collector, so it was easy to implement. As a production collector, however, it is not suited for most workloads. The old generation is expected to be large and composed of objects that have a long life, so copying them is bad from the perspective of memory usage (it might double for the duration of the collection) as well as of cache behavior.


Mark-and-Sweep is SGen’s default major collector and is actively being developed and improved.

In contrast to the copying collector a mark-and-sweep collector has to deal with individual objects being freed and new objects filling up that space again. (This is different from pinned objects leaving holes in blocks for the copying collector because in that case it is expected that there will only be a tiny number of remaining pinned objects, so the free regions will be large, whereas here it is expected that many objects survive, leaving lots of small holes). This creates the problem of fragmentation – lots of small holes between objects that cannot be filled anymore, resulting in lots of wasted space.


The basic idea of SGen’s Mark-and-Sweep collector is to have fixed-size blocks, each of which is divided into equally sized object slots of a variety of different sizes – this is similar to what Boehm does. One advantage of this over allocating objects sequentially is that the holes are always the same size, so if there are new objects arriving at that size the holes can always be filled.

Of course it is not feasible to support blocks with slots of every conceivable object size, so we space out the different supported sizes so as not to waste too much space (in the future we might want to choose the sizes dynamically, to fit the workload). Another thing that works to our advantage is that, since the slots have a known size, we don’t have to keep tabs on where they start and end. All we need is one mark bit per object which we keep in a separate region for better memory locality (we could use unused bits in the first object word, like the nursery collector does). For faster processing we’re actually keeping one bit per potential object start address, i.e. 1 bit per 8 bytes.

Since we only have a limited number of different slot sizes, we can also keep free lists, so allocation is more efficient because it doesn’t involve search.

During garbage collection it is necessary to get from an object to its block in order to access its mark bit. The size of each block is 16 KB, and they are allocated on 16 KB boundaries, so to get from an object that is inside a block to the address of its containing block a simple logical AND is sufficient. Unfortunately, large objects live outside of blocks and for them this operation would yield a bogus block address. To determine whether an object is large we need to examine its class metadata which is referenced from its VTable, requiring three loads (the “fixed heap” variant of the collector solves this problem and is described below.)

Each block has a “block info” data structure that contains metadata about the block. Apart from the size of the object slots and several other pieces of data it also contains the mark bits.

Fixed Heap

In the standard Mark-and-Sweep collector the blocks are allocated on demand, so they are potentially scattered all over the process’s address space. The fixed heap variant, on the other hand, allocates (using mmap) a heap of a fixed size (excluding the large object space) on startup and then assigns blocks out of that space. The advantage here is that we can check whether a pointer is within a block simply by checking whether it falls within the bounds of the allocated space, so no loads are necessary to get to its mark bit.

In standard Mark-and-Sweep the first word of each block links to its block info. Fixed heap can forego this load as well because the block infos are also allocated sequentially, so all that is needed to get to a block info is its index which is the same as its block’s index, which can be determined from the block address.

The obvious disadvantage of fixed heap Mark-and-Sweep is that the heap cannot grow beyond its fixed size. On some workloads fixed heap yields significant performance improvements. I will try to give some benchmarking results in a later post.

Non-Reference Objects

Objects that don’t contain references don’t have to be scanned, which implies that they also don’t have to be put on the gray stack. To handle this special case more efficiently Mark-and-Sweep uses separate blocks for objects with versus without references. The block info contains a flag that says which type the block is.

For the fixed heap collector this separation means that we don’t even have to load a single word of an object or its metadata if it doesn’t contain references.


Even despite the segregation of blocks according to fixed object sizes one form of memory waste can still occur. If the workload shifts from having lots of objects of a specific size to having only a few of them, a lot of blocks for that object size will have very low occupancy – perhaps a single object will still be live in the block and no new objects will arrive to fill the empty slots.

Unlike Boehm, SGen has the liberty to move objects around. During the sweep stage of a collection we keep statistics on the occupancy of blocks of all slot sizes. If the occupancy for a given slot size falls below a certain (user definable) threshold then we mark that slot size for evacuation on the next major collection.

When blocks of a slot size are being evacuated Mark-and-Sweep acts like a copying collector on the objects within those blocks. Instead of marking them they are copied to newly allocated blocks, filling them sequentially and emptying all the sparsely occupied ones which will then be freed during the following sweep.

Blocks with pinned objects are exempt from this whole process since they cannot be freed anyway.

Note that the occupancy situation might change between a sweep and the following major collection – the workload could change in the mean time and produce lots of live objects of that size which would all be copied, without actually saving any space. SGen cannot tell which objects will be live without doing the mark phase because that’s the mark phase’s job, so we take the risk of that happening.

As a side-note: Sun’s Garbage-First collector solves this problem by running the mark phase concurrently with the mutator, so it is actually able to tell at the start of a garbage collection pause which blocks will contain mostly garbage.

Parallel Mark

The mark phase can be parallelized with reasonable effort. Essentially, a number of threads each start with a set of root objects independently. Each thread has its own gray stack, but care must be taken that work is not repeated. Two threads can compete for marking the same object, and if they both put the object into their gray stacks, the object will be scanned twice, which is to be avoided.

Some care must also be taken with handling objects that still reside in the nursery. They have to be copied to the major heap and a forwarding pointer must be installed. The forwarding pointer can only be installed after the space on the major heap has been allocated (otherwise where would it point to?), so two threads might do that independently but only one will win out and the other will have done the allocation in vain.

It is not actually sufficient to just partition the set of root objects between the worker threads – some threads might end up having a far smaller share of the live object graph to work with. SGen currently uses a shared gray stack section buffer where worker threads deposit parts of their gray queues for the others to take.

Parallel mark achieves quite impressive performance gains on some workloads, but on most the gains are still somewhat disappointing. I suspect the work distribution needs improvement.

Concurrent Sweep

The sweep phase goes through all blocks in the system, resets the mark bits, zeroes the object slots that were freed and rebuilds the free lists.

None of those data structures are actually needed until the next nursery collection, so the sweep lends itself to be done in the background while the mutator is running, which is what Mark-and-Sweep can do optionally. The next nursery collection will in that case wait for the sweep thread to finish until it proceeds.