In Java, all objects are stored in the heap. They are allocated by the
new operator, and discarded when the JVM determines that
no program thread can access them. Most of the time, this happens quietly,
and programmers don't give it a second thought. And then, usually a day or
so before a deadline, the program dies.
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Java heap space
OutOfMemoryError is a frustrating exception. It usually means
that you're doing something wrong: either holding onto objects too long, or
trying to process too much data at a time. Sometimes, it indicates a
problem that's out of your control, such as a third-party library that
caches strings, or an application server that doesn't clean up after deploys.
And sometimes, it has nothing to do with objects on the heap.
This article looks at the different causes of
and what you can do about them. It focuses on the Sun JVM, which is the one
that I use. However, much of the material applies to any JVM implementation.
It is written based on literature available online and my own experience. I
don't work on the JVM internals, so can't speak from a position of authority.
But I have faced — and fixed — a lot of memory problems.
Garbage Collection, an Overview
I've written a detailed account of the garbage collection process
To summarize, the mark-sweep collector starts at “garbage collection
roots” and walks the entire object graph, marking every object that
it touches. Objects that aren't touched are garbage, and will be collected.
Java's approach to garbage collection means that the only way you
can run out of memory is if you keep adding objects into that graph but don't
remove them. Most often, this is because you add objects to a collection
— usually a
Map — that's referenced from a static
variable. Or, less often, a collection held by a
Runnable of a long-lived thread.
This is very different from memory leaks in C and C++ programs. In those
languages, leaks happen when a method calls
new and then returns without calling the corresponding
delete. These are true leaks: without
using tools to match each allocation with its corresponding deallocation,
you'll never be able to recover the memory.
In Java, “leaked” memory is merely misplaced. As far as the JVM
is concerned, it's all accounted for. The problem is that you, the programmer,
don't know where. Fortunately, there are ways to find it.
Before diving into those techniques, there's one last thing to know about the
garbage collector: it will make a best effort to free memory before
the JVM throws
OutOfMemoryError. Which means that calling
System.gc() will not solve your problem. You have to
find the leak and plug it yourself.
Setting the Heap Size
As pedants are fond of pointing out, the
Java Language Specification doesn't say anything about garbage collection: you could implement a JVM
that never frees memory (not that it would be terribly useful). The
Java Virtual Machine Specification notes that the heap is managed by a garbage collector, but explicitly
leaves the implementation details open. The only guarantee regarding
garbage collection is the one I stated above: the collector (if it exists)
will run before the JVM throws
In practice, the Sun JVM uses a fixed-size heap that's allowed to grow as
needed between minimum and maximum bounds. If you don't specify these
bounds, they default to a minimum of 2Mb and a maximum of 64Mb for the
“client” JVM; the “server” JVM uses defaults based
on available memory. While 64Mb must have seemed enormous when it became
the default in 2000 (earlier, the default was 16Mb), modern applications
can easily exhaust it.
Which means that you usually have to size the heap explicitly, using the
-Xmx command-line parameters:
java -Xms256m -Xmx512m MyClass
There are many rules-of-thumb for setting the minimum and maximum heap sizes.
Obviously, the maximum has to be high enough to hold all of the objects that
the program needs. However, setting it “just large enough” is not
a good idea, because that increases the workload of the garbage collector.
Instead, you should plan to keep 20–25% of the heap empty for a
long-running application (although your particular application may need
different settings; GC tuning is an art that's beyond the scope of this
Surprisingly, the minimum heap size is often more important than the maximum.
The garbage collector will try to preserve the current heap size,
whatever it is, rather than growing the heap. This can lead to a situation
where a program creates and discards a lot of objects, but never requires
memory greater than the initial (minimum) heap size. The heap will stay at
that size, but the garbage collector will be running constantly to keep it
there. In a production environment, I think it makes sense to set the
minimum and maximum bounds to the same value.
You may wonder why I bother with limiting the maximum size: after all, the
operating system won't allocate physical memory unless it's actually used.
Part of the answer is that the virtual address space has to hold more than
just the Java heap. If you're running on a 32-bit system, a large maximum
heap size may limit the number of JARs on the classpath, or the number of
threads you can create.
