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Why is it bad practice to call System.gc()?

Posted by: admin November 2, 2017 Leave a comment


After answering a question about how to force-free objects in Java (the guy was clearing a 1.5GB HashMap) with System.gc(), I was told it’s bad practice to call System.gc() manually, but the comments were not entirely convincing. In addition, no one seemed to dare to upvote, nor downvote my answer.

I was told there that it’s bad practice, but then I was also told that garbage collector runs don’t systematically stop the world anymore, and that it could also effectively be used by the JVM only as a hint, so I’m kind of at loss.

I do understand that the JVM usually knows better than you when it needs to reclaim memory. I also understand that worrying about a few kilobytes of data is silly. I also understand that even megabytes of data isn’t what it was a few years back. But still, 1.5 gigabytes? And you know there’s like 1.5 GB of data hanging around in memory; it’s not like it’s a shot in the dark. Is System.gc() systematically bad, or is there some point at which it becomes okay?

So the question is actually double:

  • Why is or isn’t it bad practice to call System.gc()? Is it really merely a hint to the JVM under certain implementations, or is it always a full collection cycle? Are there really garbage collector implementations that can do their work without stopping the world? Please shed some light over the various assertions people have made in the comments to my answer.
  • Where’s the threshold? Is it never a good idea to call System.gc(), or are there times when it’s acceptable? If so, what are those times?

The reason everyone always says to avoid System.gc() is that it is a pretty good indicator of fundamentally broken code. Any code that depends on it for correctness is certainly broken; any that rely on it for performance are most likely broken.

You don’t know what sort of garbage collector you are running under. There are certainly some that do not “stop the world” as you assert, but some JVMs aren’t that smart or for various reasons (perhaps they are on a phone?) don’t do it. You don’t know what it’s going to do.

Also, it’s not guaranteed to do anything. The JVM may just entirely ignore your request.

The combination of “you don’t know what it will do,” “you don’t know if it will even help,” and “you shouldn’t need to call it anyway” are why people are so forceful in saying that generally you shouldn’t call it. I think it’s a case of “if you need to ask whether you should be using this, you shouldn’t”

EDIT to address a few concerns from the other thread:

After reading the thread you linked, there’s a few more things I’d like to point out.
First, someone suggested that calling gc() may return memory to the system. That’s certainly not necessarily true – the Java heap itself grows independently of Java allocations.

As in, the JVM will hold memory (many tens of megabytes) and grow the heap as necessary. It doesn’t necessarily return that memory to the system even when you free Java objects; it is perfectly free to hold on to the allocated memory to use for future Java allocations.

To show that it’s possible that System.gc() does nothing, view:


and in particular that there’s a -XX:DisableExplicitGC VM option.


It has already been explained that calling system.gc() may do nothing, and that any code that “needs” the garbage collector to run is broken.

However, the pragmatic reason that it is bad practice to call System.gc() is that it is inefficient. And in the worst case, it is horribly inefficient! Let me explain.

A typical GC algorithm identifies garbage by traversing all non-garbage objects in the heap, and inferring that any object not visited must be garbage. From this, we can model the total work of of a garbage collection consists of one part that is proportional to the amount of live data, and another part that is proportional to the amount of garbage; i.e. work = (live * W1 + garbage * W2).

Now suppose that you do the following in a single-threaded application.

System.gc(); System.gc();

The first call will (we predict) do (live * W1 + garbage * W2) work, and get rid of the outstanding garbage.

The second call will do (live* W1 + 0 * W2) work and reclaim nothing. In other words we have done (live * W1) work and achieved absolutely nothing.

We can model the efficiency of the collector as the amount of work needed to collect a unit of garbage; i.e. efficiency = (live * W1 + garbage * W2) / garbage. So to make the GC as efficient as possible, we need to maximize the value of garbage when we run the GC; i.e. wait until the heap is full. (And also, make the heap as big as possible. But that is a separate topic.)

If the application does not interfere (by calling System.gc()), the GC will wait until the heap is full before running, resulting in efficient collection of garbage1. But if the application forces the GC to run, the chances are that the heap won’t be full, and the result will be that garbage is collected inefficiently. And the more often the application forces GC, the more inefficient the GC becomes.

Note: the above explanation glosses over the fact that a typical modern GC partitions the heap into “spaces”, the GC may dynamically expand the heap, the application’s working set of non-garbage objects may vary and so on. Even so, the same basic principal applies across the board to all true garbage collectors2. It is inefficient to force the GC to run.

