The Lifecycle of a Reference

Page content

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. It is a lot of work to implement them, prove they work, and then demonstrate they add more value than cost. Before I could implement these ideas, I first needed to design a compelling and compatible language (Cone), and then build enough of its compiler that it was ready to host the reference-based mechanisms described by the paper. That has taken years, and has been rewarding on its own. I am proud of what Cone is becoming.

Excitedly, it seems we are (at last!) rapidly converging on the inflection point where a proper implementation of the paper’s mechanisms becomes possible. Although the paper remains largely sound, it shows its age. Much has been learned since then, enabling the core ideas to be refined, adjusted and deepened. Since then, the paper’s abstract concepts have been made more concrete, both syntactically and semantically.

I have elaborated on several of these mechanisms (e.g., lifetimes, permissions, and reference type semantics) in prior posts. Over the next two posts, I want to close more of this gap, turning semi-vague concepts into a detailed versatile design. In this post, I dive into significant detail about the compiler’s view of Cone’s reference semantics.

Reference Mechanisms

References are easily the most complex and innovative type in Cone’s type system. A reference is a safe-to-use pointer type that not only specifies the type of the object it points to, but also its:

  • Region, the memory management strategy responsible for ensuring the object’s memory is automatically and safely reclaimed. Beyond the built-in global and stack-based regions, Cone supports a versatile range of heap-based region strategies, including single-owner (e.g., Rust’s Box<T>), reference counting, tracing garbage collection, arenas, and pools. Importantly, references lacking a region are called borrowed references.
  • Permission, which ensures data race safety by granting and constraining how a reference may be used: can you read its value? mutate its value? make a copy of it? share it across threads?
  • Lifetime, used by borrowed references to constrain how long they may live before they must expire. Lifetime constraints ensure use of borrowed references is memory safe.

Supporting these mechanisms is complicated by the fact that region and permission annotations on references are programmer-definable struct-like types that have their own fields and methods. This versatility enables programs to define their own memory management allocation and recycling capabilities in the form of regions, and their own data race safety capabilities in the form of permissions. It is the compiler’s job to choreograph how operations on references invoke programmer-defined methods in the regions and permissions they specify.

Although each of these mechanisms has been described separately in several places, I thought it might be valuable to provide a detailed walkthrough of how they work together. The best way to do this is focus on each of the distinct events that a reference experiences.

Regular References

Let’s begin by following the lifecycle of events that a regular reference undergoes as it flows from birth to death:

  • Birth of the first reference to a newly allocated object
  • Dereferencing a reference, to access its pointed-at object
  • Copying (or moving) a reference to new binding(s)
  • Death of a reference
  • Death and de-allocation of an object


For the time being, let’s ignore global and local variables, and focus only on heap-allocated objects. To allocate a new object on the heap, specify the & operator along with a region and an initial value (or type initializer). A permission may also be specified. If not, uni is assumed.

imm newref = &rc 4

This allocates a new integer object using the ref-counted (rc) region, with the uni permission and initialized with the value of 4. What we get back is the very first reference to that new object. Under the covers, this work unfolds in two stages: first allocation, then initialization.


To allocate memory, the compiler generates a call to the private _allocate method of the reference’s region, and passes it the number of bytes to allocate. This is a statically calculated number, offering enough space to hold everything the reference points to: the region’s bookkeeping data, the permissions’s bookkeeping data, and the data for the object itself. Here is an example of a region’s _allocate method, suitable for (say) reference counting or single-owner regions:

fn _allocate(size usize) *u8:

Notice that allocate returns a pointer to bytes, with a null value indicating that the allocation failed. The compiler will later recast this into a nullable reference to the correct type. The programmer decides later whether to explicitly handle an allocation failure or allow it to panic implicitly.

_allocate is not restricted to using a general purpose allocator like malloc. It may use mmap if it wishes, or quickly carve a slice out of a bump-pointer arena (e.g., a GC nursery), or even allocate out of some dynamically created, first-class region.

A region may indicate, using a compiler attribute, that it requires run-time type information (RTTI). This is not needed for regions whose reference events are all statically invoked (e.g., single owner or reference counting). However, it is required whenever a region’s runtime logic (e.g., an arena or garbage collector) requires information about its allocated object to process certain events (e.g., finalization, tracing and freeing) correctly.

If RTTI is required, a pointer to this information is passed as the second parameter to _allocate. Examples of useful RTTI might include:

  • The offset of the object data
  • A nullable pointer to the object’s type’s finalizer, automatically invoked during object death (see below).
  • A nullable pointer to the tracing function for the object, invoked by a collector.
  • A nullable pointer to dealiasing logic for references inside the object


If the allocation succeeds, initialization proceeds in three steps: first the region data, then the permission data, and finally initializing the object’s value.

  1. To initialize region data, the compiler invokes the _init method for the region. Many (but not all) regions have object-specific bookkeeping data to facilitate runtime-based memory management mechanisms.

