hyperbo.la :: Cactus Harvesting: Cycle-Aware Reference Counting in Rust

Cactus Harvesting: Cycle-Aware Reference Counting in Rust

Ryan Lopopolo | July 15, 2019

🌵 CactusRef is a single-threaded, cycle-aware, reference counting smart pointer [docs] [code]. CactusRef is nearly a drop-in replacement for std::rc from the Rust standard library. (CactusRef implements all std::rc::Rc APIs except for std::rc::Rc::downcast, CoerceUnsized, and DispatchFromDyn.) Throughout this post, Rc refers to cactusref::Rc. I will refer to std::rc::Rc with its fully qualified name.


Building cyclic data structures in Rust is hard. When a T needs to have multiple owners, it can be wrapped in a std::rc::Rc. std::rc::Rc, however, is not cycle-aware. Creating a cycle of std::rc::Rcs will leak memory. To work around this, an std::rc::Rc can be downgraded into a std::rc::Weak.

std::rc::Rc Limitations

Strong references are much more convenient to work with than weak references. Imagine the following code (written in Ruby) to create a ring:

class Node
  attr_accessor :next

def ring
  n1 = Node.new
  n2 = Node.new
  n3 = Node.new

  n1.next = n2
  n2.next = n3
  n3.next = n1


head = ring

This code is quite difficult to write with std::rc::Rc and std::rc::Weak because the ring wants to own references. If we used std::rc::Weak to implement next, after ring returns, n2 and n3 would be dropped and the std::rc::Weaks in the object graph would be dangling.

n1, n2, and n3 form a cycle. This cycle is reachable because n1 is also bound to the variable head. The strong count of n1 is two, which is greater than the number of times it is owned by nodes in the cycle (only n3 owns n1). n2 and n3 should not be deallocated because they are in a cycle with n1. Because n1 is externally reachable, the entire cycle is externally reachable.

If we instead write this code:

head = ring
head = nil
# the cycle is unreachable and should be deallocated

The cycle is orphaned because the only strong references to nodes in the cycle come from other nodes in the cycle. The cycle is safe to deallocate and should be reaped.

Rust Example: Doubly Linked List

CactusRef can be used to implement a doubly linked list with ergonomic strong references. The list is deallocated when the list binding is dropped because the linked list is no longer externally reachable.

use cactusref::{Adoptable, Rc};
use std::cell::RefCell;
use std::iter;

struct Node<T> {
    pub prev: Option<Rc<RefCell<Self>>>,
    pub next: Option<Rc<RefCell<Self>>>,
    pub data: T,

struct List<T> {
    pub head: Option<Rc<RefCell<Node<T>>>>,

impl<T> List<T> {
    fn pop(&mut self) -> Option<Rc<RefCell<Node<T>>>> {
        let head = self.head.take()?;
        let tail = head.borrow_mut().prev.take();
        let next = head.borrow_mut().next.take();
        if let Some(ref tail) = tail {
            Rc::unadopt(&head, &tail);
            Rc::unadopt(&tail, &head);
            tail.borrow_mut().next = next.as_ref().map(Rc::clone);
            if let Some(ref next) = next {
                Rc::adopt(tail, next);
        if let Some(ref next) = next {
            Rc::unadopt(&head, &next);
            Rc::unadopt(&next, &head);
            next.borrow_mut().prev = tail.as_ref().map(Rc::clone);
            if let Some(ref tail) = tail {
                Rc::adopt(next, tail);
        self.head = next;

impl<T> From<Vec<T>> for List<T> {
    fn from(list: Vec<T>) -> Self {
        let nodes = list
            .map(|data| {
                Rc::new(RefCell::new(Node {
                    prev: None,
                    next: None,
        for i in 0..nodes.len() - 1 {
            let curr = &nodes[i];
            let next = &nodes[i + 1];
            curr.borrow_mut().next = Some(Rc::clone(next));
            next.borrow_mut().prev = Some(Rc::clone(curr));
            Rc::adopt(curr, next);
            Rc::adopt(next, curr);
        let tail = &nodes[nodes.len() - 1];
        let head = &nodes[0];
        tail.borrow_mut().next = Some(Rc::clone(head));
        head.borrow_mut().prev = Some(Rc::clone(tail));
        Rc::adopt(tail, head);
        Rc::adopt(head, tail);

        let head = Rc::clone(head);
        Self { head: Some(head) }

let list = iter::repeat(())
    .map(|_| "a".repeat(1024 * 1024))
let mut list = List::from(list);
let head = list.pop().unwrap();
assert_eq!(Rc::strong_count(&head), 1);
assert_eq!(list.head.as_ref().map(Rc::strong_count), Some(3));
let weak = Rc::downgrade(&head);
// all memory consumed by the list nodes is reclaimed.

