May 11, 2011

Bilingual Memory Management

I’m a Mac Chrome software engineer. Mac software engineers spend a lot of time reading and writing Objective-C. Chrome software engineers spend a lot of time reading and writing C++. I spend a lot of time reading and writing both.

Both C++ and Objective-C are object-oriented extensions of the classic C programming language. They each take different approaches to achieving their goals at the language level. Each also has its own standard library, and its own set of common idioms used to realize certain behaviors. Although at a conceptual level the languages share similarities, they’re also very different.

Objective-C++ makes up for some of these differences. It’s a language that effectively takes all of C++ and Objective-C and puts them into a blender together. It allows C++ calls to be made from Objective-C code, and vice-versa. Objective-C++ eases the burden of having to deal with the two distinct languages in projects like Chrome that need to use both of them.


Chrome, leaning on its C++ roots, tends to make use of C++’s memory-management features. In many cases, Chrome adheres to an object-ownership model that relies on the fact that when an object goes out of scope, it will be destroyed, cleaning up after itself along the way, releasing the memory it occupied to be used for other purposes. To assist in managing this process, Chrome even has template classes that our team informally calls “scopers.” Most widely used is scoped_ptr<>, which is similar to the C++ standard library’s std::auto_ptr<>, and even more similar to tr1::scoped_ptr<>. scoped_ptr<> maintains ownership of a pointer to a C++ object, deleting the object with the C++ delete operator when it goes out of scope.

Clean-up tasks are commonly delegated to scopers: once scoped_ptr<> holds a pointer, the program is guaranteed to delete the object when the scoped_ptr<> goes out of scope, regardless of any return statements or anything else that interferes with the program’s flow. Used in this way, scopers can eliminate cleanup points which, in traditional C, often involve the use of goto. This cleanup code often becomes cumbersome and maintaining it properly is an error-prone process as a program matures. Scopers declare “here’s something that needs to be cleaned up” exactly where the thing that needs to be cleaned up becomes your responsibility, and they automate the cleanup process. This leads to code that’s easier to read and easier to work on.

Another scoper that’s especially relevant to Objective-C++ is scoped_nsobject<>. scoped_nsobject<> works similarly to scoped_ptr<>, except it owns an Objective-C object, and will call -release on the object when it goes out of scope. Since scoped_nsobject<> can be used in the C++ portion of Objective-C code, it’s an exceptionally handy way to gain the benefits of scopers in Objective-C++ files. scoped_nsobject<> is a C++ template class dedicated to operating on Objective-C objects.

Chrome code uses scoped_nsobject<> in preference to the standard Objective-C -autorelease method in cases where it makes sense to do so. It also uses scoped_nsobject<> to maintain ownership of Objective-C objects held in instance variables of other objects, whether those other objects are written in Objective-C or C++.

In C++, using a scoper as an instance variable ensures that when the object is destroyed, the scopers it owns will also be destroyed. Because scoped_nsobject<> will -release the Objective-C object it’s responsible for, this provides a way to integrate management of Objective-C objects into C++’s way of doing things. Objective-C itself doesn’t normally offer this feature, but in Chrome, we’ve enabled the -fobjc-call-cxx-cdtors compiler option, which ensures that destructors for C++ objects (like scoped_nsobject<>) held in instance variables will be called when an Objective-C object is deallocated. Using scoped_nsobject<> like this, in conjunction with the Objective-C language extension, means that we no longer need to write -dealloc methods that simply -release all of the objects that the object owned. Instead, we stick each Objective-C object that needs to be maintained as a strong reference in another Objective-C object into its own scoped_nsobject<>. This gives Objective-C objects the ability to automatically destroy other Objective-C objects that they own, C++-style. It’s been a boon for both readability and maintainability, and has almost certainly kept us from making sloppy errors that would cause memory leaks. In fact, the only real readability problem with scoped_nsobject<> used in this way is that you might have had to go over this paragraph multiple times in order to take it all in.

