[Gay+:ISMM07]Safe Manual Memory Management

A tool from Intel: http://ivy.cs.berkeley.edu/heapsafe/

The paper is technique-focused and valuable. The HeapSafe tool proposed by this paper aims to verify the soundness of manual memory frees by using reference counting. A memory free is said to be safe when there are no any references on the freed object. HeapSafe is to find out insane memory frees, but has both false negatives and false positives. At the beginning of this paper, the authors discuss the reasons not to use garbage collection, which look reasonable to me and can be referred by us in the future, basically, including two: the concerns of performance and software engineering issues.

Traditional methods check the soundness of memory frees at the time point at which a free happens. Nevertheless, real codes often contain benign references to deallocated objects that are in fact never dereferenced. For example, a loop tries to free all node of a circular list, wherein the first deallocated node is pointed by the last node. In this case, the traditional methods report bad frees, while they are not in fact.

The paper poses an observation that most benign references are usually shot-lived. Thus, they delay the checking calls to free a short while by coming up with a so-called delayed free scope, comprising of delayed free start and delayed free end. The delayed free start tells the checking for the following frees is delayed until delayed free end. For the above circular list example, this approach handles very well.

HeapSafe involves several techniques to implement. It requires to locate the locations and correct type information of all pointers. For C, a type-unsafe language, it requires other tools like automatic pool allocation to ensure type safety. To implement reference counting, bitmaps and shadow stack are designed. To track reference counts, the design should support setjmp and longjmp. Overall, several runtime techniques can be learnt by reading their code.

Regarding results, HeapSafe requires a little user-side effort to add the delayed free scopes, slows down performance by 11% and increases space overhead by 13% for over half of a million lines of C code. The authors claimed that HeapSafe can be an “always on” option to check the soundness of memory frees. Note that HeapSafe does’t detect memory leaks.

Reference counting complicates this solution. Are there any other approaches?

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