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Hunting Java Memory Leaks

Published on 08 March 18

Inexperienced programmers often think that Java’s automatic garbage collection completely frees them from worrying about memory management. This is a common misperception: while the garbage collector does its best, it’s entirely possible for even the best programmer to fall prey to crippling memory leaks. Let me explain.

A memory leak occurs when object references that are no longer needed are unnecessarily maintained. These leaks are bad. For one, they put unnecessary pressure on your machine as your programs consume more and more resources. To make things worse, detecting these leaks can be difficult: static analysis often struggles to precisely identify these redundant references, and existing leak detection tools track and report fine-grained information about individual objects, producing results that are hard to interpret and lack precision.

In other words, leaks are either too hard to identify, or identified in terms that are too specific to be useful.

There actually four categories of memory issues with similar and overlapping symptoms, but varied causes and solutions:

Performance: usually associated with excessive object creation and deletion, long delays in garbage collection, excessive operating system page swapping, and more.

Resource constraints: occurs when there’s either to little memory available or your memory is too fragmented to allocate a large object—this can be native or, more commonly, Java heap-related.

Java heap leaks: the classic memory leak, in which Java objects are continuously created without being released. This is usually caused by latent object references.

Native memory leaks: associated with any continuously growing memory utilization that is outside the Java heap, such as allocations made by JNI code, drivers or even JVM allocations.

In this memory management tutorial, I’ll focus on Java heaps leaks and outline an approach to detect such leaks based on Java VisualVM reports and utilizing a visual interface for analyzing Java technology-based applications while they’re running.

But before you can prevent and find memory leaks, you should understand how and why they occur. (Note: If you have a good handle on the intricacies of memory leaks, you can skip ahead.)

Memory Leaks: A Primer

For starters, think of memory leakage as a disease and Java’s OutOfMemoryError(OOM, for brevity) as a symptom. But as with any disease, not all OOMs necessarily imply memory leaks: an OOM can occur due to the generation of a large number of local variables or other such events. On the other hand, not all memory leaks necessarily manifest themselves as OOMs, especially in the case of desktop applications or client applications (which aren’t run for very long without restarts).

Think of memory leakage as a disease and the OutOfMemoryError as a symptom. But not all OutOfMemoryErrors imply memory leaks, and not all memory leaks manifest themselves as OutOfMemoryErrors.

Why are these leaks so bad? Among other things, leaking blocks of memory during program execution often degrades system performance over time, as allocated but unused blocks of memory will have to be swapped out once the system runs out of free physical memory. Eventually, a program may even exhaust its available virtual address space, leading to the OOM.
Deciphering the OutOfMemoryError

As mentioned above, the OOM is a common indication of a memory leak. Essentially, the error is thrown when there’s insufficient space to allocate a new object. Try as it might, the garbage collector can’t find the necessary space, and the heap can’t be expanded any further. Thus, an error emerges, along with a stack trace.

The first step in diagnosing your OOM is to determine what the error actually means. This sounds obvious, but the answer isn’t always so clear. For example: Is the OOM appearing because the Java heap is full, or because the native heap is full? To help you answer this question, let’s analyze a few of the the possible error messages:

java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Java heap spacejava.lang.OutOfMemoryError: PermGen spacejava.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Requested array size exceeds VM limitjava.lang.OutOfMemoryError: request <size> bytes for <reason>. Out of space?

Java heap space

This error message doesn’t necessarily imply a memory leak. In fact, the problem can be as simple as a configuration issue.

For example, I was responsible for analyzing an application which was consistently producing this type of OutOfMemoryError. After some investigation, I figured out that the culprit was an array instantiation that was demanding too much memory; in this case, it wasn’t the application’s fault, but rather, the application server was relying on the default heap size, which was too small. I solved the problem by adjusting the JVM’s memory parameters.

In other cases, and for long-lived applications in particular, the message might be an indication that we’re unintentionally holding references to objects, preventing the garbage collector from cleaning them up. This is the Java language equivalent of a memory leak. (Note: APIs called by an application could also be unintentionally holding object references.)

Another potential source of these Java heap space OOMs arises with the use of finalizers. If a class has a finalize method, then objects of that type do not have their space reclaimed at garbage collection time. Instead, after garbage collection, the objects are queued for finalization, which occurs later. In the Sun implementation, finalizers are executed by a daemon thread. If the finalizer thread cannot keep up with the finalization queue, then the Java heap could fill up and an OOM could be thrown.

Full article can be found here
Memory leaks are among the most difficult Java application problems to resolve, as the symptoms are varied and difficult to reproduce. Here, we’ve outlined a step-to-step approach to discovering memory leaks and identifying their sources. But above all, read your error messages closely and pay attention to your stack traces—not all leaks are as simple as they appear.
Along with Java VisualVM, there are several other tools that can perform memory leak detection. Many leak detectors operate at the library level by intercepting calls to memory management routines. For example, HPROF, is a simple command line tool bundled with the Java 2 Platform Standard Edition (J2SE) for heap and CPU profiling. The output of HPROF can be analyzed directly or used as an input for others tools like JHAT. When we work with Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) applications, there are a number of heap dump analyzer solutions that are friendlier, such as IBM Heapdumps for Websphere application servers.

This article is originally published at Toptal
This blog is listed under Development & Implementations Community

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