May 07, 2019

Shenandoah GC in production: experience report

Update: I've made several edits to the post since Aleksey Shipilëv was kind enough to suggest many corrections and improvements.

If you closely follow JVM development scene, you've probably noticed that the last few years have been a renaissance of Java garbage collectors. From G1 finally becoming a default garbage collector in Java 9 and onward, to Oracle's ZGC which takes inspiration from Azul's C4 pauseless garbage collector, to Shenandoah being developed by Red Hat, it is evident that:

  1. Garbage collection is by no means a solved problem.
  2. People care about garbage collectors becoming faster and handling larger heaps.

In this post, I'd like to describe my experience using Shenandoah GC on a real project at Grammarly that was moderately demanding from a performance perspective. This won't be a mere tribute to this piece of technology or a rose-tinted walk in the park. Rather, I want to give you enough motivation to care which GC you are running in your project, explain in which situations Shenandoah can be superior, and provide enough tips on how to operate it (or any other GC) in a production environment.

If you are ready, hop aboard for a wild GC ride!

What is Shenandoah GC?

Shenandoah GC is a mostly concurrent garbage collector for the JVM platform. It is developed by a team at Red Hat, with the most notable participants being Roman Kennke, Aleksey Shipilëv, and Christine Flood. Being concurrent means that the GC tries to perform most work in parallel with the rest of the application. This achieves Shenandoah's goal of minimizing the pauses that the GC inflicts on the user code. Another Shenandoah's design goal is to work efficiently with both small and large heaps.

It frankly doesn't make much sense to repeat all of the rich information available on Shenandoah GC. If you are new to this topic, be welcome to read Shenandoah's home page and watch the following talks by Alexei:

Anyway, here's a short list of statements about Shenandoah and other concurrent GCs if you don't feel like diving into more informative sources right now:

How do you get Shenandoah? This garbage collector has officially become part of JDK only since version 12 and is available in AdoptOpenJDK 12 builds. If you are not ready yet to move onto Java 12, Shenandoah is also backported to 8 and 11. Refer to this page for the list of available binary builds.

With that covered, we are ready to move on to the reasons you may need Shenandoah in your project.

Reasons for using Shenandoah GC

There is a common misconception in the developer community that GC pauses are only important in latency-critical applications, e.g., in high-frequency trading. Hence, if you are writing something mundane, like another REST API, choosing a proper GC should be the least of your concerns.

Indeed, if you are writing a program that can accommodate arbitrary long pauses, picking a throughput-focused stop-the-world GC like ParallelGC is a valid thing to do. A good example of such workload is a batch processing task — you don't care about hiccups along the way as long as the final result arrives on time.

However, if you are writing any kind of an interactive application (be it an API or a website), GC pauses become much more impactful. A GC pause stalls your program completely, so to the outer world, it appears frozen. The obvious effect is that the requests caught in the pause will receive responses later. Depending on the duration of the pause (which, remember, can be up to tens of seconds with conventional GCs), the client might give up on the request and time out. Or it may decide to retry, so you now have even more pending requests that will demand attention once the pause is over. Circuit breakers might open both in the service or on the callers' side, and it will take them some time to close back. A sufficiently long pause may even cause your service to fail healthchecks several times in a row which makes the supervisor restart it. While one node is restarting, the others must sustain higher load which increases their own chances for experiencing a longer pause (cascading failure), and so on.

Unpredictable GC pauses create instabilities in the system that ripple far beyond the paused application itself. Clients are back-pressured, their queues overflow, TimeoutExceptions fly through monitoring tools causing pagers to beep woefully. Of course, you should make your system robust to these and other sorts of failures. In reality, though, for a system to accommodate hiccups, it must have a sufficient buffer in terms of CPU time, queue length, acceptable response time, etc. And like the boy who cried wolf, those expected micro-outages make you tolerant to alerts and complacent when the real trouble happens.

Which brings us to another surprising point. Even though Shenandoah takes a cut of your application's throughput, it may be cheaper to run Shenandoah rather than a conventional GC. Throughput reduction is predictable, and it's easy to plan for that — if your program runs 10% slower, bring up ~10% more servers; that's about it. But long GC pauses are rapid and volatile; you can't "autoscale" out of them, so in order to not fall over, you must allot extra resources to handle them. These resources will be idle most of the time and will eat money. The longer are the potential pauses, the bigger leeway you need. Either that or accept your system being occasionally erratic.

But enough of me rambling. Let's hear some of that advertised experience of running Shenandoah in a real project.