1 – This is how the “throughput” collector works. Concurrent collectors such as CMS and G1 use different criteria to decide when to start the garbage collector.

2 – I’m also excluding memory managers that use reference counting exclusively, but no current Java implementation uses that approach … for good reason.


Lots of people seem to be telling you not to do this. I disagree. If, after a large loading process like loading a level, you believe that:

  1. You have a lot of objects that are unreachable and may not have been gc’ed. and
  2. You think the user could put up with a small slowdown at this point

there is no harm in calling System.gc(). I look at it like the c/c++ inline keyword. It’s just a hint to the gc that you, the developer, have decided that time/performance is not as important as it usually is and that some of it could be used reclaiming memory.

Advice to not rely on it doing anything is correct. Don’t rely on it working, but giving the hint that now is an acceptable time to collect is perfectly fine. I’d rather waste time at a point in the code where it doesn’t matter (loading screen) than when the user is actively interacting with the program (like during a level of a game.)

There is one time when i will force collection: when attempting to find out is a particular object leaks (either native code or large, complex callback interaction. Oh and any UI component that so much as glances at Matlab.) This should never be used in production code.


People have been doing a good job explaining why NOT to use, so I will tell you a couple situations where you should use it:

(The following comments apply to Hotspot running on Linux with the CMS collector, where I feel confident saying that System.gc() does in fact always invoke a full garbage collection).

  1. After the initial work of starting up your application, you may be a terrible state of memory usage. Half your tenured generation could be full of garbage, meaning that you are that much closer to your first CMS. In applications where that matters, it is not a bad idea to call System.gc() to “reset” your heap to the starting state of live data.

  2. Along the same lines as #1, if you monitor your heap usage closely, you want to have an accurate reading of what your baseline memory usage is. If the first 2 minutes of your application’s uptime is all initialization, your data is going to be messed up unless you force (ahem… “suggest”) the full gc up front.

  3. You may have an application that is designed to never promote anything to the tenured generation while it is running. But maybe you need to initialize some data up-front that is not-so-huge as to automatically get moved to the tenured generation. Unless you call System.gc() after everything is set up, your data could sit in the new generation until the time comes for it to get promoted. All of a sudden your super-duper low-latency, low-GC application gets hit with a HUGE (relatively speaking, of course) latency penalty for promoting those objects during normal operations.

  4. It is sometimes useful to have a System.gc call available in a production application for verifying the existence of a memory leak. If you know that the set of live data at time X should exist in a certain ratio to the set of live data at time Y, then it could be useful to call System.gc() a time X and time Y and compare memory usage.


GC efficiency relies on a number of heuristics. For instance, a common heuristic is that write accesses to objects usually occur on objects which were created not long ago. Another is that many objects are very short-lived (some objects will be used for a long time, but many will be discarded a few microseconds after their creation).

Calling System.gc() is like kicking the GC. It means: “all those carefully tuned parameters, those smart organizations, all the effort you just put into allocating and managing the objects such that things go smoothly, well, just drop the whole lot, and start from scratch”. It may improve performance, but most of the time it just degrades performance.

To use System.gc() reliably(*) you need to know how the GC operates in all its fine details. Such details tend to change quite a bit if you use a JVM from another vendor, or the next version from the same vendor, or the same JVM but with slightly different command-line options. So it is rarely a good idea, unless you want to address a specific issue in which you control all those parameters. Hence the notion of “bad practice”: that’s not forbidden, the method exists, but it rarely pays off.

(*) I am talking about efficiency here. System.gc() will never break a correct Java program. It will neither conjure extra memory that the JVM could not have obtained otherwise: before throwing an OutOfMemoryError, the JVM does the job of System.gc(), even if as a last resort.


This is a very bothersome question, and I feel contributes to many being opposed to Java despite how useful of a language it is.

The fact that you can’t trust “System.gc” to do anything is incredibly daunting and can easily invoke “Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt” feel to the language.

In many cases, it is nice to deal with memory spikes that you cause on purpose before an important event occurs, which would cause users to think your program is badly designed/unresponsive.

Having ability to control the garbage collection would be very a great education tool, in turn improving people’s understanding how the garbage collection works and how to make programs exploit it’s default behavior as well as controlled behavior.

Let me review the arguments of this thread.

