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Summary

Remove the reference-counting based Gc<T> type from the standard library and its associated support infrastructure from rustc.

Doing so lays a cleaner foundation upon which to prototype a proper tracing GC, and will avoid people getting incorrect impressions of Rust based on the current reference-counting implementation.

Motivation

Ancient History

Long ago, the Rust language had integrated support for automatically managed memory with arbitrary graph structure (notably, multiple references to the same object), via the type constructors @T and @mut T for any T. The intention was that Rust would provide a task-local garbage collector as part of the standard runtime for Rust programs.

As a short-term convenience, @T and @mut T were implemented via reference-counting: each instance of @T/@mut T had a reference count added to it (as well as other meta-data that were again for implementation convenience). To support this, the rustc compiler would emit, for any instruction copying or overwriting an instance of @T/@mut T, code to update the reference count(s) accordingly.

(At the same time, @T was still considered an instance of Copy by the compiler. Maintaining the reference counts of @T means that you cannot create copies of a given type implementing Copy by memcpy'ing blindly; one must distinguish so-called "POD" data that is Copy and contains no @Tfrom "non-POD"Copydata that can contain@T` and thus must be sure to update reference counts when creating a copy.)

Over time, @T was replaced with the library type Gc<T> (and @mut T was rewritten as Gc<RefCell<T>>), but the intention was that Rust would still have integrated support for a garbage collection. To continue supporting the reference-count updating semantics, the Gc<T> type has a lang item, "gc". In effect, all of the compiler support for maintaining the reference-counts from the prior @T was still in place; the move to a library type Gc<T> was just a shift in perspective from the end-user's point of view (and that of the parser).

Recent history: Removing uses of Gc from the compiler

Largely due to the tireless efforts of eddyb, one of the primary clients of Gc<T>, namely the rustc compiler itself, has little to no remaining uses of Gc<T>.

A new hope

This means that we have an opportunity now, to remove the Gc<T> type from libstd, and its associated built-in reference-counting support from rustc itself.

I want to distinguish removal of the particular reference counting Gc<T> from our compiler and standard library (which is what is being proposed here), from removing the goal of supporting a garbage collected Gc<T> in the future. I (and I think the majority of the Rust core team) still believe that there are use cases that would be well handled by a proper tracing garbage collector.

The expected outcome of removing reference-counting Gc<T> are as follows:

  • A cleaner compiler code base,

  • A cleaner standard library, where Copy data can be indeed copied blindly (assuming the source and target types are in agreement, which is required for a tracing GC),

  • It would become impossible for users to use Gc<T> and then get incorrect impressions about how Rust's GC would behave in the future. In particular, if we leave the reference-counting Gc<T> in place, then users may end up depending on implementation artifacts that we would be pressured to continue supporting in the future. (Note that Gc<T> is already marked "experimental", so this particular motivation is not very strong.)

Detailed design

Remove the std::gc module. This, I believe, is the extent of the end-user visible changes proposed by this RFC, at least for users who are using libstd (as opposed to implementing their own).

Then remove the rustc support for Gc<T>. As part of this, we can either leave in or remove the "gc" and "managed_heap" entries in the lang items table (in case they could be of use for a future GC implementation). I propose leaving them, but it does not matter terribly to me. The important thing is that once std::gc is gone, then we can remove the support code associated with those two lang items, which is the important thing.

Drawbacks

Taking out the reference-counting Gc<T> now may lead people to think that Rust will never have a Gc<T>.

  • In particular, having Gc<T> in place now means that it is easier to argue for putting in a tracing collector (since it would be a net win over the status quo, assuming it works).

    (This sub-bullet is a bit of a straw man argument, as I suspect any community resistance to adding a tracing GC will probably be unaffected by the presence or absence of the reference-counting Gc<T>.)

  • As another related note, it may confuse people to take out a Gc<T> type now only to add another implementation with the same name later. (Of course, is that more or less confusing than just replacing the underlying implementation in such a severe manner.)

Users may be using Gc<T> today, and they would have to switch to some other option (such as Rc<T>, though note that the two are not 100% equivalent; see [Gc versus Rc] appendix).

