Let’s being with a quick refresher on how Swift and Objective-C work with memory management.

Stack vs Heap

It’s firstly important to know that value types (like structs) will be stored on “the stack”, whereas reference types (basically meaning classes) are dynamically managed on “the heap”.

N.B. The terms “the stack” and “the heap” can have different meanings in different languages or programming environments, as they can be implemented in a variety of ways but there are usually similarities in how these data structures are utilized managing memory.

Both “the stack” and “the heap” are stored in RAM.

The Stack (call stack)

Typically a call stack is composed of “stack frames which are data structures that contain information about functions to call, these stack frames typically represent a function call and its argument data. The call stack stores information relevant to the current function such as a pointer to whichever function it was called from, and any local variables. Because functions call other functions and then return, the stack grows and shrinks to hold information from the functions further down the call stack. A program doesn’t really have runtime control over it; it’s determined by the programming language, OS and even the system architecture” (Ref#S).

The Heap

Contrastingly, “the heap is a general term used for any memory that is allocated dynamically and randomly; i.e. out of order. The memory is typically allocated by the OS, with the application calling API functions to do this allocation. There is a fair bit of overhead required in managing dynamically allocated memory, which is usually handled by the OS” (Ref#: S).

In the usual operation of the ARC system, “objects are allocated on the heap, and their lifetime is manually managed using a reference count. This is done using two instance methods which all classes are expected to implement: retain increases the object’s reference count by 1, whereas conversely release decreases the object’s reference count by 1 and calls the instance method dealloc if the count reaches 0″. Therefore, to simplify, ARC keeps track of all the vars and lets that point to some class in the heap and tosses out classes form the heap when they are no longer referenced.

Reference Counting

The use of a retain count has been around since the early day of iOS: The way this originally worked was that when you explicitly allocated an object it got a retain count of 1 and then when you called release or autorelease on that same object, its retain count was then decremented and the object was then collected. Furthermore, if you allocated further instances of the object then the retain count would increase further.

For example:

NSObject *someObject = [[NSObject aloc] init]; //retain count becomes 1
[someObject release]; //retain count reduces back to zero 0

(Source: P)

What happened with the above code is that when an object got released its -dealloc method got called on an object and its memory will then be reclaimed.

One of the pre-ARC tools that developers could use was called an AutoreleasePool which was a section of your app code where you can collect objects sent an autorelease message, you would then be able to clean them up via the sending of an NSAutoreleasePool  drain message (Source: P). At this point in time, one of the only alternatives to manual memory management in Objective-C was libauto which was “a scanning, conservative, generational, multi-threaded garbage collector”. The algorithm used involved scanning the memory in use by an app and collecting out of scope memory.

Automatic Reference Counting (ARC)

Automatic Reference Counting (ARC) is a memory management feature of the compiler used by Xcode; the built-in Xcode compiler is called Clang Compiler was developed within Apple by Chris Lattner and others. The origins of ARC were in work carried out by Chris and his colleagues on the Clang compiler, starting with the addition of C++ support, and also tied in with the early stages of development of Swift programming language. They felt during this that the memory management solutions (such as manual memory management and the libauto garbage collector mentioned above) were not the right automatic memory management for the compiler and they were not cutting the mustard and that ARC could be the new solution for this. Whilst ARC can technically be thought of as an alternative type of “garbage collection”, that term typical does not refer to referencing counting based algorithms, meaning that ARC is NOT considered “garbage collection” in the general use of the term.

Automatic Reference Counting works for both the Objective-C and Swift programming languages, and it involves the compiler inserting the “object code messages” which previously the programmer had to type in manually: that is the retain and release keywords. These keywords work to increase and decrease the reference count for a particular object at run time. What this means is that when the reference count of an object does get to zero, the object is deallocated and kicked out of memory (Ref#: C) conversely ARC won’t deallocate an instance when there is still at least one active reference to it (Ref#: D).

Limitations of ARC

ARC implements automatic memory management for objects and blocks, this means that we no longer have to explicitly insert retains and releases as was previously the case. However, ARC is not a tracing type garbage collection algorithm, and “it does not provide a cycle collector”, instead we must explicitly manage the lifetime of objects. In certain scenarios ARC is not able to work out when it’s safe to deallocate a particular class instance and therefore, to avoid a retention cycle being created we need to help the compiler to work out what object we need for our program and which ones are safe to be let go.

One thing that ARC didn’t really handle when it was introduced was CF objects from the CoreFoundation framework, so for example when I was updating a very legacy Objective-C app I would often see leaks involving these objects. This was because, with Core Foundation, any objects which you allocate needed to be released with either CFRelease or CFMakeCollectable, and they were not picked up by ARC. The reason for this is that the Core Foundation library is written in pure low-level C code, and it’s a problem to try and make the use of the reference count automatic when using these CF types.

Strong vs Weak

A class with a strong reference is managed using “normal” Automatic Reference Counting meaning that as long as there are any references anywhere to it – then it will stay in memory.

