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Java Memory Management

By Maaike van Putten , Dr. Seán Kennedy
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  1. Free Chapter
    Chapter 2: Primitives and Objects in Java Memory
About this book
Understanding how Java organizes memory is important for every Java professional, but this particular topic is a common knowledge gap for many software professionals. Having in-depth knowledge of memory functioning and management is incredibly useful in writing and analyzing code, as well as debugging memory problems. In fact, it can be just the knowledge you need to level up your skills and career. In this book, you’ll start by working through the basics of Java memory. After that, you’ll dive into the different segments individually. You’ll explore the stack, the heap, and the Metaspace. Next, you’ll be ready to delve into JVM standard garbage collectors. The book will also show you how to tune, monitor and profile JVM memory management. Later chapters will guide you on how to avoid and spot memory leaks. By the end of this book, you’ll have understood how Java manages memory and how to customize it for the benefit of your applications.
Publication date:
November 2022
Publisher
Packt
Pages
146
ISBN
9781801812856

 

Primitives and Objects in Java Memory

In Chapter 1, we saw the differences between primitives, objects, and references. We learned that primitives are types that come with the Java language; in other words, we do not have to define primitive types, we just use them. For example, int x; defines (creates) a primitive variable, x, which is of (the primitive) type int. This means that x can store whole integer numbers only, for example, -5, 0, 12, and so on.

We also learned that objects are instantiations of a class and that we use the new keyword to create instances of objects. For example, assuming a Person class exists, new Person(); instantiates (creates) an object of type Person. This object will be stored on the heap.

We saw that references enable us to manipulate objects and that references are of four different types: class, array, interface, and null. When you create an object, the reference to the object is what you receive back. For example, in the code Person p = new Person();, the reference is p and it is of type Person. Whether the reference is placed on the stack or on the heap depends on the context – more on this later.

Understanding the differences between references and objects is very important and greatly simplifies core object-oriented programming (OOP) concepts, such as inheritance and polymorphism. This also helps in fixing ClassCastException errors. Being aware of Java’s call-by-value mechanism and, in particular, how it relates to references can prevent subtle encapsulation issues known as escaping references.

In this chapter, we will delve more deeply into the following topics:

  • Understanding primitives on the stack and heap
  • Storing objects on the heap
  • Managing object references and security
 

Technical requirements

The code for this chapter can be found on GitHub at https://github.com/PacktPublishing/B18762_Java-Memory-Management.

 

Understanding primitives on the stack and heap

Java comes with a predefined set of primitive data types. Primitive data types are always in lowercase, for example, double. Contrast primitives with their associated wrapper counterparts, which are classes in the API, have methods (primitives do not), and wrappers start with a capital letter, for example, Double.

The primitive data types can be broken down into integral types (whole numbers), namely byte, short, int, long, and char, and floating-point types (decimal numbers), namely float, double, and boolean (true or false).

Primitives can be stored on both the stack and the heap. They are stored on the stack when they are local variables to methods, in other words, parameters to the method or variables declared inside the method itself. Primitives are stored on the heap when they are members of a class, that is, instance variables. Instance variables are declared within the class scope, in other words, outside all of the methods. Therefore, primitive variables declared within a method go on the stack, whereas instance variables go on the heap (inside the object).

Now that we understand where primitives are stored, let us turn our attention to storing objects.

 

Storing objects on the heap

In this section, we are going to examine storing objects on the heap. Gaining a full understanding of this area requires a discussion comparing references and objects. We will examine their types, where they are stored, and crucially, their differences. A sample piece of code with an associated diagram will finish the section.

References

References refer to objects and enable us to access them. If we are accessing an object instance member, then we use the reference. If we are accessing a static (class) member, we use the class name.

References can be stored on both the stack and the heap. If the reference is a local variable in a method, then the reference is stored on the stack (in the local method array for that method frame). If the reference is an instance variable, then the reference is stored inside the object, on the heap.

