Splunk Completes Acquisition of Plumbr Learn more

The following division of memory pools within the heap should be familiar. What is not so commonly understood is how Garbage Collection performs its duties within the different memory pools. Notice that in different GC algorithms some implementation details might vary but, again, the concepts in this chapter remain effectively the same.

memory pools inside heap consisting of eden, survivor and old spaces


Eden is the region in memory where the objects are typically allocated when they are created. As there are typically multiple threads creating a lot of objects simultaneously, Eden is further divided into one or more Thread Local Allocation Buffer (TLAB for short) residing in the Eden space. These buffers allow the JVM to allocate most objects within one thread directly in the corresponding TLAB, avoiding the expensive synchronization with other threads.

When allocation inside a TLAB is not possible (typically because there’s not enough room there), the allocation moves on to a shared Eden space. If there’s not enough room in there either, a garbage collection process in Young Generation is triggered to free up more space. If the garbage collection also does not result in sufficient free memory inside Eden, then the object is allocated in the Old Generation.

When Eden is being collected, GC walks all the reachable objects from the roots and marks them as alive.

We have previously noted that objects can have cross-generational links so a straightforward approach would have to check all the references from other generations to Eden. Doing so would unfortunately defeat the whole point of having generations in the first place. The JVM has a trick up its sleeve: card-marking. Essentially, the JVM just marks the rough location of ‘dirty’ objects in Eden that may have links to them from the Old Generation. You can read more on that in Nitsan’s blog entry.

TLAB used in Eden

After the marking phase is completed, all the live objects in Eden are copied to one of the Survivor spaces. The whole Eden is now considered to be empty and can be reused to allocate more objects. Such an approach is called “Mark and Copy”: the live objects are marked, and then copied (not moved) to a survivor space.

Survivor Spaces

Next to the Eden space reside two Survivor spaces called from and to. It is important to notice that one of the two Survivor spaces is always empty.

The empty Survivor space will start having residents next time the Young generation gets collected. All of the live objects from the whole of the Young generation (that includes both the Eden space and the non-empty ‘from’ Survivor space) are copied to the ‘to’ survivor space. After this process has completed, ‘to’ now contains objects and ‘from’ does not. Their roles are switched at this time.

Copying collector in survivor space java


This process of copying the live objects between the two Survivor spaces is repeated several times until some objects are considered to have matured and are ‘old enough’. Remember that, based on the generational hypothesis, objects which have survived for some time are expected to continue to be used for very long time.

Such ‘tenured’ objects can thus be promoted to the Old Generation. When this happens, objects are not moved from one survivor space to another but instead to the Old space, where they will reside until they become unreachable.

To determine whether the object is ‘old enough’ to be considered ready for propagation to Old space, GC tracks the number of collections a particular object has survived. After each generation of objects finishes with a GC, those still alive have their age incremented. Whenever the age exceeds a certain tenuring threshold the object will be promoted to Old space.

The actual tenuring threshold is dynamically adjusted by the JVM, but specifying -XX:+MaxTenuringThreshold sets an upper limit on it. Setting -XX:+MaxTenuringThreshold=0 results in immediate promotion without copying it between Survivor spaces. By default, this threshold on modern JVMs is set to 15 GC cycles. This is also the maximum value in HotSpot.

Promotion may also happen prematurely if the size of the Survivor space is not enough to hold all of the live objects in the Young generation.

Old Generation

The implementation for the Old Generation memory space is much more complex. Old Generation is usually significantly larger and is occupied by objects that are less likely to be garbage.

GC in the Old Generation happens less frequently than in the Young Generation. Also, since most objects are expected to be alive in the Old Generation, there is no Mark and Copy happening. Instead, the objects are moved around to minimize fragmentation. The algorithms cleaning the Old space are generally built on different foundations. In principle, the steps taken go through the following:

  • Mark reachable objects by setting the marked bit next to all objects accessible through GC roots
  • Delete all unreachable objects
  • Compact the content of old space by copying the live objects contiguously to the beginning of the Old space

As you can see from the description, GC in Old Generation has to deal with explicit compacting to avoid excessive fragmentation.


Prior to Java 8 there existed a special space called the ‘Permanent Generation’. This is where the metadata such as classes would go. Also, some additional things like internalized strings were kept in Permgen. It actually used to create a lot of trouble to Java developers, since it is quite hard to predict how much space all of that would require. Result of these failed predictions took the form of java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Permgen space. Unless the cause of such OutOfMemoryError was an actual memory leak, the way to fix this problem was to simply increase the permgen size similar to the following example setting the maximum allowed permgen size to 256 MB: 

java -XX:MaxPermSize=256m com.mycompany.MyApplication


As predicting the need for metadata was a complex and inconvenient exercise, the Permanent Generation was removed in Java 8 in favor of the Metaspace. From this point on, most of the miscellaneous things were moved to regular Java heap.

The class definitions, however, are now loaded into something called Metaspace. It is located in the native memory and does not interfere with the regular heap objects. By default, Metaspace size is only limited by the amount of native memory available to the Java process. This saves developers from a situation when adding just one more class to the application results in the java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Permgen space. Notice that having such seemingly unlimited space does not ship without costs – letting the Metaspace to grow uncontrollably you can introduce heavy swapping and/or reach native allocation failures instead.

In case you still wish to protect yourself for such occasions you can limit the growth of Metaspace similar to following, limiting Metaspace size to 256 MB:

java -XX:MaxMetaspaceSize=256m com.mycompany.MyApplication