Java Heap Analysis – Series Part One

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james_cavazosby James Cavazos, Senior Performance Engineer

In Java performance testing, one of the most common and sometimes most frustrating issues is the memory leak. Even the most experienced engineer can slip a memory leak into their code. It is important to know how to spot one and debug the issue. Even if you can’t find the source of the issue without a developer’s help, they will always need data to work with so being able to provide useful information is crucial. Therefore, for a Java memory leak, the first thing you will always be asked for is a heap dump.

What is the heap in Java?

In Java the heap is the portion of memory that the java code uses to store in memory objects. The memory is separate for each java instance and can be configured to meet the needs of the application being run. If not much memory is required, only a small amount can be allocated. If an application is memory intensive a large chunk of memory can be allocated at the start. A heap dump is a file of this heap memory that can be analyzed to see what was in the heap at the time it was taken. It is the Java heap memory dumped into a file.

When the heap is not able to keep up with the demands of the application you will see an error similar to this:

Exception in thread "main" java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: GC overhead limit exceeded
	at java.lang.AbstractStringBuilder.(Unknown Source)
	at java.lang.StringBuilder.(Unknown Source)
	at java.util.UUID.toString(Unknown Source)
	at examples.MemoryLeak.main(

Seeing this error doesn’t necessarily mean you have a memory leak. Your application may require a larger heap than currently configured or your Garbage Collection settings may need some tweaking. If your current heap size is small – say less than 128 MB then you may just want to try increasing the heap size to see if that resolves the problem. The parameters used to set the heap size are: “-Xms128m -Xmx256m”. This particular example sets the heap to a minimum of 123 MB and a maximum of 256 MB.

So how do you know if you have a memory leak?

The first thing to do in all cases is to add the JVM parameter to create a heap dump on out of memory.


The parameter will attempt to create a heap dump whenever there is an out of memory error. Be aware, there are cases where this does not work and it will not always give you what you need.

From here there are a couple of strategies you can take depending on certain conditions. If you are seeing this problem within minutes of starting your application, you will first need to try increasing the heap size. If you are still seeing the application go down rather quickly then Java may have been able to create a heap dump. Otherwise, you will need to try to grab a heap dump with jmap (see below). The heap dump will, by default, be created in the root directory for the application. If you want them to go to a particular location, you can add the parameter:


If your application is going down in hours or days then you will need to do some monitoring of the active heap. The Java JDK has command line tools that can be used on all platforms. In many performance situations you will not have access to a GUI so these are the standard tools that will be needed to monitor a running application. By monitoring the heap statistics, you should get a better idea of what is happening in the heap and discover if you have a leak.


The Java JDK tool jmap has many functions for monitoring the heap.

Note: You must use the same version of Java that is running the process you want to monitor. In Unix/Linux when running jmap you must use the same owner:group under which the program or you will not be able to access the running Java process.


The first option is the histogram. This prints out a list of current objects in the heap and give you the count and byte size of each. Adding the live setting will only show live objects; meaning it will run a full GC and then print out the remaining objects. It will then give you a total object and byte count. The total byte count is also the amount of used heap.


$ jmap -histo:live 23128
num     #instances         #bytes  class name
   1:        886808       77893000  [C
   2:        886747       21281928  java.lang.String
   3:          2150        5344488  [Ljava.lang.Object;
   4:          1820         205168  java.lang.Class
   5:           463         182960  [B
   6:          2553         102120  java.util.TreeMap$Entry
   7:           986          86768  java.lang.reflect.Method
   8:          1817          43608  java.lang.Long
   9:           759          42280  [I
  10:           786          37728  java.util.TreeMap
  11:           903          28896  java.util.HashMap$Node
  12:          1075          24528  [Ljava.lang.Class;
  13:           586          23440  java.util.LinkedHashMap$Entry
  14:           257          22112  [Ljava.util.HashMap$Node;
  15:           502          20080  java.lang.ref.SoftReference
  16:           754          18096
  17:           370          17760  java.util.HashMap
  18:           201          16080  java.lang.reflect.Constructor
  19:           442          14760  [Ljava.lang.String;
  20:           421          13472  java.util.concurrent.ConcurrentHashMap$Node
  21:           180          12960  java.lang.reflect.Field
  22:           763          12208  java.util.TreeMap$KeySet
725:             1             16                                            726:             1             16  sun.util.calendar.Gregorian                                                          727:             1             16  sun.util.locale.provider.AuxLocaleProviderAdapter$NullProvider                       728:             1             16  sun.util.locale.provider.SPILocaleProviderAdapter                                    Total       1801171      105779408 

