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Garbage Collection with Pony-ORCA

Pony-ORCA is a fully concurrent protocol for garbage collection in the actor paradigm. It allows cheap and small actors to perform garbage collection concurrently with any number of other actors, and this number can go into the millions since one actor needs only 256 bytes on 64bit systems. It does not require any form of synchronization across actors except those introduced through the actor paradigm, i.e. message send and message receive.

Pony-ORCA, yes the killer whale, is based on ideas from ownership and deferred, distributed, weighted reference counting. It adapts messaging systems of actors to keep the reference count consistent. The main challenges in concurrent garbage collection are the detection of cycles of sleeping actors in the actor’s graph, in the presence of the concurrent mutation of this graph. With message passing, you get deferred direct reference counting, a dedicated actor for the detection of (cyclic) garbage, and a confirmation protocol (to deal with the mutation of the actor graph).

  1. Soundness: the technique collects only dead actors.

  2. Completeness: the technique collects all dead actors eventually.

  3. Concurrency: the technique does not require a stop-the-world step, clocks, time stamps, versioning, thread coordination, actor introspection, shared memory, read/write barriers or cache coherency.

The type system ensures at compile time that your program can never have data races. It’s deadlock free… Because Pony has no locks!

When an actor has completed local execution and has no pending messages on its queue, it is blocked. An actor is dead, if it is blocked and all actors that have a reference to it are blocked, transitively. A collection of dead actors depends on being able to collect closed cycles of blocked actors.

The Pony type system guarantees race and deadlock free concurrency and soundness by adhering to the following principles:

Pony-ORCA characteristics

  1. An actor may perform garbage collection concurrently with other actors while they are executing any kind of behaviour.

  2. An actor may decide whether to garbage collect an object solely based on its own local state, without consultation with or inspecting the state of any other actor.

  3. No synchronization between actors is required during garbage collection, other than potential message sends.

  4. An actor may garbage collect between its normal behaviours, i.e. it need not wait until its message queue is empty.

  5. Pony-ORCA can be applied to several other programming languages, provided that they satisfy the following two requirements:

    • Actor behaviours are atomic.

    • Message delivery is causal. Causal: messages arrive before any messages they may have caused if they have the same destination. So there needs to be some kind of causal ordering guarantee, but fewer requirements than with comparable concurrent, fast garbage collectors.