Notes on Reference Counting in R

Luke Tierney

As of r65048 R-devel can be compiled to use reference counting instead of the NAMED mechanism to determine when objects can be modified in place or need to be copied. For now NAMED is the default. To switch to using reference counting compile with SWITCH_TO_REFCNT defined, or uncomment the line


in include/Rinternals.h.


The motivation for this is to allow us to be able to decrement reference counts that go above 1 to help reduce copying and maybe even get to a point where efficient replacement functions can be written in R.

Reference counting is also much easier to understand and think about than the NAMED mechanism. Given that reference counts are managed correctly by default and the exceptions are explicit it is fairly easy to review the whole mechanism. In contrast, with NAMED one has to find the paces where NAMED adjustments might be needed but are missing, which is much harder.

A Caution for C Code that Modifies its Arguments

A small number of packages contain C functions called via the .Call interface that internally check NAMED on an argument and modify the argument directly if the NAMED value permits this. These packages may need to be more careful or more conservative: In

x <- list(1 + 2)
y <- x
.Call("foo", x[[1]])

the value received by foo would have NAMED = 2, since the expression x[[1]] propagates the NAMED value of the container x to the extracted element. Reference counting only reflects the immediate references, so the reference count on the value received by foo will be one. This means that, except in very special and well understood circumstances, an argument passed down to C code should not be modified if it has a positive reference count, even if that count is equal to one.

Only a few packages on CRAN and BIOC call NAMED or SET_NAMED, so screening these for possible issues should be fairly easy.


Switching to reference counting seems to have a rather negligible performance impact. On one Linux box I see a 5% hit for tight scalar loop code, on another I see no measurable difference. The table below shows some results for the the first Linux box. The impact on vectorized code is of course even less. Even an across the board 5% hit seems worth while to me for the simplification this change would bring.

p1 10.39 9.90
p1c 3.07 3.18
sm 2.06 1.91
smc 0.46 0.43
conv 4.47 4.30
cconv 1.25 1.33

Design and Details

The main place reference counts are manipulated is in memory.c in exactly the same places where the write barrier is managed. When a new value is placed in a vector or CONS cell field the reference count on the new value is incremented and the reference count on the previous value is decremented.

In addition, there are a few places that need to not increment reference counts, like

To accomplish this every object has a TRACKREFS flag; references to the object's fields are only counted if TRACKREFS is true. The function CONS_NR produces a CONS cell that does not track references; these are used for internal argument lists and the like. Many of the uses of CONS_NR could be eliminated by using a stack for passing arguments.

There are also a few places where reference counts can safely be decremented, like

Other opportunities for decrementing reference counts exist as well but have not yet been addressed.

Reference Counting Macros

The core macros implementing reference counting are

As a rule the values of the REFCNT and TRACKREFS fields should only be changed using the higher level macros

Supporting Changes

To support the transition a number of standard use idioms for NAMED and SET_NAMED have been replaced by macros that can also be defined in terms of reference counts:

With these changes in place the initial implementation of reference counting treats the remaining calls to NAMED as equivalent to calls to REFCNT, and SET_NAMED becomes a no-op. Some of the SET_NAMED(x, 2) calls could be replaced by MARK_NOT_MUTABLE(x), but this does not appear to be necessary.

All remaining uses of NAMED and SET_NAMED will need to be thoroughly reviewed before completing the transition.

Binary Compatibility

The same binary format is used as for the NAMED mechanism, with the two bits of the named field used for the reference count. That means reference counts stick at the maximal value of 3. Some rearranging of the header would allow us to use a larger maximal reference count.

Files Changed

Major changes:

Minor changes:

Complex Assignment Changes

Under the NAMED approach R level component extraction function propagate the NAMED value of the container to the extracted element. So duplicating of LHS values can be deferred until the replacement functions are called. With reference counting duplicating is necessary if an object itself or any of its containing LHS values has a reference count greater than one. The simplest way to deal with this is to duplicate as needed as new intermediate LHS values are extracted. This is done in evalseq for interpreted code. For byte compiled code it is done in the SWAP instruction for now, since this is only used between LHS extractions. This instruction should be renamed to reflect this usage.

Work in Progress

Since reference counts are applied to all objects, including environments and promises, a check after applying a closure can show which bindings are no longer needed, and this allows reference counts on arguments to be decremented again. Thus, for example, after the call


this mechanism can restore the reference count of x to its value prior to the call (no modification of the mean source is needed). There are still a number of rough edges and interactions with the complex assignment process that need to be resolved, so this is not yet committed to the subversion sources. But it is likely these can be resolved and the result committed before too long.