Skip to main content

GHCJS heap representation

ยท 9 min read


I recently gave a short presentation about heap objects representation in GHCJS and hence in the upcoming JS backend for GHC. This post is a summary of the content.

Heap objectsโ€‹

GHC implements Haskell code evaluation by using graph reduction. As such Haskell programs compiled by GHC use the heap to store nodes of the graph to be reduced and utility nodes participating in graph reduction. These nodes are:

  • FUN: functions with their free variables as payload
  • THUNK: suspensions with their free variables as payload
  • PAP: partial application to a FUN. FUN closure and already applied arguments as payload.
  • IND: indirection to another heap object
  • BLACKHOLE: used to overwrite a THUNK when it is being evaluated

The heap is also used to store other values:

  • CON: boxed values (saturated constructor applications) with field values as payload
  • Other unlifted values: TSO, BCO, arrays, MutVar#, MVar#, TVar#, stacks, stack frames...

Info tablesโ€‹

Many heap objects share the same properties: e.g. all Int CON objects are exactly the same except for their payload (the Int# value) that may be different. Hence heap objects are split in two parts to allow sharing of common properties:

  • info table: statically known properties (at compilation time) that can be shared by several heap objects
  • heap object itself: dynamically allocated in the heap

Heap objects always have the same layout in the native code generated by GHC. They are composed of:

  • a pointer to an info table
  • some words of payload

Heap traversal is done by following the info table pointer of every heap object to query in the info table the layout of the heap object payload.

Info tables contain a pointer to a function called "entry code" that can be specific to each info table. This code is mainly used to apply a node to some arguments. Note that with tables-next-to-code optimisation enabled, to avoid an indirection the info table pointer is actually a pointer to this entry code and the info table itself is stored in the words preceeding the entry code.

Heap objects in JavaScriptโ€‹

GHCJS represents most heap objects with a JavaScript object having the following fields:

{ f, d1, d2, m, cc }

One question I had was: why don't we use a JS array instead of a JS object? Arrays should be faster than objects (i.e. hashmaps), no? It turns out that objects like this are optimised by JS engines using "hidden classes" (see for an explanation). That's why they are usually more efficient than arrays for which bound checking must be made. Also arrays are larger in memory because they need to store their size.

Let's now discuss the fields of the heap objects.

f fieldโ€‹

"f" is the equivalent of the info table pointer. It contains a JavaScript function that is the entry code for the heap object.

Similar to the tables-next-to-code optimisation discussed above, we use the fact that JS functions are objects which have properties to store the info table fields as properties of the function itself.

Example of an info table / entry function:

[Function: h$entry_function_xyz]
{ t // (Int) object type
, size // (Int) number of fields in payload (-1 if variable layout)
, i // (Array) fields layout (empty if variable layout)
, n // (String) object name for debug
, a // (Int) function arity or constructor tag
, r // (Int) arity in number of JS variables
, s // (Array) static refs that must be kept alive (SRT)
, m // GC mark

d1, d2 fieldsโ€‹

The d1 and d2 fields contain the payload of the heap object: constructor fields, function free variables, etc.

Payloads can be composed of zero, one, or many fields. A naive solution would be to have one JS object field (d1, d2, d3...) per payload field. However it would be bad for two reasons:

  • performance: JS engine hidden classes optimisation mentioned above needs objects to have the same field structure.

  • genericity: we couldn't write generic functions (e.g. to copy a closure) without dynamically querying the number of fields composing the payload.

Another solution would be to use a single field to store the whole payload. It would fulfill the genericity constraint. However performance may not be good because of the extra allocation of the object containing the payload and the indirection to access its fields.

Instead GHCJS uses a middle ground approach: it always uses only two JS object fields to store any number of payload fields. The following encoding is used to stash any number of payload fields into two JS fields:


It still fulfills the genericity constraint and small objects (up to two fields of payload) don't pay for an extra allocation/indirection. The price to pay is that two fields of payload are always allocated, even for for objects with 1 field of payload.

It would be interesting to benchmark the performance of the different payload representations.

m fieldโ€‹

The "m" field is used both for reachability checking (~ garbage collection) and to implement the "stable names" features.

GHCJS can't rely on the JS engine to know when a heap object is collected. So it implements its own heap traversal algorithm for this. The "m" field is used as a marker for this algorithm (it will be the topic of a future blog post). In this case, the "m" field is a number (a GC mark).

When a StableName is created for an object, the "m" field of the object is updated to point to the StableName object:

{ m // GC mark
, s // stable name unique id
, ...

The "m" field of the StableName object is used in replacement of the mark of the object.

cc fieldโ€‹

The "cc" field is the cost center associated to the heap object. This field is only present when profiling mode is enabled. Cost centers are entered (pushed on the cost center stack of the current thread) before the evaluation of thunks and function applications.

Cost centers are allocated with the h$CC function.

Other heap object representationโ€‹

The generic heap object representation presented above is only used for some objects: those involved in graph reduction (e.g. updatable objects) and values that don't have a fixed layout (e.g. CON objects have different layouts depending on which constructor they represent). The object layout allows generic access to the infotable and to the payload, and the infotable describes the object type and the payload layout.

Several other objects don't need this machinery: they always have the same layout and are never the result of a reduction (they are unlifted values). These objects are represented as JS objects with any fields they need (i.e. not using the d1/d2 encoding above). To determine the type of such heap objects, instead of using the "type" field of an infotable the code uses the instanceof operator. For example a TSO is represented as a h$Thread object.

Note that we could be tempted to give every heap object a different object name and to always use instanceof instead of the infotable "type" properties. It would mean adding h$Con, h$Thunk, h$Fun, h$Pap, h$Blackhole, and h$StackFrame objects. Then all the heap objects could be treated in the same way. However the isssue is that these objects need to be overwritable in place: a Thunk becomes a Fun/Con/Pap/Blackhole, etc. As far as I know we can't update the "instance" of an object, so all these object have to be instances of the same JS object.

Also note that the JS backend doesn't need INDirection nodes because it can always overwrite the fields of a JS object with the fields of another to update a closure. For the record, indirection nodes are needed in backends that layout closures as a chunk of bytes/words and when the size of the closure to update is smaller than the size of the updatee closure.

Automatic unboxingโ€‹

Sometimes the generic heap object representation is unnecessary. For example, a boxed Int would be represented as a CON heap object with the Int# in its payload, represented as a JavaScript number value. The only thing we can do with this heap object is to pass it around and to extract its payload. As such, it is more memory efficient to directly pass the payload (a JS number).

GHCJS provides an optimisation that consists in automatically unboxing some CON heap objects. For example, Haskell booleans (True and False datacons) are directly mapped to JavaScript booleans, boxed numbers (Float, Double, Int, Word, Int8, etc.) are directly mapped to JavaScript numbers.

We can do this because JavaScript already provides some boxing of its own: we can use the typeof operator on a heap object to know if it is a JS object, a JS number, a JS boolean, etc. It makes it possible to distinguish between heap object representations. In comparison, we can't do this with the native (non-JS) backend when we only have a pointer to a heap object: the pointer doesn't carry the kind of value it points to, hence the pointed memory location must be generic enough for this introspection to be performed (e.g. using infotable pointers).


Heap object can be represented as JS values (number, boolean) because of the automatic unboxing, or as JS objects: discimination is done with the typeof operator.

Heap objects represented as JS objects come in two flavours:

  • unlifted objects are represented with specific JS objects, disciminated with the instanceof operator
  • other objects use the following generic and updatable structure:
{ f, d1, d2, m, [cc] }