A look at Self's object system

Keywords: #self #vm

When I first introduced Self, I mentioned that Self is a programming language which employs prototype-based inheritance; it does not depend on a class-instance distinction to facilitate object-oriented programming, but rather, it uses a prototype object from which copies are created. The methods associated with a prototype is stored in a traits object which is just another object storing methods that can be used on a prototype and all its copies through a parent slot.

The trouble begins when we actually try to implement this prototype-based inheritance system as an actual virtual machine, particularly with regards to memory consumption. Say that I have a prototype object point with a constant parent slot pointing to traits point and two assignable slots, x and y.1 When we copy this object, we would expect to copy all three fields. But if we scale that up, that’s so much unnecessary data being copied! For one, for every copy of the point prototype we make, we’re copying that traits point parent slot reference. Not to mention, because our language is dynamic, we can’t simply treat x and y as offsets into memory, because they might be constant or assignable (Self can’t intrinsically know). So our naive implementation would be pretty inefficient.

Can we make this more memory-efficient? In fact, we can; we can exploit the fact that most Self objects that are copied only ever have their assignable slots modified. Let’s take a look at how the original developers of Self have optimized the memory usage of the Self virtual machine.

A little heads-up before we begin: This one’s going to be a less hands-on post as I’m mainly going to be talking about implementation details of the VM itself rather than the Self programming environment.

The key insight

Just in the previous paragraph I mentioned that most objects in Self only ever have their assignable slots modified. In fact, this isn’t just some rule of thumb: there is no assignment slot for constant slots, so you cannot modify the constant slots of an object through regular methods like you would with assignable slots2.

So with that in mind, we could just reduce the copy of an object to the contents of the assignable slots and keep the rest of the object itself as a separate “information” structure that tells the VM what is supposed to be what.

And that’s exactly what the original developers of the Self VM did. They called their invention an “object map”. An object map (called just “map” hereafter) stores all the information the Self VM needs to know about an object, such as the parent slots, constant slots, etc. Using the map, we can reduce the amount of memory we require for a copy of our point prototype object to just two memory words (x and y) plus some book-keeping to point to the map itself.

Self object references

For things like integers and floating point numbers, even the book-keeping would be too much memory. For a 64-bit integer, just adding a pointer to a map doubles our memory footprint! So, the authors of Self turned to good-old pointer tagging for object references.

In the Self virtual machine, all object references have their bottom two bits used as a tag. The possible values are as follows.

  • Integers are given 00, because that makes adding, subtracting and comparing them a single assembly instruction (because there’s no bitwise ops required)3.
  • For object references, we can exploit the fact that all our objects will be aligned to the nearest machine word. They are tagged by simply binary ORing the bottom two bits with 01. Then they can be ANDed out when the pointer to the memory space needs to be dereferenced.
  • Floats are marked with 10. Since the bottom two bits of the float is part of the mantissa, we can simply AND the bits away at the cost of a little precision loss.
  • Finally, object markers are tagged with 11. We will talk about object markers shortly.

Of course, this means that our integers are 62-bit and our floats lose some precision in their last decimal places, but it is probably better than carrying around an additional 8 bytes (more if we want to mark our objects).

Note that newer techniques like NaN boxing are not used in Self. There are a couple reasons for this: first, from what I can tell, NaN boxing became more widely used in the early-to-mid 90s while Self’s design was created in the late 80s; and second, Self’s dynamic inheritance and dynamic typing means that most objects we would optimize by boxing into NaNs require carrying around a parent slot pointer (48 bits in modern systems and possible 64 bits in the future), leaving not enough space for other attributes (i.e. the size value in vectors).

Self objects in memory

So what do Self objects in memory actually carry? Well, they consist of the following:

  • A machine word for the object marker that we talked about above. Object markers are used to mark the start of an object.
  • A machine word for the map reference for this object. It’s simply a tagged pointer pointing to a map.
  • If the object is a vector or byte vector object, an additional machine word is added for the number of items.
  • If the object is a slots object (i.e. contains just slots), each assignable slot follows the first two words. If the object is a vector, n machine words for the items follow instead. If the object is a byte vector, a pointer to the bytevector space (explained in the next section) is stored.

