Thursday, May 01, 2008

.NET Garbage Collection Behavior for Release Code

Every so often, I pick up my copy of Jeffrey Richter's CLR via C# which provides a great low level look at the .NET Framework intrinsics. When I read this book two things are likely to happen, either I fall fast asleep, or I discover something that makes my head snaps backward at break-neck speeds. Here's a great mind bender on garbage collection. Take this simple console program:

public class Program
    public static void Main()
        // setup a call back for every two seconds
        Timer t = new Timer(Callback,null,0,2000);
    private static void Callback(object state)
        Console.WriteLine("Callback called.");

This simple console program when compiled in Debug mode has different behavior than when it's compiled in Release mode.

Skeptic? Try it.

Debug Mode:

  1. Compile the solution in Debug mode.
  2. Open a command-prompt and execute the app
  3. The callback is called every two seconds until the Console reads a line.

Release Mode:

  1. Compile the solution in Release mode.
  2. Open a command-prompt and execute the app
  3. The callback is only called once.

...does your neck hurt? ;-)

In Release mode, the code and the JIT compiler are optimized. At the first callback where we force Garbage Collection, the Garbage Collector determines that our timer is not used in the remainder of the Main method, therefore not "rooted", and can be safely garbage collected. As this behavior would wreak havoc on debugging sessions, the JIT compiler treats un-optimized code (Debug) differently: it artificially "roots" all variables within a method to prevent them from premature garbage collection. Note that release code running under a Visual Studio debugging session will have the same behavior as debug code, that's why you need to run them from the command-line. You can fix this code by adding another call to our timer object further on down the method. When the Garbage Collector runs it will walk the stack and determine that our variable is "rooted" and our Release code will work just like our Debug counter-part.

Here's our Main method modified to prove that point:

public static void Main()
    Timer t = new Timer(CallBack,null,0,2000);
    // our object is now rooted and will survive garbage collection

Jeff also points out that simply adding code like:

t = null;

...won't change anything since this line will be optimized out of the code during JIT compilation. In short, what this means is that all objects don't have to fall out of scope (ie, end of the method) to be garbage collected. The garbage collector operates under the assumption that all objects are garbage until proven useful, regardless of where the object appears on the stack. So if you're not using it, the garbage collector is going to throw it out.

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Sandeep Kumar said...

Thanks Bryan,

I was also baffled by this seemigly strange behavior. I took the workaround of putting build in Debug mode. But your solution really made it work as it was supposed to work.

bryan said...

Glad this was helpful for you!

Zlaty said...

Thank you very much Bryan,

You helped me very much! I didn't call the Garbage Collector explicitly in my program and I didn't expect that this is the problem. Now my program is working very good not only in Debug mode but also in Release mode.
Thank you very much once again!