Java Memory Management, with its built-in garbage collection, is one of the language's finest achievements. It allows developers to create new objects without worrying explicitly about memory allocation and deallocation, because the garbage collector automatically reclaims memory for reuse. This enables faster development with less boilerplate code, while eliminating memory leaks and other memory-related problems. At least in theory.
Ironically, Java garbage collection seems to work too well, creating and removing too many objects. Most memory-management issues are solved, but often at the cost of creating serious performance problems. Making garbage collection adaptable to all kinds of situations has led to a complex and hard-to-optimize system. In order to wrap your head around garbage collection, you need first to understand how memory management works in a Java Virtual Machine (JVM).
Many people think garbage collection collects and discards dead objects. In reality, Java garbage collection is doing the opposite! Live objects are tracked and everything else designated garbage. As you'll see, this fundamental misunderstanding can lead to many performance problems.
Let's start with the heap, which is the area of memory used for dynamic allocation. In most configurations the operating system allocates the heap in advance to be managed by the JVM while the program is running. This has a couple of important ramifications:
All objects are allocated on the heap area managed by the JVM. Every item that the developer uses is treated this way, including class objects, static variables, and even the code itself. As long as an object is being referenced, the JVM considers it alive. Once an object is no longer referenced and therefore is not reachable by the application code, the garbage collector removes it and reclaims the unused memory. As simple as this sounds, it raises a question: what is the first reference in the tree?
Every object tree must have one or more root objects. As long as the application can reach those roots, the whole tree is reachable. But when are those root objects considered reachable? Special objects called garbage-collection roots (GC roots; see Figure 2.2) are always reachable and so is any object that has a garbage-collection root at its own root.
There are four kinds of GC roots in Java:
Therefore, a simple Java application has the following GC roots:
To determine which objects are no longer in use, the JVM intermittently runs what is very aptly called a mark-and-sweep algorithm . As you might intuit, it's a straightforward, two-step process:
Garbage collection is intended to remove the cause for classic memory leaks: unreachable-but-not-deleted objects in memory. However, this works only for memory leaks in the original sense. It's possible to have unused objects that are still reachable by an application because the developer simply forgot to dereference them. Such objects cannot be garbage-collected. Even worse, such a logical memory leak cannot be detected by any software (see Figure 2.3). Even the best analysis software can only highlight suspicious objects. We will examine memory leak analysis in the Analyzing the Performance Impact of Memory Utilization and Garbage Collection section, below.