By way of comparison with objects, we can have a reference of an abstract class but not an object of an abstract class. The same applies to interfaces – we can have an interface reference type, but you cannot instantiate an interface; that is, you cannot create an object of an interface type. Both situations are demonstrated in Figure 2.1:

Figure 2.1 – Object instantiation errors

Figure 2.1 – Object instantiation errors

In Figure 2.1, the references declared on lines 10 and 13, an abstract class and an interface reference, respectively, have no issue. However, attempting to create an object of these types on lines 11 and 14 causes errors. Feel free to try out this code, contained in ch2 folder here: https://github.com/PacktPublishing/B18762_Java-Memory-Management/tree/main/ch2. The reason for the compiler errors is that you cannot create an object based on an abstract class or interface. We will address these errors in the next section.

Now that we have discussed references, let us examine objects.

Objects

All objects are stored on the heap. To understand objects, we must first understand a fundamental construct in OOP, the class. A class is similar to the plan of a house. With the plan of the house, you can view it and discuss it, but you cannot open any doors, put the kettle on, and so on. This is what classes are in OOP – they are views of what the object will look like in memory. When the house is built, you can now open the doors, have a cup of tea, and so forth. When the object is built, you have an in-memory representation of the class. Using the reference, we can access the instance members using the dot notation syntax.

Let us address the compiler issues from Figure 2.1 and, in addition, show the dot notation syntax in operation:

Figure 2.2 – The interface and abstract class references fixed

Figure 2.2 – The interface and abstract class references fixed

In Figure 2.2, as lines 11 and 15 compile without any error, they demonstrate that the class must be a non-abstract (concrete) class before an object based on it can be instantiated (created). Lines 12 and 16 demonstrate the dot notation syntax.

Let us now examine in more detail the creation of an object.

How to create objects

Objects are instantiated (created) using the new keyword. The purpose of new is to create an object on the heap and return its address, which we store in a reference variable. Line 11 from Figure 2.2 has the following line of code:

h = new Person();

The reference is on the left-hand side of the assignment operator – we are initializing an h reference of type Human.

The object to be instantiated is on the right-hand side of the assignment operator – we are creating an object of type Person, and the default Person constructor is executed. This default constructor is synthesized by the compiler (as there is no explicit Person constructor present in the code).

Now that we have looked at both objects and references, let us expand the example and, using a diagram, view both the stack and heap representations.

Understanding the differences between references and objects

In order to contrast the stack and the heap, both the Person class and the main() method have been changed:

Figure 2.3 – Stack and heap code

Figure 2.3 – Stack and heap code

Figure 2.3 details a Person class containing two instance variables, a constructor taking two parameters, and the toString() instance method. The second class, StackAndHeap, is the driver class (it contains the main() method). In main(), we initialize a local primitive variable, x, and instantiate an instance of Person.

Figure 2.4 shows the stack and heap representations after line 27 has been executed:

Figure 2.4 – A stack and heap representation of the code in Figure 2.3

Figure 2.4 – A stack and heap representation of the code in Figure 2.3

Referring to Figure 2.3, the first method to execute is main() on line 23. This results in a frame for main() being pushed onto the stack. The local variables args and x are stored in the local variable array in this frame. On line 25, we create an instance of Person passing in the String literal, Joe Bloggs, and the integer literal, 23. Any String literal is itself a String object and is stored on the heap. In addition, as it is a String literal, this String object is stored in a special area of the heap called the String Pool (also known as the String Constant Pool).

The instance variable name inside the Person object resides on the heap and is a String type; that is, it is a reference variable, and it refers to the Joe Bloggs object in the String pool. The other instance variable in Person, namely age, is a primitive, and its value of 23 is stored directly inside the object on the heap. However, the reference to the Person object, joeBloggs, is stored on the stack, in the frame for the main() method.

On line 26 in Figure 2.3, we output the local variable, x, which outputs 0 to the standard output device (typically the screen). Line 27 is then executed, as shown in Figure 2.4. First, the println() method from PrintStream (out is of type PrintStream) causes a frame to be pushed onto the stack. In order to simplify the diagram, we have not gone into any detail in that stack frame. Before println() can complete execution, joeBloggs.toString() must first be executed.

