Understanding garbage collection in .NET

You are being tripped up here and drawing very wrong conclusions because you are using a debugger. You’ll need to run your code the way it runs on your user’s machine. Switch to the Release build first with Build + Configuration manager, change the “Active solution configuration” combo in the upper left corner to “Release”. Next, go into Tools + Options, Debugging, General and untick the “Suppress JIT optimization” option.

Now run your program again and tinker with the source code. Note how the extra braces have no effect at all. And note how setting the variable to null makes no difference at all. It will always print “1”. It now works the way you hope and expected it would work.

Which does leave with the task of explaining why it works so differently when you run the Debug build. That requires explaining how the garbage collector discovers local variables and how that’s affected by having a debugger present.

First off, the jitter performs two important duties when it compiles the IL for a method into machine code. The first one is very visible in the debugger, you can see the machine code with the Debug + Windows + Disassembly window. The second duty is however completely invisible. It also generates a table that describes how the local variables inside the method body are used. That table has an entry for each method argument and local variable with two addresses. The address where the variable will first store an object reference. And the address of the machine code instruction where that variable is no longer used. Also whether that variable is stored on the stack frame or a cpu register.

This table is essential to the garbage collector, it needs to know where to look for object references when it performs a collection. Pretty easy to do when the reference is part of an object on the GC heap. Definitely not easy to do when the object reference is stored in a CPU register. The table says where to look.

The “no longer used” address in the table is very important. It makes the garbage collector very efficient. It can collect an object reference, even if it is used inside a method and that method hasn’t finished executing yet. Which is very common, your Main() method for example will only ever stop executing just before your program terminates. Clearly you would not want any object references used inside that Main() method to live for the duration of the program, that would amount to a leak. The jitter can use the table to discover that such a local variable is no longer useful, depending on how far the program has progressed inside that Main() method before it made a call.

An almost magic method that is related to that table is GC.KeepAlive(). It is a very special method, it doesn’t generate any code at all. Its only duty is to modify that table. It extends the lifetime of the local variable, preventing the reference it stores from getting garbage collected. The only time you need to use it is to stop the GC from being to over-eager with collecting a reference, that can happen in interop scenarios where a reference is passed to unmanaged code. The garbage collector cannot see such references being used by such code since it wasn’t compiled by the jitter so doesn’t have the table that says where to look for the reference. Passing a delegate object to an unmanaged function like EnumWindows() is the boilerplate example of when you need to use GC.KeepAlive().

So, as you can tell from your sample snippet after running it in the Release build, local variables can get collected early, before the method finished executing. Even more powerfully, an object can get collected while one of its methods runs if that method no longer refers to this. There is a problem with that, it is very awkward to debug such a method. Since you may well put the variable in the Watch window or inspect it. And it would disappear while you are debugging if a GC occurs. That would be very unpleasant, so the jitter is aware of there being a debugger attached. It then modifies the table and alters the “last used” address. And changes it from its normal value to the address of the last instruction in the method. Which keeps the variable alive as long as the method hasn’t returned. Which allows you to keep watching it until the method returns.

This now also explains what you saw earlier and why you asked the question. It prints “0” because the GC.Collect call cannot collect the reference. The table says that the variable is in use past the GC.Collect() call, all the way up to the end of the method. Forced to say so by having the debugger attached and by running the Debug build.

Setting the variable to null does have an effect now because the GC will inspect the variable and will no longer see a reference. But make sure you don’t fall in the trap that many C# programmers have fallen into, actually writing that code was pointless. It makes no difference whatsoever whether or not that statement is present when you run the code in the Release build. In fact, the jitter optimizer will remove that statement since it has no effect whatsoever. So be sure to not write code like that, even though it seemed to have an effect.

One final note about this topic, this is what gets programmers in trouble that write small programs to do something with an Office app. The debugger usually gets them on the Wrong Path, they want the Office program to exit on demand. The appropriate way to do that is by calling GC.Collect(). But they’ll discover that it doesn’t work when they debug their app, leading them into never-never land by calling Marshal.ReleaseComObject(). Manual memory management, it rarely works properly because they’ll easily overlook an invisible interface reference. GC.Collect() actually works, just not when you debug the app.

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