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


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?

Best Solution

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.