objects in javascript

objects in javascript

Actually, in JavaScript even primitives are stored in the heap rather than on a stack (see note below the break below, though). When control enters a function, an execution context (an object) for that call to the function is created, which has a variable object. All vars and arguments to the function (plus a couple of other things) are properties of that anonymous variable object, exactly like other properties of named objects. A call stack is used, but the spec doesn’t require the stack be used for “local” variable storage, and JavaScript’s closures would make using a stack a’la C, C++, etc. for that impractical. Details in the spec.

Instead, a chain (linked list) is used. When you refer to an unqualified symbol, the interpreter checks the variable object for the current execution context to see if it has a property for that name. If so, it gets used; if not, the next variable object in the scope chain is checked (note that this is in the lexical order, not the call order like a call stack), and so on until the global execution context is reached (the global execution context has a variable object just like any other execution context does). The variable object for the global EC is the only one we can directly access in code: this points to it in global scope code (and in any function called without this being explicitly set). (On browsers, we have another way of accessing it directly: The global variable object has a property called window that it uses to point to itself.)

Re your question of why objects are stored in the heap: Because they can be created and released independently of one another. C, C++, and others that use a stack for local variables can do so because variables can (and should) be destroyed when the function returns. A stack is a nice efficient way to do that. But objects aren’t created an destroyed in that straightforward a way; three objects created at the same time can have radically different lifecycles, so a stack doesn’t make sense for them. And since JavaScript’s locals are stored on objects and those objects have a lifecycle that’s (potentially) unrelated to the function returning…well, you get the idea. 🙂 In JavaScript, the stack is pretty much just for return addresses.

However, it’s worth noting that just because things are as described above conceptually, that doesn’t mean that an engine has to do it that way under the hood. As long as it works externally as described in the spec, implementations (engines) are free to do what they like. I understand that V8 (Google’s JavaScript engine, used in Chrome and elsewhere) does some very clever things, like for instance using the stack for local variables (and even local object allocations within the function) and then only copying those out into the heap if necessary (e.g., because the execution context or individual objects on it survive the call). You can see how in the majority of cases, this would minimize heap fragmentation and reclaim memory used for temporaries more aggressively and efficiently than relying on GC, because the execution context associated with most function calls doesn’t need to survive the call. Let’s look at an example:

function foo() { var n; n = someFunctionCall(); return n * 2; } function bar() { var n; n = someFunction(); setCallback(function() { if (n === 2) { doThis(); } else { doThat(); } }); }

In the above, an engine like V8 that aggressively optimizes can detect that the conceptual execution context for a call to foo never needs to survive when foo returns. So V8 would be free to allocate that context on the stack, and use a stack-based mechanism for cleanup.

In contrast, the execution context created for a call to bar has to stick around after bar returns, because there’s a closure (the anonymous function we passed into setCallback) relying on it. So when compiling bar (because V8 compiles to machine code on-the-fly), V8 may well use a different strategy, actually allocating the context object in the heap.

(If either of the above had used eval in any way, by the way, it’s likely V8 and other engines don’t even attempt any form of optimization, because eval introduces too many optimization failure modes. Yet another reason not to use eval if you don’t have to, and you almost never have to.)

But these are implementation details. Conceptually, things are as described above the break.


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