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How to Fix Memory Leaks in Java

Posted by damuchinni on March 11, 2009

Before You Start

Ever heard the story about how Java has “automatic memory management”—you know, the one that someone in marketing upgraded to an epic tale about how you’ll never have to worry about memory leaks ever again? As is often the case, the truth is more complex than the marketing department made it out to be. While it’s true that Java’s garbage collector (GC) helps to eliminate the most common memory leak issues from applications, it is unfortunately still possible to experience memory leaks in Java. However, they happen a lot less often than they used to in the C or C++ days.

Many people believe that black magic and complex tools are required to fix memory leaks. This undeserved reputation is caused by the lack of good explanations of what they are and what to do when you encounter them. But with the proper tools and knowledge to fix memory leaks, they aren’t nearly as intimidating.

In this article we’ll cover everything from memory leak basics to analyzing heap dumps, so—whether you’re an experienced Java developer or encountering Java memory leaks for the first time—you’ll be better prepared to deal with memory leaks by the time you reach the conclusion. We won’t outline a series of steps, like “do ABC with commercial tool XYZ and don’t ask why,” as that approach doesn’t work and implies that remedies are more complex then they really are. Instead, we’ll give you the background information necessary to address memory leaks, with emphasis placed on particular steps you’ll need to execute. Similarly, we’ll assume that you can learn on your own how to use the memory profiler of your choice; what’s missing is an understanding of what the tool is trying to do and why, so that will be the focus of this article.

Java will be used for all examples, so all information in this article directly applies to Java applications running standalone or as a part of J2EE/JEE/Tomcat-based application server. But remember, although our primary focus is on Java, most of the process of diagnosing and fixing memory leaks described herein applies to other languages with garbage collectors. So even if you’re using Ruby, C#, or Python, there should be something for you in this article.
What Are Memory Leaks?

Let’s start by describing how memory leaks happen in Java. Java implements automatic garbage collection (GC), and once you stop using an object you can depend on the garbage collector to collect it. While additional details of the collection process are important when tuning GC performance, for the sole purpose of fixing a memory leak we can safely ignore them.

When is memory eligible for GC? Let’s take a look at an example:


We don’t have to do anything special to make an object eligible for GC—we just eliminate any references to it, and it “magically” disappears and stops using memory. That’s why we say that Java performs “automatic” GC.

Why “eligible” for GC? Because objects are not collected immediately. GC is not instantaneous and comes with some performance impacts. Consequently, Java doesn’t immediately collect every object that is eligible for collection; it typically postpones collection until a more convenient time later on. The way to think about GC in Java is that it’s a “lazy bachelor” that hates taking out the trash and typically postpones the process for some period of time. However, if the trash can begins to overflow, Java immediately takes it out. In other words, if memory becomes scarce, Java immediately runs GC to free memory.

Since we don’t need to do anything special in order to dispose of objects in Java, how do memory leaks happen in Java? Memory leaks occur when a program never stops using an object, thus keeping a permanent reference to it.

Let’s take a look at an example that helps illustrate this point. The following code will cause all available memory in the JVM to be exhausted:


When no more memory is remaining, an OutOfMemoryError alert will be thrown and generate an exception like this:

Exception in thread “main” java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Java heap space at

In the example above, we continue adding new elements to the list memoryLeakArea without ever removing them. In addition, we keep references to the memoryLeakArea, thereby preventing GC from collecting the list itself. So although there is GC available, it cannot help because we are still using memory. The more time passes the more memory we use, which in effect requires an infinite amount memory for this program to continue running.

This is an example of unbounded memory leak—the longer the program runs, the more memory it takes. So even if the memory size is increased, the application will still run out of memory at a later date.


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