The Limits of Copy-on-write: How Ruby Allocates Memory

Anyone who’s run Unicorn (or Puma, or Einhorn) may have noticed a curious phenomena. Worker processes that have been forked from a master start with low memory usage, but before too long will bloat to a similar size as their parent. In a big production installation, each worker can be 100s of MBs or more, and before long memory is far and away the most constrained resource on servers. CPUs sit idle.

Modern operating systems have virtual memory management systems that provide copy-on-write facilities designed to prevent this exact situation. A process’s virtual memory is segmented into 4k pages. When it forks, its child initially shares all those pages with its parent. Only when the child starts to modify one of them does the kernel intercept the call, copy the page, and reassign it to the new process.

Child processes transitioning from mostly shared memory to mostly copied as they mature.
Child processes transitioning from mostly shared memory to mostly copied as they mature.

So why aren’t Unicorn workers sharing more memory? Most software has a sizeable collection of static objects that are initialized once, sit in memory unmodified throughout a program’s entire lifetime, and would be prime candidates for staying shared across all workers. Apparently though, practically nothing is reused, and to understand why, we’ll have to venture into how Ruby allocates memory.

Let’s start with a very brief overview of object allocation. Ruby requests memory from the operating system in chunks that it refers to internally as heap pages. The naming is a little unfortunate because these aren’t the same thing as the 4k page that the OS will hand out (which I will refer to hereafter as OS pages), but a heap page is mapped to a number of OS pages in virtual memory. Ruby sizes its heap pages so that they’ll maximize use of OS pages by occupying an even multiple of them (usually 4x4k OS pages = 1x16k heap page).

A heap, its heap pages, and slots within each page.
A heap, its heap pages, and slots within each page.

You might also hear a heap page referred to as a “heap” (plural “heaps”), “slab”, or “arena”. I’d prefer one of the last two for less ambiguity, but I’m going to stick with heap page for a single chunk and heap for a collection of heap pages because that’s what they’re called everywhere in Ruby’s source.

A heap page consists of a header and a number of slots. Each slot can hold an RVALUE, which is an in-memory Ruby object (more on this in a moment). A heap points to a page, and from there heap pages point to each other, forming a linked list that allows the entire collection to be iterated.

Ruby’s heap is initialized by Init_heap (in gc.c), called from ruby_setup (in eval.c), which is the core entry point for a Ruby process. Along with the heap, ruby_setup also initializes the stack and VM.

    heap_add_pages(objspace, heap_eden,
        gc_params.heap_init_slots / HEAP_PAGE_OBJ_LIMIT);


Init_heap decides on an initial number of pages based on a target number of slots. This defaults to 10,000, but can be tweaked through configuration or environmental variable.

#define GC_HEAP_INIT_SLOTS 10000

The number of slots in a page is calculated roughly how you’d expect (in gc.c). We start with a target size of 16k (also 2^14 or 1 << 14), shave a few bytes off for what malloc will need for bookkeeping 1, subtract a few more bytes for a header, and then divide by the known size of an RVALUE struct:

/* default tiny heap size: 16KB */
enum {
    REQUIRED_SIZE_BY_MALLOC = (sizeof(size_t) * 5),
    HEAP_PAGE_OBJ_LIMIT = (unsigned int)(
        (HEAP_PAGE_SIZE - sizeof(struct heap_page_header))/sizeof(struct RVALUE)

On a 64-bit system, an RVALUE occupies 40 bytes. I’ll save you some calculations, and just tell you that with its defaults Ruby initially allocates 24 pages at 408 slots each 2. That heap is grown if more memory is needed.