  1. It is inefficient:

Often, the program may not be doing anything and you know it’s not doing anything because of the way it was designed. For instance, it might be doing some kind of long wait with a large wait message box, and at the end it may as well add a call to collect garbage because the time to run it will take a really small fraction of the time of the long wait but will avoid gc from acting up in the middle of a more important operation.

  1. It is always a bad practice and indicates broken code.

I disagree, it doesn’t matter what garbage collector you have. Its’ job is to track garbage and clean it.

By calling the gc during times where usage is less critical, you reduce odds of it running when your life relies on the specific code being run but instead it decides to collect garbage.

Sure, it might not behave the way you want or expect, but when you do want to call it, you know nothing is happening, and user is willing to tolerate slowness/downtime. If the System.gc works, great! If it doesn’t, at least you tried. There’s simply no down side unless the garbage collector has inherent side effects that do something horribly unexpected to how a garbage collector is suppose to behave if invoked manually, and this by itself causes distrust.

  1. It is not a common use case:

It is a use case that cannot be achieved reliably, but could be if the system was designed that way. It’s like making a traffic light and making it so that some/all of the traffic lights’ buttons don’t do anything, it makes you question why the button is there to begin with, javascript doesn’t have garbage collection function so we don’t scrutinize it as much for it.

  1. The spec says that System.gc() is a hint that GC should run and the VM is free to ignore it.

what is a “hint”? what is “ignore”? a computer cannot simply take hints or ignore something, there are strict behavior paths it takes that may be dynamic that are guided by the intent of the system. A proper answer would include what the garbage collector is actually doing, at implementation level, that causes it to not perform collection when you request it. Is the feature simply a nop? Is there some kind of conditions that must me met? What are these conditions?

As it stands, Java’s GC often seems like a monster that you just don’t trust. You don’t know when it’s going to come or go, you don’t know what it’s going to do, how it’s going to do it. I can imagine some experts having better idea of how their Garbage Collection works on per-instruction basis, but vast majority simply hopes it “just works”, and having to trust an opaque-seeming algorithm to do work for you is frustrating.

There is a big gap between reading about something or being taught something, and actually seeing the implementation of it, the differences across systems, and being able to play with it without having to look at the source code. This creates confidence and feeling of mastery/understanding/control.

To summarize, there is an inherent problem with the answers “this feature might not do anything, and I won’t go into details how to tell when it does do something and when it doesn’t and why it won’t or will, often implying that it is simply against the philosophy to try to do it, even if the intent behind it is reasonable”.

It might be okay for Java GC to behave the way it does, or it might not, but to understand it, it is difficult to truly follow in which direction to go to get a comprehensive overview of what you can trust the GC to do and not to do, so it’s too easy simply distrust the language, because the purpose of a language is to have controlled behavior up to philosophical extent(it’s easy for a programmer, especially novices to fall into existential crisis from certain system/language behaviors) you are capable of tolerating(and if you can’t, you just won’t use the language until you have to), and more things you can’t control for no known reason why you can’t control them is inherently harmful.


First, there is a difference between spec and reality. The spec says that System.gc() is a hint that GC should run and the VM is free to ignore it. The reality is, the VM will never ignore a call to System.gc().

Calling GC comes with a non-trivial overhead to the call and if you do this at some random point in time it’s likely you’ll see no reward for your efforts. On the other hand, a naturally triggered collection is very likely to recoup the costs of the call. If you have information that indicates that a GC should be run than you can make the call to System.gc() and you should see benefits. However, it’s my experience that this happens only in a few edge cases as it’s very unlikely that you’ll have enough information to understand if and when System.gc() should be called.

One example listed here, hitting the garbage can in your IDE. If you’re off to a meeting why not hit it. The overhead isn’t going to affect you and heap might be cleaned up for when you get back. Do this in a production system and frequent calls to collect will bring it to a grinding halt! Even occasional calls such as those made by RMI can be disruptive to performance.


Sometimes (not often!) you do truly know more about past, current and future memory usage then the run time does. This does not happen very often, and I would claim never in a web application while normal pages are being served.

Many year ago I work on a report generator, that

  • Had a single thread
  • Read the “report request” from a queue
  • Loaded the data needed for the report from the database
  • Generated the report and emailed it out.
  • Repeated forever, sleeping when there were no outstanding requests.
  • It did not reuse any data between reports and did not do any cashing.

Firstly as it was not real time and the users expected to wait for a report, a delay while the GC run was not an issue, but we needed to produce reports at a rate that was faster than they were requested.

