What is causing it?

The java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: GC overhead limit exceeded error is the JVM’s way of signalling that your application spends too much time doing garbage collection with too little result. By default the JVM is configured to throw this error if it spends more than 98% of the total time doing GC and when after the GC only less than 2% of the heap is recovered.

java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: GC overhead limit exceeded

What would happen if this GC overhead limit would not exist? Note that the java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: GC overhead limit exceeded error is only thrown when 2% of the memory is freed after several GC cycles. This means that the small amount of heap the GC is able to clean will likely be quickly filled again, forcing the GC to restart the cleaning process again. This forms a vicious cycle where the CPU is 100% busy with GC and no actual work can be done. End users of the application face extreme slowdowns – operations which normally complete in milliseconds take minutes to finish.

So the “java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: GC overhead limit exceeded” message is a pretty nice example of a fail fast principle in action.