Large Object Heap Improvements in .NET 4.5

Garbage collection is one of premiere features of the .NET managed coding platform. As the platform has become more capable, we’re seeing developers allocate more and more large objects. Since large objects are managed differently than small objects, we’ve heard a lot of feedback requesting improvement. Today’s post is by Surupa Biswas and Maoni Stephens from the garbage collection feature team. — Brandon

The CLR manages two different heaps for allocation, the small object heap (SOH) and the large object heap (LOH). Any allocation greater than or equal to 85,000 bytes goes on the LOH. Copying large objects has a performance penalty, so the LOH is not compacted unlike the SOH. Another defining characteristic is that the LOH is only collected during a generation 2 collection. Together, these have the built-in assumption that large object allocations are infrequent.

Because the LOH is not compacted, memory management is more like a traditional allocator. The CLR keeps a free list of available blocks of memory. When allocating a large object, the runtime first looks at the free list to see if it will satisfy the allocation request. When the GC discovers adjacent objects that died, it combines the space they used into one free block which can be used for allocation. Because a lot of interaction with the free list takes place at the time of allocation, there are tradeoffs between speed and optimal placement of memory blocks.

A condition known as fragmentation can occur when nothing on the free list can be used. This can result in an out-of-memory exception despite the fact that collectively there is enough free memory. For developers who work with a lot of large objects, this error condition may be familiar. We’ve received a lot of feedback requesting for a solution to LOH fragmentation.

A Better LOH Allocator

In .NET 4.5, we made two improvements to the large object heap. First, we significantly improved the way the runtime manages the free list, thereby making more effective use of fragments. Now the memory allocator will revisit the memory fragments that earlier allocation couldn’t use. Second, when in server GC mode, the runtime balances LOH allocations between each heap. Prior to .NET 4.5, we only balanced the SOH. We’ve observed substantial improvements in some of our LOH allocation benchmarks as a result of both changes.

We’re also starting to collect telemetry about how the LOH is used. We’re tracking how often out-of-memory conditions in managed applications are due to LOH fragmentation. We’ll use this data to measure and improve memory management of real-world applications.

We still recommend some traditional techniques are for getting the best performance from the LOH. Many large objects are quite similar in nature, which creates the opportunity for object pooling. Frequently, types allocated on the LOH are byte-buffers that are filled by third-party libraries or devices. Rather than allocating and freeing the buffer, an object pool would let you reuse a previously-allocated buffer. Since fewer allocations and collections take place on the LOH, fragmentation is less likely to occur and the program’s performance is likely to improve.

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