JVM performance optimization, Part 3: Garbage collection

Choose the right garbage collector for your application needs

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The pause time for compaction is dependent on how much memory you need to move and how many references you need to update. With a larger heap size, it is statistically more likely that you will have a large number of both live objects with fragments between them and references needing to be updated. The observed average pause time per 1 to 2 GB live data is one second. So in a 4 GB heap, it is likely you will have at least 25 percent live data and will occasionally experience a near one-second pause time.

Compaction and the application memory wall

The application memory wall refers to the maximum heap size you can set before GC pause time (i.e., compaction) interferes with your application enough to break a response-time SLA. Most Java applications today hit their application memory wall at between 4 GB and 20 GB per JVM, dependent on system and application. This is one reason that most enterprise applications are deployed in multiple smaller JVMs instead of using fewer larger (50- to 60-GB) instances. Let's think about this for a minute: Isn't it interesting how much of Java application design and deployment architecture in modern enterprises are defined by the limitations of compaction in the JVM? In this case, we've accepted multi-mini-instance deployments that are costly to manage over time, in order to work around the problem of stop-the-world interruptions needed to deal with fragmented heaps. This is particularly peculiar given how much large-memory capacity we have in modern hardware, and given the ever-increasing demand for more memory access in enterprise Java applications. Why should we settle for just a few gigabytes per instance? Concurrent compaction is an alternate approach that brings down the application memory wall, and will be the topic of my next article in this series.

The observed average pause time per 1 to 2 GB live data is one second. So in a 4 GB heap, it is likely you will have at least 25 percent live data and will occasionally experience a near one-second pause time.

Conclusion: Reflection points and highlights

This article has been an overview of garbage collection, with the goal of refreshing your knowledge about the concepts and mechanics of garbage collection, as well as your awareness of the range of available options. Hopefully it also inspires you to further reading. Most of the options I've discussed are fairly traditional, in that they work implicitly with the limitations of the JVM. In my next article I'll introduce a newer concept, concurrent compaction, which is currently only implemented by Azul's Zing JVM. Concurrent compaction is one of an emerging class of GC techniques that seek to re-imagine the capacity of Java's memory model, particularly in light of today's increased memory and processor capacity.

For now, I'll leave you with an overview of the main points about garbage collection discussed in this article:

  • Different garbage collection algorithms and approaches will meet different application needs. Tracing collectors are most commonly used in commercial Java environments.
  • Parallel garbage collection uses available resources in parallel to perform GC. This tactic is usually implemented as a monolithic, stop-the-world collector, using all available system resources for a fast GC. Parallel GC thus provides higher throughput, but all application threads must wait until it's finished, which impacts latency.
  • Concurrent GC does its work while application threads are still running. The timing of concurrent GC is tricky because it needs to be finished before your application requires memory.
  • Generational garbage collection helps postpone fragmentation, but does not eliminate it. Generational GC divides the heap into two spaces, one for allocating young objects and one for objects that (being still referenced) have survived young-space GC. Use a generational collector for any Java application that has many short-lived small objects that will die within their first collection cycle.
  • Compaction is the only way to handle fragmentation completely. Most collectors have to perform compaction as a stop-the-world operation. The longer an application runs, the more reference complexity it will have and the more heterogeneous its object-size distribution will be. These factors will result in longer pauses to complete compaction. Larger heap size also impacts the compaction pause because there will likely be more live data and more references to update.
  • Tuning can help postpone OutOfMemoryErrors but the trade-off of too much tuning is rigidity. Be sure that you understand your production-load dynamics as well as your application's object types and reference profile before initiating tuning by trial-and-error. A too-rigid configuration will most likely break under dynamic production loads. Be sure to understand the consequences of a non-dynamic value before setting it.

Next month in the JVM performance optimization series: An in-depth look inside the Concurrent Continuously Compacting Collector (C4) GC algorithm.

Eva Andreasson has been involved with Java virtual machine technologies, SOA, cloud computing, and other enterprise middleware solutions for over 10 years. She joined the startup Appeal Virtual Machines (later acquired by BEA Systems) in 2001 as a developer of the JRockit JVM. Eva has been awarded two patents for garbage collection heuristics and algorithms. She also pioneered Deterministic Garbage Collection which later became productized through JRockit Real Time. Eva has worked closely with Sun and Intel on technical partnerships, as well as various integration projects of JRockit Product Group, WebLogic, and Coherence (post Oracle acquisition in 2008). In 2009 Eva joined Azul Systems as product manager for the new Zing Java Platform. Recently she switched gears and joined the team at Cloudera as senior product manager for Cloudera's Hadoop distribution, where she is engaged in the exciting future and innovation path of highly scalable, distributed data processing frameworks.

Learn more about this topic

Earlier articles in the JVM performance optimization series:

Also on JavaWorld:

Books about garbage collection:

JVM tuning and GC algorithms:

This story, "JVM performance optimization, Part 3: Garbage collection" was originally published by JavaWorld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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