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Java Tuning Made Easier

  • Posted by: Demian Katz
  • Posted Date: March 31, 2011
  • Filed Under: VuFind

If you run a constantly-growing Solr index (as many VuFind users do), chances are that sooner or later, you will need to do some Java tuning in order to solve performance problems. There are some good resources already on the web about this topic (for example, Sun’s Java Tuning White Paper), but they tend to be somewhat dense and technical. This article is intended to give a shorter introduction to the problem and the most basic strategies for solving it. If you need more details, by all means refer to more technical sources; I just wanted to offer an easier starting point.

Why Java Needs Tuning

The main reason Java needs tuning has to do with how it handles memory management. I was studying computer science when my university switched its curriculum from C++ to Java, so I’m very familiar with Java’s distinctive approach to this subject. In C++, the programmer is responsible for all the fine details of memory management — you have to request all of the memory that you plan to use, then return it to the operating system when you are done with it. Failing to do this properly leads to the dreaded “memory leak.” Java relieves this burden by taking an entirely different approach: the programmer uses memory without worrying about where it came from, and Java uses something called a “garbage collector” to figure out which pieces of memory are no longer needed and free them up for others to use. The C++ to Java transition caused many lessons to abruptly change from “memory management is of vital importance to all of your work” to “don’t worry about memory management; the magic box will do it for you.”

Usually, sparing the programmer from worrying about memory is a great improvement — it removes a lot of tedium from the work of writing code, and most of the time, the garbage collector just does its job, and nobody has to think about it. The problem is that for complex, memory-hungry applications like Solr, the garbage collector sometimes can’t keep up. The longer the program runs, the more time Java spends on garbage collection and the less time it spends on actually running the program. In extreme situations, a Java program can become completely unresponsive, devoting all of its effort to cleaning up after itself. If you run into problems with VuFind searches becoming extremely slow and find that the problem goes away after you restart VuFind, the cause is almost certainly the garbage collector. A restart frees up all memory and gives Java a clean start, so it’s usually an easy fix to performance problems… but it’s only a matter of time before garbage once again accumulates to a critical level and the problem returns!

Possible Solutions

There are basically three answers to the Java garbage collection problem, and you don’t have to pick just one. Using multiple strategies at the same time often makes sense.

• Regularly restart your Java application — call it cheating or postponing the inevitable if you like, but it’s a very simple approach: if it takes several days for your application to start performing poorly, just schedule it to automatically restart in the middle of the night every night to get a clean slate and consistent stability.

• Give Java more memory — intense garbage collection is triggered by high memory use, so the more memory you have available, the longer it will take for a program to fill it all. Adding memory reduces (or at least postpones) the need for garbage collection, and it’s as simple as changing a couple of parameters (see details in the VuFind wiki). Generally, more memory is always better… but there is one important caveat: don’t give Java all of your system’s available memory, since that can crowd out your operating system and cause other performance problems — always leave a bit of a buffer.

• Change garbage collector behavior — Java has several different garbage collection strategies available, and some of them have additional tuneable parameters. This is where things start to get complicated, but Lucid Imagination’s Java Garbage Collection Boot Camp offers a good run-down of the available choices (not to mention providing some more detailed technical background). Even if you don’t understand all the gory details, knowing the available options means you can do some trial and error.

Testing Your Strategy

Trial and error is an inevitable part of solving Java tuning problems. The biggest shortcoming I found in other articles on the subject is that they don’t offer a simple strategy for doing this. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to test your progress using some simple tools.

Java is capable of recording a log of all of its garbage collection behavior, telling you how often it performs garbage collection and how long each collection takes to complete. While the exact parameter for generating a log may vary depending on the Java Virtual Machine that you are using, for VuFind’s preferred OpenJDK version, you can add something like this to your Java options:

-Xloggc:/tmp/garbage.log

As you can probably guess, this outputs the garbage collection data to a log file called /tmp/garbage.log. If you want something fancier, you could do this instead:

-Xloggc:$VUFIND_HOME/solr/jetty/logs/gc-`/bin/date +%F-%H-%M`.log

Through the magic of the Unix shell, this version stores logs inside VuFind’s solr/jetty/logs folder, naming each log file with the date and time that VuFind started up so that you can track behavior across multiple restarts.

So far, so good… except that these log files are really hard to read. Fortunately, an excellent tool exists to help visualize the data: gcviewer. With gcviewer, you can see a graph of your memory usage and the time spent on garbage collection, plus there are a number of handy statistics available (average collection time, total collection time, longest collection time, etc.). If gcviewer doesn’t meet your needs, there is also an IBM tool called PMAT which is slightly less convenient to download but which supports a broader range of log formats.

By logging data for several days between each tweak to your Java settings and using gcviewer or PMAT to analyze your logs, you can usually get a pretty good sense of whether you’ve made things better or worse… and how long it takes for your application to fall into the pit of inefficient garbage collection.

Conclusion

Java tuning is never going to be an easy subject to understand deeply, but that doesn’t mean you need to be afraid of it. There are several simple strategies available to help solve your problems even if you don’t know all the details of what is going on under the hood, and there are readily available tools to help you support your inevitable trial and error with empirical data. In fact, even if you are experiencing perfect performance today, it might not be a bad idea to examine garbage collection logs occasionally to see if you can prevent future problems before they become noticeable! Magic problem-solving boxes are great most of the time, but a bit of knowledge is always helpful for those times when they let you down.

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Last Modified: March 31, 2011