Code Vigorous

Dustin J. Mitchell

This should go away!

06 Jan 2007

One of the problems with coding in a high-level language is that sometimes the insulation from low-level details like memory management is not complete. In this post, I present a method for debugging memory leaks in Python.

Garbage Collection

Python has two kinds of memory management: reference counting and a mark-and-sweep garbage collector for cycle elimination. The reference counting takes care of immediately finalizing objects when the last reference to them goes away, such as when a variable goes out of scope, or a key is deleted from a mapping. This takes care of the vast majority of objects, but the programmer has to be careful not to create cycles. For example, consider this tree implementation:

class Node:
    def __init__(self, parent=None):
        self.children = []
        self.parent = parent
        if parent: self.parent.children.append(self)

def make_tree():
    root = Node()
    kid1 = Node(root)
    kid2 = Node(root)
    return root

Now root’s children references both kid1 and kid2, but each of those nodes reference root via their parent attribute. This forms a reference cycle (actually two), and simple reference counting will not finalize it. For some time now, Python has had mark-and-sweep garbage collection to periodically seek and destroy these cycles. Some time after the last reference to a cycle goes away, the garbage collection algorithm runs, identifies the cycle as garbage, and finalizes the objects in the cycle.


Even with full garbage collection, it’s still easy to “leak” memory in Python:

  • If large objects are involved in a cycle, they may “hold” theirmemory a lot longer than you’d like, leading to a 2-3x increase inmemory consumption, depending on usage patterns.

  • References can get “stuck” in unexpected places, such as sys.exc_info, threading.Thread instances, or function closures.

  • If an object in a cycle has a finalizer (del), the garbage-collection algorithm cannot finalize it, and the entire cycle will persist.


In the process of chasing what turned out to be several leaks in a large, long-running daemon, I developed a tool I’m calling shouldGoAway. The idea is that the application being debugged calls shouldGoAway(obj) when it expects obj to go away soon. The tool makes a weak reference to the object and waits one second. If the object still exists, it uses the gc module to construct a reference graph for the object, and dumps that graph to disk in a format readable by GraphViz. Here’s how it might be used:

def compute():
    data_structure = get_data()
    shouldGoAway(data_structure, "data_structure")

The tool itself is


  • This module creates a separate Timer for every call whichcan lead to a lot of resource consumption if lots of objects should begoing away. It would probably be sensible to switch to a single threadthat processes objects sequentially.

  • It would be nice to be able to adjust the delay before an object is checked.

  • I think I’ve struck a nice balance of brevity and useful information in the graph, but there’s room for improvement.

  • Many objects (C types, tuples, lists, etc.) are not weak referencable. It might be nice to work around this.