The question why functions cannot be added to compact regions often comes up in GHC’s IRC channel, and because I don’t work on or with compact regions, every time I see the question I try to remember the reason for why functions can’t be moved to a compact region, often coming up with incorrect answers on the way. There’s also a question about this in GHC’s issue tracker.

The problem is documented briefly in the GHC source code, but in the following, I want to explain things in more detail, and in my own words.

At the core of the problem are top-level thunks, which are called CAFs (constant applicative forms) in GHC source code 1. Here’s an example:

x :: [Int]
x = fromEnumTo 1 1000000

When evaluated x allocates a cons cell on the heap and becomes a pointer (an “indirection”) to it.

Because CAFs are top-level closures, you might expect them to be alive during the lifetime of a program, but that’s not ideal because they sometimes allocate large amounts. In the example above, when we fully evaluate it we’ll have a million Ints and a million cons cells ([] is a static closure so it’s not allocated on the heap). A cons cell is 3 words, an Int is two words, so that’s 2M heap objects (which will have to be traversed by the GC in every major GC) and 40M of heap space.

So instead GHC tracks CAFs like any other heap-allocated object and reclaims the space when a CAF is no longer reachable from the program’s root set.

In the rest of this post, I will discuss how CAFs relate to compact regions, and in particular what this means for the possible inclusion of functions in compact regions.

CAFs and compact regions

From GC perspective a compact region is a single object, and the GC does not traverse objects within compact regions. If any object inside a compact region is reachable then the whole region is retained. This means that I can’t have a pointer from a compact region to outside if that pointer needs to be tracked by the GC. So CAF references from compact regions are not allowed as they need to be tracked by the GC.

For constructors or when copying a top-level CAF directly this is still not an issue. Here’s an example where we move a CAF and a constructor that refers to a CAF to compact regions:

module Main where

import GHC.Compact

-- A CAF
x :: [Int]
x = fromEnumTo 1 1000000

data D = D [Int]

main = do
  -- Adding a CAF to a compact region
  _ <- compact x

  -- Adding a constructor that refers to a CAF to a compact region
  _ <- compact (D x)

  return ()

This is fine because when copying a thunk (in this case, the CAF x) we evaluate it and copy the value instead. So in compact x above what’s copied is the fully evaluated value of x. Similarly in compact (D x) we copy the constructor, and for the first field we first evaluate the thunk and copy the value.

This process of evaluating thunks when copying effectively eliminates CAF references from objects when copying them to a compact region.

Why can we not do the same for functions? Because unlike constructors, functions refer to CAFs in their code, instead of payload 2. Here’s an example:

module Main where

import GHC.Compact

x :: [Int]
x = fromEnumTo 1 1000000

f :: () -> Int
f () = sum x

main = do
  _ <- compact f -- This fails
  return ()

Here f is a function with a CAF reference. Here’s its code in the final assembly:

.section .text
.globl Main.f_info
.type Main.f_info, @function
	leaq -16(%rbp),%rax
	cmpq %r15,%rax
	jb _c2vt
	movq $block_c2v5_info,-8(%rbp)
	movq %r14,%rbx
	addq $-8,%rbp
	testb $7,%bl
	jne _c2v5
	jmp *(%rbx)
.align 8
	.quad	0
	.long	30
	.long	Main.x_closure-(block_c2v5_info)+0
	movl $stg_INTLIKE_closure+257,%eax
	movl $Main.x_closure,%ecx

Note the references $Main.x_closure. If we wanted to copy this function to a compact region we’d have to update the code to replace these references to x’s value in the compact region, which is quite hard to do.

To avoid dealing with this we simply don’t allow copying functions to compact regions.

What about functions with no CAF references?

Functions with no CAF references don’t have tracked references in their code so it’s fine to copy them to a compact region. I recently implemented a proof-of-concept here. Here’s an example from GHC’s test suite that would fail before, but passes with my patch:

module Main where

import GHC.Compact

data HiddenFunction = HiddenFunction (Int -> Int)

main = do
    _ <- compact (HiddenFunction (+1))
    return ()

While allowing functions with no CAF references works fine, it’s not too useful in practice. Before explaining why, here’s a definition:

A closure is CAFFY if it directly or transitively refers to a CAF.

