Erlang’s GC only runs when you’re running

This page is a mirrored copy of an article originally posted on the LShift blog; see the archive index here.

Recently, as part of RabbitMQ server development, we ran into an interesting issue regarding Erlang’s per-process garbage collection. If a process is idle — not doing any work at all, simply waiting for an external event — then its garbage-collector will not run until it starts working again. The solution is to hibernate idle processes, which causes a very aggressive garbage-collection run and puts the process into a suspended state, from which it will wake when a message next arrives.

We were implementing a form of flow control in RabbitMQ server, essentially equivalent to XON/XOFF, and when a channel was paused, we found that its memory usage wasn’t decreasing in proportion to its decreased activity. As soon as we started hibernating processes, the memory usage dropped right back.