Another reason to limit the maximum heap size is that it helps you to
discover any memory leaks in your code. Development environments tend
not to stress applications. If you use a huge maximum heap size during
development, you may never realize that you have a memory leak until you
Watching the Garbage Collector at Work
All JVMs provide the
-verbose:gc option, which tells the
garbage collector to write a log message to the console whenever it runs:
java -verbose:gc com.kdgregory.example.memory.SimpleAllocator
[GC 1201K->1127K(1984K), 0.0020460 secs]
[Full GC 1127K->103K(1984K), 0.0196060 secs]
[GC 1127K->1127K(1984K), 0.0006680 secs]
[Full GC 1127K->103K(1984K), 0.0180800 secs]
[GC 1127K->1127K(1984K), 0.0001970 secs]
The Sun JVMs provide two additional options that show you the breakdown by
generation, as well as the time that collection started:
java -XX:+PrintGCDetails -XX:+PrintGCTimeStamps com.kdgregory.example.memory.SimpleAllocator
0.095: [GC 0.095: [DefNew: 177K->64K(576K), 0.0020030 secs]0.097: [Tenured: 1063K->103K(1408K), 0.0178500 secs] 1201K->103K(1984K), 0.0201140 secs]
0.117: [GC 0.118: [DefNew: 0K->0K(576K), 0.0007670 secs]0.119: [Tenured: 1127K->103K(1408K), 0.0392040 secs] 1127K->103K(1984K), 0.0405130 secs]
0.164: [GC 0.164: [DefNew: 0K->0K(576K), 0.0001990 secs]0.164: [Tenured: 1127K->103K(1408K), 0.0173230 secs] 1127K->103K(1984K), 0.0177670 secs]
0.183: [GC 0.184: [DefNew: 0K->0K(576K), 0.0003400 secs]0.184: [Tenured: 1127K->103K(1408K), 0.0332370 secs] 1127K->103K(1984K), 0.0342840 secs]
So what does this tell us? Well, first off that collections are happening
very frequently. The first field in each line is a count of seconds since
the JVM started, and we're seeing collections every few hundredths of a
second. In fact, adding the start time of a collection to its execution
time (shown at the end of the line), it appears that the collector is running
In a real application, this would be a problem, as the collector is taking CPU
cycles away from the program. As I noted above, this might mean a too-small
initial heap size, and the log confirms that is the case: every time the heap
reaches 1.1 Mb, it gets collected. If you see this happening, increase the
-Xms value before making changes to your application.
There's something else that's interesting about this log: other than the
first collection, no objects are being stored in the young generation
(“DefNew”). This indicates that the program is allocating large
arrays and nothing else — which no real-world programs should do. If
I saw this in a real application, my first question would be “what are
these arrays used for?”
A heap dump shows you the objects that the application is using. At its most
basic, it's just a count of instances and bytes by class. You can also get
dumps that show the code that allocated the memory, and compare historical
counts to live counts. However, the more information that you collect, the
more overhead you add to the running JVM, so some of these techniques are
only applicable in a development environment.
How to get a heap dump
-XX:+HeapDumpOnOutOfMemoryError command-line argument is
the simplest way to generate a heap dump. As its name implies, it will
generate the dump only if the program runs out of memory, which makes it
appropriate for production use. However, because it's a post-mortem dump,
the only information it can provide is a histogram of objects. Furthermore,
it creates a binary file, and you must use the
jhat tool to examine that file (this tool is part of the JDK 1.6 distribution,
but will read files produced by JDK 1.5 JVMs).
The jmap command (available since 1.5) lets you produce a heap dump from a running
JVM: either a dump file for jhat, or a simple text histogram. A
histogram is a good first line of analysis, particularly when you run it
several times over an extended period, or when you compare live object
counts to historical allocation counts.
At the far end of the scale, both in terms of information and overhead, are
profilers. Profilers use the JVM's debugging interface to collect detailed
information about object allocations, including line of code and the call
stack. This can be incredibly useful: rather than just knowing that you've
allocated a gigabyte of arrays, you can see that you've allocated 950 MB
in one place, and can ignore the others. Of course, that information comes
at a cost, both in terms of CPU consumption and memory to store the raw
data. You won't be allowed to run a profiler in a production environment.
Heap dump analysis: live objects
The definition of a Java memory leak is that you allocate objects and don't
clear all references to them, meaning that the garbage collector can't
reclaim them. A heap histogram is an easy way to start looking for such
leaks: it shows you not only the objects that are in your heap, but also the
amount of memory they consume. The main drawback to a simple histogram is
that all objects of the same class are grouped together, so you have to do
some detective work to figure out where they were allocated.
Invoking jmap with the
-histo option gives you a
histogram that shows counts and memory consumption of all objects created
since the program started, including those that have already been
collected. Invoking it with
-histo:live shows the counts for
objects that are still on the heap, whether or not they are eligible for
Which means that, to get accurate counts, you need to force the garbage
collector to run before invoking jmap. If you're running the
application locally, the easiest way to do this is with
at the top of the “Memory” tab, there's a button labeled
“Perform GC.” If you're running in a server environment, and
have JMX beans exposed, the
in the “java.lang” group) has a
gc() operation. If
neither of these options are available to you, you can always wait for a
normal garbage collection. However, if you have a bad leak, the first major
collection is likely to be an immediate precursor to
There are two ways to use a jmap-generated histograms. The most
useful technique, particularly with long-running server applications, is
to invoke the “live” option several times over an extended time
period, and investigate those objects whose counts keep increasing. However,
depending on the server load it might take an hour or more to get good
A quicker approach is to compare the live objects to the total. Those objects
where the live count is a significant fraction of the total are possible
leaks. Here's an example that shows the top dozen entries (out of nearly
2,500) for a repository manager that's been serving 100+ users for several weeks.