First encounter and initial impressions

Let me start with a few words about the application I tried Shenandoah on to give broader context. It is nothing more than a simplistic reverse proxy with one-to-many fan-out and some pre-/post-processing. The request goes in, gets slightly modified, then is sent to multiple upstreams, and once all responses are collected, the combined response goes back to the client. This seemingly trivial project is complicated by the fact that the requests and responses carry quite large JSON payloads, and we want to handle them at a rate of ~10k req/s, in/out network bandwidth reaching 350 MB/s. The heap size is set to 57 GB to fill the available memory on AWS c5.9xlarge instance. The application doesn't have much of its own to keep in memory — but it must have enough of it to contain the incoming requests that stay in the heap until the upstream responses come back (up to 5 seconds).

Starting with G1 as usual, the newly created service worked reasonably well before reaching the peak load, at which point it was becoming very whimsical and fragile. Frequent ~100-200ms pauses were interleaved with occasional multi-second FullGC events. Can you imagine what happens when a 10k RPS service operating at ~70% capacity decides to take a five-second break? It grows a huge backlog, and for the next few seconds after the pause, it spins like crazy trying to dig through the queues. Both the requests caught in the pause and the ones after it get a degraded QoS. And with just a bit of bad luck, another problem (e.g., sudden traffic spike) might coincide with the pause in a perfect storm, knocking your service entirely off its feet.

Tuning G1 options seemed to help at first but ultimately made the setup even more unstable. It might seem straightforward to tinker with things like young/old ratios, but in practice, it can bring the app into novel failure modes. I confess not being a GC expert, and my approach to tuning was perhaps too naive; nevertheless, you probably wouldn't expect a deeper level of sophistication from an average Java application writer. If an ordinary Joe like me can't tune a GC properly, then it's probably not such a good idea to do it.

After a few unfruitful attempts to make the service stable at the peak load, we switched to a Shenandoah-enabled OpenJDK 8 image (shipilev/openjdk-shenandoah:8) and plugged -XX:+UseShenandoahGC into the command-line arguments. Then this happened:

What you see on the chart is the maximum GC pause length over time. Shenandoah has cut the biggest "normal" pauses from 50-150 ms to 10-20 ms. What the chart doesn't show is the multi-second pauses that G1 caused from time to time. Shenandoah didn't seem to have such a problem (but it has different failure modes; I'll mention them later).

Suddenly, the service started to perform much more reliably. Several performance bottlenecks have been lifted, allowing us to push for higher throughput per machine. We could raise the heap size to 57g (it actually started with 20g) without the latencies growing much. Bigger heap gave a larger buffer to handle traffic spikes. The overall QoS has improved, significantly reducing latency percentiles over a longer timespan.

Living on with Shenandoah

Our honeymoon with the new garbage collector has lasted for a while. Just swapping a GC has indeed improved enough aspects of the application runtime to call it a victory. However, if you care about the stability and performance of your service, at some point you have to invest a bit more effort than just changing one parameter. In this section, I will tell you about the tools, tips, and knowledge necessary to run Shenandoah efficiently.


jvm-hiccup-meter is a miniature library that measures system-induced pauses and stalls. It's a maximally trimmed down version of jHiccup library written by Gil Tene. While jHiccup is designed to accumulate pauses over the whole program run, jvm-hiccup-meter runs continuously and exposes the observed stalls via a callback.

This library may seem redundant given that Shenandoah (or any other Java GC) exposes the information about GC pauses via MBeans and GC logs. However, the hiccup meter may sometimes spot pauses that the GC fails to report or other pauses unrelated to GC (e.g., from triggering a heap dump).

This "library" is just a single Java class, so if you don't feel like adding an extra dependency to your project, simply copying the class works as well.


Most modern GCs, Shenandoah included, are designed to handle huge amounts of garbage without much trouble. However, a concurrent GC must collect the garbage faster than the application produces it; thus, tracking the rate at which your program allocates objects is still a good idea.

Surprisingly enough, JVM doesn't expose the allocation rate in a convenient way. You can get such information from GC logs, but it's not practical for real-time monitoring. Instead, you can use another micro-library, jvm-alloc-rate-meter, to measure the allocation rate at any given point of time and forward the data to a monitoring solution. Having an always-on view on this metric gives you intuition as to whether your program allocates too much and helps you detect allocation spikes that may cause longer-than-usual GC pauses.

Like with the previous library, this one fits into one class file and can be trivially included into the project as-is.

Allocation profiler

Knowing the absolute value of the allocation rate is useful, but when the time comes to reduce the amount of garbage the application generates, a memory profiler proves more beneficial. It can tell you which exact parts of your program produce the most garbage so that you can focus on optimizing the most impactful things first.

There are many memory profilers for JVM; we have settled with async-profiler (which we use via clj-async-profiler). Async-profiler uses a very non-invasive method of allocation profiling which might not be very precise, but instead bears negligible overhead and is suitable for production use. Besides, async-profiler draws pretty flame graphs which are easily navigable and interpretable.