As the toString() method in Person has now been invoked/called, a new frame for toString() is pushed onto the stack on top of the println() frame. Next, toString() builds up a local String variable named decoratedName using String literals and the instance variables.

As you are probably aware, if you have a String instance on the left or the right of a + operator, the overall operation becomes a String append and you end up with a String result.

These String literals are stored in the String Pool. The final String result is My name is Joe Bloggs and I am 23 years old, which is assigned to the local variable, decoratedName. This String is returned from toString() back to the println() statement on line 27 that called it. The returned String is then echoed to the screen.

That concludes our section on storing objects on the heap. Now we will turn our attention to areas that can cause subtle issues in your code. However, now that we have separated the reference from the object, these issues will be much easier to understand and fix.

 

Managing object references and security

In this section, we are going to examine object references and a subtle security issue that can arise if references are not managed with due care. This security issue is called escaping references and we will explain when and how it occurs with the aid of an example. In addition, we will fix the issue in the example, demonstrating how to address this security concern.

Inspecting the escaping references issue

In this section, we will discuss and provide an example of Java’s call-by-value parameter passing mechanism. Once we understand call-by-value, this will enable us to demonstrate the issue that occurs when passing (or returning) references. Let us start with Java’s call-by-value mechanism.

Call-by-value

Java uses call-by-value when passing parameters to methods and returning results from methods. Put simply, this means that Java makes a copy of something. In other words, when you are passing an argument to a method, a copy is made of that argument, and when you are returning a result from a method, a copy is made of that result. Why do we care? Well, what you are copying – a primitive or a reference – can have major implications (especially for mutable types, such as StringBuilder and ArrayList). This is what we want to dig into further here. We will use a sample program and an associated diagram to help. Figure 2.5 shows the sample code:

Figure 2.5 – A call-by-value code sample

Figure 2.5 – A call-by-value code sample

Figure 2.5 details a program where we have a simple Person class with two properties: a String name and an int (primitive) age. The constructor enables us to initialize the object state, and we have accessor/mutator methods for the instance variables.

The CallByValue class is the driver class. In main() on line 27, a local primitive int variable, namely age, is declared and initialized to 20. On line 28, we create an object of type Person, passing in the String literal, John, and the primitive variable, age. Based on these arguments, we initialize the object state. The reference, namely john, is the local variable used to store the reference to the Person object on the heap. Figure 2.6 shows the state of memory after line 28 has finished executing. For clarity, we have omitted the args array object.

Figure 2.6 – The initial state of the stack and the heap

Figure 2.6 – The initial state of the stack and the heap

As Figure 2.6 shows, the frame for the main() method is the current frame on the stack. It contains two local variables: the int primitive age with its value of 20 and the Person reference, john, referring to the Person object on the heap. The Person object has its two instance variables initialized: the age primitive variable is set to 20 and the name String instance variable is referring to the John String object in the String Pool (as John is a String literal, Java stores it there).

Now, we execute line 29, change(john, age); in Figure 2.5. This is where it gets interesting. We call the change() method, passing down the john reference and the age primitive. As Java is call-by-value, a copy is made of each of the arguments. Figure 2.7 shows the stack and the heap just as we enter the change() method and are about to execute its first instruction on line 34:

  Figure 2.7 – The stack and heap as the change() method is entered

Figure 2.7 – The stack and heap as the change() method is entered

In the preceding figure, we can see that a frame has been pushed onto the stack for the change() method. As Java is call-by-value, a copy is made of both arguments into local variables in the method, namely age and adult. The difference here is crucial and requires subsections as a result.

Copying a primitive

Copying a primitive is similar to photocopying a sheet of paper. If you hand the photocopy to someone else, they can do whatever they want to that sheet – you still have the original. This is what is going to happen in this program; the called change() method will alter the primitive age variable, but the copy of age back in main() will be untouched.

Copying a reference

Copying a reference is similar to copying a remote control for a television. If you hand the second/copy remote to someone else, they can change the channel that you are watching. This is what is going to happen in this program; the called change() method will, using the adult reference, alter the name instance variable in the Person object and the john reference back in main() will see that change.

