A mark-sweep garbage collector traverses all reachable objects in the heap by following pointers beginning with the "roots", i.e. pointers stored in statically allocated or stack allocated program variables. All such reachable objects are marked. A sweep over the entire heap is the performed to restore unmarked objects to a free list, so they can be reallocated.
In contrast a copying collector copies reachable objects to another region of memory as they are being traversed. Provided the traversal is done in breadth first order, there is a well-known and simple algorithm for performing this traversal without auxiliary storage or recursion. After such a traversal all surviving objects reside in a contiguous region of memory, and all pointers have been updated to point to the new object locations. The previously used region of memory can then be reused in its entirety. Allocation becomes trivial, since all free space is always contiguous.
Since a copying collector inherently moves objects, it is not suitable in environments (e.g. C with a standard compiler) in which most pointers cannot be identified with certainty. It would be impossible to correctly update such an ambiguous pointer. (There are adaptations such as Bartlett's which can tolerate a few ambiguous pointers.)
It has often been argued that copying collection is superior to mark-sweep for two reasons. First, it compacts memory, and hence avoids any fragmentation. Second, it's running time is proportional to the amount of live memory, not the size of the heap. We argue here that both are relevant only under special circumstances. Furthermore the second claim is meaningful only if garbage collection time is defined in a somewhat contrived manner.
We do not dispute the claims that copying garbage collection may often be easier to implement, or that allocation is faster, since free memory is contiguous. It is however our experience that in single-threaded environments with moderately long-lived objects garbage collection time generally dominates allocation time, even with noncontiguous free memory.
0) Initialize for trace, e.g. clear mark bits
I) Tracing (marking or copying)
III) Allocate reclaimed storage
Phase 0 is negligible for all algorithms in practice, and could be done in constant time with suitable clever data structures. Hence we will ignore it.
Phase I takes time proportional at most to the amount of reachable data for either copying or mark-sweep collectors. For a mark-sweep collector, the running time of this phase is really only proportional to the number of pointers in the heap.
Phase II is unnecessary for a copying collector. For a traditional mark-sweep collector, it takes time proportional to the time of the heap. This is the basis of the claim that copying collection exhibits superior asymptotic performance. However, there is no inherent reason for a nonmoving marking collector to require a sweep phase. Indeed, it is possible to simply mark reachable objects and have the allocator search for unmarked objects. The search will terminate quickly in precisely those cases in which a copying collector is claimed superior, namely when most of the heap is empty. Moreover, it is possible to represent mark bits as doubly linked lists, in which case no search is necessary. (This is the essence of Baker's treadmill garbage collector.)
Even if there is an explicit sweep phase, it rarely dominates execution time. The sweep phase only has to examine mark bits, not the actual contents of objects. Well-designed collectors concerned with paging and cache locality are likely to keep mark bits in a separate region of memory, sometimes making it possible to examine several mark bits at once. It may be necessary to update a pointer within the object to add it to a free list. But a well-designed collector will perform this operation incrementally, interleaved with allocation. Thus any page faults or cache misses incurred in the process would have otherwise been incurred by the immediately following allocation of the object. The net cost of a free list insertion should thus consist of two pointer writes and one read, all of which are effectively cache hits. This is much less than the cost of either traversing or an object for marking or copying an object.
Phase III essentially takes time proportional to the unmarked (or uncopied) section of the heap. (This requires the assumption that either the average object size is bounded or heap objects are initialized. Both assumptions are reasonable.)
Thus the cost of the entire allocation cycle is proportional to the heap size, independent of the collection algorithm. The supposed difference in complexity affects at most one ill-defined section of the program that is not normally dominant. It can never affect the asymptotic complexity of an entire program unless that program allocates large amounts of memory that are never initialized.
Furthermore, a well designed collector typically keeps the size of the heap at a small multiple of the reachable data size. It must be kept at a multiple, in order to keep the fraction of time spent in the garbage collector fixed. Making the heap larger than about twice the size of reachable data is usually undesirable on machines running more than one process, since the resulting space requirements are often perceived as unreasonable. Our collector often keeps the ratio at about 1.5. Thus the real difference between heap size and reachable data size is a small constant. It is typically less than the ratio of total reachable data size to total number of reachable pointers. And the fact that a mark-sweep collector only needs to examine pointers is usually ignored.
The fact that copying collectors offer much faster allocation than the allocation+sweep
time of a mark-sweep collector means that they are still attractive for the youngest
generation(s) in generational collectors, where the copy time can be kept very low.
But the crucial factor here is the small constant factor in the allocation time,
not really any difference in asymptotic complexity.