Prerequisite knowledge

The article is designed for intermediate and advanced ActionScript developers. An intermediate understanding of object oriented programming concepts and ActionScript 3 development is required.


User level





All applications manage memory. An application's memory management includes the guidelines used to determine when to allocate memory, how much memory to allocate, when to put things in the trash, and when to empty the trash. MMgc is the general-purpose memory manager used by Flash Player for nearly all memory allocations. Understanding how the MMgc manages memory is an important part of optimizing your code and your application's performance.

Memory that is reclaimed automatically by a garbage collector is considered "managed memory." The garbage collector determines when memory is no longer being used by the application and reclaims it. This article looks at memory allocation, the garbage collection process and the new pauseForGCIfCollectionImminent() API in Flash Player 11 and AIR 3.


Memory allocation


Flash Player uses a page allocator (GCHeap) to allocate large blocks (megabytes) of memory from the OS. The GCHeap then breaks the large block into smaller 4K pages and gives the pages to the garbage collection (GC) memory manager as needed.



The GC then uses those 4K pages to provide memory for objects up to 2K in size in the system.



For objects larger than 2K (bitmaps, videos, files, etc.), GCHeap provides groups of contiguous 4K blocks to a large memory allocator.

When almost all of the 4K pages in a large chunk are allocated, Flash Player runs garbage collection to reclaim unused memory before the GCHeap attempts to allocate more memory from the OS. In other words, garbage collection is only triggered by memory allocations. This fact is important to remember during testing and profiling because it means that the memory usage of an idle application will never change.


Heap and stack


The heap is the memory allocated for any object created or initialized at runtime. Objects on the heap exist until they are garbage collected.



The stack is memory that stores all variables that are defined at compile time. Stack memory is used and reused in a sequential manner. Push adds something to the top of the stack. Pop removes something from the top of the stack. The only way to access something in the middle of the stack is to remove all of the things above it.

Local method variables, arguments, and information about where to return when a method is complete are pushed onto the stack as the methods run. Changes to the stack occur very quickly. Stack references to objects tend to be very temporary. Those references to objects may exist on the stack, but the memory allocated to those objects comes from the heap.


Flash Runtime garbage collection implementation

Flash Player and AIR use a combination of deferred reference counting and conservative mark-and-sweep.


Deferred reference counting

In deferred reference counting, a distinction between heap and stack references exists. Because the stack changes so quickly and tends to include references that are very temporary, reference counting is not performed on stack references. Reference counts are maintained for references on the heap.


Each object on the heap keeps track of the number of things pointing to it. Each time you create a reference to an object, the object's reference count is incremented. When you delete a reference, the object's reference count is decremented. If the object has a zero reference count (nothing is pointing to it), it is added to the Zero Count Table (ZCT). When the ZCT is full, the stack is scanned to find any references from the stack to an object on the ZCT. Any object on the ZCT without a stack reference is deleted.

One of the problems of deferred reference counting is circular references. If ObjectA and ObjectB refer to each other but no other objects in the system point to them, they will never have a zero reference count and will therefore never be eligible for garbage collection using reference counting. This is where mark and sweep garbage collection helps.




Applications that run in Flash Player or AIR have multiple GCRoots. You can think about a GCRoot as the trunk of a tree with the objects of the application as the branches. The Stage is a GCRoot. Loaders are GCRoots. Certain menus are GCRoots. Every object that is still in use by the application is reachable from one of the GCRoots within the application. GCRoots are never garbage collected.

Every object in an application has a "mark bit." When the Mark phase of garbage collection begins, all of those mark bits are cleared. The MMgc keeps track of all GCRoots in the application. The garbage collector starts from those roots, traces through each object and sets the mark bit for every object it reaches. Any object that is no longer reachable from any of the roots is no longer reachable from anywhere in the application – its mark bit does not get set during the Mark phase. Once the collector is done marking all of the objects it finds, the Sweep phase begins. Any object that doesn't have a set mark bit is destroyed and its memory reclaimed.


Figure 7 shows that every reachable object from a GCRoot has its mark bit set (blue). The two objects (ObjectA and ObjectB) caught in a circular reference are not reachable from a GCRoot. Their mark bits will not be set. Therefore even though they do not have a zero reference count, these two objects will be garbage collected.