A single slot in a heap page holds an RVALUE, which is a representation of an in-memory Ruby object. Here’s its definition (from gc.c):

typedef struct RVALUE {
    union {
        struct RBasic  basic;
        struct RObject object;
        struct RClass  klass;
        struct RFloat  flonum;
        struct RString string;
        struct RArray  array;
        struct RRegexp regexp;
        struct RHash   hash;
        struct RData   data;
        struct RTypedData   typeddata;
        struct RStruct rstruct;
        struct RBignum bignum;
        struct RFile   file;
        struct RNode   node;
        struct RMatch  match;
        struct RRational rational;
        struct RComplex complex;
    } as;


For me this is where the mystique around how Ruby can generically assign any type to any variable finally starts to fall away; we immediately see that an RVALUE is just a big list of all the possible types that Ruby might hold in memory. These types are compacted with a C union so that all the possibilities can share the same memory. Only one can be set at a time, but the union’s total size is only as big as the largest individual type in the list.

To help concrete our understanding of a slot, lets look at one of the possible types it can hold. Here’s the common Ruby string (from ruby.h):

struct RString {
    struct RBasic basic;
    union {
        struct {
            long len;
            char *ptr;
            union {
                long capa;
                VALUE shared;
            } aux;
        } heap;
        char ary[RSTRING_EMBED_LEN_MAX + 1];
    } as;

Looking at RString’s structure yields a few points of interests:

  • It internalizes RBasic, which is struct that’s common to all in-memory Ruby types that helps distinguish between them.

  • A union with char ary[RSTRING_EMBED_LEN_MAX + 1] shows that while the contents of a string might be stored in the OS heap, a short string will be inlined right into an RString value. Its entire value can fit into a slot without allocating additional memory.

  • A string can reference another string (VALUE shared in the above) and share its allocated memory.

RVALUE holds many of Ruby’s standard types, but it doesn’t hold all of them. Anyone who’s looked at a Ruby C extension will be familiar with the similarly named VALUE, which is the general purpose type that’s used to pass around all Ruby values. Its implementation is quite a bit simpler than RVALUE’s; it’s just a pointer (from ruby.h):

typedef uintptr_t VALUE;

This is where Ruby’s implementation gets clever (or gross, depending on how you think about these things). While VALUE is often a pointer to an RVALUE, by comparing one to constants or using various bit-shifting techniques, it may also hold some scalar types that will fit into the pointer’s size.

true, false, and nil are the easiest to reason about; they’re all predefined as values in ruby.h:

enum ruby_special_consts {
    RUBY_Qfalse = 0x00,		/* ...0000 0000 */
    RUBY_Qtrue  = 0x14,		/* ...0001 0100 */
    RUBY_Qnil   = 0x08,		/* ...0000 1000 */


A fixnum (i.e. very roughly a number that fits in 64 bits) is a little more complicated. One is stored by left-shifting a VALUE by one bit, then setting a flag in the rightmost position:

enum ruby_special_consts {
    RUBY_FIXNUM_FLAG    = 0x01,	/* ...xxxx xxx1 */


#define RB_INT2FIX(i) (((VALUE)(i))<<1 | RUBY_FIXNUM_FLAG)

Similar techniques are used to store “flonums” (i.e. floating point numbers) and symbols. When the time comes to identify what type is occupying a VALUE, Ruby compares pointer values to a list of flags that it knows about for these stack-bound types; if none match, it goes to heap (from ruby.h):

static inline VALUE
rb_class_of(VALUE obj)
    if (RB_IMMEDIATE_P(obj)) {
        if (RB_FIXNUM_P(obj)) return rb_cInteger;
        if (RB_FLONUM_P(obj)) return rb_cFloat;
        if (obj == RUBY_Qtrue)  return rb_cTrueClass;
        if (RB_STATIC_SYM_P(obj)) return rb_cSymbol;
    else if (!RB_TEST(obj)) {
        if (obj == RUBY_Qnil)   return rb_cNilClass;
        if (obj == RUBY_Qfalse) return rb_cFalseClass;
    return RBASIC(obj)->klass;

Keeping certain types of values on the stack has the advantage that they don’t need to occupy a slot in the heap. It’s also useful for speed. “Flonum” was a relatively recent addition to the language, and its author estimated that it sped up simple floating point calculations by ~2x.

The VALUE scheme is clever, but how can we be sure that the value of a scalar will never collide with a pointer? This is where the cleverness gets kicked up a notch. Remember how we talked about how an RVALUE is 40 bytes in size? That sized combined with the use of an aligned malloc means that every address for an RVALUE that Ruby needs to put into a VALUE will be divisible by 40.

