Nim Destructors and Move Semantics

Authors: Andreas Rumpf
Version: 1.0.0

About this document

This document describes the upcoming Nim runtime which does not use classical GC algorithms anymore but is based on destructors and move semantics. The new runtime's advantages are that Nim programs become oblivious to the involved heap sizes and programs are easier to write to make effective use of multi-core machines. As a nice bonus, files and sockets and the like will not require manual close calls anymore.

This document aims to be a precise specification about how move semantics and destructors work in Nim.

Motivating example

With the language mechanisms described here a custom seq could be written as:

  myseq*[T] = object
    len, cap: int
    data: ptr UncheckedArray[T]

proc `=destroy`*[T](x: var myseq[T]) =
  if != nil:
    for i in 0..<x.len: `=destroy`(x[i])
    dealloc( = nil

proc `=`*[T](a: var myseq[T]; b: myseq[T]) =
  # do nothing for self-assignments:
  if == return
  a.len = b.len
  a.cap = b.cap
  if != nil: = cast[type(](alloc(a.cap * sizeof(T)))
    for i in 0..<a.len:[i] =[i]

proc `=sink`*[T](a: var myseq[T]; b: myseq[T]) =
  # move assignment
  a.len = b.len
  a.cap = b.cap =

proc add*[T](x: var myseq[T]; y: sink T) =
  if x.len >= x.cap: resize(x)[x.len] = y
  inc x.len

proc `[]`*[T](x: myseq[T]; i: Natural): lent T =
  assert i < x.len[i]

proc `[]=`*[T](x: myseq[T]; i: Natural; y: sink T) =
  assert i < x.len[i] = y

proc createSeq*[T](elems: varargs[T]): myseq[T] =
  result.cap = elems.len
  result.len = elems.len = cast[type(](alloc(result.cap * sizeof(T)))
  for i in 0..<result.len:[i] = elems[i]

proc len*[T](x: myseq[T]): int {.inline.} = x.len

Lifetime-tracking hooks

The memory management for Nim's standard string and seq types as well as other standard collections is performed via so called "Lifetime-tracking hooks" or "type-bound operators". There are 3 different hooks for each (generic or concrete) object type T (T can also be a distinct type) that are called implicitly by the compiler.

(Note: The word "hook" here does not imply any kind of dynamic binding or runtime indirections, the implicit calls are statically bound and potentially inlined.)

=destroy hook

A =destroy hook frees the object's associated memory and releases other associated resources. Variables are destroyed via this hook when they go out of scope or when the routine they were declared in is about to return.

The prototype of this hook for a type T needs to be:

proc `=destroy`(x: var T)

The general pattern in =destroy looks like:

proc `=destroy`(x: var T) =
  # first check if 'x' was moved to somewhere else:
  if x.field != nil:
    x.field = nil

=sink hook

A =sink hook moves an object around, the resources are stolen from the source and passed to the destination. It is ensured that source's destructor does not free the resources afterwards by setting the object to its default value (the value the object's state started in). Setting an object x back to its default value is written as wasMoved(x).

The prototype of this hook for a type T needs to be:

proc `=sink`(dest: var T; source: T)

The general pattern in =sink looks like:

proc `=sink`(dest: var T; source: T) =
  dest.field = source.field

Note: =sink does not need to check for self-assignments. How self-assignments are handled is explained later in this document.

= (copy) hook

The ordinary assignment in Nim conceptually copies the values. The = hook is called for assignments that couldn't be transformed into =sink operations.

The prototype of this hook for a type T needs to be:

proc `=`(dest: var T; source: T)

The general pattern in = looks like:

proc `=`(dest: var T; source: T) =
  # protect against self-assignments:
  if dest.field != source.field:
    dest.field = duplicateResource(source.field)

The = proc can be marked with the {.error.} pragma. Then any assignment that otherwise would lead to a copy is prevented at compile-time.

Move semantics

A "move" can be regarded as an optimized copy operation. If the source of the copy operation is not used afterwards, the copy can be replaced by a move. This document uses the notation lastReadOf(x) to describe that x is not used afterwards. This property is computed by a static control flow analysis but can also be enforced by using system.move explicitly.