Weak references

Flash Player can also maintain something called a 'weak reference' to certain types of objects. A weak reference is a reference that is invisible to the normal tracing procedure (the process of following all roots to find reachable objects) of the garbage collector.

When you instantiate a new Dictionary, you can indicate that you want it to hold onto the keys of the Dictionary weakly.

var d:Dictionary = new Dictionary( true ); d[ someObject ] = someValue;


You can also set the useWeakReference parameter of the addEventListener() function to true when adding an event listener.


obj.addEventListener( "type", handler, false, 0, true );


In both cases, you are asking Flash Player to keep a reference between two objects but to keep that reference in a weak way. Practically this means that this particular reference won't be followed during marking.



In this case the only path to Object B is weak. It will not be travelled during tracing and hence Object B is not marked and will be collected. However, if there is another strong path to ObjectB, Object B will be marked and will persist.


You should always clean up unused references by removing unused items from dictionaries and by using removeEventListener(). However, there are some times when cleaning up unused references is impractical or impossible. One such time is when your class is instantiated and destroyed without your knowledge – item renderers are used in this way. In these cases, maintaining weak references to the objects will allow Flash Player to eventually remove them and reclaim the memory.


Conservative collection

The MMgc is considered a conservative collector for mark/sweep. The MMgc can't tell if certain values in memory are object pointers (memory addresses) or a numeric value. In order to prevent accidentally collecting objects the values may point to, the MMgc assumes that every value could be a pointer. Therefore, some objects that are not really being pointed to will never be collected and will be considered a memory leak. Although you want to minimize memory leaks to optimize performance, the occasional leaks that result from conservative GC tend to be random, not to grow over time, and have much less of an impact on an application's performance than leaks caused by developers.


Incremental collection


Unfortunately garbage collection can cause Flash Player to pause periodically as the process completes. This pause is proportional to the amount of memory the application is currently using. It can be longer than desired and can be observable in some programs.

The Mark phase is the most time intensive part of the garbage collection process. Due to this fact, the marking process has been incrementalized using a work queue and a tri-color algorithm. The queue maintains the marking state between marking increments.

Table 1. Tri-color algorithm

Black objects have been marked and are no longer in the queue.

Gray objects are in the queue and have not yet been marked.

White objects are neither marked nor in the queue.

At the beginning of the Mark phase, all GCRoots are pushed onto the queue and become gray.



As the Mark process continues, marked objects become black and are removed from the work queue.



This process continues without problems until a new object (white) is added to a black object. When that happens, the white objects would never have their mark bit set because their GCRoot has already been marked. Without their mark bit set, they will be garbage collected during the Sweep phase.



To prevent this problem, a write barrier is used within MMgc to force any white object that gets added to a black object onto the work queue immediately.



By using the work queue and the tri-color algorithm, the Mark phase can be started and stopped to help prevent large, unwanted garbage collection pauses.




The Mark phase may be the most time intensive part of the garbage collection, but actually emptying the trash – reallocating freed memory – takes time too. Reallocation can also cause the application to pause. How close the garbage collector is to finishing the Mark phase and beginning Sweep (reallocation) is called imminence.


public static function pauseForGCIfCollectionImminent(imminence:Number = 0.75):void is a new method in Flash Player 11 and AIR 3 that allows you to advise garbage collector that it's a good time to both complete the marking and perform collection (API entry in the ActionScript Reference). Scheduling potential pauses for times when the user won't notice them makes for a better user experience. For example, a game might call this function upon the completion of a level in a game, thus reducing the chances of a pause occurring during gameplay.

The imminence value you pass to this method is compared to where the garbage collector is in the Mark phase. If the value you pass it is smaller than the collector's imminence value, Mark and Sweep will finish synchronously and cause the application to pause. The garbage collector must be at least 25% of the way through the process before recognizing this request to pause for collection. Passing a small value (although greater than .25) will most likely force collection and cause the application to pause. Passing a larger value tells the garbage collector to finish collection only if it was going to happen soon anyway.


Where to go from here


Understanding how memory management and garbage collection work in Flash Player and AIR will help you optimize your code and develop better performing applications. Check out Michael Labriola's presentation on garbage collection Talking Trash. Read Christian Cantrell's Providing Hints to the Garbage Collector in AIR 3. You can also read a detailed discussion of the MMgc that includes a description of the underlying C++ code.


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