Lua performs automatic memory management. This means that you do not have to worry about allocating memory for new objects or freeing it when the objects are no longer needed. Lua manages memory automatically by running a garbage collector to collect all dead objects. All memory used by Lua is subject to automatic management: strings, tables, userdata, functions, threads, internal structures, etc.
An object is considered dead as soon as the collector can be sure the object will not be accessed again in the normal execution of the program. ("Normal execution" here excludes finalizers, which can resurrect dead objects (see Garbage-Collection Metamethods), and excludes also operations using the debug library.) Note that the time when the collector can be sure that an object is dead may not coincide with the programmer's expectations. The only guarantees are that Lua will not collect an object that may still be accessed in the normal execution of the program, and it will eventually collect an object that is inaccessible from Lua. (Here, inaccessible from Lua means that neither a variable nor another live object refer to the object.) Because Lua has no knowledge about C code, it never collects objects accessible through the registry (see Registry), which includes the global environment (see Environments and the Global Environment).
The garbage collector (GC) in Lua can work in two modes: incremental and generational.
The default GC mode with the default parameters are adequate for most uses. However, programs that waste a large proportion of their time allocating and freeing memory can benefit from other settings. Keep in mind that the GC behavior is non-portable both across platforms and across different Lua releases; therefore, optimal settings are also non-portable.
Incremental Garbage Collection
In incremental mode, each GC cycle performs a mark-and-sweep collection in small steps interleaved with the program's execution. In this mode, the collector uses three numbers to control its garbage-collection cycles: the garbage-collector pause, the garbage-collector step multiplier, and the garbage-collector step size.
The garbage-collector pause controls how long the collector waits before starting a new cycle. The collector starts a new cycle when the use of memory hits n% of the use after the previous collection. Larger values make the collector less aggressive. Values equal to or less than 100 mean the collector will not wait to start a new cycle. A value of 200 means that the collector waits for the total memory in use to double before starting a new cycle. The default value is 200; the maximum value is 1000.
The garbage-collector step multiplier controls the speed of the collector relative to memory allocation, that is, how many elements it marks or sweeps for each kilobyte of memory allocated. Larger values make the collector more aggressive but also increase the size of each incremental step. You should not use values less than 100, because they make the collector too slow and can result in the collector never finishing a cycle. The default value is 100; the maximum value is 1000.
The garbage-collector step size controls the size of each incremental step, specifically how many bytes the interpreter allocates before performing a step. This parameter is logarithmic: A value of n means the interpreter will allocate 2^n^ bytes between steps and perform equivalent work during the step. A large value (e.g., 60) makes the collector a stop-the-world (non-incremental) collector. The default value is 13, which means steps of approximately 8 Kbytes.
Generational Garbage Collection
In generational mode, the collector does frequent minor collections, which traverses only objects recently created. If after a minor collection the use of memory is still above a limit, the collector does a stop-the-world major collection, which traverses all objects. The generational mode uses two parameters: the minor multiplier and the the major multiplier.
The minor multiplier controls the frequency of minor collections. For a minor multiplier x, a new minor collection will be done when memory grows x% larger than the memory in use after the previous major collection. For instance, for a multiplier of 20, the collector will do a minor collection when the use of memory gets 20% larger than the use after the previous major collection. The default value is 20; the maximum value is 200.
The major multiplier controls the frequency of major collections. For a major multiplier x, a new major collection will be done when memory grows x% larger than the memory in use after the previous major collection. For instance, for a multiplier of 100, the collector will do a major collection when the use of memory gets larger than twice the use after the previous collection. The default value is 100; the maximum value is 1000.
You can set garbage-collector metamethods for tables and, using the C API, for full userdata (see Metatables and Metamethods). These metamethods, called finalizers, are called when the garbage collector detects that the corresponding table or userdata is dead. Finalizers allow you to coordinate Lua's garbage collection with external resource management such as closing files, network or database connections, or freeing your own memory.
For an object (table or userdata) to be finalized when collected, you must mark it for finalization. You mark an object for finalization when you set its metatable and the metatable has a
__gc metamethod. Note that if you set a metatable without a
__gc field and later create that field in the metatable, the object will not be marked for finalization.
When a marked object becomes dead, it is not collected immediately by the garbage collector. Instead, Lua puts it in a list. After the collection, Lua goes through that list. For each object in the list, it checks the object's
__gc metamethod: If it is present, Lua calls it with the object as its single argument.
At the end of each garbage-collection cycle, the finalizers are called in the reverse order that the objects were marked for finalization, among those collected in that cycle; that is, the first finalizer to be called is the one associated with the object marked last in the program. The execution of each finalizer may occur at any point during the execution of the regular code.
Because the object being collected must still be used by the finalizer, that object (and other objects accessible only through it) must be resurrected by Lua. Usually, this resurrection is transient, and the object memory is freed in the next garbage-collection cycle. However, if the finalizer stores the object in some global place (e.g., a global variable), then the resurrection is permanent. Moreover, if the finalizer marks a finalizing object for finalization again, its finalizer will be called again in the next cycle where the object is dead. In any case, the object memory is freed only in a GC cycle where the object is dead and not marked for finalization.
When you close a state (see
lua_close), Lua calls the finalizers of all objects marked for finalization, following the reverse order that they were marked. If any finalizer marks objects for collection during that phase, these marks have no effect.
Finalizers cannot yield nor run the garbage collector. Because they can run in unpredictable times, it is good practice to restrict each finalizer to the minimum necessary to properly release its associated resource.
Any error while running a finalizer generates a warning; the error is not propagated.
A weak table is a table whose elements are weak references. A weak reference is ignored by the garbage collector. In other words, if the only references to an object are weak references, then the garbage collector will collect that object.
A weak table can have weak keys, weak values, or both. A table with weak values allows the collection of its values, but prevents the collection of its keys. A table with both weak keys and weak values allows the collection of both keys and values. In any case, if either the key or the value is collected, the whole pair is removed from the table. The weakness of a table is controlled by the
__mode field of its metatable. This metavalue, if present, must be one of the following strings: "
k", for a table with weak keys; "
v", for a table with weak values; or "
kv", for a table with both weak keys and values.
A table with weak keys and strong values is also called an ephemeron table. In an ephemeron table, a value is considered reachable only if its key is reachable. In particular, if the only reference to a key comes through its value, the pair is removed.
Any change in the weakness of a table may take effect only at the next collect cycle. In particular, if you change the weakness to a stronger mode, Lua may still collect some items from that table before the change takes effect.
Only objects that have an explicit construction are removed from weak tables. Values, such as numbers and light C functions, are not subject to garbage collection, and therefore are not removed from weak tables (unless their associated values are collected). Although strings are subject to garbage collection, they do not have an explicit construction and their equality is by value; they behave more like values than like objects. Therefore, they are not removed from weak tables.
Resurrected objects (that is, objects being finalized and objects accessible only through objects being finalized) have a special behavior in weak tables. They are removed from weak values before running their finalizers, but are removed from weak keys only in the next collection after running their finalizers, when such objects are actually freed. This behavior allows the finalizer to access properties associated with the object through weak tables.
If a weak table is among the resurrected objects in a collection cycle, it may not be properly cleared until the next cycle.