# Tail Recursion Without Space Leaks

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1 Tail Recursion Without Space Leaks Richard Jones Computing Laboratory University of Kent at Canterbury Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7NF rejukc.ac.uk Abstract The G-machine (Johnsson, 1987; Peyton Jones, 1987) is a compiled graph reduction machine for lazy functional languages. The G-machine compiler contains many optimisations to improve performance. One set of such optimisations is designed to improve the performance of tail recursive functions. Unfortunately the abstract machine is subject to a space leak objects are unnecessarily preserved by the garbage collector. This paper analyses why a particular form of space leak occurs in the G-machine, and presents some ideas for fixing this problem. This phenomena in other abstract machines is also examined briefly. 1. Compilers for conventional imperative languages How might a simple Pascal procedure, like the one shown below, be implemented? procedure f; begin... g; end; Typically the procedure which called f would set up a new stack frame for it, including such information as return addresses and any arguments passed to f. In turn, a naïve implementation of f might set up a further stack frame for g. This is called a tail call. However, it is clearly unnecessary to retain f s stack frame since its information (apart from the return address) will never be used again. The implementation can be improved by jumping to g rather than calling it. In doing so, the same stack frame, including f s return address, can be used for g as was used for f. If the tail call is recursive, the situation is called tail recursion, and the effect of jumping rather than calling is to turn recursion into iteration, which can be performed in constant space (Steele, 1977; Bauer, 1982). 2. Simple graph reducers get this optimisation for free Graph reduction (Wadsworth, 1971) is one method of implementing lazy functional languages. The essential idea behind it is as follows: to reduce an expression (1) construct the graph of the expression; (2) unwind the spine of this graph (leaving pointers to vertebrae application nodes on the stack) until the object in the function position (the leftmost, outermost term) is discovered; (3) if this object is indeed a function, and all its arguments are present, apply the function to its arguments; 1

2 (4) overwrite the redex node with the (root of the) result it may in turn be a graph; (5) go to (2). Turner (1979) observed that one property of graph reduction was to perform tail recursion in constant stack space without any explicit tail-call optimisation being used. Nevertheless, the Construct Unwind Overwrite cycle wastes both time and heap space. For example, regardless of whether or not it is known at compile-time just what will be found in the leftmost, outermost position, the graph of an expression is still constructed, and its spine unwound. Such problems are addressed by compiled versions of graph reduction, which are discussed next. 3. The G-machine shortcircuits this mechanism The G-machine is a very fast implementation of graph reduction based on compiling supercombinators (Hughes, 1984; Johnsson, 1987), that includes a large number of compile-time optimisations to improve performance. For tail calls in particular, rather than constructing the graph of functions applied to arguments, calling functions rearrange the, replacing their own arguments with the arguments of the called function. The machine then jumps to the code of the called function. This is known as DISPATCHing 1. Both calling and called function now share the same redex cell in the heap. If insufficient arguments are available, the graph of the application may have to be constructed and the redex overwritten in the same way as in the naïve reduction scheme A problem with tail recursion in the standard G-machine Unfortunately this scheme introduces a space leak (Wadler, 1987) not present in the naïve scheme, even though it uses less heap space. A space leak causes memory space to leak away invisibly; it occurs when a program retains a connection to an unnecessarily large graph, rather than releasing it for recycling by the garbage collector. For this reason, this phenomenon is also often known as dragging. Space leaks are a common problem in lazy functional languages (Hughes, 1984); Stoye, 1985; Peyton Jones, 1987, Chapter 23). As a simple example, consider the function which returns the item of a (finite) list. It is assumed that the redex does contain the application, [ ]. This cell is the source of the space leak. let :: [ ] l = if (t = nil) then (head l) else t where t = tail l in [ ] 1 The notation and method of Peyton Jones (1987) are used here. 2 Actually it is possible to do better than this. This scheme permits many other compiletime and run-time optimisations when the arity of the called function and the number of ribs currently on the are known. Details are given in Peyton Jones (1987),Chapter 21. 2

3 Figure 1 below shows the state of the naïve graph reducer after each call of. At each step, the redex is overwritten with the application of to the rest of the list. The front of the list is thus available for recycling by the garbage collector. available for recycling by the Garbage Collector : [ ] 1 [ ] Figure 1 after UPDATE at the end of each call to in the naïve graph reducer Notice that under lazy evaluation the list [ ] might only be produced as consumes it the list need not exist at the beginning of the application [ ]. Thus space complexity can become constant rather than linear. The G-machine, on the other hand, avoids overwriting the redex at each stage. Rather the stack is rearranged to point at the tail of the list, and is DISPATCHed (Figure 2) again. No overwrite occurs until the end of the final tail call. Consequently, the redex still holds pointers to the original argument, [ ], no part of which can be reclaimed by the garbage collector. : [ ] 1 [ ] Figure 2: before DISPATCH at the end of each call to in the standard G- machine 5. Stop the garbage collector scavenging the redex The solution is to prevent the garbage collector from reaching the arguments of the function via the redex node, and hence marking them as wanted, Although the redex cell itself must be preserved by the garbage collector it will be needed for overwriting by the eventual update (assuming termination) the contents of this cell need not be preserved. The simplest way of doing this is to blackhole the redex by overwriting (the tag of) the redex cell with a HOLE (Figure 3). HOLE : 1 [ ] Figure 3: blackholing the redex 3

