A Formal Semantics for Weak References
Hallet, J. J.
Kfoury, A. J.
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A weak reference is a reference to an object that is not followed by the pointer tracer when garbage collection is called. That is, a weak reference cannot prevent the object it references from being garbage collected. Weak references remain a troublesome programming feature largely because there is not an accepted, precise semantics that describes their behavior (in fact, we are not aware of any formalization of their semantics). The trouble is that weak references allow reachable objects to be garbage collected, therefore allowing garbage collection to influence the result of a program. Despite this difficulty, weak references continue to be used in practice for reasons related to efficient storage management, and are included in many popular programming languages (Standard ML, Haskell, OCaml, and Java). We give a formal semantics for a calculus called λweak that includes weak references and is derived from Morrisett, Felleisen, and Harper’s λgc. λgc formalizes the notion of garbage collection by means of a rewrite rule. Such a formalization is required to precisely characterize the semantics of weak references. However, the inclusion of a garbage-collection rewrite-rule in a language with weak references introduces non-deterministic evaluation, even if the parameter-passing mechanism is deterministic (call-by-value in our case). This raises the question of confluence for our rewrite system. We discuss natural restrictions under which our rewrite system is confluent, thus guaranteeing uniqueness of program result. We define conditions that allow other garbage collection algorithms to co-exist with our semantics of weak references. We also introduce a polymorphic type system to prove the absence of erroneous program behavior (i.e., the absence of “stuck evaluation”) and a corresponding type inference algorithm. We prove the type system sound and the inference algorithm sound and complete.