Region Modules: The Rest of the Story

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The previous Lifecycle of a Reference post illuminates the working relationship between references and regions. It explains how a reference’s region annotations are programmer-definable struct-like types, which can specify an allocated object’s region state using fields, and region-based operations on an object (e.g., allocate and free) using methods. This, however, leaves out an important part of the story about region definitions: their global state and global runtime logic.

Holistically, a Cone region is fully defined by an importable module, within which lies:

  • the region annotation type(s) used by references
  • the region’s global state
  • the region’s functions (API), which defines the runtime logic for the region

Future posts will talk more about Cone modules. For now, a region module can be accurately characterized as a library package that has its own namespace distinguishing public names (the API) from private names and implementations. Unlike types, a module is a singleton with a global state (ambient environment). However, Cone modules (like types) may define initializers, auto-run before a program starts, and finalizers, auto-run when a program shuts down. Later on, we will talk about how valuable this capability is to certain regions.

With that background in place, let’s take a look at how we might define the very diverse collection of region types which can be supported by Cone.

Static Regions

Most regions are static (as opposed to first-class, which will be reviewed later). This means their state is global and readily accessible anywhere in the program. Because these regions have global state, the potential lifetime of references allocated from these regions is ‘static, which allows them to be usable anywhere in the program.

Single-owner Region

Single-owner is the easiest region to implement. It is so simple, here is its entire implementation:

mod SingleOwnerRegion:
  region @move so:
    fn _alloc(:

Single-owner is the easiest region to implement, as it requires no Cone-defined global state nor runtime logic, since it piggy-backs off a general purpose allocation functions like malloc/free. Therefore, the single-owner region module only needs to define the region annotation type used by references.

Single-owner, Reference Count and Static Arenas

For single-owner and reference counted regions, their state and runtime logic is minimal and is often off-loaded to the operating system or language runtime. These regions typically hook into a general-purpose allocator (e.g., malloc/free), but may alternatively hook into a lower-level API (e.g., mmap). The state of these regions is effectively global (static) and is simply a part of the assumed ambient environment of a program.

A static arena region is almost as easy to implement, and can also be built on top of malloc/free. One approach is to have a global, nullable, mutable variable able to point to a linked-list of large, allocated blocks of memory. Object allocation uses a bump-pointer to carve out a slice of the latest block of memory. As each block fills up, another is added to the start of the linked list. Just before the program ends, runtime arena logic would be called able to free all memory blocks in the linked list.

As a safe convenience to programmers, Cone allows an imported module to specify an initialization function, to initialize its required global state, and a finalization function, to clean up any accumulated state. So, when a program imports a static arena region library, the global state it requires is already correctly set up and ready-to-go.

Tracing Garbage Collection

Tracing garbage collection regions are much more complicated to implement, requiring more extensive global state and runtime logic. The largest part of the runtime logic is the independently-executed garbage collector, but also includes its own custom allocator. The global state needs to keep track of the root collection of references all objects that have been allocated and are still alive for all generations, and the current state of the garbage collector.

There are so many varieties of tracing garbage collection regions. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into any of the working details of any of these strategies. However, it is relevant to describe how the compiler facilitates key aspects of tracing garbage collection logic:

Need tracing maps/functions, safepoints, root set, stack tracing, RTTI.

First-class Regions

What does first-class region mean?

Integer (non-pointer) references used by first-class arenas or pools, as their mechanisms work differently in important ways. Lifetime generativity on return values.

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