Guidelines for using the Java 2 reference classes

Learn to effectively use SoftReference, WeakReference, and PhantomReference

The Java 2 platform introduced the java.lang.ref package, which contains classes that allow you to refer to objects without pinning them in memory. The classes also provide a limited degree of interaction with the garbage collector. In this article, Peter Haggar examines the functionality and behavior of the SoftReference, WeakReference, and PhantomReference classes and recommends programming idioms for their use.

Peter Haggar (haggar@us.ibm.com), Senior Software Engineer, IBM Corporation

Peter HaggarPeter Haggar is a Senior Software Engineer with IBM in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina and the author of the book Practical Java Programming Language Guide, published by Addison-Wesley. In addition, he has published numerous articles on Java programming. He has a broad range of programming experience, having worked on development tools, class libraries, and operating systems. At IBM, Peter works on emerging Internet technology and is currently focused on high performance Web services. Peter is a frequent technical speaker on Java technology at numerous industry conferences. He has worked for IBM for more than 15 years and received a B.S. in Computer Science from Clarkson University. He can be contacted at haggar@us.ibm.com.



01 October 2002

Also available in Japanese

When the java.lang.ref package, which includes the SoftReference, WeakReference, and PhantomReference classes, was first introduced in the Java 2 platform, its usefulness was arguably over-hyped. The classes it contains can be useful, but they have certain limitations that narrow their appeal and make their application very specific to a defined set of problems.

Garbage collection overview

The main feature of the reference classes is the ability to refer to an object that can still be reclaimed by the garbage collector. Before the reference classes were introduced, only strong references were available. For example, the following line of code shows a strong reference, obj:

Object obj = new Object();

The reference obj refers to an object stored in the heap. As long as the obj reference exists, the garbage collector will never free the storage used to hold the object.

When obj goes out of scope or is explicitly assigned to null, the object is available for collection, assuming there are no other references to it. However, an important detail to note is that just because an object is available for collection does not mean it will be reclaimed by a given run of the garbage collector. Because garbage collection algorithms vary, some algorithms analyze older, longer-lived objects less frequently than short-lived objects. Thus, an object that is available for collection may never be reclaimed. This can occur if the program ends prior to the garbage collector freeing the object. Therefore, the bottom line is that you can never guarantee that an available object will ever be collected by the garbage collector.

This information is important as you analyze the reference classes. They are useful classes for specific problems, although, due to the nature of garbage collection, they might not prove as useful as you originally thought. Soft, weak, and phantom reference objects offer three different ways to refer to a heap object without preventing its collection. Each type of reference object has different behaviors, and their interaction with the garbage collector varies. In addition, the new reference classes all represent a "weaker" form of a reference than the typical strong reference. Furthermore, an object in memory can be referenced by multiple references that could be strong, soft, weak, or phantom. Before proceeding further, let's look at some terminology:

  • Strongly reachable: An object that can be accessed by a strong reference.
  • Softly reachable: An object that is not strongly reachable and can be accessed through a soft reference.
  • Weakly reachable: An object that is not strongly or softly reachable and can be accessed through a weak reference.
  • Phantomly reachable: An object that is not strongly, softly, or weakly reachable, has been finalized, and can be accessed through a phantom reference.
  • Clear: Setting the reference object's referent field to null and declaring the object in the heap that the reference class referred to as finalizable.

The SoftReference class

A typical use of the SoftReference class is for a memory-sensitive cache. The idea of a SoftReference is that you hold a reference to an object with the guarantee that all of your soft references will be cleared before the JVM reports an out-of-memory condition. The key point is that when the garbage collector runs, it may or may not free an object that is softly reachable. Whether the object is freed depends on the algorithm of the garbage collector as well as the amount of memory available while the collector is running.

