Java Tip 79: Interact with garbage collector to avoid memory leaks

Use reference objects to prevent memory leaks in applications built on the MVC pattern

Object-oriented programs and class libraries often use the model-view-controller (MVC) design pattern. Swing, for example, uses it extensively. Unfortunately, using MVC in a garbage-collected environment such as Java introduces additional serious problems. Imagine, for instance, that your program uses a data model that exists for the lifetime of your application. A user can create views of that model. When he loses interest in the view, he can dispose of it -- or he'll want to dispose of it, at any rate. Unfortunately, the view is still registered as a listener of the data model and cannot be garbage-collected. Unless you explicitly remove every view from the data model's listeners list, you will get loitering zombie objects. The garbage collector can still reach these objects, even though you will never use them and want the garbage collector to discard them.

This Java tip shows you how to use reference objects, introduced in JDK 1.2, to solve this problem. By interacting with the garbage collector, you can eliminate loiterers and lapsed listeners, terms suggested by Ed Lycklama (see the Resources section below for more details). Lycklama generally defines a loiterer as an object that persists past its usefulness. The loiterer category is further broken down into four patterns; most common is the lapsed listener, an object added to, but never removed from, a collection of listeners.

Example problem

In this article, I'll examine a simple Swing MVC application to illustrate how an application using the MVC pattern creates lapsed listeners and memory leaks. Then, I'll show you how to modify the application in order to remove the memory leaks. The example application has a simple data model that contains some strings. The application's main window, shown in Figure 1, lets the user add new strings to, and create new views of, the data model. Both processes are illustrated in the figure below. The application's main window also shows the number of views that are alive, meaning that they are created, but not yet finalized. Each view is a separate frame containing a Jlist, which displays the strings from the data model (not shown here). A view listens to changes in the data model and updates itself accordingly. You will find the full source for this example in Resources.

Figure 1. The application's main window

First, I am going to define the example data model, but not implement it. Then, I'll implement that model's view. Finally, I'll actually implement the data model in four different ways, showing different implementation trade-offs.

Defining the model

The interface VectorModel defines the data model of the example application:

package mldemo;
import java.util.*;
  * Define a simple "application" data model. You can add, remove, and
  * access objects. When you add or remove an object, all
  * registered VectorModel.Listeners
  * will be notified with a VectorModel.Event.
  * @author Raimond Reichert
public interface VectorModel {
  public static class Event extends EventObject {
    private Object element;
    public Event (VectorModel model, Object element) {
      super (model);
      this.element = element;
    public Object getElement() {
      return element;
  public interface Listener extends EventListener {
    public void elementAdded (VectorModel.Event e);
    public void elementRemoved (VectorModel.Event e);
  public void addElement (Object object);
  public void removeElement (Object object);
  public Object elementAt (int index);
  public int size();
  public void addListener (VectorModel.Listener l);
  public void removeListener (VectorModel.Listener l);

Whenever an element is added to or removed from the vector, the VectorModel's implementations must notify their listeners.

Implementing the view

VectorListFrame, the view of this model, is a JFrame subclass that contains a JList. When a new VectorListFrame object is created, the contents of the VectorModel are copied into the list's DefaultListModel. VectorListFrame has an anonymous inner class that implements the VectorModel.Listener interface. This inner class is registered as a listener to the VectorModel.

Upon the arrival of a vector event, the inner class delegates the appropriate change to the DefaultListModel instance. For tracking purposes, the constructor of VectorListFrame increases the count of living views stored in the public static field nFrames, while the finalize method decreases that counter. The application's main window uses nFrames to display the number of living views.

package mldemo; import java.awt.*; import java.awt.event.*; import javax.swing.*; /** * Displays a VectorModel in a small frame, using a * JList. Uses a private, anonymous inner class to * implement VectorModel.Listener. This inner class * adds or removes elements from the JList's data * model. *

Note: As the code's out-commented lines show, in the case * of


, it would be quite easy to * remove the object from the


's listeners list * when the frame is closed. Alas, in real-world code, it's not always * this easy... * * @author Raimond Reichert */ public class VectorListFrame extends JFrame { // number of non-finalized VectorListFrames public static int nFrames = 0; // Commenting out discussed below... // private VectorModel vectorModel; protected DefaultListModel listModel; protected VectorModel.Listener modelListener = new VectorModel.Listener() { public void elementAdded (VectorModel.Event e) { listModel.addElement (e.getElement()); } public void elementRemoved (VectorModel.Event e) { listModel.removeElement (e.getElement()); } }; public VectorListFrame (VectorModel vectorModel) { super ("Listing..."); setSize (200, 200); setDefaultCloseOperation (WindowConstants.DISPOSE_ON_CLOSE); // In a multi-threaded environment (like Java) you // must synchronize the increment and decrement // operations on "nFrames." You can't synchronize // on the object being constructed, but must have all // constructors synchronize on the same object. The // java.lang.Class object for VectorListFrame is // a good candidate for this synchronization. synchronized (VectorListFrame.class) { nFrames++; } listModel = new DefaultListModel(); int size = vectorModel.size(); for (int i = 0; i < size; i++) listModel.addElement (vectorModel.elementAt(i)); getContentPane().add (new JScrollPane (new JList (listModel))); vectorModel.addListener (modelListener); // Commenting out discussed below... // this.vectorModel = vectorModel; } /* Commenting out discussed below... public void dispose() { super.dispose(); vectorModel.removeListener (modelListener); } */ protected void finalize() throws Throwable { super.finalize(); synchronized (VectorListFrame.class) { nFrames--; } } }

When you close the frame, its dispose method is called. In this example, you could easily remove the VectorListFrame from the data model's listeners list. All you need to do is keep a reference to the VectorModel. Then you could call the model's removeListener method from within the view's dispose method (see the code that has been commented out for the implementation).

