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Before explaining the concept of premature promotion, we should familiarize ourselves with the concept it builds upon – the promotion rate. The promotion rate is measured in the amount of data propagated from the young generation to the old generation per time unit. It is often measured in MB/sec, similarly to the allocation rate.

Promoting long-lived objects from the young generation to the old is how JVM is expected to behave. Recalling the generation hypothesis we can now construct a situation where not only long-lived objects end up in the old generation. Such a situation, where objects with a short life expectancy are not collected in the young generation and get promoted to the old generation, is called premature promotion.

Cleaning these short-lived objects now becomes a job for major GC, which is not designed for frequent runs and results in longer GC pauses. This significantly affects the throughput of the application.

How to Measure Promotion Rate

One of the ways you can measure the promotion rate is to turn on GC logging by specifying -XX:+PrintGCDetails -XX:+PrintGCTimeStamps flags for the JVM. The JVM now starts logging the GC pauses just like in the following snippet:

0.291: [GC (Allocation Failure) [PSYoungGen: 33280K->5088K(38400K)] 33280K->24360K(125952K), 0.0365286 secs] [Times: user=0.11 sys=0.02, real=0.04 secs] 
0.446: [GC (Allocation Failure) [PSYoungGen: 38368K->5120K(71680K)] 57640K->46240K(159232K), 0.0456796 secs] [Times: user=0.15 sys=0.02, real=0.04 secs] 
0.829: [GC (Allocation Failure) [PSYoungGen: 71680K->5120K(71680K)] 112800K->81912K(159232K), 0.0861795 secs] [Times: user=0.23 sys=0.03, real=0.09 secs]

From the above we can extract the size of the young Generation and the total heap both before and after the collection event. Knowing the consumption of the young generation and the total heap, it is easy to calculate the consumption of the old generation as just the delta between the two. Expressing the information in GC logs as:

Event Time Young decreased Total decreased Promoted Promotion rate
1st GC 291ms 28,192K 8,920K 19,272K 66.2 MB/sec
2nd GC 446ms 33,248K 11,400K 21,848K 140.95 MB/sec
3rd GC 829ms 66,560K 30,888K 35,672K 93.14 MB/sec
Total 829ms 76,792K 92.63 MB/sec

will allow us to extract the promotion rate for the measured period. We can see that on average the promotion rate was 92 MB/sec, peaking at 140.95 MB/sec for a while.

Notice that you can extract this information only from minor GC pauses. Full GC pauses do not expose the promotion rate as the change in the old generation usage in GC logs also includes objects cleaned by the major GC.

Why Should I Care?

Similarly to the allocation rate, the main impact of the promotion rate is the change of frequency in GC pauses. But as opposed to the allocation rate that affects the frequency of minor GC events, the promotion rate affects the frequency of major GC events. Let me explain – the more stuff you promote to the old generation the faster you will fill it up. Filling the old generation faster means that the frequency of the GC events cleaning the old generation will increase.

Copying collector in survivor space java

As we have shown in earlier chapters, full garbage collections typically require much more time, as they have to interact with many more objects, and perform additional complex activities such as defragmentation.

Give me an Example

Let us look at a demo application suffering from premature promotion. This app obtains chunks of data, accumulates them, and, when a sufficient number is reached, processes the whole batch at once:

public class PrematurePromotion {

   private static final Collection<byte[]> accumulatedChunks = new ArrayList<>();

   private static void onNewChunk(byte[] bytes) {

       if(accumulatedChunks.size() > MAX_CHUNKS) {

The demo application is impacted by premature promotion by the GC. The ways to verify and solve the issue are given in the next sections.

Could my JVMs be Affected?

In general, the symptoms of premature promotion can take any of the following forms:

  • The application goes through frequent full GC runs over a short period of time.
  • The old generation consumption after each full GC is low, often under 10-20% of the total size of the old generation.
  • Facing the promotion rate approaching the allocation rate.

Showcasing this in a short and easy-to-understand demo application is a bit tricky, so we will cheat a little by making the objects tenure to the old generation a bit earlier than it happens by default. If we ran the demo with a specific set of GC parameters (-Xmx24m -XX:NewSize=16m -XX:MaxTenuringThreshold=1), we would see this in the garbage collection logs:

2.176: [Full GC (Ergonomics) [PSYoungGen: 9216K->0K(10752K)] [ParOldGen: 10020K->9042K(12288K)] 19236K->9042K(23040K), 0.0036840 secs]
2.394: [Full GC (Ergonomics) [PSYoungGen: 9216K->0K(10752K)] [ParOldGen: 9042K->8064K(12288K)] 18258K->8064K(23040K), 0.0032855 secs]
2.611: [Full GC (Ergonomics) [PSYoungGen: 9216K->0K(10752K)] [ParOldGen: 8064K->7085K(12288K)] 17280K->7085K(23040K), 0.0031675 secs]
2.817: [Full GC (Ergonomics) [PSYoungGen: 9216K->0K(10752K)] [ParOldGen: 7085K->6107K(12288K)] 16301K->6107K(23040K), 0.0030652 secs]

At first glance it may seem that premature promotion is not the issue here. Indeed, the occupancy of the old generation seems to be decreasing on each cycle. However, if few or no objects were promoted, we would not be seeing a lot of full garbage collections.

There is a simple explanation for this GC behavior: while many objects are being promoted to the old generation, some existing objects are collected. This gives the impression that the old generation usage is decreasing, while in fact, there are objects that are constantly being promoted, triggering full GC.

What is the Solution?

In a nutshell, to fix this problem, we would need to make the buffered data fit into the young generation. There are two simple approaches for doing this. The first is to increase the young generation size by using -Xmx64m -XX:NewSize=32m parameters at JVM startup. Running the application with this change in configuration will make Full GC events much less frequent, while barely affecting the duration of minor collections:

2.251: [GC (Allocation Failure) [PSYoungGen: 28672K->3872K(28672K)] 37126K->12358K(61440K), 0.0008543 secs]
2.776: [GC (Allocation Failure) [PSYoungGen: 28448K->4096K(28672K)] 36934K->16974K(61440K), 0.0033022 secs]

Another approach in this case would be to simply decrease the batch size, which would also give a similar result. Picking the right solution heavily depends on what is really happening in the application. In some cases, business logic does not permit decreasing batch size. In this case, increasing available memory or redistributing in favor of the young generation might be possible.

If neither is a viable option, then perhaps data structures can be optimized to consume less memory. But the general goal in this case remains the same: make transient data fit into the young generation.