I ran across a bug in a project just the other day that I thought others could find interesting. In this project, I had a main thread that was listening for connections and then serving back some data. I also had a timer that would periodically trigger an update of the data that was being served. This was using a System.Threading.Timer and therefore was running on a secondary thread from the thread pool.

The problem was that the timer would run two or three times (in fifteen minute intervals) and then it would just magically stop running. I initially thought perhaps locking issues between the threads, so I went through and locked everything that was shared, all to no avail.

And to make the problem even more frustrating, I couldn’t reproduce it in a debugger. I initially thought that this was perhaps because I was not patient enough to wait 45 minutes for it to happen. But it turned out to be a release vs. debug kind of problem: the release build had the problem, while the debug build didn’t seem to.

For research purposes, take as an example the follow little program. This program should have a main thread that just sleeps the day away, and a timer that prints out a debug message every 5 seconds. If I run the debug build of this, it works great, but running the release build on my machine, the timer thread didn’t even run a single time! Waahh?!?!

class Program
{
  static long i = 0;

  static void TimerCallback(object state)
  {
    Debug.WriteLine("{0:D5}: TimerCallback", i);
  }

  static void Main(string[] args)
  {
    // Trigger the callback every 5 seconds
    System.Threading.Timer t = new System.Threading.Timer(TimerCallback, null, 0, 5000); 

    while (true)
    {
      Thread.Sleep(2500);
    }
  }
}

It turns out what is going on here is that the system is happily garbage collecting my Timer object. According to the system, that t variable never gets used after it is initialized, so it’s safe to just throw it away. If you look at the MSIL using the ILDASM tool, you see the following for the release build. Notice that it does a newobj to create the Timer object, and then rather than storing it in a local with something like stloc.0, it just pops it off the stack and doesn’t keep any reference on it.

IL_0013:  newobj     instance void [mscorlib]System.Threading.Timer::.ctor(class [mscorlib]System.Threading.TimerCallback,
                                                                             object,
                                                                             int32,
                                                                             int32)
IL_0018:  pop

The debug version of the same code like the following, and note that it declares a local object, and then stores the reference to the Timer object in that local object.

.locals init ([0] class [mscorlib]System.Threading.Timer t,
           [1] bool CS$4$0000)
...
IL_0014:  newobj     instance void [mscorlib]System.Threading.Timer::.ctor(class [mscorlib]System.Threading.TimerCallback,
                                                                             object,
                                                                             int32,
                                                                             int32)
IL_0019:  stloc.0

Now once I figured out what was going on, fixing it was trivial. A using statement around the disposable Timer object keeps it in scope, and deterministically cleans it up when appropriate. (Of course, this is how the code should have been written in the first place, but look at the cool problem I got to figure out as a result of my lazy coding.)

One thought on “C# Garbage Collection, or Why Did My Object Just Disappear?

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