Garbage collection in V8, an illustrated guide

Irina Shestak
4 min readMar 25, 2017

This guide is unlike others I’ve done so far, and has a bit of a narrative to go along with the sketches. I thought the entire concept of garbage collection and how it gets dealt with in javascript, or more specifically in engines that run javascript, deserves a bit more of an explanation. I would also like to mention that this guide is meant to be beginner friendly, and does not cover every aspect of memory management within V8, and the rest of V8 internals. I’ve added a bunch of resources, if you want to delve into it more. This guide also focuses on ✨ javascript ✨, obviously garbage collection is different in things like C.

Ok, so let’s get started.

What’s v8?

V8, the javascript runtime engine, not to be confused with your fav tomato juice 🍹, compiles and executes your beautifully written javascript. V8 comes with a generational, stop-the-world garbage collector, which I am going to try to explain below. It comes hand in hand together with Chrome. SpiderMonkey would be the Mozilla’s equivalent, and Chakra, Microsoft’s. Basically when running javascript, you need an engine to handle it for ya and V8 is one of your options, whether it’s in the browser or in node.js environment. (P.S. it’s all ✨ open-source ✨.)

What is garbage collection?

The essential point of garbage collection is the ability to manage memory usage by a specific program. Languages such as C are generally able to hook into program’s memory management and allocate and free object within the context of the program. ECMAScript, on the other hand, lacks that particular interface to access memory management (yes, that means no API). Which basically means all memory management rights™ in a program get passed over to V8.

Since we don’t have access to infinite amount of memory, garbage collector’s job is to go through objects that are allocated in memory and determine whether they are dead or alive. Those that are alive get to stay in memory, those that are dead get removed, and memory gets allocated back to the heap.

What’s a heap though? A heap is an unstructured region, where the objects get allocated memory. This kind of allocation is dynamic, since the size / lifetime / quantity of objects is unknown, so it needs to be allocated and deallocated at runtime.

So if we look at the concurrency model, heap works directly with the call stack, as the objects showing up in the stack require memory allocation. It would look something like this:

Dead or alive?

The basic check for when an object is dead or alive, is whether or not the client, or the program that executes the code, can reach it. The most reachable object you can think of, is probably an object defined in root scope.

Some C++ bindings (or web APIs on the client) are also part of the root, so you can access things like setInterval directly.

Reachability could also be thought of as whether or not another object or root can get a hold of it, if it can, the memory required by that object gets kept.

So how do we get to garbage collection even? (tell me! tell me!)

V8 allocates memory in the heap as you create new objects, or new ‘pointers’. (javascript doesn’t have real pointers, so ‘pointers’ are technically just copied references to an original object). There are a bunch of different spaces for different types of objects in the heap, and it would be organized something like this:

For purposes of garbage collection, V8 divides the heap into two parts: yung space and old space. When you perform an operations that requires V8 to allocate memory, V8 allocates space in the first portion. As you keep adding things to the heap, you eventually run out memory, so V8 will have to run a collection to clean up. Newly created objects are allocated super quickly and get scavenged (a shorter and quicker collection) on regular bases to remove already dead objects. Once the objects ‘survive’ a few(two to be exact) scavenges, they get promoted to old space, which gets garbage collected in a separate cycle when full.

Older objects are the ones that survived more than one garbage sweep, meaning they keep being referenced by other objects and still need that memory allocation. They normally don’t reference younger objects, but do reference older ones. The lack of intergenerational intermingling makes for a cleaner sweep with each collection.

🆒 sources.js

This guide is crossposted from lrlna’s sketchin guide on githubz ✨ 🐱.