    For example, the reference counting region might define a field called count which keeps track of the number of references to this object. The region’s _init method initializes this data:

    fn _init(self &wri rc):
        self.count = 1   // initialize reference counter to 1

    Initialization for a tracing garbage collector might initialize the tracing color to white. Alternatively, for improved performance, it might choose to store color information as bits independently of the object. In this case, initialization of the object’s colors could be performed by _allocate rather than _init.

  2. Static-only permissions often do not carry any bookkeeping data, and therefore will not require any initialization. However, permissions that generate runtime logic (e.g., those that provide runtime locks) do. The permission’s _init method would be invoked to initialize this runtime bookkeeping data (e.g., initializing an atomic lock).

  3. After initializing the region and permission data, the compiler initializes the allocated object itself. If the allocator is given a value, this value is automatically copied into the allocated area. If the allocator specifies some type’s initializer method, this method is called with self being a write-only reference to the object’s type. The method’s logic must store a valid value into the location.

Each of these three initialization calls only see and initialize their part of the allocated memory. The compiler accomplishes this by automatically recasting the pointer returned by allocation into a reference to the appropriate offset into that allocated area prior to each initializer call.

Although it may seem expensive to call four separate methods to allocate and initialize an object, these methods are all inlined, and thereby generate lean logic. For the original ref-counted example, this means a malloc, setting count to 1, and then storing a copy of 4 into the value area of the object.


Dereferencing is used to either retrieve (load) the value the reference points to, or to replace it with (store) a new value.

Before it generates the appropriate load or store logic, it goes through a gauntlet of tests to ensure that it is safe to perform the requested load or store. Any violation triggers a compile-time error:

  • The reference’s permission must allow read access for load, and mutability for store.
  • The reference’s permission must not be a locked permission.
  • Any value being stored must have the same type as the reference points to
  • The lifetime of any value being stored must be the “same” or last longer than the lifetime of the reference.

Prior to generating the appropriate load (or store), the compiler will invoke the _readBarrier (or _writeBarrier) method, if defined for the region.

If the region implements the isAlive method for weak references, dereferencing no longer generates a simple load or store. Load-based dereferencing will return a nullable value, the referenced value (if it is still alive according to _isAlive) or null otherwise. Similarly, store-based dereferencing only succeeds if alive, and panics otherwise. isAlive may be directly invoked on a weak reference.

If the value loaded from a dereference has move semantics, the compiler may freeze out subsequent use of the variable that holds the reference (or may disallow the dereference altogether).

Copy (or Move)

A reference has move semantics if either of these is true:

  • its region has move semantics (e.g., single owner or the linear flavor of reference counting) or,
  • its permission has move semantics (i.e., the uni permission)

If not, the reference has copy semantics. Notice that the move/copy semantics of the pointed-at object’s type has no bearing on the reference.

The difference between move and copy semantics has nothing to do with whether copies are made of references. Unless there is a compile-time error, assignment and passing a reference to a function call always make a copy of a reference. However, additional mechanics may kick in when copying a reference that depend on whether the reference subscribes to copy or move semantics:

  • Copy-based references will invoke the region’s _alias method, if defined. A reference counting region would use this method to increment the reference count.
  • Move-based references will freeze out the source variable for the original reference, so that it may never be used again. It will not invoke the _alias method, since there is still only one live reference to the object.

Another way to create a copy of a reference involves using some public method of a region on a region-based reference. For example, the clone method might be used to create a counted copy of a move-semantics based, ref-counted reference. Similarly, the weak method might be used to create a weak reference from a strong ref-counted reference. The weak reference would belong to a companion region, having different aliasing and de-referencing behavior (but no allocate behavior).

When might we experience a compile-time error when copying a reference?

  • Type unsafety. The receiving binding need not have exactly the same type signature as the reference, so long as the coercion is safe. For example, a uni reference may be coerced to any other permission. Most permissions will safely coerce to const. The region must be the same (unless we are doing a borrow, which is described below). The value type may often be coerced to a safe supertype. If the coercion is unsafe, a compiler error results.

  • Data Race unsafety. If the receiver enables a reference to be accessible by another thread, a compile-time error results when the reference’s permission does not permit thread sending.

  • Move unsafety. If there is no graceful way to freeze the source variable for a moved reference, a compile-time error is generated.

Note that storing a copied/moved value into a variable that has been frozen due to a move or borrow, effectively unfreezes that variable.

Borrowed Reference

There are two ways to create a lifetime-constrained borrowed reference:

  • Borrow a reference to a variable or function (e.g., &mut glovar)
  • Create a borrowed copy of an existing reference (e.g., &*intref)

Since the creation of a borrowed references copies an existing reference, all of the copy rules apply. However, borrowing invokes additional compiler mechanisms:

  • The lifetime constraint of the borrowed reference is implicitly captured. When borrowing from a global name, the lifetime is static. Otherwise, the borrowed reference’s lifetime is the block scope where the borrow took place. The borrowed reference is prohibited from surviving beyond its lifetime.

  • The variable binding that is the source of the borrowed reference is frozen. Its value cannot be accessed while frozen. This freeze is thawed when all borrowed references expire, either at the end of the scope, or when the frozen binding is given a new binding. If the binding is unfrozen, it is an error to use any borrowed reference obtained from it.