5 AP AP Figure 4: unwinding an unshared application cell If the redex is an AP, unwinding will not cause a space leak as the pointer to the application node is removed from the stack. This node can now be recycled by the garbage collector (Figure 4). On the other hand, if the redex is shared (a SAP cell), such a space leak is once again possible as the redex is still scavenged by the garbage collector. Blackholing plugs this leak in the Spineless G-machine (Figure 5). SAP SAP Figure 5: unwinding a shared application cell The TIM (Fairbairn, 1987) and the Spineless Tagless G-machine (Peyton Jones, 1989) are compiled closure reducers rather than graph reducers. Nevertheless the presence of TIM s markers on the stack ( update frames in the Spineless Tagless G- machine) to support laziness leads to the same problem closures in the heap, that will not be used again until they are overwritten with a result, are still scavenged by the garbage collector. The solution is to overwrite the code pointer of every shared closure, on entry, with pointer for the blackhole code. This prevents the garbage collector discovering other pointers in the closure, and again allows detection of certain forms of non-termination. 8. Results Some results are presented below. In each case, the heap size of the machine was tuned to find the smallest possible heap in which the program could still run. Minimum heap space requirement (words) Program without blackholing with blackholing reverse tree_sort insert_sort nth_prime queens digits_of_e Further tests reveal that with blackholing now has constant residency rather than O(n); reverse (accumulating parameter version) has reduced its asymptotic residency by 21%, tree_sort by 32%, and insert_sort by 28%. 5

6 9. Conclusion Space leaks are a major unresolved problem of lazy functional programming. It seems clear that there is no single overall solution to this problem, although a number of partial solutions have been proposed, e.g. (Wadler, 1987; Peyton Jones, 1987). In general there are a number of distinct causes of space leaks, each requiring a different solution. The whole area requires careful attention in a functional language implementation. In this article, attention has been drawn to a source of space leaks associated with tail call optimisation and it has been shown how this source can be removed. Moreover, a source of non-termination can now be actively discovered. The method is cheap to implement, safe and plugs all space leaks of this form. Furthermore, it is minimal in the sense that it avoids performing multiple blackholing operations on known redexes, although it is possible that a redex might be blackholed more than once in the unwinding process. By statically analysing the code, further improvements can be made which specialise the actions of functions so that only those functions which could cause a space leak need to take action to avoid the leak. Finally the application of this idea to other abstract machines has been sketched. 10. Acknowledgements I am most grateful to David Turner, and to the anonymous referees for their useful comments on an earlier draft of this article, in particular for the mechanism used by the Spineless Tagless G-machine. 11. References Bauer, F.L. and Wössner, H Algorithmic Language and Program Development. Springer Verlag, Berlin (1982). Burn, G.L., Peyton Jones, S.L. and Robson, J.D The Spineless G-machine. In ACM Conference on Lisp and Functional Programming, Snowbird, July, pp Fairbairn, J. and Wray, S.C Tim a simple lazy abstract machine to execute supercombinators. In IFIP Conference on Functional Programming and Computer Architecture, Portland, September, pp Hughes, R.J.M The design and implementation of programming languages, PhD thesis, PRG-40, University of Oxford. Johnsson, T Compiling Lazy Functional Languages, PhD thesis, Chalmers University of Technology. Peyton Jones, S.L The Implementation of Functional Programming Languages. Prentice-Hall (1987). Peyton Jones, S.L. and Salkild, J The Spineless Tagless G-machine. In IFIP Conference on Functional Programming and Computer Architecture, London, August, pp Steele, G.L. and Sussman, G.J Lambda the ultimate goto. Tech. Report 443, AI Memo, MIT AI Laboratory. Stoye, W.R., Clarke, T.J.W. and Norman, A.C Some Practical Methods for Rapid Combinator Reduction. In ACM Conference on Lisp and Functional Programming, Austin. Stoye, W.R The implementation of functional languages using custom hardware, PhD thesis, Computing Laboratory, University of Cambridge, Tech. Report 81, (December). Turner, D.A A new implementation technique for applicative languages. Software Practice and Experience 9, pp Wadler, P Plumbers and dustmen: Fixing a space leak with a garbage collector. Software Practice and Experience 17, pp

7 Wadsworth, C.P The Semantics and Pragmatics of the Lambda Calculus, PhD thesis, University of Oxford. 7

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