This program does not, as far as I know, have a memory leak, but its
normal operation results in heap dumps similar to programs that do.
~, 510> jmap -histo 7626 | more
num #instances #bytes class name
1: 339186 63440816 [C
2: 84847 18748496 [I
3: 69678 15370640 [Ljava.util.HashMap$Entry;
4: 381901 15276040 java.lang.String
5: 30508 13137904 [B
6: 182713 10231928 java.lang.ThreadLocal$ThreadLocalMap$Entry
7: 63450 8789976 <constMethodKlass>
8: 181133 8694384 java.lang.ref.WeakReference
9: 43675 7651848 [Ljava.lang.Object;
10: 63450 7621520 <methodKlass>
11: 6729 7040104 <constantPoolKlass>
12: 134146 6439008 java.util.HashMap$Entry
~, 511> jmap -histo:live 7626 | more
num #instances #bytes class name
1: 200381 35692400 [C
2: 22804 12168040 [I
3: 15673 10506504 [Ljava.util.HashMap$Entry;
4: 17959 9848496 [B
5: 63208 8766744 <constMethodKlass>
6: 199878 7995120 java.lang.String
7: 63208 7592480 <methodKlass>
8: 6608 6920072 <constantPoolKlass>
9: 93830 5254480 java.lang.ThreadLocal$ThreadLocalMap$Entry
10: 107128 5142144 java.lang.ref.WeakReference
11: 93462 5135952 <symbolKlass>
12: 6608 4880592 <instanceKlassKlass>
When looking for a memory leak, start with the objects the consume the most
memory. That sounds obvious, but sometimes they aren't the source
of the leak. Still, it's the best place to start, and in this case, the most
memory is consumed by
char instances (although the total here
is 60Mb, hardly a problem). What is worrying is that the “live”
count is almost two thirds of the “ever allocated” count.
A normal program allocates objects and then releases them; if it holds onto
objects for a long time, that's a possible leak. But having said that, the
amount of “churn” that a particular program experiences depends
on what the program is doing. Character arrays are almost always associated
with strings, and some programs simply have a lot of strings that they hold
for the life of the program. JSP-based app-servers, for example, define
string literals for each block of HTML in the JSP. This particular program
does serve HTML, but its need to hold strings is not so clear-cut: it serves
directory listings, not a lot of static text. If I was running out of memory,
I'd try to find out where those strings were being allocated and why they
Another area for concern are the byte arrays (“
There are a lot of classes in the JDK that use them (for example,
BufferedInputStream), but it's rare to see them in application
code. Usually they're used as buffers, but buffers should be short-lived.
Here we see that more than half of the byte arrays ever allocated are still
considered live objects. That's worrisome, and it highlights one of the
problems with a simple histogram: all of the objects for a single class are
grouped together. For application objects, this isn't necessarily a problem,
because they're typically allocated in one section of the program. But byte
arrays are allocated everywhere, and most of those allocations are hidden
within a library. Should we search for code that calls
or code that calls
Heap dump analysis: associating cause and effect
To find the ultimate cause of your leak, counts of bytes by class may not be
enough. Instead, you have to associate the objects that are being leaked
with the objects that your program is allocating. One way to do that is to
look more closely at instance counts, in order to associate objects that are
allocated together. Here's an (anonymized) excerpt of a heap dump from a
program that's suffering memory problems:
num #instances #bytes class name
1: 1362278 140032936 [Ljava.lang.Object;
2: 12624 135469922 [B
5: 352166 45077248 com.example.ItemDetails
9: 1360742 21771872 java.util.ArrayList
41: 6254 200128 java.net.DatagramPacket
If you just looked at the top lines of this heap dump, you might start a
fruitless search for code that allocated
byte. The actual culprits were
DatagramPacket: the former allocated multiple
ArrayList instances, each of which in turn allocated an
Object, while the latter uses
byte to hold
data retrieved from the network.
The first problem, allocating too-large arrays, wasn't actually a leak. The
ArrayList constructor allocates an array with ten
elements, and the program was only using one or two; that's 62 bytes wasted
per instance on a 64-bit JVM. A smarter design for the class would use a
List only when one was needed, saving an additional 48 bytes
per instance. Changes like that take effort, however, and adding memory is
The datagram leak was more troubling (as well as harder to fix): it
indicated that received data was not being processed quickly enough.
In order to trace such chains of cause and effect, you need to know how
your application uses objects. Not many programs allocate an
if they use arrays at all, they'll normally use a typed array.
ArrayList, on the other hand, uses object arrays internally.
But knowing that the memory is consumed by
isn't enough. You need to move one step up the chain, to find the objects
that hold those lists.
One way to do this is to look for correlated instance counts. In the example
above, the relationship of
is obvious: one is almost exactly double the other. The relationship between
ItemDetails, however, isn't immediately
obvious (in fact, each
ItemDetails instance held several lists).