In contrast, a weak reference means: if no other class is referencing this object, then I don’t care about the object either so this reference can be made Nil. In order for the weak modifier to work it needs to be nill-able, so that means that it can only be used with optional pointers to reference types. Weak pointers will never cause an object to be retained or kept in the heap (Ref#: T). One example of this is the outlets we can use with storyboards or nibs: since these are strongly held by the view hierarchy, we’re free to designate them as weak (i.e. @IBOutlet weak var carScreenView: CatScreenView!).

Retain / Retention Cycles

What we call a reference cycle can happen if two class instances hold strong references to each other, leading to circular reference situations, where each instance is keeping the other one alive.  This scenario, in turn, can often lead to memory leaks, or they can be cascading leaks where the memory usage starts to increase exponentially whilst the app is running. We need to be breaking cycles in the code manually by using the weak or unowned modifiers.

Example

In the above Swift playground, we have inserted the weak modifier for the carParked variable in the parking space.  Without this weak modifier the above code will not print any output to the console, this is because there is a circular dependency and since carParked is a strong reference (it has increment the retain count) it never gets deallocated. If we place in the weak modifier, however, we know that the retain count for the object will not be incremented as such ARC will feel free to clear the memory allowing both objects to be deallocated. The print statements would then print to the console proving that the deinit methods have been called on both objects (Ref#: O).

Further to the above, the notation of a circular dependency means a relationship between two or more modules that directly or indirectly depend on each other to work properly.

Reference Cycles due to the Delegate Pattern

One source of a reference cycle can be the use of a common pattern iOS design pattern called the Delegate Pattern. This can particularly happen if we create a reference to a delegate, but we forget to make it weak, something like this:

Instead, we should probably do this:

What could happen is that if we delegate was alive elsewhere and the view controller went out of scope, since the reference was (in the first case) strong the view controller could be kept alive.

Reference Cycles due to Closures

Weak with Closures and Blocks

We typically need to use a weak modifier when we working with closures and blocks (particularly those with references to self). See more about this in my articles on Closures in Swift and Blocks in Objective-C.

One common mechanism which can lead to issues like reference cycles is capturing strong references inside closures. Since closures in Swift are reference types, they are capable of capturing values by reference from their enclosing scope (and indeed in Swift, this is the default whereas in Objective-C we would need to mark a particular property with the __blockmodifier to use it in this way).

To solve this problem in our closures and to weakify references in Swift, we can use something called a “capture list” which appears inside the start of a particular closure and looks like square brackets followed byin, together with the weak or unowned storage modifier:

You can find out more details about these topics in my related articles covering closures in swift, and blocks in objective-c. We certainly see something similar with blocks in Objective-C where we can similarly weakify references to things like self to avoid cycles.

Should a memory leak occur, there are a range of tools we can use in order to diagnose the cause and identify the source. We will cover the full set of tools and the best way to use then in Part II of this article (coming soon).

Conclusion

In this article, we looked at memory management in Xcode using the clang compiler with Swift or Objective-C. We talked about what ARC is and how it differs from garbage collection. We saw that whilst ARC is an automatic process, there’s a lot of stuff about memory that we still need to be aware of as developers working in Xcode: amongst these is the importance of using a weakified version of self (or other objects) in our closures or blocks to avoid retention cycles. We also saw that we need to be careful similarly when using the delegate pattern. In these cases, we saw the importance of the weak modifier to control what is held onto in memory and kill reference cycle scenarios before they can happen.

References

A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-lwIKQ1G9Y

B: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LnipXiSrSM

C: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_Reference_Counting

D: https://docs.swift.org/swift-book/LanguageGuide/AutomaticReferenceCounting.html

E: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory_leak

F: https://medium.com/swift2go/how-i-stopped-that-memory-leak-and-reclaimed-150mb-of-memory-swift-3631f522d249

G: https://medium.com/ios-seminar/swifts-arc-and-memory-leaks-1a227cae55da

H: https://softwareengineering.stackexchange.com/questions/11856/whats-wrong-with-circular-references

I: https://clang.llvm.org/docs/AutomaticReferenceCounting.html

J: https://cocoacasts.com/what-are-strong-reference-cycles

K: https://cocoacasts.com/what-is-the-difference-between-strong-weak-and-unowned-references

L: https://medium.com/mindorks/zombies-coders-dad22679b93a

M: https://code.tutsplus.com/tutorials/what-is-exc_bad_access-and-how-to-debug-it–cms-24544

N: https://oleb.net/2019/chris-lattner-swift-origins/

O: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nb628CFURvI

P: https://cocoasamurai.blogspot.com/2010/12/objective-c-memory-management-garbage.html

Q: https://blog.bobthedeveloper.io/swift-retention-cycle-in-closures-and-delegate-836c469ef128

R: https://www.raywenderlich.com/959-arc-and-memory-management-in-swift

S: https://stackoverflow.com/questions/79923/what-and-where-are-the-stack-and-heap

T: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQrXM2zUPvY

Updated: 31/05/2019

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Last modified: May 31, 2019

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