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Resource management is a solved problem in Ruby… or is it?

In C language, you need to call free() whenever an allocated memory is no longer used. If you fail to call free(), you will get out of memory. If you try to use memory already freed, it results in a hard-to-debug bug and security vulnerabilities. And the code gets cluttered with so frequent free() calls.

But such free() calls are unnecessary on Ruby. Ruby has a garbage collector so the memory associated with an object that is no longer referenced by anybody will be freed automatically. Resource management is a solved problem in Ruby… or is it?

Unfortunately, the garbage collector only works with resources managed by Ruby. A notable example of resources not managed by Ruby is an external process created with spawn. In this post, we discuss why the garbage collector is not a one-size-fits-for-all approach, and how to safely manage resources without the garbage collector by illustrating a new resource management mechanism I’m proposing for our Ruby product, AutoHCK.

What is AutoHCK?

AutoHCK is a tool to automate Windows driver testing. AutoHCK runs the Windows Hardware Lab Kit (Windows HLK), a testing framework for Windows drivers, on QEMU virtual machines. It is particularly useful when you want to test with para-virtualized devices implemented in QEMU or when you want to run Windows HLK on a Linux host.

AutoHCK is responsible to prepare files required by test runs, to manage virtual machines, and to collect test results. These features are implemented in Ruby.

Problem with garbage collector

As described earlier, resource management is not a solved problem even for Ruby, which comes with a garbage collector.

The problem with a garbage collector is that it is highly asynchronous. Its asynchronous nature benefits when managing pure-Ruby objects. For example, consider of freeing a long linked list of Ruby objects:

S =
l = 10000000.times.reduce( { |sum| }

If you naively try to free something like l on a platform that lacks garbage collector (e.g. C++ and Rust), it will freeze the process for a while as it will need 10 million objects at once, but Ruby can do that when it is idle and avoid freezing.

ApplicationApplicationDelete reference to "l"Free an objectFree an objectFree an objectFree an object...
Synchronous resource deallocation (naive C++/Rust)
Asynchronous resource deallocation by Ruby garbage collectorGarbage CollectorApplicationGarbage CollectorApplicationDelete reference to "l"Start another useful work...Free an objectFree an objectFree an objectFree an object...Inspect memoryRetrieve stale "l"
Asynchronous resource deallocation by Ruby garbage collector

However, it relies on the fact that there is plenty of resources available; nobody cares even if the garbage collector increases the memory usage by a few megabytes. It is untrue for scarce resources. Such an example in AutoHCK is access to a disk image. AutoHCK sometimes performs a sequential run of two QEMU processes using a disk image; the earlier one sets up a virtual machine and the later one does the actual work. It will corrupt the disk image if the later reads it while the earlier is still writing. This means only one virtual machine can use a disk image at a time so access to the image is very scarce. In such a case, synchronous resource management is mandatory, and a garbage collector is a poor option for that.

Asynchronous resource deallocation with mutually exclusive access hazard (red)Garbage CollectorApplicationGarbage CollectorApplicationFinishes the setup process (but doesn't stop it!)Start the test process...Concurrent disk image accesses!Stop the setup processInspect memoryRetrieve finished the setup process
Asynchronous resource deallocation with mutually exclusive access hazard (red)


As shown above, the garbage collector is not a silver bullet. This section presents alternative options for resource management.

Reference counting

The idea behind reference counting is simple; remember how many references are out there and release the resource when the count reaches zero. The resource deallocation timing in a reference counting system is more predictable than in the garbage collector as the deallocation happens exactly when the references are deleted.

The obvious downside is that a stale reference may keep a resource occupied. In the earlier example of a sequential run of two QEMU processes, if the earlier process keeps the stale reference to the disk image, the later process will never have access to the image, which makes AutoHCK hang. In such a case, you will want to mark the stale reference invalid instead of waiting forever till it disappears.

Resource scope

The resource scope is an inherent concept in many programming languages. In such languages, a variable becomes available when the execution enters a scope, and it will be released when the execution leaves the scope.

The resource scope mechanism works neatly when the execution does not involve persistent states. For example, if a system works like a mathematical function that simply computes the output from the input, obviously intermediate values computed in the system can be released after the execution.

