Major GC vs Full GC

It should be noted that there are no formal definitions for those terms – neither in the JVM specification nor in the Garbage Collection research papers. But on the first glance, building these definitions on top of what we know to be true about Minor GC cleaning Young space should be simple:

  • Major GC is cleaning the Old space.
  • Full GC is cleaning the entire Heap – both Young and Old spaces.

Unfortunately it is a bit more complex and confusing. To start with – many Major GCs are triggered by Minor GCs, so separating the two is impossible in many cases. On the other hand – modern garbage collection algorithms like G1 perform partial garbage cleaning so, again, using the term ‘cleaning’ is only partially correct.

This leads us to the point where instead of worrying about whether the GC is called Major or Full GC, you should focus on finding out whether the GC at hand stopped all the application threads or was able to progress concurrently with the application threads.

This confusion is even built right into the JVM standard tools. What I mean by that is best explained via an example. Let us compare the output of two different tools tracing the GC on a JVM running with Concurrent Mark and Sweep collector (-XX:+UseConcMarkSweepGC)

First attempt is to get the insight via the jstat output:

my-precious: me$ jstat -gc -t 4235 1s
Time S0C    S1C    S0U    S1U      EC       EU        OC         OU       MC     MU    CCSC   CCSU   YGC     YGCT    FGC    FGCT     GCT   
 5.7 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   34048.0 272640.0 194699.7 1756416.0   181419.9  18304.0 17865.1 2688.0 2497.6      3    0.275   0      0.000    0.275
 6.7 34048.0 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   272640.0 247555.4 1756416.0   263447.9  18816.0 18123.3 2688.0 2523.1      4    0.359   0      0.000    0.359
 7.7 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   34048.0 272640.0 257729.3 1756416.0   345109.8  19072.0 18396.6 2688.0 2550.3      5    0.451   0      0.000    0.451
 8.7 34048.0 34048.0 34048.0 34048.0 272640.0 272640.0 1756416.0  444982.5  19456.0 18681.3 2816.0 2575.8      7    0.550   0      0.000    0.550
 9.7 34048.0 34048.0 34046.7  0.0   272640.0 16777.0  1756416.0   587906.3  20096.0 19235.1 2944.0 2631.8      8    0.720   0      0.000    0.720
10.7 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   34046.2 272640.0 80171.6  1756416.0   664913.4  20352.0 19495.9 2944.0 2657.4      9    0.810   0      0.000    0.810
11.7 34048.0 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   272640.0 129480.8 1756416.0   745100.2  20608.0 19704.5 2944.0 2678.4     10    0.896   0      0.000    0.896
12.7 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   34046.6 272640.0 164070.7 1756416.0   822073.7  20992.0 19937.1 3072.0 2702.8     11    0.978   0      0.000    0.978
13.7 34048.0 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   272640.0 211949.9 1756416.0   897364.4  21248.0 20179.6 3072.0 2728.1     12    1.087   1      0.004    1.091
14.7 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   34047.1 272640.0 245801.5 1756416.0   597362.6  21504.0 20390.6 3072.0 2750.3     13    1.183   2      0.050    1.233
15.7 34048.0 34048.0  0.0   34048.0 272640.0 21474.1  1756416.0   757347.0  22012.0 20792.0 3200.0 2791.0     15    1.336   2      0.050    1.386
16.7 34048.0 34048.0 34047.0  0.0   272640.0 48378.0  1756416.0   838594.4  22268.0 21003.5 3200.0 2813.2     16    1.433   2      0.050    1.484

This snippet is extracted from the first 17 seconds after the JVM was launched. Based on this information we could conclude that after 12 Minor GC runs two Full GC runs were performed, spanning 50ms in total. You would get the same confirmation via GUI-based tools, such as the jconsole or jvisualvm.

