Tracing is an operation that attempts to determine whether a heap object is reachable by the program. In order to be reachable, a heap buffer must be available either directly or indirectly from a pointer in a global variable or on the stack of one of the threads. If this isn't the case, then the heap buffer is no longer visible to the program and can't be accessed without constructing a pointer that refers to the heap buffer — presumably by obtaining it from a persistent store such as a file or a shared memory object.

The set of global variables and stack for all threads is called the root set. Because the root set must be stable for tracing to yield valid results, tracing requires that all threads other than the one performing the trace be suspended while the trace is performed.

Tracing operates by constructing a reachability graph of the entire heap. It begins with a root set scan that determines the root set comprising the initial state of the reachability graph. The roots that can be found by tracing are:

  • data of the program
  • uninitialized data of the program
  • initialized and uninitialized data of any shared objects dynamically linked into the program
  • used portion of the stacks of all active threads in the program

Once the root set scan is complete, tracing initiates a mark operation for each element of the root set. The mark operation looks at a node of the reachability graph, scanning the memory space represented by the node, looking for pointers into the heap. Since the program may not actually have a pointer directly to the start of the buffer — but to some interior location — and it isn't possible to know which part of the root set or a heap object actually contains a pointer, tracing utilizes specialized techniques for coping with ambiguous roots. The approach taken is described as a conservative pointer estimation since it assumes that any word-sized object on a word-aligned memory cell that could point to a heap buffer or the interior of that heap buffer actually points to the heap buffer itself.

Using conservative pointer estimation for dealing with ambiguous roots, the mark operation finds all children of a node of the reachability graph. For each child in the heap that's found, it checks to see whether the heap buffer has been marked as referenced. If the buffer has been marked, the operation moves on to the next child. Otherwise, the trace marks the buffer, and then recursively initiates a mark operation on that heap buffer.

The tracing operation is complete when the reachability graph has been fully traversed. At this time every heap buffer that's reachable will have been marked, as could some buffers that aren't actually reachable, due to the conservative pointer estimation. Any heap buffer that hasn't been marked is definitely unreachable, constituting a memory leak. At the end of the tracing operation, all unmarked nodes can be reported as leaks.