Alternatives

Keep the Gc<T> implementation that we have today, and wait until we have a tracing GC implemented and ready to be deployed before removing the reference-counting infrastructure that had been put in to support @T. (Which may never happen, since adding a tracing GC is only a goal, not a certainty, and thus we may be stuck supporting the reference-counting Gc<T> until we eventually do decide to remove Gc<T> in the future. So this RFC is just suggesting we be proactive and pull that band-aid off now.

Unresolved questions

None yet.

Appendices

Gc versus Rc

There are performance differences between the current ref-counting Gc<T> and the library type Rc<T>, but such differences are beneath the level of abstraction of interest to this RFC. The main user observable difference between the ref-counting Gc<T> and the library type Rc<T> is that cyclic structure allocated via Gc<T> will be torn down when the task itself terminates successfully or via unwind.

The following program illustrates this difference. If you have a program that is using Gc and is relying on this tear-down behavior at task death, then switching to Rc will not suffice.

use std::cell::RefCell;
use std::gc::{GC,Gc};
use std::io::timer;
use std::rc::Rc;
use std::time::Duration;

struct AnnounceDrop { name: String }

#[allow(non_snake_case)]
fn AnnounceDrop<S:Str>(s:S) -> AnnounceDrop {
    AnnounceDrop { name: s.as_slice().to_string() }
}

impl Drop for AnnounceDrop{ 
    fn drop(&mut self) {
       println!("dropping {}", self.name);
    }
}

struct RcCyclic<D> { _on_drop: D, recur: Option<Rc<RefCell<RcCyclic<D>>>> }
struct GcCyclic<D> { _on_drop: D, recur: Option<Gc<RefCell<GcCyclic<D>>>> }

type RRRcell<D> = Rc<RefCell<RcCyclic<D>>>;
type GRRcell<D> = Gc<RefCell<GcCyclic<D>>>;

fn make_rc_and_gc<S:Str>(name: S) -> (RRRcell<AnnounceDrop>, GRRcell<AnnounceDrop>) {
    let name = name.as_slice().to_string();
    let rc_cyclic = Rc::new(RefCell::new(RcCyclic {
        _on_drop: AnnounceDrop(name.clone().append("-rc")),
        recur: None,
    }));

    let gc_cyclic = box (GC) RefCell::new(GcCyclic {
        _on_drop: AnnounceDrop(name.append("-gc")),
        recur: None,
    });

    (rc_cyclic, gc_cyclic)
}

fn make_proc(name: &str, sleep_time: i64, and_then: proc():Send) -> proc():Send {
    let name = name.to_string();
    proc() {
        let (rc_cyclic, gc_cyclic) = make_rc_and_gc(name);

        rc_cyclic.borrow_mut().recur = Some(rc_cyclic.clone());
        gc_cyclic.borrow_mut().recur = Some(gc_cyclic);

        timer::sleep(Duration::seconds(sleep_time));

        and_then();
    }
}

fn main() {
    let (_rc_noncyclic, _gc_noncyclic) = make_rc_and_gc("main-noncyclic");

    spawn(make_proc("success-cyclic", 2, proc () {}));

    spawn(make_proc("failure-cyclic", 1, proc () { fail!("Oop"); }));

    println!("Hello, world!")
}

The above program produces output as follows:

% rustc gc-vs-rc-sample.rs && ./gc-vs-rc-sample
Hello, world!
dropping main-noncyclic-gc
dropping main-noncyclic-rc
task '<unnamed>' failed at 'Oop', gc-vs-rc-sample.rs:60
dropping failure-cyclic-gc
dropping success-cyclic-gc

This illustrates that both Gc<T> and Rc<T> will be reclaimed when used to represent non-cyclic data (the cases labelled main-noncyclic-gc and main-noncyclic-rc. But when you actually complete the cyclic structure, then in the tasks that run to completion (either successfully or unwinding from a failure), we still manage to drop the Gc<T> cyclic structures, illustrated by the printouts from the cases labelled failure-cyclic-gc and success-cyclic-gc.

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