That’s all we need in order to represent a Self object with our current scheme. The first word contains a bit more information identifying the type of the object (slots, vector, bytevector, map) as well as some implementation specific GC information.

Self maps in memory

Now that we described the objects themselves, let’s look at maps, which are the descriptor structures for the objects in memory. They contain the following:

  • An object marker, just like regular objects. However, they are identified as maps instead of any object type.
  • A map reference. In Self, all maps are required to have a map reference pointing to the map-map, which is the map that references itself. The V8 Javascript engine calls this the meta-map which I like more.
  • In the third word, there is the “garbage collection link” which creates a linked list out of all the maps for scavenging. There’s also a vtable pointer in the fourth word but that’s an implementation detail and can be ignored.
  • The total size of the object in machine words. Since Self was designed as a 32-bit system, that’s just the total size of the map divided by four.
  • A few pointers to dependency links. Dependency links are used a lot in the compiler which is out of scope for this article. They’re used to track changes for invalidation of compiled code when an object changes.
  • If this map is for a method slot, then there is a machine word for the object reference to the bytecode.
  • Following that are “slot descriptor” objects. They contain the name, type and either the contents (for constant slots) or the byte offset from the object (for mutable and assignment slots) of the slot. Vector maps only have a parent slot4.

The Self memory space

The Self object system also splits Self objects and byte-vector values into two separate sides of the address space. The implementation paper describes that this was done to improve the speed of scavenging5. Since byte vectors (i.e. strings) can have any bit pattern, it would be quite easy to masquerade a bytevector’s contents as an object marker by simply setting the bottom two bits of a word to 11. Smalltalk interpreters at the time solved this by iterating over the memory space object-by-object (i.e. doing bounds checking for every object) but that causes performance problems. Self was able to achieve double the speed (3MB/s at the time, according to the paper) by segregating the raw byte data to the upper area of the allocated address space. This allows the scavenger to simply scan the entire object side of the memory for the 11 marker instead of caring about the length of the object, for example.

A more modern implementation: V8

The above information was about how Self implements its objects in the memory space. This particular implementation was conceived in the late 80s. However, as we all know, there is a newer and more popular language that also uses prototype-based object-orient programming: Javascript. I wanted to know what sort of object implementation Javascript had in a modern engine, so I started to research how the V8 Javascript engine does it. While researching, I came across this helpful article by Jay Conrod which you should check out.

Something that surprised me was how similar V8’s object representation was to Self’s object representation. Perhaps the authors were influenced by the paper, or perhaps they simply came up with a similar representation on their own. However, V8 seems to have a few key differences with regards to the object representation.

Map transitions

In its current implementation, Self will create a new map everytime an object has slots added or one of its constant slots modified. This is understandable, since that makes an object diverge from others. In Self this is mostly okay, because objects are copied wholesale from prototypes and all the properties that an object has is known at copy-time.

However, Javascript has a different model, particularly for constructor functions. When a new object is created, it is usually assigned values one-by-one. Using Self’s implementation, this would mean that a new map would be created everytime. Not only that, but many duplicate maps would be created from the re-assignments. To combat this, the V8 engine employs map transitions.

I’ll take the example from Jay Conrod’s article. When we have a constructor like this:

function Point(x, y) {
  this.x = x;
  this.y = y;

The V8 engine can create the following maps when this code is first executed:

Map0: # Empty map
  - x: Transition(Map1)

  - x: Field
  - y: Transition(Map2)

  - x: Field
  - y: Field

When similar code is executed, this will slowly create a tree from the root map to the leaves which are concrete object maps.

Now, to be clear, this method is neither superior or inferior when compared to Self’s method of just allocating a new map. In particular, in the example Map1 cannot be de-allocated because new Point objects will be using that map when being constructed. Self does not need something like this, because most objects are constructed at once with all their properties and copied many times.

Constant Method Fields

Another Javascript-related optimization that V8 does is to inline function pointers as constant. This seems to be very similar to how Self holds the values of constant slots directly in the slot descriptors.

