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Chapter 9 of Inside the Java Virtual Machine
Garbage Collection
by Bill Venners

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Reference Counting Collectors

Reference counting was an early garbage collection strategy. In this approach, a reference count is maintained for each object on the heap. When an object is first created and a reference to it is assigned to a variable, the object's reference count is set to one. When any other variable is assigned a reference to that object, the object's count is incremented. When a reference to an object goes out of scope or is assigned a new value, the object's count is decremented. Any object with a reference count of zero can be garbage collected. When an object is garbage collected, any objects that it refers to have their reference counts decremented. In this way the garbage collection of one object may lead to the subsequent garbage collection of other objects.

An advantage of this approach is that a reference counting collector can run in small chunks of time closely interwoven with the execution of the program. This characteristic makes it particularly suitable for real-time environments where the program can't be interrupted for very long. A disadvantage is that reference counting does not detect cycles: two or more objects that refer to one another. An example of a cycle is a parent object that has a reference to a child object that has a reference back to the parent. These objects will never have a reference count of zero even though they may be unreachable by the roots of the executing program. Another disadvantage of reference counting is the overhead of incrementing and decrementing the reference count each time.

Because of the disadvantages inherent in the reference counting approach, this technique is currently out of favor. It is more likely that the Java virtual machines you encounter in the real world will use a tracing algorithm in their garbage-collected heaps.

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