Made of Bugs

Three kinds of memory leaks

So, you’ve got a program that’s using more and more over time as it runs. Probably you can immediately identify this as a likely symptom of a memory leak.

But when we say “memory leak”, what do we actually mean? In my experience, apparent memory leaks divide into three broad categories, each with somewhat different behavior, and requiring distinct tools and approaches to debug. This post aims to describe these classes, and provide tools and techniques for figuring out both which class you’re dealing with, and how to find the leak.

Type (1): Unreachable allocations

This is the classic C/C++ memory leak. Someone allocated memory with new or malloc, and never called free or delete to release the memory after they were done with it.

void leak_memory() {
  char *leaked = malloc(4096);
  /* Whoops, forgot to call free() */

How to tell if you have this category

  • If you’re writing in C or C++, especially C++ without ubiquitous use of smart pointers to manage memory lifetimes, this is your first guess.

  • If you’re in a garbage-collected runtime, it’s possible that a native-code extension has a leak of this type, but you should rule out types (2) and (3) first.

How to find the leak

  • Use ASAN. Use ASAN. Use ASAN.
  • Use another leak detector. I’ve used Valgrind or tcmalloc’s heap tools, and there are other tools in other environments.
  • Some allocators can dump a heap profile containing all un-free’d allocations. If you’re leaking, after enough time, nearly all active allocations will come from the leak, so it should be easy to spot.
  • When all else fails, take a core dump and stare at it really hard. This should never be your first tool.

Type (2): Unexpectedly long-lived allocations

These leaks aren’t “leaks” in the classical sense, because the memory is still referred to from somewhere, and may even eventually be freed (if the program makes it that far without running out of memory).

There are a lot of specific causes in this category. Some common patterns look like:

  • Unintentionally accumulating state onto a global structure; e.g. an HTTP server that pushes every Request object it receives onto a global list.
  • Caches without an appropriate expiry policy. For instance, an ORM cache that caches every object ever loaded, that is active during a migration job that loads every record in a table.
  • Capturing too much state inside a closure. This is particularly common in Javscript, but not unique to that environment.
  • More broadly, inadvertently holding on to every element of an array or stream when you thought you were processing it in an online streaming manner.

How to tell if you have this category

  • If you’re writing in a garbage-collected runtime, this is probably your first guess.
  • Compare the heap size reported by your GC’s statistics to the memory size reported by the operating system. If this is your leak category, the numbers will be comparable, and, in particular, will tend to track each other over time.

How to find the leak

  • Use the heap profiling or dumping tools provided by your environment. I know of guppy in Python or memory_profiler in Ruby, or I’ve just scripted ObjectSpace directly in Ruby.

Type (3): Free but unused or unusable memory

This is the trickiest category to characterize, but it also a very important one to understand and be aware of.

This class arises in the gap between memory that is regarded as “free” by the allocator inside a VM or runtime, and the memory that is regarded as “free” by the operating system. Heap fragmentation is the most common cause, but not the only one; Some allocators will just flat-out never return memory the host operating system once it’s ever been allocated.

We can see a demo of this concept with the following short Python program:

import sys
from guppy import hpy
hp = hpy()

def rss():
    return 4096 * int(open('/proc/self/stat').read().split(' ')[23])

def gcsize():
    return hp.heap().size

rss0, gc0 = (rss(), gcsize())

buf = [bytearray(1024) for i in range(200*1024)]
print("start rss={}   gcsize={}".format(rss()-rss0, gcsize()-gc0))
buf = buf[::2]
print("end   rss={}   gcsize={}".format(rss()-rss0, gcsize()-gc0))

We allocate 200,000 1kb buffers, and then keep every other one. At each point, we print memory usage, as seen by the operating system (“RSS”1), and as seen by Python’s own GC.

On my laptop, output looks something like:

start rss=232222720   gcsize=11667592
end   rss=232222720   gcsize=5769520

We can see that Python has in fact freed half the buffers, as evidenced by gcsize dropping nearly to half its peak, but that it has not managed to return a single byte to the operating system; That remaining memory is available for use by this Python process, but not by any other process on this machine.

