.net – Anatothe of a “Memory Leak”


In .NET perspective:

  • What is a memory leak?
  • How can you determine whether your application leaks? What are the effects?
  • How can you prevent a memory leak?
  • If your application has memory leak, does it go away when the process exits or is killed? Or do memory leaks in your application affect other processes on the system even after process completion?
  • And what about unmanaged code accessed via COM Interop and/or P/Invoke?

Best Solution

The best explanation I've seen is in Chapter 7 of the free Foundations of Programming e-book.

Basically, in .NET a memory leak occurs when referenced objects are rooted and thus cannot be garbage collected. This occurs accidentally when you hold on to references beyond the intended scope.

You'll know that you have leaks when you start getting OutOfMemoryExceptions or your memory usage goes up beyond what you'd expect (PerfMon has nice memory counters).

Understanding .NET's memory model is your best way of avoiding it. Specifically, understanding how the garbage collector works and how references work — again, I refer you to chapter 7 of the e-book. Also, be mindful of common pitfalls, probably the most common being events. If object A is registered to an event on object B, then object A will stick around until object B disappears because B holds a reference to A. The solution is to unregister your events when you're done.

Of course, a good memory profile will let you see your object graphs and explore the nesting/referencing of your objects to see where references are coming from and what root object is responsible (red-gate ants profile, JetBrains dotMemory, memprofiler are really good choices, or you can use the text-only WinDbg and SOS, but I'd strongly recommend a commercial/visual product unless you're a real guru).

I believe unmanaged code is subject to its typical memory leaks, except that shared references are managed by the garbage collector. I could be wrong about this last point.