CactusRef Implementation

There are two magic pieces to CactusRef: Rc adoption and the cycle-busting Drop implementation.


When an Rc<T> takes and holds an owned reference to another Rc<T>, calling Rc::adopt performs bookkeeping to build a graph of reachable objects. There is an unlinking API, Rc::unadopt, which removes a reference from the graph.

An Rc<T> is able to adopt another Rc<T> multiple times. An Rc<T> is able to adopt itself multiple times. Together, these behaviors allow implementing the following Ruby structure:

ary = []
# => []
hash = { ary => ary }
# => {[]=>[]}
hash[hash] = hash
# => {[]=>[], {...}=>{...}}
ary << hash << hash << ary << ary
# => [{[...]=>[...], {...}=>{...}}, {[...]=>[...], {...}=>{...}}, [...], [...]]
hash = nil
ary = nil
# all structures are deallocated

This bookkeeping is implemented as a set of forward (owned) and backward (owned by) links stored on the data structure that backs the Rc (called an RcBox).


There are three states that Rc needs to deal with on Drop in this order:

  1. Rc is unreachable and does not own any others. In this case, Rc::strong_count is zero and the set of forward links is empty.
  2. Rc is part of an orphaned cycle. In this case, Rc::strong_count is greater than zero and the Rc has some forward or back links.
  3. Rc is unreachable and has adopted links. In this case, Rc::strong_count is zero and the set of forward links is non-empty.

Each case is implemented with these steps:

  1. Bust forward and back links on this Rc's back links.
  2. Bust forward and back links on this Rc.
  3. Mark all reachable Rcs as killed.
  4. Drop strong references.
  5. Decrement the implicit "strong weak" pointer.
  6. Deallocate.

The interesting case is state 2 which requires knowing whether this Rc is part of an orphaned cycle. Drop detects whether this Rc is a member of a cycle by performing breadth first search over the total set of forward and back links in the object graph. The cycle detection algorithm tracks the reachability of each node in the cycle by other cycle members. Forward links contribute toward reachability. Backward references do not contribute but are added to the set of nodes to traverse in the reachability analysis. Cycle detection is O(links) where links is the number of active adoptions.

To determine whether the cycle is orphaned, the intra-cycle ownership counts are compared to the strong count of each node. If the strong count for a node is greater than the number of links the cycle has to that node, the node is externally reachable and the cycle is not orphaned. Detecting an orphaned cycle is O(links + nodes) where links is the number of active adoptions and nodes is the number of Rcs in the cycle.

Deallocating an orphaned cycle is fun and filled with unsafe peril. It is guaranteed that at least one other object in the cycle owns a reference to this Rc, so as we deallocate members of the cycle, this Rc will be dropped again.

Dropping this Rc multiple times is good because it manages decrementing the strong count of this Rc automatically. This ensures that any outstanding Weak pointers detect that they are dangling and return None on Weak::upgrade. However, it will also certainly result in a double-free or use-after-free if we are not careful.

To avoid a double-free, the RcBox includes a usize field called tombstone. When we attempt to drop an Rc in the cycle we mark it as killed. Subsequent calls to drop on killed Rcs early return after decrementing the strong count.

To avoid a use-after-free, on drop, an Rc removes itself from all link tables so it is not used for cycle detection.

To do the deallocation, drop the values in the Rcs instead of the Rcs. This breaks the cycle during the deallocation and allows Drop to crawl the object graph.

Cycle Detection Is a Zero-Cost Abstraction

Cycle detection is a zero-cost abstraction. If you never use cactusref::Adoptable;, Drop uses the same implementation as std::rc::Rc (and leaks in the same way as std::rc::Rc if you form a cycle of strong references). The only costs you pay are the memory costs of one Cell<usize> for preventing double frees, two empty RefCell<HashMap<NonNull<T>, usize>> for tracking adoptions, and an if statement to check if these structures are empty on drop.

Next Steps

I am implementing a Ruby 💎 in Rust and CactusRef will be used to implement the heap. CactusRef allows Ruby objects to own strong references to their subordinate members (like instance variables, keys and values in the case of a Hash, items in the case of an Array, class, ancestor chain, and bound methods) and be automatically reaped once they become unreachable in the VM.

CactusRef allows implementing a Ruby without a garbage collector, although if you squint, CactusRef implements a tracing garbage collector using Rust's built-in memory management.

Thank you Stephen and Nelson for helping me think hard about algorithms. 😄

Thank you to the segfaults along the way for helping me find bugs in the cycle detection and drop implementations. 😱