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Memory leak due to improper exception handling

JimTerry Member Posts: 41 Red Ribbon

In this post let’s discuss an interesting memory problem we confronted in the production environment and how we went about solving it. This application would take traffic for a few hours after that it would become unresponsive. It wasn’t clear what was causing the unresponsiveness in the application.

Technology stack

This application was running on AWS cloud in r5a.2xlarge EC2 instances. It was a Java application running on Apache Tomcat server using Spring framework. It was also using other AWS services like S3, Elastic Beanstalk. This application had large heap size (i.e. -Xmx) – 48GB.


We used yCrash tool to troubleshoot the problem. We let the application take traffic for 15 minutes. After that we executed ‘yCrash script’ against this application. ‘yCrash script’ captures 360-degree artifacts from the application stack, analyzes them and presents the root cause of the problem. Data that yCrash script captures includes: Garbage Collection log, thread dump, heap dump, netstat, vmstat, iostat, top, ps…… 

yCrash analyzed the artifacts and reported that the application was suffering from a memory leak. Below is the heap dump analysis report generated by yCrash.

Fig 1: Large objects report (generated by yCrash)

You can notice that yCrash is pointing out ‘org.apache.logging.log4j.LogManager’ to be the largest object in the memory. This object alone occupies 98.2% of total memory. Remaining objects occupy less than 2% of memory. Below is the object tree of this largest object:

Fig 2: Object reference tree

See the red arrow mark in the object tree. This is the starting point of the application code base. Initially part of the package name has been masked in the Fig 2 to hide the identity of the application. You can notice ‘xxxxxxxx.superpower.Main$1.val$hprofParser’ object to occupy 98.2% of memory of this object.

This application has a class by name ‘xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.Main’. So it’s clear that the leak is originating from this Main object. However, it may not be clear what does ‘xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.Main$1 mean? ‘$1‘ indicates that, it’s the first anonymous inner class in the ‘xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.Main’ class. Anonymous inner class is a style of programming where you can define an inner class without giving a name to it in a parent class. However, this is not a widely used programming practice in Java. Thank God. Because anonymous inner class not only hurts the readability of the program but also makes the troubleshooting tricky.

Below is the high-level source code of the ‘xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx.Main’. To reduce the noise and improve the readability, non-relevant code from the class has been removed and ellipses have been introduced.

Fig 3: Source code causing memory leak

You can notice that line #9 has the Anonymous inner class. This Anonymous inner class extends the ‘PrintingProgressMeter’ class. ‘PrintingProgressMeter’ class in turn extends ‘java.util.Thread’. Whenever any class extends ‘java.util.Thread’ it becomes a thread.

On line #20 this ‘PrintingProgressMeter’ thread is started using ‘pm.start()’ method, in line #21 ‘’ method is invoked and in line #22 thread is stopped using the ‘pm.stopReporting()’ method. This code looks quite normal right? What can trigger memory leak in the application?

Problem: Exception Handling

Under certain scenarios ‘’ method in line #21 may throw exception. If an exception is thrown, then line #22 ‘pm.stopReporting()’ will not be invoked. If this line is not invoked, then the thread will be running forever and never exit. If the thread doesn’t exit, then the thread and the objects it references (i.e. ‘hprofParser’) can never be reclaimed from memory. It will ultimately lead to a memory leak.


In most performance problems identifying the root cause of the problem is difficult. Fixing them is fairly trivial. This problem is no exception to it.

Fig: Source code after fixing a memory leak

We moved the ‘pm.stopReporting()’ method into the ‘finally’ clause. In the Java programming language code within the ‘finally’ clause will be executed always irrespective of whether an exception is thrown or not thrown in the enclosing code block. More details about the ‘finally’ clause can be found here. Thus, even if ‘’ method throws an exception still ‘pm.stopReporting()’ method will be invoked, which will cause the thread to terminate. Once the thread is terminated all the objects it references will become eligible for garbage collection.

Once we made this change, the problem got resolved instantly.

Moral of the Story: Proper exception handling is required. A small overlook is capable of bringing down the application to a grinding halt.