The trick in this case is to focus on any other class that has high instance
counts. We have a million
ArrayList instances; either they're
spread out between different classes or concentrated in a few. Regardless, a
million references is hard to hide. Even if there were a dozen classes that
ArrayList, those classes would still have 100,000
Tracing such chains from a histogram is a lot of work. Fortunately, jmap
isn't limited to histograms, it will also produce browsable heap dumps.
Heap dump analysis: following reference chains
Browsing a heap dump is a two-step process: first, you invoke jmap
-dump option, then you invoke jhat on the
resulting file. If you need to go down this route, however, make sure that
you have plenty of memory available: a dump file can easily be hundreds of
megabytes, and jhat may need several gigabytes to process that file
(I have occasionally resorted to Amazon EC2 quad-extra-large instances to be
able to browse a heap dump).
tmp, 517> jmap -dump:live,file=heapdump.06180803 7626
Dumping heap to /home/kgregory/tmp/heapdump.06180803 ...
Heap dump file created
tmp, 518> jhat -J-Xmx8192m heapdump.06180803
Reading from heapdump.06180803...
Dump file created Sat Jun 18 08:04:22 EDT 2011
Snapshot read, resolving...
Resolving 335643 objects...
Chasing references, expect 67 dots...................................................................
Eliminating duplicate references...................................................................
Started HTTP server on port 7000
Server is ready.
The default URL gives you a listing of all classes loaded in the system,
which I rarely find useful. Instead, I start at
http://localhost:7000/histo/, which is a histogram view that's
sortable by instance count or total bytes (click on the image at right
to see a full-size version).
Each of the class names in this histogram is a link, that takes you to a
details page for that
class. There you'll see the class' position in the class hierarchy, its
member variables, and a link for every reference to an instance of the class.
I don't find this page terribly useful either, and the list of references
will spike your browser's memory usage.
For tracking down memory problems, the most useful page is the
This page has two tables: referrers (incoming) and referees (outgoing), both
of which are pre-sorted by reference count. Clicking on a classname takes you
to the reference summary for that class. Using the
example from the previous section, it's a matter of six clicks to follow the
You can get to the reference summary page from the class details page. But I
find it easier to construct the link directly: take the class link from the
histogram page (eg:
replace “class” by “refsByType” (eg:
Heap dump analysis: allocation sites
Most of the time, knowing what objects are consuming memory is
sufficient to figure out why they're being leaked. You can use
jhat to find all references to those objects, and chances are good
that you'll see the code that's holding objects too long. But sometimes
that's not enough.
For example, if your code is leaking
Strings, it may take you
days to walk through all the string manipulation code. To solve problems
like this, you need a heap dump that actually shows the places where memory
is allocated. Be aware, however, that this type of profiling adds extreme
overhead to your application, because the profiling agent must record every
invocation of the
Most interactive profiles can produce this level of data, but I find the
easiest way is to start the JVM with the built-in hprof agent:
java -Xrunhprof:heap=sites,depth=2 com.kdgregory.example.memory.Gobbler
hprof has a lot of options: not only can it profile memory usage
in a variety of ways, it will also track CPU consumption. You'll find a link
to a Sun technical article describing those options below. For this run, I
specified a post-mortem dump of allocated objects along with the locations
they were allocated, with a resolution of two stack frames. The output is
written to the file
java.hprof.txt, and the heap dump portion
looks like this:
SITES BEGIN (ordered by live bytes) Tue Sep 29 10:43:34 2009
percent live alloc'ed stack class
rank self accum bytes objs bytes objs trace name
1 99.77% 99.77% 66497808 2059 66497808 2059 300157 byte
2 0.01% 99.78% 9192 1 27512 13 300158 java.lang.Object
3 0.01% 99.80% 8520 1 8520 1 300085 byte
This particular program doesn't allocate a lot of different object types,
or allocate them in many different places. A normal dump is hundreds or
thousands of lines long, showing each site where a particular object type
was allocated. Fortunately, most problems appear in the first few lines
of a dump. In this case, the thing that jumps out is the 64 Mb of live
byte arrays, particularly since they average about 32k apiece.
Most programs don't need to hold onto that much data, so this is an
indication that the program is not properly extracting and summarizing
the data that it processes. You'll often see this happening with programs
that read large strings and then hold onto substrings: a little-known
implementation detail of
String.substring() is that it shares
a character array with the original string. If you read a file line-by-line,
yet only use the first five characters of each line, you'll still hold the
entire file in memory.
This dump also shows that the count of allocations for these arrays is equal
to the count of live objects. This is a classic leak, and we can find the
actual code by searching for the “trace” number:
Well, that was simple enough: when I go to that line in my code, I see that
I'm storing the arrays in an
ArrayList that never goes out of
scope. Sometimes, however, the stack trace has no connection to code that
In this case, you need to increase the depth of the stack trace and rerun
your application. There's a tradeoff here: as you capture more stack frames
you increase the overhead of profiling. The default, if you don't specify a
depth value, is 4. I find that most problems in my code can be
discovered with a depth of 2, although I have run with depths as high as 12
(on a machine that had a half gigabyte of physical memory; it was thrashing,
and the profiling run took close to an hour, but I found the problem).
