Java solves all memory problems, or maybe not?

Many people think that Java’s Garbage Collector (GC) solves all of their memory management problems. It is true that the GC does a great job in many many real world situations. It really eases your life as software developer especially compared to programming in languages like C /C++ where memory management is a major PITA. Even there you can help yourself by using object systems with reference counting, smart pointers etc. but you have to be aware of this issue all the time.

So everything regarding memory is fine in Java?

Actually not really. Many Java developers do not think about code potentially leading to memory leaks. I would like to point out some problems we encountered. The problems can be divided into two categories:

  1. Native resources which have to be managed manually
  2. Listeners attached to central objects which are never removed again

Examples of native resources

Database connections, result sets and so on are a very common native resource that need manual management. JDBC is a real pain regarding resource management and especially Oracle is very susceptical to leaking those. Either you are very careful here or you use some framework to help you. If you do not want to go the whole way to a persistence framework like hibernate, iBatis or toplink a solution like Spring JDBCTemplate may help you a lot.

Another example is the JOGL TextRenderer which has to be manually disposed or you will leak texture memory  and soon run into resource problems.

Files/Streams and Sockets should be handled carefully too. In most cases you are more or less in the same boat with the C/C++ people but using finally can help you there.

Examples of listener leaks

Sometimes something innocent looking like a Swing Component can turn into a memory leak. We used JDateChooser one of our projects and found some of our data displaying dialogs to exist several times in memory and thus taking huge amounts of RAM eventually leading to OutOfMemoryExceptions. In case of dialogs and windows a WindowListener might help.

Sometimes you might write similar objects yourself that register to some central instance (maybe even a singleton *yuck*). Deregistering them always is easily forgotten or overlooked. A common code pattern to look out for listener leaks where you cannot deregister easily at the right moment is the following:

public class MyCoolClass implements IDataListener {

    public MyCoolClass(IDataProvider dataProvider) {
        super();
        dataProvider.addDataListener(this);
    }

    ...
}

Avoid such constructs as they can prove really dangerous. There is more that can be done to lower the risk of hard-hitting memory/listener leaks: Use WeakReferences for listener management at the crucial central objects. The referenced objects are taken care of by the GC and the listener manager has to take care of the WeakReferences. They can be cleaned up periodically or when a notification takes place.

Conclusion

The Java GC helps a lot in everyday programming but there are still things to look out for. Just be aware of the resources you are using and think about their need of management. I will write some follow up articles about getting heap dumps in different situations and searching them for memory leaks using some nice free tools.

Update:

Kris Kemper wrote a nice article about Swing Memory Leaks with JCalendar and a solution to the problem.

5 thoughts on “Java solves all memory problems, or maybe not?

  1. Pingback: Analyzing Java Heap problems Part 1: Basic actions and tools « Schneide Blog

  2. Pingback: Observer/Listener structures in C++ with boost’s smart pointers « Schneide Blog

  3. Pingback: Analyzing Java Heap problems Part 2: Using Eclipse MAT « Schneide Blog

  4. I was a little tripped up along the way. Apparently, calling Runtime.getRuntime().gc() doesn’t necessarily collect memory, but if push push the JVM to the point of an OutOfMemoryError, it’ll do everything in it’s power to get all the available memory back. Pushing it the edge was a sure way to get an honest answer.

    Normally, when Java memory leaks happen in Swing, the culprit is a listener of some kind. It’s easy to register a listener and forget about it, while it continues to point to other objects with a strong reference. It’s further complicated by the fact that it’s not always obvious when a reference is created, like in the case of defining an anonymous inner class.

    In my case I discovered that the culprit of the memory leak was a JDateChooser object that we are using. That object is defined as part of the JCalendar api. Specifically, inside the dialog, a PropertyChangeListener was anonymously created and registered to the JDateChooser, creating a circular reference from the JDateChooser and the dialog.

    So, what was JDateChooser doing? Sure enough, in the constructor, it was registering a listener with a Swing singleton called MenuSelectionManager. That singleton never dies, and does not releasing the reference so that the garbage collector can do it’s magic.

  5. This is better than nothing, but is still far inferior to a WeakReference approach. This is an excellent example of why we shouldn’t write code that reaches out and calls a Singleton. statically referencing an object does not allow me to reconfigure the object without changing the source code – something I would prefer not to do in a library. Luckily, the JCalendar api is covered under the LGPL, so at least changing the library was an option.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s