Before nodding at this conclusion, let’s look at the output of the garbage collection logs gathered from the same JVM launch. Apparently -XX:+PrintGCDetails tells us a different and a more detailed story:

java -XX:+PrintGCDetails -XX:+UseConcMarkSweepGC eu.plumbr.demo.GarbageProducer
3.157: [GC (Allocation Failure) 3.157: [ParNew: 272640K->34048K(306688K), 0.0844702 secs] 272640K->69574K(2063104K), 0.0845560 secs] [Times: user=0.23 sys=0.03, real=0.09 secs] 
4.092: [GC (Allocation Failure) 4.092: [ParNew: 306688K->34048K(306688K), 0.1013723 secs] 342214K->136584K(2063104K), 0.1014307 secs] [Times: user=0.25 sys=0.05, real=0.10 secs] 
... cut for brevity ...
11.292: [GC (Allocation Failure) 11.292: [ParNew: 306686K->34048K(306688K), 0.0857219 secs] 971599K->779148K(2063104K), 0.0857875 secs] [Times: user=0.26 sys=0.04, real=0.09 secs] 
12.140: [GC (Allocation Failure) 12.140: [ParNew: 306688K->34046K(306688K), 0.0821774 secs] 1051788K->856120K(2063104K), 0.0822400 secs] [Times: user=0.25 sys=0.03, real=0.08 secs] 
12.989: [GC (Allocation Failure) 12.989: [ParNew: 306686K->34048K(306688K), 0.1086667 secs] 1128760K->931412K(2063104K), 0.1087416 secs] [Times: user=0.24 sys=0.04, real=0.11 secs] 
13.098: [GC (CMS Initial Mark) [1 CMS-initial-mark: 897364K(1756416K)] 936667K(2063104K), 0.0041705 secs] [Times: user=0.02 sys=0.00, real=0.00 secs] 
13.102: [CMS-concurrent-mark-start]
13.341: [CMS-concurrent-mark: 0.238/0.238 secs] [Times: user=0.36 sys=0.01, real=0.24 secs] 
13.341: [CMS-concurrent-preclean-start]
13.350: [CMS-concurrent-preclean: 0.009/0.009 secs] [Times: user=0.03 sys=0.00, real=0.01 secs] 
13.350: [CMS-concurrent-abortable-preclean-start]
13.878: [GC (Allocation Failure) 13.878: [ParNew: 306688K->34047K(306688K), 0.0960456 secs] 1204052K->1010638K(2063104K), 0.0961542 secs] [Times: user=0.29 sys=0.04, real=0.09 secs] 
14.366: [CMS-concurrent-abortable-preclean: 0.917/1.016 secs] [Times: user=2.22 sys=0.07, real=1.01 secs] 
14.366: [GC (CMS Final Remark) [YG occupancy: 182593 K (306688 K)]14.366: [Rescan (parallel) , 0.0291598 secs]14.395: [weak refs processing, 0.0000232 secs]14.395: [class unloading, 0.0117661 secs]14.407: [scrub symbol table, 0.0015323 secs]14.409: [scrub string table, 0.0003221 secs][1 CMS-remark: 976591K(1756416K)] 1159184K(2063104K), 0.0462010 secs] [Times: user=0.14 sys=0.00, real=0.05 secs] 
14.412: [CMS-concurrent-sweep-start]
14.633: [CMS-concurrent-sweep: 0.221/0.221 secs] [Times: user=0.37 sys=0.00, real=0.22 secs] 
14.633: [CMS-concurrent-reset-start]
14.636: [CMS-concurrent-reset: 0.002/0.002 secs] [Times: user=0.00 sys=0.00, real=0.00 secs]

Based on this information we can see that after 12 Minor GC runs ‘something different’ indeed started happening. But instead of two Full GC runs, this ‘different thing’ was in reality just a single GC running in Old generation and consisting of different phases:

  • Initial Mark phase, spanning for 0.0041705 seconds or approximately 4ms. This phase is a stop-the-world event stopping all application threads for initial marking.
  • Markup and Preclean phases. were executed concurrently with the application threads.
  • Final Remark phase, spanning for 0.0462010 seconds or approximately 46ms. This phase is again stop-the-world event.
  • Sweep operation was executed concurrently, without stopping the application threads.

So what we see from the actual garbage collection logs is that, instead of two Full GC operations, just one Major GC cleaning Old space was actually executed.

If you were after latency then the data revealed by jstat would have led you towards correct decisions. It correctly listed the two stop-the-world events totaling 50ms affecting the latency for all the active threads at that very moment. But if you were trying to optimize for throughput, you would have been misguided – listing just the stop-the-world initial mark and final remark phases, the jstat output completely hides the concurrent work being done.

Plumbr can help you!

Reading the raw text-form GC logs is quite like looking for a needle in a haystack. If a long GC pause happened in your application, but no user was affected by it, is it even worth the effort to fix it? Getting this information from the GC logs is hard and unreliable. Plumbr, however, exposes the impact of the GC pauses, so you only have to worry about them if the user experience is suffering.

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