One other benefit of increasing the stack depth is that the report will be
more granular: you might discover that you're leaking objects from two or
three places, all of which use a common method.
Heap dump analysis: locality
Generational garbage collectors work because most objects are discarded
shortly after they're allocated. You can use the same principle to find
memory leaks: using a debugger, set a breakpoint at the allocation site
and then walk through the code. In almost all cases, you'll see it added
to a long-lived collection shortly after allocation.
The Permanent Generation
In addition to the young and tenured generations of the application heap,
the JVM also manages an area called the “permanent generation,”
where it stores objects such as classes and string literals. Normally, you
don't see the garbage collector work on the permanent generation; most of
the action happens in the application heap. But despite its name, objects
in the permgen aren't always there permanently. Classes loaded by an
app-server classloader, for example, are cleaned up once there are no
longer any references to the classloader. And in an application server
doing hot deploys, this may happen very frequently … except when
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: PermGen space
Note the message: it's not referring to the application heap. You can run
out of permgen space even when there's plenty of space in the application
heap. Usually, it happens when you're redeploying an EAR or WAR, and simply
indicates that the permgen isn't large enough to hold both the old classes
and the new (the old classes are retained until all requests that used them
have completed). This happens a lot when running a development app-server.
The first step to resolving permgen errors is to increase the permgen space,
which you do with the
-XX:MaxPermSize command-line argument.
The default is 64M, but 256M is usually needed for an app-server or IDE.
Sometimes, however, it's not so simple. Leaks in the permgen happen for the
same reason as leaks in the application heap: somewhere there's an object
that's holding a reference that it shouldn't. In my experience, these tend
to be references to actual
Class objects, or objects in the
java.lang.reflect package, rather than instances of a class.
And because of the way that app-server classloaders are structured, the usual
culprit is found in the server configuration.
For example, if you're using Tomcat, you have a directory for shared JARs:
shared/lib. If you're running several web-apps on the same server,
it makes sense to put some JARs in that directory, because their classes will
be loaded only once, and you'll reduce the overall memory footprint of the
server. However, what happens if one of those libraries has an object cache?
The answer is that, until the cache releases its reference to an application
object, that application's classes won't get unloaded. The soluton in this
case is to move the library into the WAR or EAR. But sometimes it's not so
simple: the JDKs bean
BeanInfo instances and is loaded by the
boot classloader. Any library using introspection will also cache those
instances, and you may not know where the real responsibility falls.
Solving permgen problems is painful. The way to start is to track class
loading and unloading with the
-XX:+TraceClassUnloading command line options, Look for the
classes that are loaded but not unloaded. If you add the
-XX:+TraceClassResolution flag, you can see where one class
accesses another, which may help you to find who is holding onto classes
that aren't unloaded.
Here's a excerpt of output with all three options. The first line shows
MyClassLoader being loaded from the classpath. Then, since it
URLClassLoader, we see a “RESOLVE” message,
followed in turn by another resolve message as
[Loaded com.kdgregory.example.memory.PermgenExhaustion$MyClassLoader from file:/home/kgregory/Workspace/Website/programming/examples/bin/]
RESOLVE com.kdgregory.example.memory.PermgenExhaustion$MyClassLoader java.net.URLClassLoader
RESOLVE java.net.URLClassLoader java.lang.Class URLClassLoader.java:188
The information is all there, but it's usually faster just to move shared
libraries into the WAR/EAR until the problem goes away.
OutOfMemoryError When There's Still Heap Memory Available
As you saw with the permgen message,
thrown for reasons other than the application heap getting full. Here are
a few cases:
When I was describing the generational heap, I said that objects would be
allocated in the young generation, and eventually moved into the tenured
generation. This isn't quite true: if your object is large enough, it will
be created directly in the tenured generation. User-defined objects won't
(shouldn't!) have anywhere near the number of members needed to trigger
this behavior, but arrays will: with JDK 1.5, arrays larger than a half
megabyte go directly into the tenured generation.
A half megabyte translates into an
Object containing 131,072
elements on a 32-bit JVM. Big, but within the realm of possibility for an
enterprise scale application. Particularly one that uses a
that needs to resize itself. And some applications need to work with much
The problem happens when there isn't a contiguous block of memory to hold
the array, even after the garbage collector compacts the heap. This is rare,
and the only time you'll run into it is when you're close to the limits of
heap memory anyway. Increasing the maximum heap size is the best solution,
but you can also try pre-sizing your large collections.
The JavaDoc for
OutOfMemoryError indicates that it is thrown
when the garbage collector is unable to make memory available. This is
only half true: the JVM also throws
OutOfMemoryError when its
internal code receives an
ENOMEM error from the operating
system. As Unix programmers know, there are a lot of places where you get
ENOMEM, one of which is thread creation:
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: unable to create new native thread
On my 32-bit Linux box, running JDK 1.5, I can start 5,550 threads before
getting this error. But there's still plenty of memory in the application
So what's happening?