The need to check for self-assignments and also the need to destroy previous objects inside = and =sink is a strong indicator to treat system.swap as a builtin primitive of its own that simply swaps every field in the involved objects via copyMem or a comparable mechanism. In other words, swap(a, b) is not implemented as let tmp = move(a); b = move(a); a = move(tmp).

This has further consequences:

  • Objects that contain pointers that point to the same object are not supported by Nim's model. Otherwise swapped objects would end up in an inconsistent state.
  • Seqs can use realloc in the implementation.

Sink parameters

To move a variable into a collection usually sink parameters are involved. A location that is passed to a sink parameter should not be used afterwards. This is ensured by a static analysis over a control flow graph. If it cannot be proven to be the last usage of the location, a copy is done instead and this copy is then passed to the sink parameter.

A sink parameter may be consumed once in the proc's body but doesn't have to be consumed at all. The reason for this is that signatures like proc put(t: var Table; k: sink Key, v: sink Value) should be possible without any further overloads and put might not take owership of k if k already exists in the table. Sink parameters enable an affine type system, not a linear type system.

The employed static analysis is limited and only concerned with local variables; however object and tuple fields are treated as separate entities:

proc consume(x: sink Obj) = discard "no implementation"

proc main =
  let tup = (Obj(), Obj())
  consume tup[0]
  # ok, only tup[0] was consumed, tup[1] is still alive:
  echo tup[1]

Sometimes it is required to explicitly move a value into its final position:

proc main =
  var dest, src: array[10, string]
  # ...
  for i in 0..high(dest): dest[i] = move(src[i])

An implementation is allowed, but not required to implement even more move optimizations (and the current implementation does not).

Rewrite rules

Note: There are two different allowed implementation strategies:

  1. The produced finally section can be a single section that is wrapped around the complete routine body.
  2. The produced finally section is wrapped around the enclosing scope.

The current implementation follows strategy (1). This means that resources are not destroyed at the scope exit, but at the proc exit.

var x: T; stmts
---------------             (destroy-var)
var x: T; try stmts
finally: `=destroy`(x)

------------------------    (nested-function-call)
g(let tmp;
bitwiseCopy tmp, f(...);
finally: `=destroy`(tmp)

x = f(...)
------------------------    (function-sink)
`=sink`(x, f(...))

x = lastReadOf z
------------------          (move-optimization)
`=sink`(x, z)

v = v
------------------   (self-assignment-removal)
discard "nop"

x = y
------------------          (copy)
`=`(x, y)

-----------------------     (call-to-sink)

f_sink(notLastReadOf y)
--------------------------     (copy-to-sink)
(let tmp; `=`(tmp, y);

f_sink(lastReadOf y)
-----------------------     (move-to-sink)

Object and array construction

Object and array construction is treated as a function call where the function has sink parameters.

Destructor removal

wasMoved(x); followed by a =destroy(x) operation cancel each other out. An implementation is encouraged to exploit this in order to improve efficiency and code sizes.

Self assignments

=sink in combination with wasMoved can handle self-assignments but it's subtle.

The simple case of x = x cannot be turned into =sink(x, x); wasMoved(x) because that would lose x's value. The solution is that simple self-assignments are simply transformed into an empty statement that does nothing.

The complex case looks like a variant of x = f(x), we consider x = select(rand() < 0.5, x, y) here:

proc select(cond: bool; a, b: sink string): string =
  if cond:
    result = a # moves a into result
    result = b # moves b into result

proc main =
  var x = "abc"
  var y = "xyz"
  # possible self-assignment:
  x = select(true, x, y)

Is transformed into:

proc select(cond: bool; a, b: sink string): string =
    if cond:
      `=sink`(result, a)
      `=sink`(result, b)

proc main =
    x: string
    y: string
    `=sink`(x, "abc")
    `=sink`(y, "xyz")
    `=sink`(x, select(true,
      let blitTmp = x
      let blitTmp = y
    echo [x]

As can be manually verified, this transformation is correct for self-assignments.

