The Lifecycle of a Reference

Over two and half years ago, I described something I called Gradual Memory Management. Inspired by Rust and Pony, my paper proposed that it is feasible and desirable for a systems programming language to allow programs to exploit multiple memory management and permission strategies. Without putting memory and data race safety at risk, doing so would facilitate significant improvements to throughput and latency, even in multi-threaded architectures. It is easy to propose wild ideas in words.

The Fascinating Influence of Cyclone

In 2001, Trevor Jim (AT&T Research) and Greg Morrisett (Cornell) launched a joint project to develop a safe dialect of the C programming language, an outgrowth of earlier work on Typed Assembly Language. After five years of hard work and some published papers, the team (including Dan Grossman, Michael Hicks, Nik Swamy, and others) released Cyclone 1.0. And then the developers moved on to other things. Few have heard of Cyclone and almost no one has used it.

Transitional Permissions

To complete our three-part series on permissions, which began with Race-Safe Strategies, let’s talk about the transitional nature of reference permissions. When are permissions transitional? When we can safely create a copy of a reference which has a different permission than the reference it copied from. There are several ways in which this can happen, which this diagram summarizes (and the following sections explain): The following sections describe the nature of several one-way transitions that flow downward in the diagram.

Interior References and Shared Mutability

In my last post, Race-safe Strategies, one footnote stated “safety issues which look suspiciously similar to race conditions can crop up when a language supports the creation of “interior references” to shared, mutable values of certain types”. Let’s explore that now. I will begin by recapitulating Manish Goregaokar’s excellent post “The Problem With Single-Threaded Shared Mutable”. His post clearly explains why the Rust language wishes to steer developers towards RefCell for shared references over use of Cell, its inflexible shared, mutable counterpart.

Race-Safe Strategies

I recently made the observation that many people seem unaware of the full collection of constraint mechanisms available for protecting race safety. Someone sensibly asked for a link to an article that provides a modern, comprehensive review. It turns out that the pickings are very slim; the best I could find is this Wikipedia article on thread safety. It’s accurate, but incomplete. To close that gap, let me take a stab here at more comprehensive treatment.