Shenandoah failure modes

With all its power and innovative design, Shenandoah is not magic — it's a piece of software that runs in a real unforgiving world. Naturally, under certain conditions, it can't deliver its paper-thin pauses. Because a concurrent GC runs simultaneously with the rest of the program, it means the program can continue to allocate objects while the GC is running. But if it creates garbage quicker than the GC can collect it, we are in trouble. Shenandoah developers are very upfront about the failure modes that their GC has, and they describe them thoroughly in the documentation.

The first thing Shenandoah tries to do when it can't keep up with allocations is called pacing. Shenandoah will inject small pauses into the mutator threads (threads that allocate objects) to reduce the rate of garbage creation. This is similar to an STW pause but not quite — it only impacts individual threads, not the entire application. Monitoring pacing is a bit tricky since it is not reported as a GC pause (formally, it isn't one). You'll have to resort to reading GC logs to find out that pacing happened.

If that still doesn't help, Shenandoah will enter degenerated mode which is an old-school STW GC pass with the difference being that the GC work that has already been performed concurrently won't be redone. In other words, if Shenandoah almost made it on time concurrently but had to fall into degenerated mode at the end, the pause would be shorter than if it had to do all the work in the STW phase. Unlike pacing, degenerated mode GC will be reported as a proper pause and will be visible by most monitoring tools. If you start seeing Shenandoah dropping into the degenerated mode, it is the first sign that you allocate too much, and you should use the profiler to cut down the most garbage-producing pieces of the code.

Finally, full stop-the-world GC might still occur if the degenerated GC couldn't free enough memory. Shenandoah's FullGC is parallel, so at least it will be faster than having a single-threaded STW GC, but the pause might still be long. Fortunately, we haven't yet experienced FullGC in our workloads.

Shenandoah tuning

Shenandoah runs incredibly well with default options, so chances are you'll never have to change them. The most significant parameter you need to touch is -Xmx — just give Shenandoah enough heap, and it will work perfectly. But as you get more understanding of how it works, a few tunables can help you fit the GC to your specific workload.

Shenandoah's main tuning knob is the type of heuristic it uses to decide when to trigger the GC. The default value for it is adaptive, under which the GC infers the thresholds from the allocation rates it sees in the first few minutes of the program launch. You can also change it to static and manually set the amount of free memory left at which point the GC should trigger. If you value latency more than throughput, you can even set the heuristic to compact — this will make the GC run almost back-to-back2 so that there is almost no chance of pacing/degraded mode happenning. We eventually settled with the compact heuristic for this project, and the CPU usage hasn't increased that much.

Another nice feature is that unlike with generational GCs, it is much harder to render Shenandoah unstable by changing the tunables. You might hamper the throughput somewhat but won't accidentally jeopardize the latencies. The tunables themselves are subjectively more intuitive, and their impact is better understood.

Nitty details and surprises

There is a lot of helpful information available about Shenandoah GC, and that encourages you to investigate and understand it better. The GC logs are also very informative, and there is an extra killer feature — once the application shuts down, Shenandoah prints into the GC log a very detailed table describing how much time each phase of the GC cycle took. Armed with this data, and the documentation of Shenandoah internals, you can optimize GC times even further. Here are a few discoveries I've made:

Clojure specifics

You might notice that throughout the whole essay, I haven't mentioned that the project we've tested Shenandoah on is written in Clojure. There is nothing in the post that is Clojure-specific, and it just highlights how seamlessly Clojure programmers can tap into the vast and powerful Java ecosystem. Everything written here applies as much to any JVM language as it does to Java. However, there are a few peculiarities related to the combination of Shenandoah and Clojure that are worth mentioning:



This post has already grown too big, so I'll keep the summary short. Shenandoah is such an impressively designed garbage collector that just switching to it can immediately bring value for your application. Despite being fresh and somewhat experimental, it is ready to be used in production, and its stellar observability and documentation will smooth any transition pains should there be any. After you reap the initial benefits, it will encourage you to explore and learn this domain further, improving your programs even more.

I hope that what you've read here inspired you to check out Shenandoah and see if it fits your problem space. And if it does, share your experiences and spread the word, so that more people get to know about new garbage collectors and what they can do. Until next time!


  1. Some GCs, like Concurrent Mark Sweep collector, don't perform compaction and thus may have lower pauses for some period of time. Eventually the heap becomes too fragmented though, and they drop to FullGC.
  2. There is logic in Shenandoah's compact heuristic to prevent fruitless cycles by tracking the amount of memory allocated since the last GC cycle. When the application doesn't allocate much, compact mode won't run back-to-back.
  3. This only applies to references with short-lived referents. Weak references with live referents don't trouble the GC.