The {pnk}f(eli)x Blog

The informal ramblings of an ex-pat PL enthusiast

Implicit Versus Explicit Finalization

(This post is largely a response to Niko Matsakis’s blog post Destructors and Finalizers in Rust. I started composing it as a comment there, but eventually realized I needed more breathing room.)

I agree wholeheartedly with Niko’s statement that the Boehm paper “Destructors, Finalizers, and Synchronization” is a really nice discussion of this topic. However, a significant portion of the destructor/finalizer design space is only briefly discussed in that paper, and I worry that Niko’s post overlooks it.

There are designs that do not run finalizers directly from the garbage collection process (whether that collector be a coroutine with the mutator, or a concurrently running thread), and instead run finalization code at explicit points in the code of the mutator (or mutator threads).

To me, such an approach seems appropriate for systems-level programming; it seems to align with the spirit of giving the programmer access to the set of knobs they need for explicit sequencing and resource management (or rope to hang themselves with).

Explicit Cleanup

In the guardian and reference-queue family of systems (see also wills and executors), resource cleanup code is no longer asynchronously run by the GC. Instead, cleanup is the obligation of the mutator. The only asynchronous cleanup action of the garbage collector is to add entries to the appropriate guardians/reference queues (that is, the queues associated with an object that has been appropriately registered and subsequently discovered to be unreachable).

I have included a more explicit description of what a Guardian API is like in the appendix at the end of this blog post, in case the previous paragraph was too terse.

With such an API in hand, developers can build libraries that one can plausibly reason about, in a single- or multi-threaded context.

To be fair: Boehm does address these approaches briefly; see the beginning of section 3.5.1 of his paper, “Explicit Finalizer Invocation”. However, he also mixes them in with Java’s System.runFinalization() and the motivation for that method. Thus one must take care to distinguish which of Boehm’s complaints apply to all explicit finalization systems, and which apply solely to systems such as Java with runFinalization that provide a mix of explicit and implicit finalization.

Passing the Buck

One important characteristic (some might say “drawback”) of explicit finalization approaches is that the mutator does need to periodically process its associated guardians/reference queues. After all, with the transfer of responsibility for cleanup from the collector to the mutator, the mutator must meet this obligation eventually.

One standard way to do this is to sprinkle cleanup code (i.e. “check if guardian has entries; if so, process some of them”) at points in the control flow of library routines using that guardian. (In other words, in languages with guardians, library designers can hopefully isolate the cleanup code behind the interface of the library that requires such cleanup.)

In fact, since there are distinct guardians/reference-queues, one can prioritize the scheduling (i.e. frequency and incremental-cost) of the cleanups according to the characteristics of individual libraries, within the mutator. Contrast this against relying on the scheduling of the garbage collector with its single finalization queue for the whole heap.

The two main problems with explicit cleanup from my point of view are:

  1. ensuring that the necessary processing does eventually happen (i.e. prevent resource leaks when control does not often (or ever) flow back into the developer’s library utilizing the guardian), and

  2. inserting finalizer invocations across the code of a library detracts from its readability; they are a clear example of a cross-cutting concern that should be factored into its own “aspect.”

Boehm essentially covers both of the points above (though on first reading I only interpreted him as describing the second point):

This appears to be the safest way to handle finalization in single-threaded code, although it has some clear disadvantages in certain contexts: Potentially large amounts of code, especially long running routines, must be explicitly sprinkled with finalizer invocations.

In the very worst case, in a “normal” imperative language with concurrent threads, these last two drawbacks could be addressed by the client-developer: the client-developer can set their associated cleanup code to run on a distinct thread (that the mutator manages, not the garbage collector). This avoids the ugly sprinkling/cross-cutting of concerns, and should ensure that cleanup does eventually occur (assuming correctly-written multi-threaded code, “ha ha”).

Of course, that last suggestion is essentially reimplementing the GC’s finalizer thread as a mutator process. But nonetheless, in principle this could be implemented as a library, as long as the appropriate primitives are available underneath.

By making explicit finalization expressible as a library, the developer community would be free to propose competing API’s and implementations. That seems like a good thing for a young experimental language.

(One might even be able to develop finalization libraries that are “composable”, in the sense that different finalization libraries could be used by distinct libraries in the same overall program. One could coin the term “composing decomposers” for such things.)

Wait, what was that about “normal” languages?

I wrote the end of the previous section intending for it to apply to Rust. Then I realized that I do not have enough experience writing Rust programs to be certain it is reasonable to develop a mutator-based cleanup process that runs on its own thread.

I am only discussing cleanup for structures held in managed-boxes (not in owned-boxes or stack-allocated). It might be feasible to express cleanup routines for managed boxes with relatively trivial types in Rust, at least for some libraries.

But it might be that in practice, managed boxes would generally have types that would make it impossible for a separate thread to extract them from a guardian and be able to access their contents.

There is also the serious problem that such a cleanup thread seems likely to require the use of mutex locks in order to coordinate with the “real” mutator; this in particular seems antithetical to the ideals of Rust.