In binary, a number that’s divisible by 40 will always have three 0s in its rightmost bits (...xxxx x000). All the flags that Ruby uses to identify stack-bound types like fixnums, flonums, or symbols involve one of those three bits, therefore guaranteeing perfect exclusivity between them and an RVALUE pointer.

Folding extra information into pointers isn’t specific to Ruby. More broadly, a value that uses this technique is called a “tagged pointer”.

Now that we’ve seen some basics of the heap, we’re getting closer to understanding why our mature Unicorn processes can’t share anything with their parent (some readers may have guessed already). Let’s get the rest of the way by walking through how Ruby initializes an object; in this case a string.

The entry point is str_new0 (from string.c):

static VALUE
str_new0(VALUE klass, const char *ptr, long len, int termlen)
    VALUE str;


    str = str_alloc(klass);
    if (!STR_EMBEDDABLE_P(len, termlen)) {
        RSTRING(str)->as.heap.aux.capa = len;
        RSTRING(str)->as.heap.ptr = ALLOC_N(char, (size_t)len + termlen);

    if (ptr) {
        memcpy(RSTRING_PTR(str), ptr, len);


    return str;

Just like we speculated when examining RString earlier, we can see that Ruby embeds the new value into the slot if it’s short enough. Otherwise it uses ALLOC_N to allocate new space for the string in the operating system’s heap, and sets a pointer internal to the slot (as.heap.ptr) to reference it.

After a few layers of indirection, str_alloc calls into newobj_of back in gc.c:

static inline VALUE
newobj_of(VALUE klass, VALUE flags, VALUE v1, VALUE v2, VALUE v3, int wb_protected)
    rb_objspace_t *objspace = &rb_objspace;
    VALUE obj;


    if (!(during_gc ||
          ruby_gc_stressful ||
          gc_event_hook_available_p(objspace)) &&
        (obj = heap_get_freeobj_head(objspace, heap_eden)) != Qfalse) {
        return newobj_init(klass, flags, v1, v2, v3, wb_protected, objspace, obj);


Ruby asks the heap for a free slot with heap_get_freeobj_head (in gc.c):

static inline VALUE
heap_get_freeobj_head(rb_objspace_t *objspace, rb_heap_t *heap)
    RVALUE *p = heap->freelist;
    if (LIKELY(p != NULL)) {
        heap->freelist = p->;
    return (VALUE)p;

Ruby has a global lock (the GIL) that ensures that Ruby code can only be running in one place across any number of threads, so it’s safe to simply pull the next available RVALUE off the heap’s freelist and repoint it to the next free slot in line. No finer grain locks are required.

After procuring a free slot, newobj_init runs some generic initialization on it before it’s returned to str_new0 for string-specific setup (like copying in the actual string).

You may have noticed above that Ruby asked for a free slot from heap_eden. Eden, named for the biblical garden [3], is the heap where Ruby knows that it can find live objects. It’s one of two heaps tracked by the language.

The other is the tomb. If the garbage collector notices after a run that a heap page has no more live objects, it moves that page from eden to the tomb. If at some point Ruby needs to allocate a new heap page, it’ll prefer to resurrect one from the tomb before asking the OS for more memory. Conversely, if heap pages in the tomb stay dead for long enough, Ruby may release them back to the OS (in practice, this probably doesn’t happen very often, which we’ll get into in just a moment).

