JEP 318: Epsilon: An Arbitrarily Low-Overhead Garbage Collector

OwnerAleksey Shipilev
Created2017/02/14 08:23
Updated2017/12/14 00:25
StatusProposed to Target
Componenthotspot / gc
Discussionhotspot dash gc dash dev at openjdk dot java dot net
Reviewed byAndrew Haley, Roman Kennke
Relates toJEP 304: Garbage Collector Interface


Develop a GC that handles memory allocation but does not implement any actual memory reclamation mechanism. Once the available Java heap is exhausted, the JVM will shut down.


Provide a completely passive GC implementation with a bounded allocation limit and the lowest latency overhead possible, at the expense of memory footprint and memory throughput. A successful implementation is an isolated code change, does not touch other GCs, and makes minimal changes in the rest of JVM.


It is not a goal to introduce manual memory management features to Java language and/or JVM. It is not a goal to introduce new APIs to manage Java heap. It is not a goal to change or cleanup internal JVM interfaces to fit this GC.


Java implementations are well known for a broad choice of highly configurable GC implementations. There are four use cases where a trivial no-op GC proves useful.


Epsilon GC looks and feels like any other JDK GC, enabled with -XX:+UseEpsilonGC.

Epsilon GC works by implementing linear allocation in a single contiguous chunk of allocated memory. This allows for trivial lock-free TLAB (thread-local allocation buffer) issuance code in the GC, which can then reuse the lock-free within-TLAB allocation handled by existing VM code. Issuing TLABs also helps to keep the resident memory taken by a process bounded by what had been actually allocated. Humongous/out-of-TLAB allocations are handled by the same code, because there is little difference between allocating a TLAB and allocating large objects in this scheme.

The barrier set used by Epsilon is completely empty/no-op, because the GC does not do any GC cycles, and therefore does not care about the object graph, object marking, object copying, etc. Introducing a new barrier-set implementation is likely to be the most disruptive JVM change in this implementation.

Since the only important part of the runtime interface for Epsilon is that for issuing TLABs, its latency largely depends on the TLAB sizes issued. With arbitrarily large TLABs and arbitrarily large heap, the latency overhead can be described by an arbitrarily low positive value, hence the name.

Once the Java heap is exhausted, no allocation is possible, no memory reclamation is possible, and therefore we have to fail. There are several options at that point; most are in line with what existing GCs do:

The prototype runs prove the concept by surviving small workloads and failing predictably on larger ones. The prototype implementation and some tests can be found in the sandbox repository:

$ hg clone sandbox 
$ hg up -r epsilon-gc-branch
$ sh ./configure 
$ make images

One can see the difference between the baseline and the patched runtime by using:

$ hg diff -r default:epsilon-gc-branch

Automatically generated webrev:

Sample binary builds:

Or in Docker:

$ docker run -it --rm shipilev/openjdk:10-epsilon java -XX:+UnlockExperimentalVMOptions -XX:+UseEpsilonGC -Xlog:gc -version
[0.045s][info][gc] Initialized with 2009M heap, resizeable to up to 30718M heap with 128M steps
[0.046s][info][gc] Using TLAB allocation; min: 2K, max: 4096K
[0.046s][info][gc] Using Epsilon GC
openjdk version "10-internal"
OpenJDK Runtime Environment (build 10-internal+0-adhoc.jenkins.openjdk-epsilon-jdk10-release)
OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM (build 10-internal+0-adhoc.jenkins.openjdk-epsilon-jdk10-release, mixed mode)
[0.137s][info][gc] Total allocated: 898 KB
[0.137s][info][gc] Average allocation rate: 6574 KB/sec


There are no existing alternatives that disable all GC barriers.

If barriers are not the issue, then using the Serial or Parallel(Old) GCs should fit the same latency profile, assuming we can configure their respective heuristics to never do GC cycles before they face complete heap exhaustion (i.e., by pre-sizing the heap, setting a very large young-generation size, disabling adaptive heuristics, etc.). This is hard to reliably guarantee with the multitude of GC options they provide, and this is arguably not the target mode for those GCs anyway.

Further improvements in the Parallel, G1, and Shenandoah GCs may eventually achieve overheads sufficiently low that a no-op GC is no longer needed. If and when that happens, Epsilon would still be useful for functional and performance testing.


Common GC tests would not be suitable for Epsilon GC, because most tests assume they can allocate an arbitrary amount of garbage. New tests would need to be developed to test that the GC indeed works well on low-allocating workloads, and that it fails on heap exhaustion in a predictable manner. New jtreg tests under hotspot/gc/epsilon would be enough to assert correctness.

One-off performance testing during the development would be enough to ensure the desired performance characteristics when running with interpreter, C1, and C2 compilers. On-going performance testing is not required since the implementation is intended never to change after the initial implementation, and its performance-sensitive paths are implicitly tested by other GCs.

Risks and Assumptions

Usefulness vs. maintenance costs. It can be argued that such an implementation is useless to have in the product, because no one needs it. Experience, however, tells that many players in the Java ecosystem already did this exercise by expunging GC from their custom-built JVMs. That means, having a standard no-op GC option would help that part of the ecosystem. Coupled with the low maintenance costs if the implementation proves trivial, this risk is minimal. We also think this risk is minimal if the feature remains available in non-product builds only, under a "develop" flag. Users and downstream distributions may change it to "product" or "experimental" to expose Epsilon to their applications.

Public expectations. Providing a garbage collector that does not in fact do garbage collection may be seen as the dangerous practice. Accidentally enabling Epsilon GC in production may lead to surprise JVM failures when the heap is exhausted. We think this risk is minimal if the feature remains unavailable by default in product builds, under either a "develop" or "experimental" option.

Locality considerations. Non-compacting GC implicitly means it maintains the object graph in its allocation order. This has impact on spatial locality, and regular applications may experience the throughput hit if allocations are random or generate lots of sparse garbage. While this may entail some throughput overhead, this is outside of GC control, and would affect most non-moving GCs. Locality-aware application coding would be required to mitigate this drawback, if locality proves to be a problem.

Implementation complexity. It might be the case that the implementation would need more changes in the shared code than anticipated, for example in compilers and platform-specific backends. Our prototype indicates these changes are isolated enough to be benign. If that proves to be a risk, it should be mitigated by JEP 304 ("Garbage Collector Interface").


This work may depend on JEP 304 ("Garbage Collector Interface") to minimize shared code changes. It is might not require that interface, however, if the shared code changes are minimal.