The mechanism will not work well for applications like daemon. For example, consider a key-value storage that accepts set and get operations. A pair of a key and a value needs to persist after exiting the scope of the set operation. In other words, the pair of a key and a value needs to escape the scope.

Introducing AutoHCK::ResourceScope

So how can we complement the garbage collector for resource management in AutoHCK? Determining the best method for resource management requires an understanding of the workload. In the case of AutoHCK, there are two important facts:

  • AutoHCK is not a daemon but more function-like. It consumes a Windows image and test configurations, outputs the test results, and terminates.

  • AutoHCK has essential resources that require mutually-exclusive access: disk images. Disk images are needed for virtual machines and virtual machines are needed for… literally everything AutoHCK does.

They make a clear case for introducing a resource management mechanism using scope.

The interface

Below is an example usage of AutoHCK::ResourceScope: do |scope|
  a ='a.txt')
  scope << a

This code opens a file, reads it, and closes it. ResourceScope can be applied to any resources that can be freed by calling its close method.

For this simple example, you may just give a block to to get the identical result, but the strength of AutoHCK::ResourceScope is that it is composable.

The composability relies on the fact that it can be nested. do |a|
  file = do |b|
    path_file ='path.txt')
    b << path_file

  a << file

This way, you can have function-like structures nested. Moreover, ResourceScope has a special method named transaction: do |a|
  do_something_with a.transaction do |b|
    file ='a.txt')
    b << file
    raise 'unexpected header' if file.readline != 'magic'

Resources attached to a transaction scope will be freed if an exception occurs. Otherwise, they will escape from the transaction scope to the original scope. It is known as move semantics in C++ and Rust. This makes sure resources will not leak due to exceptions during resource allocation.

Finally, a scope object can be passed to methods.

class C
  def new(scope)
    @file ='a.txt')
    scope << @file

  def read
end do |scope|
  c =

A scope parameter of a method forces the programmer to consider what scope is appropriate to manage the allocated resource.

Nested scopes, transactions, and scope parameters make it possible to compose a complex procedure from simple ones involving resource allocation and usage.


A major pitfall when managing resources without the garbage collector in Ruby is interrupt handling. In Ruby, an interrupt can happen anywhere in the code so a resource will leak if an interrupt happens after it is allocated and before it is freed.

Resource cleanup and unmasked interruptInterrupt HandlerApplicationInterrupt HandlerApplicationMask AutoHCKInterruptStart resource cleanup...Finish resource cleanupUnmask AutoHCKInterruptRaise AutoHCKInterruptDeliver an interrupt

Thread.handle_interrupt allows to mask interrupts but its use is tedious. automatically use the method and make it simple.

Resource cleanup and masked interruptInterrupt HandlerApplicationInterrupt HandlerApplicationMask AutoHCKInterruptStart resource cleanup...Finish resource cleanupUnmask AutoHCKInterruptRaise AutoHCKInterruptDeliver an interrupt

Below is the actual implementation of

def = [])
  scope = new(resources)
  Thread.handle_interrupt(AutoHCKInterrupt => :never) do
    Thread.handle_interrupt(AutoHCKInterrupt => :on_blocking) do
      yield scope

Thread.handle_interrupt(AutoHCKInterrupt => :never) ensures an interrupt will not occur when freeing resources.

Thread.handle_interrupt(AutoHCKInterrupt => :on_blocking) ensures an interrupt will not occur after a resource is allocated and before it is assigned to the scope. use a specialized exception class (AutoHCKInterrupt) so that third-party code that creates a child thread and interrupt it works. A typical example is timeout. As timeout works by creating a thread and interrupting it after a specified period, masking generic interrupts prevents it from functioning.

Timeout and incorrect interrupt maskTimerTimeout ThreadApplicationTimerTimeout ThreadApplicationMask all interruptsStart resource cleanup...Start a taskHang!...System hangs!Create a threadArmFireDeliver an interrupt

This also means AutoHCK::ResourceScope cannot be modified in a thread that can have an interrupt other than AutoHCKInterrupt.


We discussed the resource scope as an alternative to the garbage collector, and how to implement it in Ruby. There is no single universal way to manage resources. For example, Chromium, a large program written in C++, uses all of a garbage collector, reference counting and resource scope. Sometimes you may find something missing in the programming platform and you may need to implement it by yourself. In such a case, carefully design your own solution and also watch out for platform-specific pitfalls.