Looking at the above outline of the process, it is clear that.

  • We know there would be very few live objects just after a report had been emailed out, as the next request had not started being processed yet.
  • It is well known that the cost of running a garbage collection cycle is depending on the number of live objects, the amount of garbage has little effect on the cost of a GC run.
  • That when the queue is empty there is nothing better to do then run the GC.

Therefore clearly it was well worth while doing a GC run whenever the request queue was empty; there was no downside to this.

It may be worth doing a GC run after each report is emailed, as we know this is a good time for a GC run. However if the computer had enough ram, better results would be obtained by delaying the GC run.

This behaviour was configured on a per installation bases, for some customers enabling a forced GC after each report greatly speeded up the protection of reports. (I expect this was due to low memory on their server and it running lots of other processes, so hence a well time forced GC reduced paging.)

We never detected an installation that did not benefit was a forced GC run every time the work queue was empty.

But, let be clear, the above is not a common case.


Yes, calling System.gc() doesn’t guarantee that it will run, it’s a request to the JVM that may be ignored. From the docs:

Calling the gc method suggests that the Java Virtual Machine expend effort toward recycling unused objects

It’s almost always a bad idea to call it because the automatic memory management usually knows better than you when to gc. It will do so when its internal pool of free memory is low, or if the OS requests some memory be handed back.

It might be acceptable to call System.gc() if you know that it helps. By that I mean you’ve thoroughly tested and measured the behaviour of both scenarios on the deployment platform, and you can show it helps. Be aware though that the gc isn’t easily predictable – it may help on one run and hurt on another.


Maybe I write crappy code, but I’ve come to realize that clicking the trash-can icon on eclipse and netbeans IDEs is a ‘good practice’.


In my experience, using System.gc() is effectively a platform-specific form of optimization (where “platform” is the combination of hardware architecture, OS, JVM version and possible more runtime parameters such as RAM available), because its behaviour, while roughly predictable on a specific platform, can (and will) vary considerably between platforms.

Yes, there are situations where System.gc() will improve (perceived) performance. On example is if delays are tolerable in some parts of your app, but not in others (the game example cited above, where you want GC to happen at the start of a level, not during the level).

However, whether it will help or hurt (or do nothing) is highly dependent on the platform (as defined above).

So I think it is valid as a last-resort platform-specific optimization (i.e. if other performance optimizations are not enough). But you should never call it just because you believe it might help(without specific benchmarks), because chances are it will not.

  1. Since objects are dynamically allocated by using the new operator,
    you might be wondering how such objects are destroyed and their
    memory released for later reallocation.

  2. In some languages, such as C++, dynamically allocated objects must
    be manually released by use of a delete operator.

  3. Java takes a different approach; it handles deallocation for you
  4. The technique that accomplishes this is called garbage collection.
    It works like this: when no references to an object exist, that object is assumed to be no longer needed, and the memory occupied by the object can be reclaimed. There is no explicit need to destroy objects as in C++.
  5. Garbage collection only occurs sporadically (if at all) during the
    execution of your program.
  6. It will not occur simply because one or more objects exist that are
    no longer used.
  7. Furthermore, different Java run-time implementations will take
    varying approaches to garbage collection, but for the most part, you
    should not have to think about it while writing your programs.

my 2 cents: I load some AnimationDrawables in an activity and play them. I load, play, then set the imageview background to null, one at the time. If I get out the activity and then come back again quickly, after 3 or 4 times the memory engaged grows too much until I get an out of memory exception.

By calling garbage collector explicitly after setting imageview background to null, I see on Eclipse logcat that memory is kept free enough – and in my case gc is actually run – and I don’t get the app stopped working anymore.

It’s obvious that system may decide to postpone the execution of gc but if you know more or less how a gc works, you can trust in a case like mine it will be called as soon as possible, for the reason system notices memory used growing and app it’s about to ask for more to the system. I think it works like c++ std library containers: you get some starting memory and each time it’s not enough, it doubles.

Saying that if you need to call it it’s due to broken or bad code is an unreasonable dogmatic way of answering to me: expecially if you can program in a language with total manual memory management like C++ and you have to face the limit of resources on mobile device with a language like java instead, with no chance to free memory manually, you quickly can think of many situations in which it’s necessary to call gc explicitly, expecially where you have a tracing gc and not a reference counting one, thou the code is clean and well done.