We talked a little about how Ruby allocates new pages above. After being assigned new memory by the OS, Ruby will traverse a new page and do some initialization (from gc.c):

static struct heap_page *
heap_page_allocate(rb_objspace_t *objspace)
    RVALUE *start, *end, *p;


    for (p = start; p != end; p++) {
        heap_page_add_freeobj(objspace, page, (VALUE)p);
    page->free_slots = limit;

    return page;

Ruby calculates a memory offset for the page’s start and end slots, then proceeds to walk from one end of it to the other and invoke heap_page_add_freeobj (from gc.c) on each slot along the way:

static inline void
heap_page_add_freeobj(rb_objspace_t *objspace, struct heap_page *page, VALUE obj)
    RVALUE *p = (RVALUE *)obj;
    p-> = 0;
    p-> = page->freelist;
    page->freelist = p;


The heap itself tracks a single freelist pointer to a slot that it knows is free, but from there new free slots are found by following a on the RVALUE itself. All known free slots are chained together by a long linked list that heap_page_add_freeobj has constructed.

A heap's freelist pointer to a free RVALUE, and the continuing linked list.
A heap's freelist pointer to a free RVALUE, and the continuing linked list.

heap_page_add_freeobj is called initializing a page. It’s also called by the garbage collector when it frees an object. In this way, slots get added back to freelist so that they can be reused.

Ruby has an elaborate scheme for memory management, but reading between the lines, you may also have noticed that something that’s not going to mesh well with an operating system’s copy-on-write. Ruby allocates expansive heap pages in memory, stores objects to them, and GCs slots when able. Free slots are tracked carefully, and the runtime has an efficient way of finding them. However, despite all this sophistication, a live slot will never change position within or between heap pages.

In a real program where objects are being allocated and deallocated all the time, pages quickly become a mix of objects that are alive and dead. This gets us back to Unicorn: the parent process sets itself up, and by the time it’s ready to fork, its memory looks like that of a typical Ruby process with live objects fragmented across available heap pages.

Workers kick off with the entirety of their memory shared with their parent. Unfortunately, the first time child initializes or GCs even a single slot, the operating system intercepts the call and copies the underlying OS page. Before long this has happened on every page allocated to the program, and child workers are running with a copy of memory that’s completely divergent from their parent’s.

Copy-on-write is a powerful feature, but one that’s not of much practical use to a forking Ruby process.

The Ruby team is well-acquainted with copy-on-write, and has been writing optimizations for it for some time. As an example, Ruby 2.0 introduced heap “bitmaps”. Ruby uses a mark-and-sweep garbage collector which traverses all of object space and “marks” live objects it finds before going through and “sweeping” all the dead ones. Marks used to be a flag directly on each slot in a heap page, which had the effect of GCs running on any fork and performing their mark pass to cause every OS page to be copied from the parent process.

The change in Ruby 2.0 moved those mark flags to a heap-level “bitmap” which is a big sequence of single bits mapping back slots on the heap. The GC performing a pass on a fork would only copy the OS pages needed for bitmaps, allowing more memory to be shared for longer.

Upcoming changes are even more exciting. For some time Aaron Patterson has been talking publicly about implementing compaction in Ruby’s GC, and has suggested that it’s spent time in production at GitHub with some success. Practically, this would look like a method named GC.compact that’s called before workers fork:

# Called before a parent forks any workers
before_fork do

The parent would get a chance to finish churning objects as part of its initialization, then take the objects that are still living and move them into slots on a minimal set of pages that are likely to be stable for a long time. Forked workers can share memory with their parent for longer.

A fragmented heap before and after GC compaction.
A fragmented heap before and after GC compaction.

For anyone running big Ruby installations (GitHub, Heroku, or like we are at Stripe), this is really exciting work. Even deploying to high-memory instances, memory is still usually the limiting resource on the number of runnable workers. GC compaction has the potential to shave off a big chunk of the memory that every worker needs. With the savings we can run more workers per box and fewer total boxes – with very few caveats, the fleet is immediately cheaper to run.

1malloc’s bookkeeping is compensated for so that we can keep a heap page fitting nicely into a multiple of OS pages without overflowing onto another OS page. Because pages are the smallest unit that an OS will allocate to a process, this would make for an inefficient use of memory.

2 Astute readers may notice that we start with “only” 9,792 (24 * 408) total slots, despite requesting 10,000.

3 The naming “eden” is also somewhat conventional in the world of garbage collectors. You’ll find reference to “eden space” in Java’s VM too.

Did I make a mistake? Please consider sending a pull request.