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*** Work in progress ***

This page gives a brief outline of the major control flows in the execution of a garbage collector in MMTk.  For simplicity, we focus on the MarkSweep collector, although much of the discussion will be relevant to other collectors. 

This page assumes you have a basic knowledge of garbage collection, for those that don't, please see one of the standard texts such as The Garbage Collection Handbook. 

Structure of a Plan

An MMTk Plan is required to provide 5 classes.  They are required to have consistent names which start with the same name and have a suffix that indicates which class it inherits from. in the case of the MarkSweep plan, the name is "MS".

  • MS - this is a singleton class that is a subclass of org.mmtk.plan.Plan.   This class encapsulates data structures that are shared among multiple threads.
  • MSMutator - subclass of org.mmtk.plan.MutatorContext.  This class encapsulates data structures that are local to a single mutator thread.  In the case of Jikes RVM, a Thread is actually a subclass of this class for efficiency reasons.
  • MSCollector - subclass of org.mmtk.plan.CollectorContext.  This provides thread-local data structures specific to a garbage collector thread.
  • MSConstraints - subclass of org.mmtk.plan.PlanConstraints.  This provides configuration information that the host virtual machine might need.  It is separated out from the Plan class in order to prevent circular class loading dependencies.
  • MSTraceLocal - subclass of org.mmtk.plan.TraceLocal.  This provides thread-local data structures specific to a particular way of traversing the heap.  In a simple collector like MarkSweep, there is only one of these classes, but in more complex collectors there may be several.  For example, in a generational collector, there will be one TraceLocal class for a nursery collection, and another for a full-heap collection.
The basic architecture of MMTk is that virtual address space is divided into chunks (of 4MB in a 32-bit memory model) that are managed according to a specific policy.  A policy is implemented by an instance of the Space class, and it is in the policy class that the mechanics of a particular mechanism (like mark-sweep) is implemented.  The task of a Plan is to create the policy (Space) objects that manage the heap, and to integrate them into the MMTk framework.  
MMTk exposes some of this memory management policy to the host VM, by allowing the VM to specify an allocator (represented by a small integer) when allocating space.  The interface exposed to the VM allows it to choose whether an object will move during collection or not, whether the object is large enough to require special handling etc.  The MMTk plan is free (within the semantic guarantees exposed to the VM) to direct each of these allocators to a particular policy.


A policy describes how a range of virtual address space is managed.  The base class of all policies is org.mmtk.policy.Space, and a particular instance of a policy is known generically as a space.  The static initializer of a Plan and its subclasses define the spaces that make up an MMTk plan.

In this code fragment, we see the MS plan defined.  Note that we generally also define a static final space descriptor.  This is an optimization that allows some rapid operations on spaces.

Space is a global object, shared among multiple mutator threads.  Each policy will also have one or more thread-local classes which provide unsynchronized allocation.  These classes are subclasses of org.mmtk.utility.alloc.Allocator, and in the case of MarkSweep, it is called MarkSweepLocal.  Instances of MarkSweepLocal are created as part of a mutator context, like this

The design pattern is that the local Allocator will allocate space from a thread-local buffer, and when that is exhausted it will allocate a new buffer from the global Space, performing appropriate locking.  The constructor of the MarkSweepLocal specifies the space from which the allocator will allocate global memory.


MMTk provides two methods for allocating an object.  These are provided by the MSMutator class, to give each plan the opportunity to use fast, unsynchronized thread-local allocation before falling back to a slower synchronized slow-path.

The version implemented in MarkSweep looks like this:

The basic structure of this method is common to all MMTk plans.  First they decide whether the operation applies to this level of abstraction (if (allocator == MS.ALLOC_DEFAULT)), and if so, delegate to the appropriate place, otherwise pass it up the chain to the super-class.  In the case of MarkSweep, MSMutator delegates the allocation to its thread-local MarkSweepLocal object ms.



A garbage collection

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