Here I’m taking another example from the V8 article. Suppose we had a constructor like this:

function Point(x, y) {
  this.x = x;
  this.y = y;
  this.distance = PointDistance;

function PointDistance(p) {
  var dx = this.x - p.x;
  var dy = this.y - p.y;
  return Math.sqrt(dx * dx + dy * dy);

Because we are assigning the same constant function everytime, it would not make sense to store a reference to it in every Point instance. So the V8 runtime will store the pointer as a constant directly in the map instead, like so:


  - x: Field
  - y: Field
  - distance: Transition(Map3)

  - x: Field
  - y: Field
  - distance: ConstantFunction(PointDistance)

The optimizer would then replace any references to this constant function with a direct reference to the function itself, eliminating indirection.

This is required in Javascript, because objects are malleable during runtime, and new properties may be added to them at anytime; in addition, in Javascript object properties cannot be constant unless the object is frozen. In contrast, Self already has this feature, however it is implemented in a different way: Because objects in normal operation are either created from scratch (with all their properties) or cloned, the constant values are immediately embedded into the newly created map without the need for transitions or special references to constant functions. The bytecode compiler can then inline these constant values just as it would with any other constant value. In Self, the Point prototype would look like this:

  parent* = traits clonable.

  x <- 0.
  y <- 0.

  copyX: x Y: y = (| c |
    c: self clone.
    c x: x.
    c y: y.

  distance: p = (| dx. dy |
    dx: x - p x.
    dy: y - p y.
    (dx square + dy square) squareRoot

Since all the constant values (parent, copyX:Y: and distance:) are already known, the Self VM can create a single Map object which will embed a reference to the methods directly.

Note that similar to the Javascript prototype object, in Self a traits object is used to store methods that can be used on a prototype and its copies. While this is purely an idiom, it is a good idiom nevertheless. In particular, when new methods are added to the traits object, the existing copies can also benefit from it.


Self’s object system still seems to hold up since its initial implementation paper from 1989. Because the properties of Self allow it to allocate a single map for objects and then keep it around for a long time, a feature like map transitions does not seem to be necessary. Similarly, constant references in maps have existed from the beginning, because Self expects the programmer to define all slots during object creation, and makes a distinction between constant and assignable slots.

There seems to be a key difference in how Javascript and Self treat the prototype-based inheritance system too, from what I can tell: In Javascript the prototype seems to have become a place to put the methods of an object. In a way, it’s just the “class” object named a different way. In Self, the prototype object is the object that other code clones in order to get an “instance”. You could say that the prototype is the “default value” of an object.

If we were to write the Javascript Point code above in a Self-like style, it would look like this:

Self-like Javascript
var Point = {
  x: 0,
  y: 0,

  clone(x, y) {
    var p = Object.create(this);
    p.x = x;
    p.y = y;
    return p;

  distance(p) {
    var dx = this.x - p.x;
    var dy = this.y - p.y;
    return Math.sqrt(dx * dx + dy * dy);

  toString() {
    return "Point(" + this.x + ", " + this.y + ")";

// To use it:
var p = Point.clone(3, 4);
console.log(p); // Point(3, 4)
console.log(p.distance(Point)); // 5

Pretty similar, eh?

Thanks for reading. This article wasn’t as exciting as the previous ones, however I think it’s still pretty interesting to look at how Self handles objects in memory and how it compares to newer programming languages in a similar paradigm. Also, sorry for being absent for almost 2 months from here. I had some IRL business to take care of, however that is done and now I should be able to post much more often. Stay tuned!

  1. This is a simplified version of the initial object problem posed by the paper. ↩︎

  2. Keyword regular. Using primitives and mirrors, you can of course change an object’s constant slots but that has additional side effects, like creating a completely new map. ↩︎

  3. Multiplication requires one right shift, and division requires two right shifts before and a left shift after. ↩︎

  4. Curiously, the current Self implementation does allow more than just the parent slot on vector objects, so maybe this restriction was lifted after the implementation paper was published. ↩︎

  5. We will look at Self’s GC system in a future post. For now, just know that scavenging is a quick GC technique that is faster than a full GC cycle. ↩︎