Going back to the code example from Figure 2.5, Figure 2.8 shows the stack and heap after lines 34 and 35 have finished executing but before the change() method returns to main():

  Figure 2.8 – The stack and heap as the change() method is exiting

Figure 2.8 – The stack and heap as the change() method is exiting

As can be seen, the age primitive in the method frame for change() has been changed to 90. In addition, a new String literal object is created for Michael in the String Pool and the name instance variable in the Person object is referring to it. This is because String objects are immutable; that is, once initialized, you cannot change the contents of String objects. Note that the John String object in the String Pool is now eligible for garbage collection, as there are no references to it.

Figure 2.9 show the state of the stack and heap after the change() method has finished executing and control has returned to the main() method:

  Figure 2.9 – The stack and heap after the change() method has finished

Figure 2.9 – The stack and heap after the change() method has finished

In Figure 2.9, the frame on the stack for the change() method has been popped. The frame for the main() method is now, once again, the current frame. You can see that the age primitive is unchanged, that is, it is still 20. The reference is also the same. However, the change() method was able to change the instance variable that john was looking at. Line 30, System.out.println(john.getName() + " " + age);, proves what has occurred by outputting Michael 20.

Now that we understand Java’s call-by-value mechanism, we will now discuss escaping references with the aid of an example.

The problem

The principle of encapsulation in OOP is that a class’s data is private and accessible to external classes via its public API. However, in certain situations, this is not enough to protect your private data due to escaping references. Figure 2.10 is an example of a class that suffers from escaping references:

   Figure 2.10 – Code with escaping references

Figure 2.10 – Code with escaping references

The preceding figure contains a Person class with one private instance variable, a StringBuilder called name. The Person constructor initializes the instance variable based on the argument passed in. The class also provides a public getName() accessor method to enable external classes to retrieve the private instance variable.

The driver class here is EscapingReferences. In main(), on line 16, a local StringBuilder object is created, containing the String Dan and sb is the name of the local reference. This reference is passed into the Person constructor in order to initialize the name instance variable in the Person object. Figure 2.11 shows the stack and heap at this point, that is, just after line 17 has finished executing. The String Pool is omitted, in the interests of clarity.

Figure 2.11 – Escaping references on the way in

Figure 2.11 – Escaping references on the way in

At this point, the issue of escaping references is emerging. Upon executing the Person constructor, a copy of the sb reference is passed in, where it is stored in the name instance variable. Now, as Figure 2.11 shows, both the name instance variable and the local main() variable, sb, refer to the same StringBuilder object!

Now, when line 18 executes in main(), that is, sb.append("Dan");, the object is changed to DanDan for both the local sb reference and the name instance variable. When we output the instance variable on line 19, it outputs DanDan, reflecting the change.

So, that is one issue on the way in: initializing our instance variables to the (copies of) the references passed in. We will address how to fix that shortly. On the way out, however, we also have an issue. Figure 2.12 demonstrates this issue:

Figure 2.12 – Escaping references on the way out

Figure 2.12 – Escaping references on the way out

Figure 2.12 shows the stack and heap after line 21, StringBuilder sb2 = p.getName();, executes. Again, we have a local reference, this time called sb2, which refers to the same object that the name instance variable in the Person object on the heap is referring to. Thus, when we use the sb2 reference to append Dan to the StringBuilder object and then output the instance variable, we get DanDanDan.

At this point, it is clear that just having your data private is not enough. The problem arises because StringBuilder is a mutable type, which means, at any time, you can change the (original) object. Contrast this with String objects, which are immutable (as are the wrapper types, for example: Double, Integer, Float, and Character).

Immutability

Java protects String objects because any change to a String object results in the creation of a completely new object (with the changes reflected). Thus, the code requesting a change will see the requested change (it’s just that it is a completely new object). The original String object that others may have been looking at is still untouched.

Now that we have discussed the issues with escaping references, let us examine how to solve them.

