Towards Formalizing Java's Weak References
Kfoury, Assaf J.
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Weak references provide the programmer with limited control over the process of memory management. By using them, a programmer can make decisions based on previous actions that are taken by the garbage collector. Although this is often helpful, the outcome of a program using weak references is less predictable due to the nondeterminism they introduce in program evaluation. It is therefore desirable to have a framework of formal tools to reason about weak references and programs that use them. We present several calculi that formalize various aspects of weak references, inspired by their implementation in Java. We provide a calculus to model multiple levels of non-strong references, where a different garbage collection policy is applied to each level. We consider different collection policies such as eager collection and lazy collection. Similar to the way they are implemented in Java, we give the semantics of eager collection to weak references and the semantics of lazy collection to soft references. Moreover, we condition garbage collection on the availability of time and space resources. While time constraints are used in order to restrict garbage collection, space constraints are used in order to trigger it. Finalizers are a problematic feature in Java, especially when they interact with weak references. We provide a calculus to model finalizer evaluation. Since finalizers have little meaning in a language without side-effect, we introduce a limited form of side effect into the calculus. We discuss determinism and the separate notion of uniqueness of (evaluation) outcome. We show that in our calculus, finalizer evaluation does not affect uniqueness of outcome.