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Garbage collector - important terms

reachable object - object with a reference pointing to it - currently in use; such object can be reached via a reference, starting from a local variable, through the stack trace of a thread (note that each thread has its own stack but threads share the heap); reachable objects are said to be live - a term parallel to Go game and live stones (when they are connected to a still living group of stones), contrary to a dead stone (separated, without such connection).

stop-the-world (STW) - the runtime finds a safepoint, when it can safely halt all threads within the application. This point of safety could be for example just before start of a loop or before a method call - for all threads in the same time; only then GC can safely happen with no risk that an object is removed / moved to another space of a heap when another thread is actually using it.

weak generational hypothesis (WGH) - an assumption that objects have - in general - a short life expectancy; only a small part of objects is used in a program for longer (or very long) time; WHG can be depicted as kind of long tail phenomenon.

parallel GC - uses multiple threads during garbage collection (involves STW), default for < JDK8

concurrent GC - can run concurrently with application threads (more expensive in terms of CPU time, but becomes increasingly popular)

All GC and their strategies try to balance between throughput, latency and memory usage:

  • throughput means workload being done by GC (the more the better)
  • latency means duration of the pause in application’s work (lower is better)
  • memory (memory footprint) - how much extra memory is needed for GC to perform its tasks (the less the better)

Garbage collectors & collecting strategies

  • Mark-and-Sweep
  • Stop-and-Copy
  • G1
  • Parallel
  • ParallelOld
  • ZGC
  • Shenandoah
  • Serial

Heap areas and object generations

  • Eden / Nursery space (young generation)
  • Survivor space (young generation)

For young objects created just before garbage collection. Their instant evacuation to tenured space would be less effective, because if they died afterwards, they would occupy place in tenured space until next full GC. That is why they have their own, dedicated space.

  • Tenured space (old generation)


How it works?

Mark-and-sweep is a most popular algorithm in Hot-Spot JVM. Given weak generational hypothesis (WGH), GC marks all object as dead by default. There is a great probability that most of them is already dead. Then GC checks their references and re-marks live objects only. Finally, GC sweeps dead objects reclaiming memory space.

Evacuation process

Initial approach would be to reclaim space of dead objects and move it to some kind of free space area (in memory). But there is much more dead objects than live objects - hence a reverse approach would be better. Once GC knows who is dead and who is not, it employs evacuating collectors to process live objects evacuation to a different space where they will continue to live. Less work to do, because there is less live objects than dead objects.

Compaction process

Considered an alternative to evacuation. Compacting collectors do not move living objects to a different space, but they are “compacted” to a single contiguous area within the memory area where the garbage collection process is taking place. Compaction is a process similar to hard-disk defragmentation.

G1 - The Garbage First collector

  • balanced between throughput and latency
  • generational GC
  • region-based collector (region is an area of memory where all objects belong to the same memory pool, size: 1Mb to 32Mb)
  • does incremential compaction
  • is evacuating collector
  • allows to set duration and frequency of the pause by -XX:MaxGCPauseMillis=200 (200 is default)
  • default since JDK9
  • STW


  • default in JDK8 and earlier
  • generational GC
  • focused on throughput (maximum work), minimal focus on latency (pauses)
  • performs evacuation (copying)
  • STW


  • default for the old generation in JDK8
  • concurrent, but not parallel GC
  • uses mark-and-sweep strategy
  • is not an evacuating collector
  • applies compaction
  • STW
  • drawback: pause depends on the heap size (bigger heap = longer pause)

Concurrent Mark-and-Sweep

  • alternative collector for HotSpot
  • used for the old generation when parallel collector cleans young generation
  • for low-pause applications, of acceptable STW duration lower than a few millis
  • for old generation only
  • concurrent
  • complex and rather difficult to handle


  • since JDK15
  • focus on latency
  • non-generational


  • since JDK12
  • focus on latency
  • non-generational


  • focus on memory and startup time
  • single-threaded
  • generational
  • good for small, short-running apps

Update 5.03.2023: Reference objects

The java.lang.ref offers three special reference classes, subclasses of abstract class Reference:

  • SoftReference
  • WeakReference
  • PhantomReference

These are intermediates, proxies, allowing to still hold a reference to an object while the object is no longer considered as truly reachable. Thus, such object may be subjected to garbage collection. SoftReference, WeakReference and PhantomReference have different level of reachability.

What does it mean that an object is reachable?

It means there exists (in a program) a reference on the stack that goes right to the object on a heap. Another case are chained references: living, existing and used reference pointing to an object that has a reference to the object in question, and so on. There can be many “chained”, intermediate links.

When object is reachable, the garbage collector cannot release it - it’s still in use.

Unreachable objects are safe to be garbage-collected.

Using Reference objects

Holding references through Reference objects let us use referenced objects, but when memory exhaustion is imminent, the garbage collector is allowed to remove such objects.

There is one condition: there must be no ordinary (meaning: unproxied) references to the object in question. So no other references except for the ones that are wrapped inside Reference objects.

Soft references are for implementing memory-sensitive caches.

Weak references are for implementing “canonicalizing mappings”— where instances of objects can be simultaneously used in multiple places in a program, to save storage—that do not prevent their keys (or values) from being reclaimed.

Phantom references are for scheduling pre-mortem cleanup actions in a more flexible way than is possible with the Java finalization mechanism.

SoftReferences and WeakReferences can be placed on a ReferenceQueue (the device used for premortem cleanup actions). PhantomReference can only be built on a ReferenceQueue.


WeakHashMap is a special Map interface implementation designed to store weakly-reachable objects.

It helps to resolve the following problem: some key is no longer used (no live references pointing to it). So the value appears to be unused as well. But it is stored in a Map, and within a Map, all buckets are considered to be alive. So it is impossible for a garbage collector to clean this object. Either it will be done explicitly (programatically) or by using WeakHashMap.

If an object is stored in WeakHashMap, if its key has no external refrences, it can be cleared by the GC, as WHM uses weak references.

WeakHashMap allows the garbage collector to automatically clean up the keys and values. Keys and values of such map do not need to be pre-prepared in any way. They are automatically wrapped in WeakReferences by the map.

Sources - basics and beyond:

Thinking in Java 4th Edition, Bruce Eckel, Pearson, 2006

Java in a Nutshell. A Desktop Quick Reference 7th Edition, Ben Evans, David Flanagan, O’Reilly, 2018

Thomas Schatzl, Java garbage collection: The 10-release evolution from JDK 8 to JDK 18