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

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The Java virtual machine's heap stores all objects created by a running Java application. Objects are created by the new, newarray, anewarray, and multianewarray instructions, but never freed explicitly by the code. Garbage collection is the process of automatically freeing objects that are no longer referenced by the program.

This chapter does not describe an official Java garbage-collected heap, because none exists. As mentioned in earlier chapters, the Java virtual machine specification does not require any particular garbage collection technique. It doesn't even require garbage collection at all. But until infinite memory is invented, most Java virtual machine implementations will likely come with garbage-collected heaps. This chapter describes various garbage collection techniques and explains how garbage collection works in Java virtual machines.

Accompanying this chapter on the CD-ROM is an applet that interactively illustrates the material presented in the chapter. The applet, named Heap of Fish, simulates a garbage-collected heap in a Java virtual machine. The simulation--which demonstrates a compacting, mark-and-sweep collector--allows you to interact with the heap as if you were a Java program: you can allocate objects and assign references to variables. The simulation also allows you to interact with the heap as if you were the Java virtual machine: you can drive the processes of garbage collection and heap compaction. At the end of this chapter, you will find a description of this applet and instructions on how to use it.

Why Garbage Collection?

The name "garbage collection" implies that objects no longer needed by the program are "garbage" and can be thrown away. A more accurate and up-to-date metaphor might be "memory recycling." When an object is no longer referenced by the program, the heap space it occupies can be recycled so that the space is made available for subsequent new objects. The garbage collector must somehow determine which objects are no longer referenced by the program and make available the heap space occupied by such unreferenced objects. In the process of freeing unreferenced objects, the garbage collector must run any finalizers of objects being freed.

In addition to freeing unreferenced objects, a garbage collector may also combat heap fragmentation. Heap fragmentation occurs through the course of normal program execution. New objects are allocated, and unreferenced objects are freed such that free portions of heap memory are left in between portions occupied by live objects. Requests to allocate new objects may have to be filled by extending the size of the heap even though there is enough total unused space in the existing heap. This will happen if there is not enough contiguous free heap space available into which the new object will fit. On a virtual memory system, the extra paging (or swapping) required to service an ever growing heap can degrade the performance of the executing program. On an embedded system with low memory, fragmentation could cause the virtual machine to "run out of memory" unnecessarily.

Garbage collection relieves you from the burden of freeing allocated memory. Knowing when to explicitly free allocated memory can be very tricky. Giving this job to the Java virtual machine has several advantages. First, it can make you more productive. When programming in non-garbage-collected languages you can spend many late hours (or days or weeks) chasing down an elusive memory problem. When programming in Java you can use that time more advantageously by getting ahead of schedule or simply going home to have a life.

A second advantage of garbage collection is that it helps ensure program integrity. Garbage collection is an important part of Java's security strategy. Java programmers are unable to accidentally (or purposely) crash the Java virtual machine by incorrectly freeing memory.

A potential disadvantage of a garbage-collected heap is that it adds an overhead that can affect program performance. The Java virtual machine has to keep track of which objects are being referenced by the executing program, and finalize and free unreferenced objects on the fly. This activity will likely require more CPU time than would have been required if the program explicitly freed unnecessary memory. In addition, programmers in a garbage-collected environment have less control over the scheduling of CPU time devoted to freeing objects that are no longer needed.

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