The WeakReference class

A typical use of the WeakReference class is for canonicalized mappings. In addition, weak references are useful for objects that would otherwise live for a long time and are also inexpensive to re-create. The key point is that when the garbage collector runs, if it encounters a weakly reachable object, it will free the object the WeakReference refers to. Note, however, that it may take multiple runs of the garbage collector before it finds and frees a weakly reachable object.

The PhantomReference class

The PhantomReference class is useful only to track the impending collection of the referring object. As such, it can be used to perform pre-mortem cleanup operations. A PhantomReference must be used with the ReferenceQueue class. The ReferenceQueue is required because it serves as the mechanism of notification. When the garbage collector determines an object is phantomly reachable, the PhantomReference object is placed on its ReferenceQueue. The placing of the PhantomReference object on the ReferenceQueue is your notification that the object the PhantomReference object referred to has been finalized and is ready to be collected. This allows you to take action just prior to the object memory being reclaimed.


Garbage collector and reference interaction

Each time the garbage collector runs, it optionally frees object memory that is no longer strongly reachable. If the garbage collector discovers an object that is softly reachable, the following occurs:

  • The SoftReference object's referent field is set to null, thereby making it not refer to the heap object any longer.
  • The heap object that had been referenced by the SoftReference is declared finalizable.
  • When the heap object's finalize() method is run and its memory freed, the SoftReference object is added to its ReferenceQueue, if it exists.

If the garbage collector discovers an object that is weakly reachable, the following occurs:

  • The WeakReference object's referent field is set to null, thereby making it not refer to the heap object any longer.
  • The heap object that had been referenced by the WeakReference is declared finalizable.
  • When the heap object's finalize() method is run and its memory freed, the WeakReference object is added to its ReferenceQueue, if it exists.

If the garbage collector discovers an object that is phantomly reachable, the following occurs:

  • The heap object that is referenced by the PhantomReference is declared finalizable.
  • Unlike soft and weak references, the PhantomReference is added to its ReferenceQueue before the heap object is freed. (Remember, all PhantomReference objects must be created with an associated ReferenceQueue.) This allows for action to be taken before the heap object is reclaimed.

Consider the code in Listing 1. Figure 1 illustrates the execution of this code.

//Create a strong reference to an object
MyObject obj = new MyObject();                  //1

//Create a reference queue
ReferenceQueue rq = new ReferenceQueue();       //2
 
//Create a weakReference to obj and associate our reference queue
WeakReference wr = new WeakReference(obj, rq);  //3
Figure 1. Object layout after executing lines //1, //2, and //3 of code in Listing 1
Object layout after execution

Figure 1 shows the state of the objects after each line of code executes. Line //1 creates the object MyObject, while line //2 creates the ReferenceQueue object. Line //3 creates the WeakReference object that refers to its referent, MyObject, and its ReferenceQueue. Note that each object reference, obj, rq, and wr, are all strong references. To take advantage of these reference classes, you must break the strong reference to the MyObject object by setting obj to null. Recall that if you do not do this, object MyObject will never be reclaimed, mitigating any benefit of the reference classes.

Each of the reference classes has a get() method, and the ReferenceQueue class has a poll() method. The get() method returns the reference to the referent object. Calling get() on a PhantomReference always returns null. This is because PhantomReferences are only used to track collection. The poll() method returns the reference object that has been added to the queue, and null if nothing is on the queue. Therefore, the result of calling get() and poll() after the execution of Listing 1 would be:

wr.get();   //returns reference to MyObject
rq.poll();  //returns null

Now, assume the garbage collector runs. The get() and poll() methods return the same values because the MyObject object is not freed; obj still maintains a strong reference to it. In fact, the object layout remains unchanged and looks like Figure 1. However, consider this code:

obj = null;
System.gc();  //run the collector

After this code executes, the object layout is as depicted in Figure 2:

Figure 2. Object layout after obj = null; and garbage collector is run
Object layout after obj set to null and garbage collection is run

Now, calling get() and poll() yields different results:

wr.get();   //returns null
rq.poll();  //returns a reference to the WeakReference object

