Garbage collection is a process of releasing the memory used by the objects,
which are no longer referenced. This is done in different ways and different
manners in various platforms and languages. We will see how garbage collection
is being done in .NET.
Garbage Collection basis
- Almost every program uses resources such as
database connection, file system objects etc. In order to make use of these
things some resources should be available to us.
- First we allocate a block of memory in the
managed memory by using the new keyword. (This will emit the
newobj instruction in the Microsoft intermediate language code generated
from C#, VB.NET, Jscript.NET or any other .NET compliance language).
- Use the constructor of the class to set the
initial state of the object.
- Use the resources by accessing the type’s
- At last CLEAR
When we look at these steps, it seems to be a very
simple process to do with. But how many of us do that without forgetting to
release the memory block. C++ programmers will agree with me. C++ has got a
special member function called Destructor. It has the same name of the
constructor or the class with the ‘~’ (tilde) symbol to start with. This is a
special kind of function which will be called every time by the system when ever
the system finds that object will not be used any more by the program. (When the
scope and lifetime of the object goes off).
But how many times have programmers forgotten to
release the memory. Or how many times the programmers try to access the memory
which was cleaned.
These two are the serious bugs, which will lead us to memory leak and commonly
occurring. In order to overcome these things the concept of automatic memory
management has come. Automatic memory management or Automatic garbage collection
is a process by which the system will automatically take care of the memory used
by unwanted objects (we call them as garbage) to be released. Hurrah….. Thanks
to Microsoft's Automatic Garbage collection mechanism.
Automatic Garbage Collection in
When Microsoft planned to go for a new generation platform called .NET with
the new generation language called C#, their first intention is to make a
language which is developer friendly to learn and use it with having rich set of
APIs to support end users as well. So they put a great thought in Garbage
Collection and come out with this model of automatic garbage collection in
They implemented garbage collector as a separate thread. This thread will be
running always at the back end. Some of us may think, running a separate thread
will make extra overhead. Yes. It is right. That is why the garbage collector
thread is given the lowest priority. But when system finds there is no space in
the managed heap (managed heap is nothing but a bunch of memory allocated for
the program at run time), then garbage collector thread will be given REALTIME
priority (REALTIME priority is the highest priority in Windows) and collect all
the un wanted objects.
How does Garbage collector locate
When an program is loaded in the memory there will be a bunch of memory
allocated for that particular program alone and loaded with the memory. This
bunch of memory is called Managed Heap in .NET world. This amount of memory
will only be used when an object is to be loaded in to the memory for that
This memory is separated in to three parts.
- Generation Zero.
- Generation One and
- Generation Two.
<TABLE cellSpacing=1 cellPadding=7 bgColor=#e0e0e0 border=1>
Figure 1.1 Managed Heap Structure.
Ideally Generation zero will be in smaller size, Generation one will be in
medium size and Generation two will be larger.
When we try to create an object by using NEW keyword in the high level
languages. It will simply emit
newobj in to the MSIL file. (
is a Microsoft Intermediate Language instruction to create a new type). When
newobj executes, the system will,
- Calculate the number of bytes required for
the object or type to be loaded in to the managed heap.
- Add the bytes required for an object’s
overhead. Each object has two overhead fields: a method table pointer and a
SyncBlockIndex. On a 32-bit system, each of these fields requires 32 bits,
adding 8 bytes to each object. On a 64-bit system, each is 64 bits, adding 16
bytes to each object.
- The CLR then checks that the bytes required
to allocate the object are available in the reserved region (committing storage
if necessary). IF the object fits, it is allocated at the address pointed to by
NextObjPtr. The type’s constructor is called (passing
NextObjPtr) for the this parameter), and the
newobj MSIL instruction (or the new
operator) returns the address of the object. Just before the address is
NextObjPtr is advanced past the object and indicates the address where
the next object will be placed in the heap.
- These processes will happen at the
Generation zero level.
<TABLE cellSpacing=1 cellPadding=7 bgColor=#e6e6e6 border=1>
Figure 1.2 Allocating objects in the Managed
When Generation Zero is full and it does not have enough space to occupy
other objects but still the program wants to allocate some more memory for some
other objects, then the garbage collector will be given the REALTIME priority
and will come in to picture.
Now the garbage collector will come and check all the objects in the Generation
If an object’s scope and lifetime goes off then the system will automatically
mark it for garbage collection.
Here in the process the object is just marked and not collected. Garbage
collector will only collect the object and free the
Garbage collector will come and start examining all the objects in the level
Generation Zero right from the beginning. If it finds any object marked for
garbage collection, it will simply remove those objects from the
Here comes the important part. Now let us refer the figure 1.2 above.
There are three objects in the managed heap. If A and C are not marked but B has
lost it scope and lifetime. So B should be marked for garbage collection. So
object B will be collected and the managed heap will look like this.
<TABLE cellSpacing=1 cellPadding=7 bgColor=#e6e6e6 border=1>
Figure 1.3 Memory Structure after
But do remember that the system will come and
allocate the new objects only at the last. It does not see in between. So it is
the job of garbage collector to compact the memory structure after collecting
the objects. It does that also. So the memory would be looking like as shown
<TABLE cellSpacing=1 cellPadding=7 border=1 bgColor=#e6e6e6>
Figure 1.4 Memory Structure after
But garbage collector does not come to end after
doing this. It will look which are all the objects survive after the sweep
(collection). Those objects will be moved to Generation One and now the
Generation Zero is empty for filling new objects.
If Generation One does not have space for objects
from Generation Zero, then the process happened in Generation Zero will happen
in Generation one as well. This is the same case with Generation Two
You may have a doubt, all the generations are
filled with the referred objects and still system or our program wants to
allocate some objects, then what will happen? If so, then the
MemoryOutofRangeException will be thrown.