We can see, in the output above, that the classes with the most heap usage is character objects followed by String objects. At the bottom, we see that there are about 100 MB in use. Running this at regular intervals will show us if the heap is steadily growing. So what does this tell us? In this example not too much other than the fact that memory usage is growing. Character and String objects are used everywhere so this is not too helpful in determining the cause of the leak. All we can do is monitor the heap and object growth. If a more unique class was in the list then that could help to determine where the leak is coming from. If memory usage is growing at a steady pace then it is safe to assume a memory leak is occurring.


The heap option gives information on the current heap. Depending on the settings and garbage collection configuration the output may be slightly different.


$ jmap -heap 2484
Attaching to process ID 2484, please wait...
Debugger attached successfully.
Server compiler detected.
JVM version is 25.92-b15

using thread-local object allocation.
Parallel GC with 4 thread(s)

Heap Configuration:
   MinHeapFreeRatio         = 0
   MaxHeapFreeRatio         = 100
   MaxHeapSize              = 268435456 (256.0MB)
   NewSize                  = 44564480 (42.5MB)
   MaxNewSize               = 89128960 (85.0MB)
   OldSize                  = 89653248 (85.5MB)
   NewRatio                 = 2
   SurvivorRatio            = 8
   MetaspaceSize            = 21807104 (20.796875MB)
   CompressedClassSpaceSize = 1073741824 (1024.0MB)
   MaxMetaspaceSize         = 17592186044415 MB
   G1HeapRegionSize         = 0 (0.0MB)

Heap Usage:
PS Young Generation
Eden Space:
   capacity = 34078720 (32.5MB)
   used     = 13650576 (13.018203735351562MB)
   free     = 20428144 (19.481796264648438MB)
   40.05601149338942% used
From Space:
   capacity = 5242880 (5.0MB)
   used     = 0 (0.0MB)
   free     = 5242880 (5.0MB)
   0.0% used
To Space:
   capacity = 5242880 (5.0MB)
   used     = 0 (0.0MB)
   free     = 5242880 (5.0MB)
   0.0% used
PS Old Generation
   capacity = 89653248 (85.5MB)
   used     = 0 (0.0MB)
   free     = 89653248 (85.5MB)
   0.0% used

4475 interned Strings occupying 346128 bytes.


This is one of the most important functions of JMap. The dump operation creates a heap dump of the current heap. This is especially useful when you have a slow memory leak in order to get multiple heap dumps during the execution of the Java application. Be aware that the Java application will for the most part be paused while creating the heap dump and can take time depending on the size of the heap.


$ jmap -dump:live,format=b,file=heap.bin 23128

This will create a file called heap.bin for process with id 23128.

In the next blog we will look into analyzing the heap dump.

Author: bridge360blog

Software Changes Everything.... Bridge360 improves and develops custom application software. We specialize in solving complex problems at every phase of the software development lifecycle, removing roadblocks to help our clients’ software and applications reach their full potential in any market. The Bridge360 customer base includes software companies and world technology leaders, leading system integrators, federal and state government agencies, and small to enterprise businesses across the globe. Clients spanning industries from legal to healthcare, automotive to energy, and high tech to high fashion count on us to clear a path for success. Bridge360 was founded in 2001 (as Austin Test) and is headquartered in Austin, Texas with offices in Beijing, China.

One thought on “Java Heap Analysis – Series Part One

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