This situation indicates that the MyObject object, whose reference was originally held by the WeakReference object, is no longer available. This means that the garbage collector freed the memory for MyObject, enabling the WeakReference object to be placed on its ReferenceQueue. Therefore, you know that an object has been declared finalizable and possibly, but not necessarily, collected, when the get() method of the WeakReference or SoftReference class returns null. Only when finalization is completed and the heap object's memory is collected is the WeakReference or SoftReference placed on its associated ReferenceQueue. Listing 2 shows a full working program demonstrating some of these principles. The code is relatively self-explanatory with many comments and print statements to aid in its understanding.

import java.lang.ref.*;
class MyObject
{
  protected void finalize() throws Throwable
  {
    System.out.println("In finalize method for this object: " + 
                       this);
  }
}

class ReferenceUsage
{
  public static void main(String args[])
  {
    hold();
    release();
  }

  public static void hold()
  {
    System.out.println("Example of incorrectly holding a strong " +
                       "reference");
    //Create an object
    MyObject obj = new MyObject();
    System.out.println("object is " + obj);

    //Create a reference queue
    ReferenceQueue rq = new ReferenceQueue();

    //Create a weakReference to obj and associate our reference queue
    WeakReference wr = new WeakReference(obj, rq);

    System.out.println("The weak reference is " + wr);

    //Check to see if it's on the ref queue yet
    System.out.println("Polling the reference queue returns " + 
                       rq.poll());
    System.out.println("Getting the referent from the " +
                       "weak reference returns " + wr.get());
    
    System.out.println("Calling GC");
    System.gc();
    System.out.println("Polling the reference queue returns " + 
                       rq.poll());
    System.out.println("Getting the referent from the " +
                       "weak reference returns " + wr.get());
  }

  public static void release()
  {
    System.out.println("");
    System.out.println("Example of correctly releasing a strong " +
                       "reference");
    //Create an object
    MyObject obj = new MyObject();
    System.out.println("object is " + obj);

    //Create a reference queue
    ReferenceQueue rq = new ReferenceQueue();

    //Create a weakReference to obj and associate our reference queue
    WeakReference wr = new WeakReference(obj, rq);

    System.out.println("The weak reference is " + wr);

    //Check to see if it's on the ref queue yet
    System.out.println("Polling the reference queue returns " + 
                       rq.poll());
    System.out.println("Getting the referent from the " +
                       "weak reference returns " + wr.get());
    
    System.out.println("Set the obj reference to null and call GC");
    obj = null;
    System.gc();
    System.out.println("Polling the reference queue returns " + 
                       rq.poll());
    System.out.println("Getting the referent from the " +
                       "weak reference returns " + wr.get());
  }
}

Usage and idioms

The idea behind these classes is to avoid pinning an object in memory for the duration of the application. Instead, you softly, weakly, or phantomly refer to an object, allowing the garbage collector to optionally free it. This usage can be beneficial when you want to minimize the amount of heap memory an application uses over its lifetime. You must remember that to make use of these classes you cannot maintain a strong reference to the object. If you do, you waste any benefit the classes offer.

In addition, you must use the correct programming idiom to check if the collector has reclaimed the object before using it, and if it has, you must re-create the object first. This process can be done with different programming idioms. Choosing the wrong idiom can cause you problems. Consider the code idiom in Listing 3 for retrieving the referent object from a WeakReference:

obj = wr.get();
if (obj == null)
{
  wr = new WeakReference(recreateIt());  //1
  obj = wr.get();                        //2
}
//code that works with obj

After studying this code, consider the alternate code idiom in Listing 4 for retrieving the referent object from a WeakReference:

obj = wr.get();
if (obj == null)
{
  obj = recreateIt();                    //1
  wr = new WeakReference(obj);           //2
}
//code that works with obj

Compare the two idioms to see if you can determine which one is guaranteed to work, and which one is not. The idiom outlined in Listing 3 is not guaranteed to work at all times, but Listing 4's idiom is. The reason the idiom in Listing 3 is deficient is because obj is not guaranteed to be non-null after the body of the if block completes. Consider what happens if the garbage collector runs after line //1 of Listing 3 but before line //2 executes. The recreateIt() method re-creates the object, but it is referenced by a WeakReference, not a strong reference. Therefore, if the collector runs before line //2 attaches a strong reference to the re-created object, the object is lost and wr.get() returns null.