Such free-but-unused segments may or may not pose a problem; If a Python program does this, and then goes on to make a bunch more 1kB allocations, the space will get reused, and we’ll be fine.

But if we did this during setup, and made minimal further allocations, or if future allocations were all sized at 1.5kB and couldn’t fit into those 1kB buffers left behind, all that memory may remain unusable forever.

On environment in which this problem class is particularly pronounced is multiprocess server environments for languages like Ruby or Python. Suppose you have a setup where:

  • Each server runs N single-threaded workers to handle requests concurrently. Let’s say N=10 for concreteness.
  • In normal usage, each worker uses a fairly steady amount of memory; Let’s say 500MB for concreteness.
  • At some low rate, requests arrive that need much more memory than the median request. For concreteness, suppose that once a minute, we receive a request that requires an additional 1GB of memory during its execution, which is freed at the end of the request.

Once a minute the “whale” request will arrive, and get assigned to one of the 10 workers, probably at ~random. Ideally, that worker will allocate 1GB of RAM during the request, and then release that memory back to the OS afterwards, so it’s available for future usage. The server as a whole will need 10 * 500MB + 1GB = 6GB of RAM to handle this request pattern indefinitely.

However, let’s imagine that, due to heap fragmentation or otherwise, the VM is unable to ever release memory to the operating system. That is, the memory it needs from the OS is equal the largest amount of memory it has ever needed at a time. Now, once a particular process serves the high-memory request, that process’s memory footprint is bloated by 1GB – forever.

At server launch, you’ll see memory usage of 10 * 500MB = 5GB. As soon as the first large request hits, one worker will bloat by 1GB, and then not drop back down. Overall memory usage will jump to 6GB. As each future request comes in, sometimes it will land on a process that has served a “whale” request before, and memory usage will be unchanged, but sometimes it will also land on a new worker, and total memory usage will grow by another 1GB, until the point where each worker has served that request at least once, and you are using a total of 10 * (500MB + 1GB) = 15GB of RAM, far more than our ideal 6GB! Furthermore, looking at fleet usage over time, you’ll see a slow rise from 5GB to 15GB, which will look very much like a “true” leak.

How to tell if you have this category

  • Compare the heap size reported by your allocator with the RSS1 reported by the operating system. If type (3) is your problem, these numbers will tend to diverge over time.
    • I like to make my app servers report both numbers into my time-series infrastructure periodically, for easy graphing.
    • On Linux, get the OS view using field 24 of /proc/self/stat, and the allocator view from a language/VM-specific API.

How to find the leak

This category, as mentioned, is a bit trickier, since it often results from all components working “as designed”. That said, there are a number of useful tricks for mitigating or reducing the impact of this kind of “virtual leak”:

  • Restart your processes more often. If the problem grows slowly, restarting all your app processes every 15m or once an hour might make it a non-issue. Nearly every large Ruby or Python shop I talk to ends up doing this.
  • Even more aggressively, you can teach workers to self-restart once their memory footprint crosses a threshold, or a certain amount of growth. Be sure to put some thought into ensuring your entire fleet can’t start spontaneously restarting in sync.
  • Use a different allocator. Both tcmalloc and jemalloc tend to have much better fragmentation properties over time than the default allocator, and are very easy to experiment with using an LD_PRELOAD drop-in.
  • Identify if you have single requests that take far more memory than others. At Stripe, our API servers measure RSS1 before and after servicing every API request, and log the delta. It’s then an easy query in our log aggregation systems to identify if specific endpoints, users, or other patterns are responsible for spiking memory.
  • Tune your GC/allocator. Many GCs or allocators contain tunables that can control how aggressively it tries to return memory to the OS, how much it optimizes for avoiding fragmentation, or other useful parameters. This is a tricky area; Make sure you know what you’re measuring and optimizing before before you start, and find+consult with an expert in your particular VM, if possible.

  1. “Resident set size”, the amount of RAM actually being consumed by a program, as distinct from virtual memory size or other statistics the OS might care about. [return]