Using mutable array after an unsafeFreezeArray, and GC details

Edward Z. Yang ezyang at
Fri May 9 06:06:45 UTC 2014

Hello Brandon,

Excerpts from Brandon Simmons's message of 2014-05-08 16:18:48 -0700:
> I have an unusual application with some unusual performance problems
> and I'm trying to understand how I might use unsafeFreezeArray to help
> me, as well as understand in detail what's going on with boxed mutable
> arrays and GC. I'm using the interface from 'primitive' below.
> First some basic questions, then a bit more background
> 1) What happens when I do `newArray s x >>= \a-> unsafeFreezeArray a
> >> return a` and then use `a`? What problems could that cause?

Your code as written wouldn't compile, but assuming you're talking about
the primops newArray# and unsafeFreezeArray#, what this operation does
is allocate a new array of pointers (initially recorded as mutable), and
then freezes it in-place (by changing the info-table associated with
it), but while maintaining a pointer to the original mutable array.  Nothing bad
will happen immediately, but if you use this mutable reference to mutate
the pointer array, you can cause a crash (in particular, if the array
makes it to the old generation, it will not be on the mutable list and
so if you mutate it, you may be missing roots.)

> 2) And what if a do a `cloneMutableArray` on `a` and likewise use the
> resulting array?

If you do the clone before freezing, that's fine for all use-cases;
if you do the clone after, you will end up with the same result as (1).

> Background: I've been looking into an issue [1] in a library in which
> as more mutable arrays are allocated, GC dominates (I think I verified
> this?) and all code gets slower in proportion to the number of mutable
> arrays that are hanging around.
> I've been trying to understand how this is working internally. I don't
> quite understand how the "remembered set" works with respect to
> MutableArray. As best I understand: the remembered set in generation G
> points to certain objects in older generations, which objects hold
> references to objects in G. Then for MutableArrays specifically,
> card-marking is used to mark regions of the array with garbage in some
> way.
> So my hypothesis is the slowdown is associated with the size of the
> remembered set, and whatever the GC has to do on it. And in my tests,
> freezing the array seems to make that overhead (at least the overhead
> proportional to number of arrays) disappear.

You're basically correct.  In the current GC design, mutable arrays of
pointers are always placed on the mutable list.  The mutable list of
generations which are not being collected are always traversed; thus,
the number of pointer arrays corresponds to a linear overhead for minor GCs.

Here is a feature request tracking many of the infelicities that our
current GC design has:
The upshot is that the Haskell GC is very nicely tuned for mostly
immutable workloads, but there are some bad asymptotics when your
heap has lots of mutable objects.  This is generally a hard problem:
tuned GC implementations for mutable languages are a lot of work!
(Just ask the JVM implementors.)

> Now I'm really lost in the woods though. My hope is that I might be
> able to safely use unsafeFreezeArray to help me here [3]. Here are the
> particulars of how I use MutableArray in my algorithm, which are
> somewhat unusual:
>   - keep around a small template `MutableArray Nothing`
>   - use cloneMutableArray for fast allocation of new arrays
>   - for each array only a *single* write (CAS actually) happens at each position
> In fact as far as I can reason, there ought to be no garbage to
> collect at all until the entire array becomes garbage (the initial
> value is surely shared, especially since I'm keeping this template
> array around to clone from, right?). In fact I was even playing with
> the idea of rolling a new CAS that skips the card-marking stuff.

I don't understand your full workload, but if you have a workload that
involves creating an array, mutating it over a short period of time,
and then never mutating it afterwards, you should simply freeze it after
you are done writing it.  Once frozen, the array will no longer be kept
on the mutable list and you won't pay for it when doing GC.  However,
the fact that you are doing a CAS makes it seem to me that your workflow
may be more complicated than that...


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