51. Why does the JVM crash with a core dump or a Dr.Watson error

Any problem in pure Java code throws a Java exception or error. Java exceptions or errors will not cause a core dump (on UNIX systems) or a Dr.Watson error (on WIN32systems). Any serious Java problem will result in an OutOfMemoryError thrown by the JVM with the stack trace and consequently JVM will exit. These Java stack traces are very useful for identifying the cause for an abnormal exit of the JVM. So is there a way to know that OutOfMemoryError is about to occur?

The Java JDK 1.5 has a package called java.lang.management which has useful JMX beans that we can use to manage the JVM. One of these beans is the MemoryMXBean.

An OutOfMemoryError can be thrown due to one of the following 4 reasons:

  • JVM may have a memory leak due to a bug in its internal heap management implementation. But this is highly unlikely because JVMs are well tested for this.

  • The application may not have enough heap memory allocated for its running. You can allocate more JVM heap size (with –Xmx parameter to the JVM) or decrease the amount of memory your application takes to overcome this. To increase the heap space:

    Java -Xms1024M -Xmx1024M

    Care should be taken not to make the –Xmx value too large because it can slow down your application. The secret is to make the maximum heap size value the right size.

  • Another not so prevalent cause is the running out of a memory area called the “perm” which sits next to the heap. All the binary code of currently running classes is archived in the “perm” area. The ‘perm’ area is important if your application or any of the third party jar files you use dynamically generate classes.

    For example: “perm” space is consumed when XSLT templates are dynamically compiled into classes, J2EE application servers, JasperReports, JAXB etc use Java reflection to dynamically generate classes and/or large amount of classes in your application. To increase perm space:

    Java -XX:PermSize=256M -XX:MaxPermSize=256M

  • The fourth and the most common reason is that you may have a memory leak in your application.

[Good read/reference: “Know Your Worst Friend, the Garbage Collector” http://java.syscon.com/read/84695.htm by Romain Guy]

So why does the JVM crash with a core dump or Dr.Watson error?

Both the core dump on UNIX operating system and Dr.Watson error on WIN32 systems mean the same thing. TheJVM is a process like any other and when a process crashes a core dump is created. A core dump is a memory map of a running process. This can happen due to one of the following reasons:

  • Using JNI (Java Native Interface) code, which has a fatal bug in its native code. Example: using Oracle OCI drivers, which are written partially in native code or jdbc-odbc bridge drivers, which are written in non Java code. Using 100% pure Java drivers (communicates directly with the database instead of through client software utilizing the JNI) instead of native drivers can solve this problem. We can use Oracle thin driver, which is a 100% pure Java driver.

  • The operating system on which your JVM is running might require a patch or a service pack.

  • The JVM implementation you are using may have a bug in translating system resources like threads, file handles, sockets etc from the platform neutral Java byte code into platform specific operations. If this JVM’s translated native code performs an illegal operation then the operating system will instantly kill the process and mostly will generate a core dump file, which is a hexadecimal file indicating program’s state in memory at the time of error. The core dump files are generated by the operating system in response to certain signals. Operating system signals are responsible for notifying certain events to its threads and processes. The JVM can also intercept certain signals like SIGQUIT which is kill -3 <> from the operating system and it responds to this signal by printing out a Java stack trace and then continue to run.


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