Tutorial :JVM OutOfMemory error “death spiral” (not memory leak)


We have recently been migrating a number of applications from running under RedHat linux JDK1.6.0_03 to Solaris 10u8 JDK1.6.0_16 (much higher spec machines) and we have noticed what seems to be a rather pressing problem: under certain loads our JVMs get themselves into a "Death Spiral" and eventually go out of memory. Things to note:

  • this is not a case of a memory leak. These are applications which have been running just fine (in one case for over 3 years) and the out-of-memory errors are not certain in any case. Sometimes the applications work, sometimes they don't
  • this is not us moving to a 64-bit VM - we are still running 32 bit
  • In one case, using the latest G1 garbage collector on 1.6.0_18 seems to have solved the problem. In another, moving back to 1.6.0_03 has worked
  • Sometimes our apps are falling over with HotSpot SIGSEGV errors
  • This is affecting applications written in Java as well as Scala

The most important point is this: the behaviour manifests itself in those applications which suddenly get a deluge of data (usually via TCP). It's as if the VM decides to keep adding more data (possibly progressing it to the TG) rather than running a GC on "newspace" until it realises that it has to do a full GC and then, despite practically everything in the VM being garbage, it somehow decides not to collect it!

It sounds crazy but I just don't see what else it is. How else can you explain an app which one minute falls over with a max heap of 1Gb and the next works just fine (never going about 256M when the app is doing exactly the same thing)

So my questions are:

  1. Has anyone else observed this kind of behaviour?
  2. has anyone any suggestions as to how I might debug the JVM itself (as opposed to my app)? How do I prove this is a VM issue?
  3. Are there any VM-specialist forums out there where I can ask the VM's authors (assuming they aren't on SO)? (We have no support contract)
  4. If this is a bug in the latest versions of the VM, how come no-one else has noticed it?


Interesting problem. Sounds like one of the garbage collectors works poorly on your particular situation.

Have you tried changing the garbage collector being used? There are a LOT of GC options, and figuring out which ones are optimal seems to be a bit of a black art, but I wonder if a basic change would work for you.

I know there is a "Server" GC that tends to work a lot better than the default ones. Are you using that?

Threaded GC (which I believe is the default) is probably the worst for your particular situation, I've noticed that it tends to be much less aggressive when the machine is busy.

One thing I've noticed, it often takes two GCs to convince Java to actually take out the trash. I think the first one tends to unlink a bunch of objects and the second actually deletes them. What you might want to do is occasionally force two garbage collections. This WILL cause a significant GC pause, but I've never seen a case where it took more than two to clean out the entire heap.


I have had the same issue on Solaris machines, and I solved it by decreasing the maximum size of the JVM. The 32 bit Solaris implementation apparently needs some overhead room beyond what you allocate for the JVM when doing garbage collections. So, for example, with -Xmx3580M I'd get the errors you describe, but with -Xmx3072M it would be fine.


  1. Yes, I've observed this behavior before, and usually after countless hours of tweaking JVM parameters it starts working.
  2. Garbage Collection, especially in multithreaded situations is nondeterministic. Defining a bug in nondeterministic code can be a challenge. But you could try DTrace if you are using Solaris, and there are a lot of JVM options for peering into HotSpot.
  3. Go on Scala IRC and see if Ismael Juma is hanging around (ijuma). He's helped me before, but I think real in-depth help requires paying for it.
  4. I think most people doing this kind of stuff accept that they either need to be JVM tuning experts, have one on staff, or hire a consultant. There are people who specialize in JVM tuning.

In order to solve these problems I think you need to be able to replicate them in a controlled environment where you can precisely duplicate runs with different tuning parameters and/or code changes. If you can't do that hiring an expert probably isn't going to do you any good, and the cheapest way out of the problem is probably buying more RAM.


What kind of OutOfMemoryError are you getting? Is the heap space exhausted or is the problem related to any of the other memory pools (the Error usually have a message giving more details on its cause).

If the heap is exhausted and the problem can be reproduced (it sounds as if it can), I would first of all configure the VM to produce a heap dump on OutOfMemoryErrors. You can then analyze the heap and make sure that it's not filled with objects, which are still reachable through some unexpected references.

It's of course not impossible that you are running into a VM bug, but if your application is relying on implementation specific behaviour in 1.6.0_03, it may for some reason or another end up as a memory hog when running on 1.6.0_16. Such problems may also be found if you are using some kind of server container for your application. Some developers are obviously unable to read documentation, but tend to observe the API behaviour and make their own conclusions about how something is supposed to work. This is of course not always correct and I've ran into similar problems both with Tomcat and with JBoss (both products at least used to work only with specific VMs).


Also make sure it's not a hardware fault (try running MemTest86 or similar on the server.)


Which kind of SIGSEV errors exactly do you encounter?

If you run a 32bit VM, it could be what I described here: http://janvanbesien.blogspot.com/2009/08/mysterious-jvm-crashes-explained.html

Note:If u also have question or solution just comment us below or mail us on toontricks1994@gmail.com
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