Taming the Memory Beast

A Friendly Dive into Go's Garbage Collection System

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Taming the Memory Beast

The Go garbage collector is not a toy. It is a concurrent collector, which means that it runs concurrently with the program it is collecting. It is also parallel, meaning that it uses multiple threads to run even faster.

  • Rob Pike, co-creator of Go


Hey there, fellow Gophers! Have you ever wondered how Go manages memory behind the scenes? That's right, we're talking about garbage collection. In this blog post, we'll explore Go's garbage collection system, the reasons behind using a non-compacting garbage collector, the role of the pacer and GC pressure, and some tips to optimize memory management in your Go applications. Let's dive in!

1. Memory Management and Garbage Collection: The Basics

In any programming language, memory management is an essential aspect of keeping your applications running smoothly. And Go is no exception! As your app creates and uses data structures, it's important to allocate and deallocate memory efficiently. That's where garbage collection comes into play.

Garbage collection (GC) is a mechanism that automatically reclaims memory that is no longer being used by your application. Basically, it's like having a little helper who's constantly tidying up your memory, ensuring that it's neat and organized.

The primary purpose of garbage collection is to help prevent memory leaks, which can occur when your app allocates memory but doesn't release it when it's no longer needed. Memory leaks can cause your application to consume more and more memory over time, eventually leading to poor performance or even crashes.

Go's garbage collector is designed to work efficiently and concurrently with your application, handling memory allocation and deallocation tasks without getting in the way of your app's performance. In the following sections, we'll take a closer look at how Go's garbage collector works and how you can make the most of it in your applications.

2. Go's Garbage Collector: A Concurrent, Tri-color Mark and Sweep Algorithm

Go's garbage collector uses a concurrent, tri-color mark and sweep algorithm. It works in two main phases:

  1. Mark: The GC finds and marks all the objects in the heap that are still in use (live objects).

  2. Sweep: The GC goes through the heap and frees up memory taken by objects that aren't in use anymore (dead objects).

The tri-colour part of the algorithm refers to the three colors used to represent the objects during the mark phase:

  • White: Objects that haven't been marked yet.

  • Grey: Objects that are marked but still have children that need to be processed.

  • Black: Objects that are marked and have all their children processed.

The garbage collector runs alongside your app, so it doesn't pause everything while it works. However, there are some short Stop-The-World (STW) pauses needed for certain GC tasks.

2.1 Understanding the Object Graph in Go's Garbage Collection

In order to identify live objects during the mark phase, the garbage collector needs to traverse the object graph. The object graph is a representation of all the objects in your application's memory and the relationships (references) between them. Let's dive into what the object graph is and how it's used during garbage collection.

An object graph is a directed graph where the nodes represent objects, and the edges represent references between objects. The roots of the object graph are the starting points for the garbage collector's traversal. These roots typically include global variables, function arguments, and local variables on the stack.

The garbage collector starts traversing the object graph from the roots and follows the references between objects. During the traversal, the GC marks each visited object as live, indicating that it's still in use by your application. Once the entire object graph has been traversed, the garbage collector can determine which objects are dead and can be safely deallocated during the sweep phase.

2.2 STW Phases in Go's Garbage Collection

There are two main STW phases in Go's garbage collection process:

  1. STW Mark Termination: Before the mark phase begins, there's a short STW pause to ensure that all goroutines have reached a GC safe-point. This pause allows the garbage collector to set up the necessary data structures and prepare the tri-color marking process. During this pause, all goroutines are stopped, and the GC can start scanning the roots of the object graph (e.g., global variables and stack pointers).

  2. STW Mark Cleanup: After the mark phase is completed and all live objects have been marked, there's another short STW pause for mark cleanup. During this pause, the garbage collector prepares the sweep phase by updating the free object lists and clearing the mark bits. This allows the concurrent sweep phase to start deallocating dead objects without any conflicts.

It's important to note that these STW pauses are typically very short, lasting only a few milliseconds. The Go team has made significant efforts to minimize the duration of these pauses to ensure that your app remains responsive.