CAFFY-ness is the main property we’re interested in. For example, we could have a function that doesn’t refer to a CAF directly, but if one of the functions it calls refers to a CAF then the function is CAFFY, and CAFFY functions can’t be copied to a compact region.

With this definition in mind, there are two problems with allowing non-CAFFY functions in compact regions:

  • Most non-trivial functions are CAFFY, hence allowing non-CAFFY functions is not too useful
  • CAFFY-ness is hard to control

As an evidence for the first point, here’s a simple function:

f :: IO ()
f = putStrLn "hi"

This trivial function is CAFFY, for the reasons related to code generation for string literals in GHC. It’s not hard to guess that if a function this simple is CAFFY then a lot of other function in practice will be CAFFY as well.

For the second point I’ll again just give an example:

f :: () -> Int
f () = sum x
    x :: [Int]
    x = fromEnumTo 1 1000000

Is this function CAFFY? The answer is complicated:

  • It’s CAFFY with -O0 because -O0 implies -fignore-interface-pragmas, which means imported values (the Foldable dictionary in our example) are considered CAFFY.

  • With -O0 -fno-ignore-interface-pragmas it’s not CAFFY.

  • With -O it’s CAFFY again, because GHC generates this STG:

    Main.f1 :: GHC.Types.Int
    [GblId] =
        {} \u []
            case Main.$wgo 1# 0# of ww_s2yX [Occ=Once] {
            __DEFAULT -> GHC.Types.I# [ww_s2yX];
    Main.f :: () -> GHC.Types.Int
    [GblId, Arity=1, Str=<S,1*H>, Unf=OtherCon []] =
        {} \r [ds_s2yY] case ds_s2yY of { () -> Main.f1; };

    The problem is f now refers to f1, which is a CAF, so f is now CAFFY.

In short, CAFFY-ness depends on things that are not in programmer’s control, like the CAFFY-ness of called functions, or how GHC’s simplifier will behave, which depends on many things, like optimization levels and code generation flags. Pretty much every GHC version will generate slightly different code, causing changes in CAFFY-ness. You’ll also get different CAFFY-ness properties in release builds compared to debug and test builds, because those are built with different GHC parameters.

So even if we allowed non-CAFFY functions in compact regions, it’d be a bad practice to rely on this.

Here’s another example, try to guess whether this is a CAF or not: (the language pragma should give a hint)

{-# LANGUAGE NoMonomorphismRestriction #-}

x = fromEnumTo 1 1000000


While it’s possible to allow non-CAFFY functions in compact regions, I think it would be a bad practice to rely on this behavior, as it’s very difficult (even impossible in some cases) to predict and maintain CAFFY-ness.

There are ways to allow CAFFY functions in compact regions, like

  • Capturing global references from a function in the function’s payload and referring to the payload instead of the global value directly. For example, in the f above, instead of referring to Main.x_closure directly, we could store Main.x_closure in the function’s payload, and refer to that instead. That way we could copy a function to a compact region similar to how we copy constructors.

    The problem is this is much less efficient than referring to the closure directly, and this is a cost that every function would have to pay, not just the ones that we want to add to a compact region.

    We could think about a pragma, say {-# COMPACTABLE f #-}, to generate “compactable” code for f where f’s top-level references would be implemented as I explained above. I think this is workable, but it’s still a lot of implementation effort. Also, any function that f directly or transitively refers to will have to be COMPACTABLE or non-CAFFY for this to work.

  • Compact regions could have dynamic SRTs where CAFFY references of objects would be added as they’re moved to a compact region. The GC would then track SRTs of compact regions.

There may be others ways to make this work as well. The problem is certainly not unsolvable, but it requires significant time investment to get done, and so far there hasn’t been enough incentive for this.

Finally, there are techniques like defunctionalization that makes it possible to express the same program using ADTs instead of functions, so not being able to add functions to compact regions is usually not a roadblock.

  1. Note that “constant applicative form” is not enough to describe the problematic closures, only top-level CAFs that are represented as thunks are problem. For example, a top-level x = 1 :: Int is not a problem, because even though it’s a top-level CAF, it’s not a thunk.↩︎

  2. See this GHC wiki page for more details on GHC’s heap object layout.↩︎