(Hopefully I will soon acquire sufficient experience with Rust itself to be able to address this issue more coherently.)


I am not saying this is easy, and I am not saying that the systems I am referencing get everything right either. But implicit finalizers, even those invoked from a system-managed asynchronous thread, are not the only answer.

Perhaps my pithy summary is that: Implicit finalizers are indeed inherently asynchronous routines; but with explicit finalization, one has more options (yet still may be able to fall back on asynchrony if necessary).

So, what does all of this mean for Rust? Well, Niko already suggested limiting destructors solely to types that contain only “owned data.”

I have no problem with that, since it clearly deals with all of the issues that Boehm described.

But my suspicion is that Rust developers will soon discover that one really does need the GC to feed information forward about the managed boxes that it is collecting. And so we will then be at a crossroads: Put in Java-style finalizers, or adopt another approach?

My goal is to make sure we remember to consider those other approaches when we hit that crossroads.


  1. “Destructors and Finalizers in Rust”
    Niko Matsakis
    Blog post, 2013
  2. “Destructors, Finalizers, and Synchronization”
    Hans Boehm
    HP Tech Report; POPL 2003
  3. “Guardians in a Generation-Based Garbage Collector”
    Dybvig, Bruggeman, and Eby
    PLDI, 1993
  4. “How to Handle Java Finalization’s Memory-Retention Issues”
    Tony Printezis
    Tech Report, 2007
  5. “Wills and Executors”
    PLT Racket Reference Documentation
  6. “Implementing User-level Value-weak Hashtables”
    Aaron Hsu
    Scheme Workshop 2010
    (I only properly appreciated the value (and difficulties) of using guardians for such purposes after I read this paper)

Appendix A. What are Guardians?

I here outline a concrete example of how this works in the case of Guardians (adapted from Hsu). (To aid readability, I have replaced the use of procedure-arity-based-dispatch, as written by Hsu to match the Chez Scheme API, and I am rewriting his example with a new distinct named procedures .)

One can construct as many guardian instances (or simply “guardians”) as one wants. Each guardian is associated with two things:

  1. reclaimable : a set of objects previously determined to be reclaimable by the garbage collector, and
  2. registry : a set of objects scheduled to be eventually enqueued in the first set.

Both of these sets are initially empty when the guardian is constructed.

> (define g (make-guardian))
> (define v "VAL")
> (define p (weak-cons v '())
> (guardian-register! g v)

> (set! v #f)                    ;; Now `"VAL"` is unreachable via strong-refs ...
> (guardian-fetch! g)            ;; ... but GC has not discovered that yet.

> (collect-garbage)              ;; `"VAL"` is still unreachable ...
> p                              ;; ... though one can access via weak paths ...
> (define x (guardian-fetch! g)) ;; ... and the guardian held it in `reclaimable`
> x

                                 ;; At this point, "VAL" is again strongly reachable
                                 ;; (via `x`).  However, it is *not* in either of the
                                 ;; sets for the guardian `g`, and thus is not scheduled
                                 ;; to be enqueued in the `reclaimable` set.

> (set! x #f)                    ;; Now "VAL" is no longer strongly reachable...
> (collect-garbage)
> p                              ;; ... and thus can be reclaimed.

So, what does this have to do with finalization?

With the guardian API in hand, one could take care of closing individual file descriptors associated with heap-allocated file objects, by a protocol such as:

  1. Create one guardian G for the file library, whose sole purpose is closing file descriptors.

  2. In the constructor for file objects, register each constructed file object with G.

  3. In a periodic process, dequeue objects from G and close their associated file descriptors.

Appendix B. Another peeve about guardians

One idiosyncrasy about a lot of the guardian-like systems is that they enqueue the original object for processing, which is quite counter-intuitive to me given the effort that the GC went through to determine that the object was otherwise unreachable.

Perhaps this could be addressed by using something like the model described at the start of section 3.1 of Boehm’s paper, “Alternatives”; namely, instead of enqueuing the unreachable object on a reference queue, the GC could instead enqueue an associated distinct cleanup object, and reclaim the originally registered object itself. (Boehm states that such a cleanup object falls victim to all the same problems, but as I understand it, that is only true if it is invoked by the GC in the same way that Java-style finalizers are invoked, as described in his paper.)

The associated cleanup object would need to carry any state necessary for the cleanup action (e.g., the file descriptor itself). So that seems like a potential for ugly redundancy and wastage (in either time or space, depending on whether uses a level of indirection or simply redundantly stores all the necessary state in the object and in its associated cleanup object.).

But nonetheless, a decoupled system like this may be easier to reason about, especially when one has scenarios where an object is registered with multiple guardians/reference-queues.

As far as I understand, the reference queue system in Java, as described by Printezis, is sufficient to express a structure like this. Still, it would be interesting to know whether any managed runtimes offer only guardians/reference-queues with this style of distinct associated cleanup objects; I am not aware of any that are so conservative. I might attempt to hack one up in the future.