2.3 Mark Assist: Helping Out the Garbage Collector

Since Go's garbage collector runs concurrently with your app, sometimes the application can allocate memory faster than the GC can keep up with. To prevent the heap from growing too much in these situations, Go introduces a mechanism called Mark Assist.

Mark Assist is a way for your app's goroutines to pitch in and help the garbage collector with the marking process. When the GC is running, if a goroutine allocates memory and the pacer determines that the heap is growing too quickly, the goroutine will be asked to perform some marking work before it can continue allocating memory. This cooperative approach helps to keep the heap size under control and the garbage collection process running smoothly.

By having your app's goroutines contribute to the marking process, Mark Assist ensures that the garbage collector can keep up with the memory allocation demands of your application. This collaboration helps maintain a balanced and efficient memory management system in Go, allowing your app to stay responsive and perform well even under heavy memory allocation loads.

2.4 Embracing Non-Compacting Garbage Collection in Go

Unlike some other garbage collection systems, Go's garbage collector is non-compacting. This means that it doesn't move live objects around in memory to reduce fragmentation. Instead, Go relies on a technique called "bump-pointer allocation" to quickly allocate memory in contiguous blocks. So, why did the Go team choose a non-compacting garbage collector?

The primary reason is to keep garbage collection pauses short and predictable. Compacting garbage collectors may cause longer pauses since they have to move objects around in memory, which can lead to performance degradation in some cases. Go's non-compacting garbage collector helps maintain the responsiveness of your application even during garbage collection cycles.

Another advantage of a non-compacting garbage collector is that it plays well with Go's concurrent execution model. Since objects aren't moved in memory, there's no need to worry about updating references to those objects during garbage collection. This makes it easier to reason about memory management in your Go programs, as you don't have to deal with complex synchronization issues.

Although non-compacting garbage collectors can sometimes lead to memory fragmentation, Go's garbage collector and memory allocator are designed to minimize fragmentation as much as possible. By using a combination of size classes, spans, and other memory management techniques, Go effectively manages memory fragmentation without the need for a compacting garbage collector.

2.4.1 Pinning Memory in Go

Although Go's garbage collector is non-compacting, there might be situations where you need to ensure that an object stays at a specific memory address. In such cases, you can use a technique called "memory pinning" to prevent the garbage collector from moving an object in memory.

Memory pinning is useful when you need to interface with external code, such as C libraries, that require stable memory addresses for data structures. It's important to note that, since Go's garbage collector is non-compacting by default, you generally don't need to worry about pinning memory explicitly in your Go programs. However, if you're working with code that requires specific memory locations, you can use the "unsafe" package or cgo to handle these situations.

Here's an example of how you might use cgo to pin memory for a C function that expects a pointer to an array:

package main
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>

void copy_data(void *dst, void *src, size_t n) {
    memcpy(dst, src, n);
import "C"
import (

func main() {
    src := []byte("Hello, world!")
    dst := make([]byte, len(src))

    C.copy_data(unsafe.Pointer(&dst[0]), unsafe.Pointer(&src[0]), C.size_t(len(src)))

    fmt.Println(string(dst)) // Output: Hello, world!

In this example, we use cgo to call a C function (copy_data) that requires pointers to the source and destination arrays. By passing the address of the first element in each Go slice, we ensure that the memory is pinned and the C function can safely access the data.

Remember that using the "unsafe" package or cgo should be done with caution, as it can introduce potential security and stability issues if not used correctly. Always consider alternative, safer options before resorting to pinning memory in your Go programs.

2.5 Finding the Sweet Spot: Adjusting GC Frequency in Go

You might be curious about how often Go's garbage collector kicks in and whether you can influence it. Well, good news! You can actually adjust the frequency of garbage collection to find the perfect balance between reclaiming memory efficiently and keeping your application's performance smooth.

In Go, the frequency at which the garbage collector does its job is determined by a little thing called the GOGC environment variable. This variable controls the heap growth ratio. By default, GOGC is set to 100, which means that the garbage collector starts a new cycle when the heap size reaches double the size of the previous heap after the last collection.

