Using off-heap memory in Java

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One of the nice things about modern programming languages is Garbage Collection. As a developer you don’t have to worry much about allocating and freeing memory for your objects. With Java you just ‘new’ your class and voila a new instance of the class. And when the instance is no longer referenced, Java will take care of freeing the memory. When you create objects this way, the JVM allocates memory from ‘heap’ memory — memory it manages for you.

So why would you want to do anything else?

In Java, the JVM allocates only so much heap space, when the JVM is launched. How much heap is allocated can be controlled by command line arguments:

-Xms<size>        set initial Java heap size
-Xmx<size> set maximum Java heap size

If you run out of heap, kaboom.

Also, depending on your use case, there could be performance reasons to avoid the heap.

So how do you avoid the heap i.e. use “off-heap” memory? Java has provided the java.nio package for quite a while now, and part of the java.nio package is a Buffer interface and a Channel interface, with various implementations like ByteBuffer and MappedByteBuffer and a FileChannel and SocketChannel. I won’t get into all the various things you can do with the java.nio package here, but rather focus on the use of off-heap memory.

To examine the use of off-heap memory, I will use an example of a “log database”, that is, an append-only immutable file-based “database”. This is how Kafka Topics are implemented, for example. I will use this example to show using one approach to off-heap memory — memory-mapped files. The idea/capability of memory-mapped files has existed in operating systems for a long time … in *nix systems, the mmap system call has existed for decades.

In Java, when you use memory-mapped files, you are directly accessing the OS memory, bypassing the Java heap. This allows you to have possibly very large amounts of memory accessible to you, limited only by the amount of memory available to the OS.

To create a memory-mapped file in Java, you create a FileChannel and invoke the FileChannel.map() method.

To create the channel you call FileChannel.open() as shown, providing the location of the file as a java.nio.file.Path and the options for opening the file as a list of StandardOpenOption enumeration values. Then calling FileChannel.map() where you specify the byte range of the file you want to map into memory. In this case I’m mapping the entire file. The FileChannel is not required after mapping into memory, so I use the try-with-resource pattern to ensure the channel gets closed.

Now you can read and write to this file via the MappedByteBuffer handle. Let’s write a header record to the file.

I have a FileHeader record (been experimenting with the new Java record support) that contains a type and version. I convert this to a byte[] and call the MappedByteBuffer.put() method. This will write the bytes to position 0 in the mapped file, since as we saw in the FileChannel.map() method I specified ‘0’ as the starting position. The MappedByteBuffer keeps track of the last written position, so I can just keep writing to the buffer and the offset is increased. You can manipulate the position e.g. if I wanted to now read back the header I just wrote, I could call MappedByteBuffer.position(0) and then call get().

I hope this has given you a jump start in the use of off-heap memory in Java.

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Ray Suliteanu

Ray Suliteanu

Software geek, avid reader, sometime writer. Currently focusing on data, data strategy, MLOps, data mesh.