However, things might not be this simple in a real-world application. The view that is listening to the data model might be deeply nested in a containment hierarchy. To remove it from the model's listeners list, the top-level frame would need to keep a reference to both the model and its view. This is a very error-prone business tactic, and makes for ugly, difficult-to-maintain code. If you forget just one model/view pair, you create a lapsed listener and memory will be leaked. You therefore want a data model that removes lapsed listeners automatically.

I will cover four implementations of VectorModel. The first one is the standard model for implementation; this is how view models in Swing are implemented. The other three implementations use weak references to avoid the lapsed listener problem. You can start the demo application four ways to see these implementations: java mldemo.MLDemo, java mldemo.MLDemo wr, java mldemo.MLDemo twr, and java mldemo.MLDemo qwr .

The standard model implementation

The standard way of implementing a model, such as VectorModel, is straightforward. One vector stores the data elements, and another holds the references to the VectorModel.Listener's objects. This is how the class DefaultVectorModel implements VectorModel.

The implementation has a field, called listeners, that is the vector holding the listeners. Adding a listener to the vector, and notifying all listeners, is very easy and straightforward:

  // in (see Resources)
  private Vector listeners;
  // ...
  public void addListener (VectorModel.Listener l) {
    listeners.addElement (l);
  // ...
  protected void fireElementAdded (Object object) {
    VectorModel.Event e = null;
    int size = listeners.size();
    for (int i = 0; i < size; i++) {
      if (e == null) // lazily create event
        e = new VectorModel.Event (this, object);
      ((VectorModel.Listener)listeners.elementAt(i)).elementAdded (e);

The drawback of this approach, of course, is that you can easily get lapsed listeners. The model doesn't know when a listener is just loitering -- that is to say, when it's only reachable through its own vector. When a model is the only object that still knows about a listener object, you should be able to release the listener. In other words, you need the data model to be sensitive to its listener's reachability.

Interacting with the garbage collector

The java.lang.ref package lets you interact with the garbage collector. The basic idea is not to reference objects directly, but rather to do so through special reference objects, which are treated specially by the garbage collector. I give a brief introduction to these reference classes in this article; for more detailed information, on garbage collection in particular, see Resources.

The reference subclasses let you reference objects indirectly. Reference itself is an abstract base class with three concrete subclasses: SoftReference, WeakReference, and PhantomReference.

Objects referenced through a reference object are called referents. When you create an instance of one reference subclass, you specify the referent. Then you call the reference object's get method to access the referent. You can also clear a reference -- that is, you can set it to null. Apart from that, the reference is immutable. You cannot, for example, change the referent. Under specific conditions discussed below, the garbage collector can reclaim the referent and clear all references to it, so always test for null when using the get method!

Java defines different levels of object reachability. An object that is reachable through a path that does not involve any reference objects is said to be strongly reachable. These are normal objects that cannot be garbage-collected. The other reachability levels are defined by the Reference subclasses.

Softly reachable objects

An object that is reachable from a path through a SoftReference object is said to be softly reachable. The garbage collector can reclaim a SoftReference's referent at its own discretion; however, the garbage collector is required to clear all soft references before throwing an OutOfMemoryError. This property makes soft references the leading choice when implementing caches.

Weakly reachable objects

An object that is reachable from a path through a WeakReference object is said to be weakly reachable. When the garbage collector determines that an object is weakly reachable, all weak references to it are cleared. At that time or later, the object is finalized and its memory freed. This makes WeakReference perfect for model-listener implementations, which is why it is used in the second, third, and fourth implementations of VectorModel. These implementations will not leak memory!

Phantomly reachable objects

Finally, an object that is not strongly, softly, or weakly reachable, but reachable from a path through a PhantomReference object, is said to be phantomly reachable. You cannot access the PhantomReference's referent through that reference object. A phantomly reachable object remains so until you explicitly clear all references to it. You can, however, wait for the object to become phantomly reachable. At that time, you could do some cleanup, which must be done before the garbage collector releases the object's memory.

It is important to remember that you do not know beforehand when the garbage collector will finalize and free objects that are no longer strongly reachable. With soft references, you have the guarantee that it will free your objects before throwing an OutOfMemoryError. With weak references, the decision is entirely up to the garbage collector, so your code should never rely on the timing of an object's garbage collection. The JDK 1.2 garbage collector seems to consider weak references quite regularly -- regularly enough, in fact, that you should not have memory leaks when you use them. In the case of phantom references, the garbage collector will not release referents unless you explicitly clear the references.

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