Day 66: Becoming a memory plumber; A tale of Memory Leak and how to find them ( part 1)

Day 66: Becoming a memory plumber; A tale of Memory Leak and how to find them ( part 1) - Jan 22

What is memory leak

Memory leaks are a major issue for software engineers, especially those working with Java. A memory leak occurs when an application continues to use more and more of the computer's RAM without releasing it after it has been used. This can cause serious performance issues as the available RAM decreases and eventually leads to system crashes or outages.

Java has automated memory management system unlike its predecessor C . Java does this using GC. The GC implicitly takes care of allocating and freeing up memory, and thus is capable of handling the majority of memory leak issues.

While the GC effectively handles a good amount of memory, it doesn't guarantee a foolproof solution to memory leaking. The GC is pretty smart, but not flawless. Memory leaks can still happen.

Now let us understand what is Memory Leak

Memory Leak

a memory leak is a type of resource leak that occurs when a computer program incorrectly manages memory allocations in a way that memory which is no longer needed is not released.

As a software engineer, it’s important to understand the concept of memory leaks in Java. A memory leak is when an application continues to hold onto memory that it no longer needs and this can lead to performance issues or even system crashes. In Java, a common cause of such leaks is objects not being garbage collected as expected due to references still pointing at them from other parts of the code.

When an object is created in Java, the JVM (Java Virtual Machine) allocates space for it on the heap and then assigns a reference variable which points towards that allocated space. As long as there are any active references pointing towards this object, it will remain alive on heap until all these references are removed and GC (Garbage Collector) reclaims its resources back from Heap Memory Pool. If somehow some reference(s) remains active even after they have been used up by program logic then those objects become eligible for Garbage Collection but never get collected since their respective reference variables still point at them causing unnecessary accumulation of unused/unrequired Objects over time resulting into what we call “Memory Leak” issue with our Application Codebase leading into Performance Degradation & System Crashes eventually!

To avoid such problems one should keep track if their code has any potential chances where Object References might be left dangling without getting released explicitly using null assignments or try-catch blocks etc., so that GC can reclaim those resources back once they become eligible otherwise Memory Leaks would continue accumulating over time leading us into trouble!

What problems it causes

Memory leaks in Java can be caused by a variety of factors such as incorrect garbage collection, resource leakage in APIs, unclosed streams or connections, poor coding practices etc. These issues can lead to decreased responsiveness from applications due to increased latency times; they may also result in OutOfMemoryError exceptions being thrown which causes applications to crash unexpectedly or become unstable over time due their inability handle large amounts of data efficiently anymore .

Types of Memory Leaks

There are many ways memory leaks can occur in a java program. Some of them are

  1. Static fields
  2. Loitering objects
  3. In memory cache not evicted
  4. Unclosed resource
  5. custom equals and hashcode implementation
  6. Inner class that references outer classes
  7. Finalization bug
  8. Interned strings
  9. Thread local

now let us understand these typical memory leak issues

static fields

heavy use of static variables can cause memory leaks. In Java, static fields have a lifetime that usually matches the entire lifetime of the running program / application (unless ClassLoader becomes eligible for garbage collection).

lets see a case

public class Day65 {
    public static List<String> strings = new ArrayList<>();

    public void add() {
        for (int i = 0; i < 100000; i++) {
            list.add(new String());
        System.out.println("check point add");

    public static void main(String[] args) {
        System.out.println("Beforee calling add");
        new Day65().populateList();
        System.out.println("After calling add");
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

here when observing with

Loitering Objects

These objects are allocated memory, but not used, and not garbage collected. These keep increasing the size of the JVM heap and represent memory leaks, which can cause an out-of-memory error or excessive overhead on the garbage collector.

Let's understand this scenario with an example, consider a stack backed by an array, and you implement pop this way:

public T pop() {
    if (top == -1) {
        throw new NoSuchElementException();
    T item = items[top--];
    return item;
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Because the array holds a reference to the item at the former top of the stack, the item is still strongly reachable from the array and therefore won't be garbage collected. Furthermore, because of the way a stack works, the item is no longer externally accessible. Thus, the item is said to be "loitering". It hangs around for no reason.

The correct implementation of the pop method would be this:

public T pop() {
    if (top == -1) {
        throw new NoSuchElementException();
    T item = items[top];
    // Clear the reference to allow garbage collection
    items[top] = null;
    return item;
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

By setting the array entry to null, the item is no longer reachable from the array. Therefore it is eligible for garbage collection.

Garbage collection isn't magic. It can do most of the work to clean up memory for you. But, you have to make sure you write your code correctly to eliminate unnecessary strong references. The garbage collector can't read your mind, and figure out that you didn't really mean to keep the strong reference.

In Memory Cache Eviction

when we build in memory cache (in this case Guava library) there is a possibility of memory leak when the cache get increased without clearing the cache. let us first understand what is cache eviction

Cache Eviction

Caches are small because cache memory is more expensive to produce and purchase. The small size of the cache limits the amount of data we can store. We need to consider what data we keep or remove over time. This dilemma is the core purpose behind cache eviction. It will depending on algorithms will remove some entries.

So by restricting the size or creating an eviction policy will ensure the cache doesn't grow uncontrollably.

In the below example we will see a cache without a size or eviction policy

public class CustomCache<T> {
    private Cache<String, T> cache;

    //Constructor to build Cache Store
    public CustomCache() {
        cache = CacheBuilder.newBuilder().build();

    public T get(String key) {
        return cache.getIfPresent(key);

    //Method to put a new record in Cache Store with record key
    public void add(String key, T value) {
        if(key != null && value != null) {
            cache.put(key, value);
            System.out.println("Entry stored in "
                    + value.getClass().getSimpleName()
                    + " Cache with Key = " + key);
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

Now adding a size and cache eviction policy will help not to cause memory leak. In guava CacheBuilder by adding the properties maximumSize and expireAfterAccess will limit the size and when will be the entires will be deleted

public CustomCache() {
        cache = CacheBuilder.newBuilder()
                            .expireAfterAccess(30, TimeUnit.MINUTES)
Enter fullscreen mode Exit fullscreen mode

In part 2 will learn about other type of reasons for memory leak