The Objective-C Property Releaser

scoped_nsobject<> was great, but as Objective-C matured into Objective-C 2.0 and we began adopting some of its newer features, we hit a snag. Objective-C 2.0 introduced @property. Properties can refer to instance variables whose accessors are generated automatically by the compiler, using @synthesize. Properties, especially when coupled with synthesized accessors, can reduce the amount of code that needs to be written. Unfortunately, there’s no provision to release retained properties automatically when an object is deallocated. This seems like a major omission to me, but unfortunately, Apple never consulted me when developing Objective-C 2.0. Chrome code had been using scoped_nsojbect<> to handle this, but synthesized properties require raw pointers to Objective-C objects, and don’t work with C++ objects such as scoped_nsobject<>.

A coworker spotted the impending doom. Given the tools at our disposal, the apparent options were:

  1. Avoid using scoped_nsobject<> for properties marked retain, and @synthesize the accessors. This would put us back to having to call -release from -dealloc methods again, but we wouldn’t have to write the accessors ourselves. Remembering to write all of those -release calls is error-prone and would lead to memory leaks.
  2. Let scoped_nsobject<> handle properties marked retain, but don’t let the compiler synthesize any accessors. This would mean that for each retained property, we’d need to write our own accessors that understood how to interact with the scoped_nsobject<>, but we wouldn’t have to call -release from -dealloc. Having to write all of those accessors as boilerplate code isn’t my idea of fun.

Dissatisfied with these options, I cooked up a solution more in line with my idea of fun. I came up with base::mac::ObjCPropertyReleaser. It’s another example of using C++ features to make Objective-C better. It brings the language closer to where I think it should be, and almost makes up for Apple forgetting to ask for my feedback when they were designing Objective-C 2.0.

An ObjCPropertyReleaser is a C++ object that can go directly into any Objective-C object as an instance variable. In the -init method (or other appropriate designated initializer), the property releaser is told which Objective-C object owns it, and which class that object belongs to. When the Objective-C object is deallocated, the -fobjc-call-cxx-cdtors compiler option causes the ObjCPropertyReleaser’s destructor to run. Taking advantage of the Objective-C runtime’s support for object introspection, the property releaser then determines which of the object’s declared properties are marked retain or copy, finds the instance variables backing those properties which are synthesized, and sends them a -release message.

To sum it up more succinctly, ObjCPropertyReleaser releases everything backing a synthesized property marked retain or copy, and it does it automatically when the object is deallocated.

The property releaser saves us from having to call -release manually as needed from -dealloc methods, and saves us from having to write boilerplate accessors because of the incompatibility between @synthesize and scoped_nsobject<>. It takes the best aspects of scoped_nsobject<> and @synthesize without any of the drawbacks they have relative to each other. It also means that we get to spend less time writing code, freeing us up to spend more time doing other things, like writing columns.

Experienced Objective-C developers might wonder why the property releaser needs to be initialized with both the object that owns it and that object’s class type. After all, you can always determine an object’s class by calling its -class method. As it happens, this would be an incredibly dangerous thing to do when subclassing comes into play. -class always returns an object’s most-specific type, which might not be the type that a given instance of the property releaser is supposed to be responsible for. I considered other ways to design the property releaser, such as making it a base class that could reach into all of its subclasses’ properties, but this seemed like a bad idea. I don’t believe that a base class should ever screw around with subclass’ data. The base class idea would have also made it difficult to use the property releaser in a class that needed to extend another base class but didn’t use the property releaser itself.

In case you’re not using -fobjc-call-cxx-cdtors, you can still use ObjCPropertyReleaser. Just call its ReleaseProperties method from your -dealloc method. Be sure not to do both, though: don’t call ReleaseProperties directly in conjunction with -fobjc-call-cxx-cdtors.

A Gift for You

Both scoped_nsobject<> and ObjCPropertyReleaser are almost entirely self-contained and you might find that they’re completely at home in your project, even if your project isn’t Chrome. The property releaser even comes with a Sesame Street-inspired unit test, which is my current favorite bit of Chrome code. Here are the raw files from Chrome’s Subversion repository:

Four! Four files! Ah, ah, ah.

A Gift for Me

Today’s my birthday. You probably forgot to get me something. That’s fine: if you like the scoper or the property releaser and choose to share them with your favorite Mac developer, that’s enough of a gift for me. If not, well, there’s always next year.


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