  • The borrowed reference may obtain a different, but safe permission from the reference it borrows from. Multiple borrows may be obtained from the same binding, so long as the constellation of permissions obtained by all references are safe. For example, it is not safe to borrow two uni references to the same object.

  • If the original reference uses a locked permission, the permission’s _acquire method is invoked to obtain the borrowed reference. Later, when the borrowed reference expires (see below), the permission’s _release method is invoked.

Interior Reference

Borrowed references have an extra superpower that region-based references do not have: a borrowed reference can point to some substructure within an allocated object (e.g., &point.x for a field or &mat[0,1] for an array element). These are called interior references. Largely, interior borrowed references follow the rules just described.

However, when the reference points within a “dependently-typed” object, single-threaded data race safety issues can arise in the presence of mutation and multiple references to the same object. When mutation changes the shape of the object, a borrowed interior reference to the same object could be invalidated. For example, reducing the size of array can invalidate a interior reference to an element that no longer exists. Similarly, if a sum-typed value changes its value to a different variant, an interior reference pointing to the previous value (of a different type) will be invalid to use.

To protect against this, an interior reference can only be obtained from a dependently-typed reference if its permission is imm or uni. If multiple interior references are borrowed at the same time, they must all be to non-dependent interior types. Because of these restrictions, and while the interior borrowed references are alive, it is then impossible to change the shape of the data. An array may not be resized and a value may not be mutated to a different variant type value.

Reference Death

The compiler knows when a reference expires. If it is held by a local variable, it dies when the scope of that local variable expires. If it is held by some data object, it expires when that data object dies (and is freed). It can also expire when a reference-bearing field or array element is mutated.

Some regions need to know when each reference dies. The compiler accomplishes this by invoking the region’s _dealias method, if defined.

When a single-owner reference dies, we know there are no more references. Thus, the object can be finalized and freed:

fn _dealias():

When a ref-counted reference dies, we decrement the counter and finalize/free the object if the counter drops to 0:

fn _dealias():
    if --self.counter == 0:

Tracing GC, arena and pool regions do not use (or define) _alias and _dealias methods.

Object Death

For memory safety, an object must stay alive as long as any reference to it exists and is usable for dereferencing by the program. Once the last such reference dies, so may the object. For single-owner and ref-counting references, this happens immediately. For other regions, there may be some delay until it can be determined that all such references are gone.

Regardless of the region, the death of an object goes through several stages:

  1. De-alias any references held within the object’s fields or elements. This may trigger the death of other objects recursively.

  2. Implicitly run the object type’s finalizer on the object. Most types do not need, and will not have, a finalizer. Finalizers are only required when the object can accumulate one or more dependencies on other objects that need to be untangled before the object goes away.

  3. Invoke the region’s _free method, if it exists, to actually reclaim the memory used by the object.

Explicit Single-owner Death

The single-owner region has a special power: If desired, the program may decide when the object dies. This is done by allowing the program to invoke the drop method on its only reference. With any other region, this is not allowed.

Implicit finalization passes no parameters and returns no values. However, explicit finalization uses method overloading (on final) to allow parameters to be passed to the drop method and values (or an exception) to be returned. These parameters are passed to the finalizer, which is also then responsible for returning any expected value.

Arena Deaths

Arena objects do not die individually. They all die at once when the arena dies. Obviously, this can happen rather quickly and easily if none of the objects has a finalizer or holds any references to a different region.

For arenas that permit objects which require some finalization logic, this is why we allow a region’s _allocate to obtain runtime type information. This run-time type information can be preserved as part of a linked-list in the arena, and then fired prior to the arena being freed.

Array and Virtual References

For the most part, the mechanisms described above for regular references apply to array references (for dynamically-sized arrays and slices) and virtual references (for vtable-based virtual dispatch and field access). The differences lie mainly with allocation and dereferencing.

  • Array references offer additional initialization capability: filling all elements with a fill value or using a closure to procedurally initialize each element. Array references also offer the ability to resize an array. One cannot dereference an entire array reference; instead one uses indexing to load or mutate a specific element in the array.

    One can borrow a subslice of any array reference. (The permission restrictions on borrowed interior references always apply to array references.) In the presence of concurrency or parallelism, array references add an extra capability: the ability to create multiple non-overlapping slices of an single array reference, and send each safely to a separate thread, so long as we can guarantee that all threads will expire before the borrow’s scope ends.

  • Virtual references may never be created via allocation. Instead, one must first allocate a new object using a regular reference and some concrete type. Afterwards, this regular reference may then be coerced to a compatibly-typed virtual reference. Virtual references may not be dereferenced. Instead one indirectly accesses fields and dispatches methods. When a virtual reference points to a same-sized variant, the permission restrictions about borrowed interior references apply.

Region Modules

Earlier, I described region annotations on references as programmer-definable struct-like types, possessing fields and methods. However, regions are sometimes far more than these reference-based region annotations. In this next post, let’s explore intriguing details about region modules and their relationship to region types.

Jonathan Goodwin avatar
About Jonathan Goodwin
3D web evangelist. Author of the Cone & Acorn programming languages.