Behind the scenes, threads are managed by the operating system, not the
JVM, and thread creation can fail for any number of reasons. In my case,
each thread takes about a half megabyte of virtual memory for its stack,
and after 5,000 threads the 2G process memory space is used up (more on
this below). Some operating systems might also impose a hard limit on the
number of threads that can be created for a single process.
Again, there really isn't a solution to this problem other than changing
your program. Most programs have no reason to create that many threads;
they'll be spending all of their time waiting for the operating system to
schedule them. But some server applications could reasonably create
thousands of threads to service requests, knowing that most will be waiting
for data; in this case, the solution might be NIO channels and selectors.
Java has allowed applications to access memory outside of the heap (in a
limited way) since JDK 1.4, using bytebuffers. And while the
ByteBuffer object itself is
very small, the off-heap memory that it controlls may not be.
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Direct buffer memory
There are several reasons for bytebuffer allocations to fail, which I've
described in the linked article. Usually, however, it's because you've
either exceeded the virtual memory space (only relevant on a 32-bit JVM)
or placed a claim on all of physical memory and swap. But unless you're
simply dealing with data that's too large for your machine, you run out of
memory with direct buffers for the same reason that you run out of heap
memory: you're holding a reference that you don't think you are. The heap
analysis techniques described above can help you to find that leak.
Commit charge exceeds physical memory
As I noted earlier, the JVM is unique in that you specify the minimum and
maximum size of its heap on startup. This means that the JVM will change its
demand for virtual memory while it's running. On a memory-constrained machine,
you might be able to start multiple JVMs, even though their combined maximum
heaps exceed available physical memory and swap. The result will be an
OutOfMemoryError even though the total size of your live objects
is less than the specified heap size.
This situation is no different from running multiple C++ programs that use
all available memory. The JVM simply tricked you into thinking you could get
away with it. The only solution is to buy more memory or run fewer programs.
There's no way to make the JVM “fail fast” in this situation; at
least on Linux, you can make a claim (via the
-Xmx parameters) on far more memory than can be supported.
Looking Outside the Heap
That last situation brings up an important point: the Java heap is only part
of the story. The JVM also uses memory for threads, its internal code and
work space, shared libraries, direct buffers, and memory-mapped files. On a
32-bit JVM, these all have to fit into a 2GB virtual address space, which is
a scarce resource (at least in server and back-end applications). On a 64-bit
JVM, the virtual address space is effectively unlimited; physical memory is
the scarce resource.
There aren't a lot of things that go wrong with virtual memory; the OS and
JVM are pretty smart about managing it. Usually, the only reason that you'd
look at a virtual memory map is to identify large chunks of memory used by
direct buffers and memory-mapped files. But it's useful to know what the
virtual memory map looks like, if only for personal education.
To dump the virtual memory map on Linux, you use
for Windows, use
VMMap (there may be other tools; I don't do much development on Windows). The
following is an excerpt of the pmap output for a Tomcat server.
The actual dump file is hundreds of lines long; this excerpt just shows
the interesting bits.
08048000 60K r-x-- /usr/local/java/jdk-1.5/bin/java
08057000 8K rwx-- /usr/local/java/jdk-1.5/bin/java
081e5000 6268K rwx-- [ anon ]
889b0000 896K rwx-- [ anon ]
88a90000 4096K rwx-- [ anon ]
88e90000 10056K rwx-- [ anon ]
89862000 50488K rwx-- [ anon ]
8c9b0000 9216K rwx-- [ anon ]
8d2b0000 56320K rwx-- [ anon ]
afd70000 504K rwx-- [ anon ]
afdee000 12K ----- [ anon ]
afdf1000 504K rwx-- [ anon ]
afe6f000 12K ----- [ anon ]
afe72000 504K rwx-- [ anon ]
b0cba000 24K r-xs- /usr/local/java/netbeans-5.5/enterprise3/apache-tomcat-5.5.17/server/lib/catalina-ant-jmx.jar
b0cc0000 64K r-xs- /usr/local/java/netbeans-5.5/enterprise3/apache-tomcat-5.5.17/server/lib/catalina-storeconfig.jar
b0cd0000 632K r-xs- /usr/local/java/netbeans-5.5/enterprise3/apache-tomcat-5.5.17/server/lib/catalina.jar
b0d6e000 164K r-xs- /usr/local/java/netbeans-5.5/enterprise3/apache-tomcat-5.5.17/server/lib/tomcat-ajp.jar
b0d97000 88K r-xs- /usr/local/java/netbeans-5.5/enterprise3/apache-tomcat-5.5.17/server/lib/tomcat-http.jar
b6ee3000 3520K r-x-- /usr/local/java/jdk-1.5/jre/lib/i386/client/libjvm.so
b7253000 120K rwx-- /usr/local/java/jdk-1.5/jre/lib/i386/client/libjvm.so
b7271000 4192K rwx-- [ anon ]
b7689000 1356K r-x-- /lib/tls/i686/cmov/libc-2.11.1.so
The dump output gives you four pieces of information for each segment in the
memory map: its virtual address, its size, its permissions, and its source
(for segments that are loaded from a file). Of these, the most interesting
in terms of resource management are the permissions flags, which indicate
whether the segment is read-only (“r-”) or read-write
I'll start with the read-write segments. Most of these have the name
[ anon ]”, which is what Linux gives
to everything that isn't associated with a file. There are also a few named
read-write segments here, associated with shared libraries; I believe that
these are the per-process relocation tables for those libraries.