Listing 4 does not have this problem because line //1 re-creates the object and assigns a strong reference to it. Therefore, if the garbage collector runs after this line, but before line //2, the object will not be reclaimed. Then, the WeakReference to obj is created at line //2. After working with obj after this if block, you should set obj to null to enable the garbage collector to reclaim this object to take full advantage of weak references. Listing 5 shows a complete program demonstrating the idiom differences just described. (To run this program, a "temp.fil" file must exist in the directory from which the program runs.)

import java.io.*;
import java.lang.ref.*;

class ReferenceIdiom
{
  public static void main(String args[]) throws FileNotFoundException
  {
    broken();
    correct();
  }

  public static FileReader recreateIt() throws FileNotFoundException
  {
    return new FileReader("temp.fil");
  }

  public static void broken() throws FileNotFoundException
  {
    System.out.println("Executing method broken");
    FileReader obj = recreateIt();
    WeakReference wr = new WeakReference(obj);

    System.out.println("wr refers to object " + wr.get());

    System.out.println("Now, clear the reference and run GC");
    //Clear the strong reference, then run GC to collect obj.
    obj = null;
    System.gc();

    System.out.println("wr refers to object " + wr.get());

    //Now see if obj was collected and recreate it if it was.
    obj = (FileReader)wr.get();
    if (obj == null)
    {
      System.out.println("Now, recreate the object and wrap it 
        in a WeakReference");
      wr = new WeakReference(recreateIt());
      System.gc();  //FileReader object is NOT pinned...there is no 
                    //strong reference to it.  Therefore, the next 
                    //line can return null.
      obj = (FileReader)wr.get();
    }
    System.out.println("wr refers to object " + wr.get());
  }

  public static void correct() throws FileNotFoundException
  {
    System.out.println("");
    System.out.println("Executing method correct");
    FileReader obj = recreateIt();
    WeakReference wr = new WeakReference(obj);

    System.out.println("wr refers to object " + wr.get());

    System.out.println("Now, clear the reference and run GC");
    //Clear the strong reference, then run GC to collect obj
    obj = null;
    System.gc();

    System.out.println("wr refers to object " + wr.get());

    //Now see if obj was collected and recreate it if it was.
    obj = (FileReader)wr.get();
    if (obj == null)
    {
      System.out.println("Now, recreate the object and wrap it 
        in a WeakReference");
      obj = recreateIt();
      System.gc();  //FileReader is pinned, this will not affect 
                    //anything.
      wr = new WeakReference(obj);
    }
    System.out.println("wr refers to object " + wr.get());
  }
}

Summary

The Reference classes can be useful if used for the right situations. However, their usefulness is tempered by the fact that they rely on the sometimes unpredictable behavior of the garbage collector. Their effective use is also dependent on applying the correct programming idioms; it's critical that you understand how these classes are implemented and how to program to them.

Resources

  • Sam Borman wrote an interesting series on the IBM Garbage Collector. Part 1 examines object allocation; Part 2 details garbage collection; and Part 3 explains how to interpret verbosegc and how some of the command-line parameters work.
  • Jeff Friesen demonstrates how to use the Reference Object API to manage image caches, obtain notification when significant objects are no longer strongly reachable, and perform post-finalization cleanup in this article from JavaWorld (January 2002).
  • Find hundreds of Java programming resources on the developerWorks Java technology zone.

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ArticleTitle=Guidelines for using the Java 2 reference classes
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