Call for Help: Boehm+jemalloc

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

At the Firefox summit we decided to change tack on XPCOMGC and try to use Boehm instead of MMgc. Overall I think this was a really good decision. With help from Graydon, I even have some Linux builds that use Boehm under the hood (most memory is not considered collectable, only string buffers are collected objects at this point).

Unfortunately, while Boehm is a pretty good collector, it doesn’t do so well at memory allocation and fragmentation. Heap usage is between 1.5x and 2x that of standard Firefox using jemalloc. What I really want is a combination of jemalloc and Boehm, taking the best features from each:

Boehm Features:

  • Fast and threadsafe conservative collector
  • Smart rooting of all thread stacks and static data
  • Incremental marking with hardware write barriers1
  • Option for parallel collection2
  • Ability to intermingle collected and non-collected memory

jemalloc features:

  • Better overall memory usage, primarily due to lower fragmentation
  • Very tight and well-performing allocator

Help Wanted

I’m looking for somebody who’s willing to painstakingly combine the best of these two allocators: either port the jemalloc low-fragmentation design to Boehm, or port the Boehm collection mechanism to the jemalloc allocator. If you’re interested, please contact me. Getting a solution to this problem really blocks any serious plans for further work on XPCOMGC.


  1. The key word is hardware. The MMgc solution failed because altering our codebase to have correct programmatic write barriers was going to involve boiling the ocean. And even with smart pointers, a standard MMgc write barrier involves a lot of overhead.
  2. In Boehm, parallel collection doesn’t work with most incremental collection, and so we may not actually decide to use it; avoiding large pauses with incremental collection is more important.