Since most of the writable segments have the same name, it can take a bit
of detective work to figure out what you're looking at. The Java heap will
be four relatively large chunks that are allocated together (two for the
young generation, one for the tenured generation, and one for the permgen);
their total and relative sizes will depend on the GC and heap configuration.
Each Java thread requires its own stack and scratch space; these are allocated
in pairs, and you'll see the same pairs repeated through the map (in this
map, the pairs are 504k/12k). Everything else corresponds to direct buffers
(which may belong to your code, the JDK, or a third-party library) and runtime
scratch spaces (which can belong to the JVM or third-party libraries).
The main issue with read-write segments is that they add to the process'
“commit charge”: the amount of physical memory and/or swap that
is required for the process to run. The total commit charge for all of the
programs running on a machine cannot exceed the physical RAM and swap of
that machine. Modern operating systems deal with this gracefully: they
ENOMEM when the program tries to allocate (older
systems preferred to crash). This results in an
for your program, a situation that I described in the previous section.
Read-only memory segments can be shared between processes, and give the
operating system flexibility when managing physical memory: it can simply
drop read-only pages, knowing that the can be reloaded from the source as
needed. They're used for standard system libraries (eg,
libc), the application code (
memory-mapped files — including JARs from the classpath.
Memory-mapped JARs are an optimization: the JAR directory is at the end of
the file, and contains offsets to the individual entries, so you can quickly
access the entry with a “bulk get” operation. For classpath JARs
this is a big win: you don't have to scan a
use a caching scheme) every time you need to load a class. But there's a
cost: memory-mapped files decrease the space available for the application
heap and thread stacks.
With typical library JARs this isn't an issue, becasue they tend to be small
rt.jar is large at 1.6 MB). Files that contain large
resources (eg images) are another matter, although the JVM seems to be smart
about only mapping portions of the file. But the your program can
explicitly map any
JAR or ZIP. As always, with great power comes great responsibility; give
thought to why you want to memory-map the file. On a 32-bit JVM it's almost
always better to unzip the JAR's contents into a scratch directory.
This section contains bits and pieces that didn't quite fit anywhere else.
Most are tips from my personal experience in debugging memory problems.
Don't be misled by virtual memory statistics
There's a common complaint that Java is a “memory hog,” often
evidenced by pointing at the “VIRT” column of top or
the “Mem Usage” column on Windows Task Manager. As the last
section should have made clear, there's a lot that goes into this number,
and some of it is shared with other programs (the C library, for example).
There is also a lot of “empty” space in the virtual memory map:
if you invoke the JVM with
-Xms1000m, the virtual size will
start out over a gigabyte before you even start allocating objects.
A much better measurement is the resident set size: the number of pages of
physical memory that are actually used by your program, excluding shared
pages. This is the “RES” column in top (I don't think
it was available in Task Manger prior to Windows 7). However, resident
set isn't a very good measure of your program's actual memory usage either.
The operating system will leave physical pages in a process' memory space
until it needs them elsewhere, and unless your system is heavily loaded that
may take a long time.
Bottom line: always diagnose Java memory problems using tools that provide
the detail needed to solve those problems. And don't jump to conclusions
until you see an actual
OutOfMemoryError is often thrown close to the source
Earlier I mentioned “locality”: that memory leaks usually
happen soon after the memory is allocated. A similar observation is that
OutOfMemoryError is often thrown close to the leak, and
the stack trace (if it's available) can be a first step in diagnosis. The
rationale behind this observation is that, to be noticeable, a leak must
involve a lot of memory. Which means that, either due to the frequency
that allocation code is called, or the volume of memory allocated on each
pass, the leaky code will get a higher volume of failures. Not an ironclad
rule, but it works well enough that I pay attention to the stack traces.
Always suspect caches
I've mentioned caches several times in this article, and with good reason:
most of the memory leaks that I've seen, in over a dozen years working
with Java, are found in a class with “Cache” in its name. And
I wrote a few of them. The trouble is that caches aren't easy to get right.
That said, there are a lot of good reasons to use a cache, and a few good
reasons to write your own (although in most cases, an off-the-shelf cache
like EHCache is a
better choice). If you do choose to use a cache, make sure that you have
answers to the following questions:
- What objects go into the cache?
If you limit your cache to a single object type (or inheritance tree),
then it's much easier to trace cause and effect versus a generic cache that
holds many different types of objects.
- How many objects should be in the cache at any point in time?
Again, if you know that
ProductCache should only hold 1,000
entries, but see 10,000 instances of
Product in the histogram,
the link between cause and effect is easier to trace. More important, if you
go in with a maximum size in mind, then you can easily calculate how much
memory you'll need for the cached objects.