Lent type

proc p(x: sink T) means that the proc p takes ownership of x. To eliminate even more creation/copy <-> destruction pairs, a proc's return type can be annotated as lent T. This is useful for "getter" accessors that seek to allow an immutable view into a container.

The sink and lent annotations allow us to remove most (if not all) superfluous copies and destructions.

lent T is like var T a hidden pointer. It is proven by the compiler that the pointer does not outlive its origin. No destructor call is injected for expressions of type lent T or of type var T.

  Tree = object
    kids: seq[Tree]

proc construct(kids: sink seq[Tree]): Tree =
  result = Tree(kids: kids)
  # converted into:
  `=sink`(, kids); wasMoved(kids)

proc `[]`*(x: Tree; i: int): lent Tree =
  result =[i]
  # borrows from 'x', this is transformed into:
  result = addr[i]
  # This means 'lent' is like 'var T' a hidden pointer.
  # Unlike 'var' this hidden pointer cannot be used to mutate the object.

iterator children*(t: Tree): lent Tree =
  for x in yield x

proc main =
  # everything turned into moves:
  let t = construct(@[construct(@[]), construct(@[])])
  echo t[0] # accessor does not copy the element!

Owned refs

Let W be an owned ref type. Conceptually its hooks look like:

proc `=destroy`(x: var W) =
  if x != nil:
    assert x.refcount == 0, "dangling unowned pointers exist!"
    x = nil

proc `=`(x: var W; y: W) {.error: "owned refs can only be moved".}

proc `=sink`(x: var W; y: W) =
  bitwiseCopy x, y # raw pointer copy

Let U be an unowned ref type. Conceptually its hooks look like:

proc `=destroy`(x: var U) =
  if x != nil:
    dec x.refcount

proc `=`(x: var U; y: U) =
  # Note: No need to check for self-assignments here.
  if y != nil: inc y.refcount
  if x != nil: dec x.refcount
  bitwiseCopy x, y # raw pointer copy

proc `=sink`(x: var U, y: U) {.error.}
# Note: Moves are not available.

Hook lifting

The hooks of a tuple type (A, B, ...) are generated by lifting the hooks of the involved types A, B, ... to the tuple type. In other words, a copy x = y is implemented as x[0] = y[0]; x[1] = y[1]; ..., likewise for =sink and =destroy.

Other value-based compound types like object and array are handled correspondingly. For object however, the compiler generated hooks can be overridden. This can also be important to use an alternative traversal of the involved datastructure that is more efficient or in order to avoid deep recursions.

Hook generation

The ability to override a hook leads to a phase ordering problem:

  Foo[T] = object

proc main =
  var f: Foo[int]
  # error: destructor for 'f' called here before
  # it was seen in this module.

proc `=destroy`[T](f: var Foo[T]) =

The solution is to define proc `=destroy`[T](f: var Foo[T]) before it is used. The compiler generates implicit hooks for all types in strategic places so that an explicitly provided hook that comes too "late" can be detected reliably. These strategic places have been derived from the rewrite rules and are as follows:

  • In the construct let/var x = ... (var/let binding) hooks are generated for typeof(x).
  • In x = ... (assignment) hooks are generated for typeof(x).
  • In f(...) (function call) hooks are generated for typeof(f(...)).
  • For every sink parameter x: sink T the hooks are generated for typeof(x).

nodestroy pragma

The experimental nodestroy pragma inhibits hook injections. This can be used to specialize the object traversal in order to avoid deep recursions:

type Node = ref object
  x, y: int32
  left, right: owned Node

type Tree = object
  root: owned Node

proc `=destroy`(t: var Tree) {.nodestroy.} =
  # use an explicit stack so that we do not get stack overflows:
  var s: seq[owned Node] = @[t.root]
  while s.len > 0:
    let x = s.pop
    if x.left != nil: s.add(x.left)
    if x.right != nil: s.add(x.right)
    # free the memory explicit:
  # notice how even the destructor for 's' is not called implicitly
  # anymore thanks to .nodestroy, so we have to call it on our own:

As can be seen from the example, this solution is hardly sufficient and should eventually be replaced by a better solution.