Now, here's where you can play around and find the sweet spot for your application:

  • If you increase the GOGC value, the garbage collector will take a break and run less often. This might boost your app's performance but could lead to more memory usage.

  • On the other hand, if you decrease the GOGC value, the garbage collector will work more frequently. This can help save memory but might increase the CPU overhead.

To change the GOGC value for your application, you can simply set the environment variable before running your program:

$ export GOGC=200
$ ./my-go-app

Or, if you prefer, you can set the GOGC value right within your Go code using the debug.SetGCPercent function from the runtime/debug package:

import "runtime/debug"

func main() {
    debug.SetGCPercent(200) // Set GOGC to 200

    // ... your application code ...

3. The Pacer and GC Pressure: Keeping Things Balanced in Golang Garbage Collection

The pacer is a key part of Go's garbage collector, helping find the sweet spot between how much memory your app uses, how efficient allocations are, and how short GC pause times can be. Let's talk about the pacer's role and how it handles GC pressure in Go apps.

GC pressure is like a measure of how much your app demands garbage collection. High GC pressure might mean your app is allocating memory super quickly or has lots of short-lived objects. This can lead to more frequent garbage collection cycles and maybe even longer pause times.

Here's how the pacer keeps GC pressure under control in Go apps:

a. Watching heap growth: The pacer keeps an eye on the heap size and how fast memory is being allocated, adjusting the target heap size accordingly. If the heap grows too fast, the pacer will start a garbage collection cycle sooner to bring memory usage and GC pressure down.

b. Adapting to your app: The pacer changes its behavior based on your app's allocation patterns and the desired GC pause time. For example, if your app creates lots of short-lived objects, the pacer might trigger garbage collection more often to keep up.

c. Balancing act: The pacer tries to strike the perfect balance between short pause times and efficient memory usage. It sets a target heap size that leaves some room for memory overhead while still trying to keep GC pause times in check.

By adjusting the target heap size and garbage collection frequency on the fly, the pacer helps manage GC pressure in Go apps. This adaptability makes sure the garbage collector stays efficient and responsive, even as your app's memory usage patterns change over time.

4. Making Garbage Collection in Go Even Better

Go's garbage collector is already quite efficient and performant, but there's always room for improvement! Here are a few tips to make garbage collection in your Go applications even better:

  1. Reduce allocations: By minimizing the number of objects created, you can reduce the work the garbage collector has to do. Be mindful of your memory usage and avoid allocating objects when they're not necessary. Consider using object pools for frequently allocated and deallocated objects.

  2. Use value types when possible: Using value types (e.g., structs) instead of reference types (e.g., pointers) can help reduce the load on the garbage collector, as value types are typically allocated on the stack and don't need to be garbage collected.

  3. Optimize your data structures: Choosing the right data structure for your use case can help minimize memory usage and make garbage collection more efficient. For example, use slices instead of linked lists when possible, as slices have a lower memory overhead.

  4. Monitor GC performance: Keep an eye on your application's garbage collection performance by monitoring GC-related metrics like pause times and heap size. This can help you identify potential issues and make necessary optimizations.

  5. Adjust GOGC environment variable: You can control the aggressiveness of Go's garbage collector by adjusting the GOGC environment variable. A higher GOGC value will make the garbage collector run less frequently, potentially improving performance at the cost of increased memory usage.

By following these tips, you can further optimize the garbage collection process in your Go applications and ensure that your app stays responsive and performant.


Go's garbage collection system is designed to provide efficient, concurrent, and easy-to-understand memory management for your applications. With its tri-colour mark and sweep algorithm, short STW pauses, and cooperative mechanisms like Mark Assist, the garbage collector effectively handles memory allocation and deallocation tasks while maintaining responsiveness.

Understanding the role of the object graph, the pacer, GC pressure, as well as the different phases and components of Go's garbage collector, can help you optimize your application's memory usage and performance. By following best practices for memory management in Go, you can build powerful, high-performance applications that make the most of Go's robust and efficient garbage collection system. Happy coding!

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