Finding a solution

Essentially, the solution revolves around a practice known as defensive copying. In this scenario, we do not want to store a copy of the reference for any mutable object. The same holds for returning references to our private mutable data in our accessor methods – we do not want to return a copy of the reference to the calling code.

Therefore, we need to be careful both on the way in and on the way out. The solution is to copy the object contents completely in both scenarios. This is known as a deep copy (whereas copying the references only is known as a shallow copy). Thus, on the way in, we copy the contents of the object into a new object and store the reference to the new object. On the way out, we copy the contents again and return the reference to the new object. We have protected our code in both scenarios. Figure 2.13 shows the solution to the previous code from Figure 2.10:

Figure 2.13 – Escaping references code fixed

Figure 2.13 – Escaping references code fixed

Line 7 shows the creation of the copy object on the way in (the constructor). Line 10 shows the creation of the copy object on the way out (the accessor method). Both lines 19 and 23 output Dan, as they should. Figure 2.14 represents the stack and heap as the program is about to exit:

Figure 2.14 – The stack and heap for escaping references code fix

Figure 2.14 – The stack and heap for escaping references code fix

For clarity, we omit the String Pool. We have numbered the StringBuilder objects 1 to 5. We can match the objects to the code as follows:

  • Line 16 creates object 1.
  • Line 17, which calls line 7, creates object 2. The Person instance variable name refers to this object.
  • Line 18 modifies object 1, changing it to DanDan (note, however, that the object referred to by the name instance variable, that is, object 2, is untouched).
  • Line 19 creates object 3. The reference is passed back to main() but never stored. As Dan is output, this proves that the defensive copying on the way in is working.
  • Line 21 creates object 4. The local main() reference, sb2, refers to it.
  • Line 22 amends object 4 to DanDan (leaving the object that the instance variable is referring to untouched).
  • Line 23 creates object 5. As Dan is output, this proves that the defensive copying on the way out is working.

Figure 2.14 shows that the StringBuilder object referred to by the name instance variable never changes from Dan. This is exactly what we wanted.

That wraps up this chapter. We have covered a lot, so let us recap the major points.

 

Summary

In this chapter, we started by examining how primitives are stored in memory. Primitives are predefined types that come with the language and can be stored on both the stack (local variables) and on the heap (instance variables). It is easy to identify primitives as they have all lowercase letters.

In contrast, objects are only stored on the heap. In discussing objects, it was necessary to distinguish between references and the objects themselves. We discovered that while references can be of any type (interface, abstract class, and class), objects themselves can only be of proper, concrete classes, meaning the class must not be abstract.

Manage object references with care. If not managed properly, you could end up with escaping references. Java uses call-by-value, which means a copy is made of the argument passed or returned. Depending on whether the argument is a primitive or reference, it can have major implications. If it’s a copy of a reference to a mutable type, then the calling code can change your supposedly private data. This is not proper encapsulation.

We examined code with this issue and associated diagrams of the stack and heap. The solution is to use defensive copying, that is, copying the object contents both on the way in and on the way out. Thus, the references and the objects they refer to remain private. Lastly, we detailed the code solution and associated diagrams of the stack and heap.

In the next chapter, we are going to take a closer look at the heap, the area of memory where objects live.

About the Authors
  • Maaike van Putten

    Maaike is a software consultant and trainer with a passion for sharing her expertise to empower others in their careers. Her love for software development shows in the numerous software development projects she participated in and the many certifications she obtained. She has designed and delivered a broad spectrum of training courses catering to beginners and seasoned developers in Java, Python, C# and many other languages and frameworks. Next to that, she has authored multiple books and online courses through multiple platforms reaching over 500,000 learners across the globe.

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  • Dr. Seán Kennedy

    Seán Kennedy is a university lecturer with over 20 years of experience in teaching. He has a PhD in IT and is Oracle-certified in Java at the Professional level (OCP). In his daily work, he teaches Java on a bespoke master's program for a highly regarded software company. He has a YouTube channel called Let's Get Certified that teaches Java at all levels and prepares candidates for Java certification. He also has similar courses on Udemy. Outside of work, he enjoys tennis, walking, nature, reading, and TV.

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