- What is the eviction policy?
Every cache should have an explicit eviction policy that controls how long
objects will remain in the cache. If you don't have a policy in place, then
objects may remain in the cache long after the program needs them —
using memory and adding load to the garbage collector (remember: the mark
phase requires time proportional to live objects).
- Will I hold other long-lived references to cached objects?
Caches work best in code that's executed frequently, doesn't take a lot of
time to run, but needs objects that are expensive to retrieve from source.
If you create an object and need a reference to it as long as your program
runs, there's no need to put that object in a cache (although a pool might
be a good idea, to control the number of instances).
Pay attention to object lifetime
Objects generally fall into two classes: those that live as long as the
program is running, and those that live only long enough to service a
single request. Keeping the two separate and knowing which is which is the
key to easy debugging: you only need to look at the objects you know are
One way to do this is to explicitly initialize all of your long-lived objects
when the program starts, whether or not they're needed right away. Another,
better, approach is to use a dependency injection framework like Spring. Not
only does it mean that all long-lived objects will be found in the bean
configuration (never use classpath scanning!), but it's easy to find all of
the places where those beans are used.
Look out for instance variables misused as method parameters
In almost all cases, the objects allocated within a method should be
discarded by the end of that method (excluding return values, of course).
As long as you use local variables to hold all these objects, this rule
is easy to follow. However, it's tempting to use instance variables to
hold method data, particularly for methods that call a lot of other methods,
and thereby avoiding the need for large parameter lists.
Doing this won't necessarily create a leak. Subsequent method calls should
re-assign the variables, allowing the objects to be collected. But it raises
your memory requirements unnecessarily (sometimes enormously) and makes
debugging more difficult (because you have unexpected objects in memory).
And from a general design perspective, when I've seen code like this it has
always indicated that the method really wants to be its own class.
J2EE: don't abuse the session
The session object exists to hold user-specific data between web requests;
it's a way around the stateless nature of HTTP. Far too often it ends up as
a makeshift cache. For example, an eCommerce programmer might store a
Product object in the session, rationalizing that the user will
be browsing several pages for the same product.
This won't turn into a true leak, because the servlet container will time-out
the user's session. But it needlessly increases the memory footprint of the
application, which is just as bad (it doesn't matter what causes the
OutOfMemoryError, the application is just as dead). And it's
hard to debug: as I noted above with mixed-content caches, there's no clear
indication of where the objects are being held.
Beware excessive garbage collection
OutOfMemoryError is bad, a constantly running garbage
collector is far worse: it takes CPU cycles that should be going to your
application. Tuning the garbage collector is an art, and one that I haven't
spent a lot of time doing. So I've included some references at the end of
64-bit processors and cheap RAM won't make your problems go away
This article was originally written when 32-bit processors were mainstream,
and so contains a lot of caveats about how pieces of the JVM have to share
a 2 Gb virtual address space. Most of those caveats will soon be obsolete:
when you can go to an office supply store and spend $500 (in early 2011) for
a PC with 6 gig of RAM and effectively unlimited virtual address space, there
doesn't seem to be a lot gained by fussing over every last byte.
But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't pay attention to your memory
footprint. Large heaps and lots of live objects can turn into a “GC
timebomb,” in which the garbage collector spends an inordinate amount
of time doing its job. Even with a concurrent GC, your application may be
blocked waiting for memory to be freed so that it can allocate more.
Sometimes you just need more memory
As I said back at the beginning, the JVM is the only modern programming
environment that I know of that forces you to set a maximum size for your
data. Because of this, there are times when you think you have a leak but
in fact you just have to increase the heap size. The first step in resolving
a memory problem should always be increasing the available memory. If you
have an actual leak, you'll get an
OutOfMemoryError no matter
how much memory you provide.
For More Information
Sun's tuning whitepaper (JDK 1.6 edition) describes how the Sun JVM manages its heap, and how you can adjust
the behavior of the garbage collector. There's also a
FAQ on features of the various garbage collectors.
This document lists the Sun-only JVM configuration options. There are a number of useful
diagnostic options that I haven't covered here.
This Sun technote describes the built-in “hprof” profiling tool.
The chapter on memory management from O'Reilly's System Performance Tuning, 2nd Edition gives a nice overview of how Unix manages process memory (this book is 10
years old, but the concepts haven't changed much in the last 30+ years, so
it's still relevant).
My article on Java reference objects will help you manage memory so that you can avoid running out.
I've created several example programs that consume resources:
- Gobbler grabs as much memory as it can, and never lets go.
- SimpleAllocator grabs memory and then immediately releases it. Its lets you watch the GC
- PermgenExhaustion creates classloader instances, and uses them to load a class. It can be
difficult to follow, but will also give you an idea of how classloaders
- ThreadExhaustion fires up as many threads as it can. On both Linux and Windows XP, the
maximum number of threads is limited by virtual memory. Other systems
may impose lower limits.