Saturday, March 25, 2017

Difference between WeakReference vs SoftReference vs PhantomReference vs Strong reference in Java

WeakReference and SoftReference were added into Java API for a long time but not every Java programmer is familiar with it. This means there is a gap between where and how to use WeakReference and SoftReference in Java. Reference classes are particularly important in the context of How Garbage collection works. As we all know that Garbage Collector reclaims memory from objects which are eligible for garbage collection, but not many programmers know that this eligibility is decided based upon which kind of references are pointing to that object. This is also the main difference between WeakReference and SoftReference in Java.

The garbage collector can collect an object if only weak references are pointing towards it and they are eagerly collected, on the other hand, Objects with SoftReference are collected when JVM absolutely needs memory.

This special behavior of SoftReference and WeakReference makes them useful in certain cases like SoftReference looks perfect for implementing caches, so when JVM needs memory it removes objects which have only SoftReference pointing towards them.

On the other hand, WeakReference is great for storing metadata e.g. storing ClassLoader reference. If no class is loaded then no point in keeping a reference of ClassLoader, a WeakReference makes ClassLoader eligible for Garbage collection as soon as the last strong reference removed.

In this article, we will explore some more about the various references in Java e.g. Strong reference and Phantom reference.

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WeakReference vs SoftReference in Java

For those who don't know there are four kind of reference in Java :
  1. Strong reference
  2. Weak Reference
  3. Soft Reference
  4. Phantom Reference
Strong Reference is most simple as we use it in our day to day programming life e.g. in the code, String s = "abc" , reference variable s has strong reference to String object "abc". Any object which has Strong reference attached to it is not eligible for garbage collection. Obviously these are objects which is needed by Java program. Weak Reference are represented using java.lang.ref.WeakReference class and you can create Weak Reference by using following code :

Counter counter = new Counter(); // strong reference - line 1
WeakReference<Counter> weakCounter = new WeakReference<Counter>(counter); //weak reference
counter = null; // now Counter object is eligible for garbage collection
Now as soon as you make strong reference counter = null, counter object created on line 1 becomes eligible for garbage collection; because it doesn't have any more Strong reference and Weak reference by reference variable weakCounter can not prevent Counter object from being garbage collected.  On the other hand, had this been Soft Reference, Counter object is not garbage collected until JVM absolutely needs memory. Soft reference in Java is represented using java.lang.ref.SoftReference class. You can use following code to create a SoftReference in Java

Counter prime = new Counter();  // prime holds a strong reference - line 2
SoftReference<Counter> soft = new SoftReference<Counter>(prime) ; //soft reference variable has SoftReference to Counter Object created at line 2

prime = null;  // now Counter object is eligible for garbage collection but only be collected when JVM absolutely needs memory
After making strong reference null, Counter object created on line 2 only has one soft reference which can not prevent it from being garbage collected but it can delay collection, which is eager in case of WeakReference. Due to this major difference between SoftReference and WeakReference, SoftReference are more suitable for caches and WeakReference are more suitable for storing meta data. One convenient example of WeakReference is WeakHashMap, which is another implementation of Map interface like HashMap or TreeMap but with one unique feature. WeakHashMap wraps keys as WeakReference which means once strong reference to actual object removed, WeakReference present internally on WeakHashMap doesn't prevent them from being Garbage collected.

Phantom reference is third kind of reference type available in java.lang.ref package. Phantom reference is represented by java.lang.ref.PhantomReference class. Object which only has Phantom reference pointing them can be collected whenever Garbage Collector likes it. Similar to WeakReference and SoftReference you can create PhantomReference by using following code :

DigitalCounter digit = new DigitalCounter(); // digit reference variable has strong reference - line 3
PhantomReference<DigitalCounter> phantom = new PhantomReference<DigitalCounter>(digit); // phantom reference to object created at line 3

digit = null;
As soon as you remove Strong reference, DigitalCounter object created at line 3 can be garbage collected at any time as it only has one more PhantomReference pointing towards it, which can not prevent it from GC'd.

Apart from knowing about WeakReference, SoftReference, PhantomReference and WeakHashMap there is one more class called ReferenceQueue which is worth knowing. You can supply a ReferenceQueue instance while creating any WeakReference, SoftReference or PhantomReference as shown in following code :

ReferenceQueue refQueue = new ReferenceQueue(); //reference will be stored in this queue for cleanup

DigitalCounter digit = new DigitalCounter();
PhantomReference<DigitalCounter> phantom = new PhantomReference<DigitalCounter>(digit, refQueue);
Reference of instance will be appended to ReferenceQueue and you can use it to perform any clean-up by polling ReferenceQueue. An Object's life-cycle is nicely summed up by this diagram.

WeakReference vs SoftReference vs Phantom vs Strong Java

That's all on Difference between WeakReference and SoftReference in Java. We also learned basics of reference classes e.g. Weak, soft and phantom reference in Java and WeakHashMap and ReferenceQueue. Careful use of reference can assist Garbage Collection and result in better memory management in Java.

Further Learning
Complete Java Masterclass
Java Fundamentals: The Java Language
Java In-Depth: Become a Complete Java Engineer!



@Javin.. Perfect article lem me add few more thing to bring the concepts more clear ....Hope you will appreciate it ...

Weak references

A weak reference, simply put, is a reference that isn't strong enough to force an object to remain in memory. Weak references allow you to leverage the garbage collector's ability to determine reachability for you, so you don't have to do it yourself. You create a weak reference like this:

WeakReference weakWidget = new WeakReference(widget);
and then elsewhere in the code you can use weakWidget.get() to get the actual Widget object. Of course the weak reference isn't strong enough to prevent garbage collection, so you may find (if there are no strong references to the widget) that weakWidget.get() suddenly starts returning null.


Soft references

A soft reference is exactly like a weak reference, except that it is less eager to throw away the object to which it refers. An object which is only weakly reachable (the strongest references to it are WeakReferences) will be discarded at the next garbage collection cycle, but an object which is softly reachable will generally stick around for a while.

SoftReferences aren't required to behave any differently than WeakReferences, but in practice softly reachable objects are generally retained as long as memory is in plentiful supply. This makes them an excellent foundation for a cache, such as the image cache described above, since you can let the garbage collector worry about both how reachable the objects are (a strongly reachable object will never be removed from the cache) and how badly it needs the memory they are consuming...


Also a small program to bring more clarity and understanding ....

weak reference is related to garbage collection. Normally, object having one or more reference will not be eligible for garbage collection. Thea above rule is not applicable when it is weak reference. It an object has only weak reference with other objects, then its ready for garbage collection.

Let's now look at the below example. We have an Map with Objects where Key is Some Class Reference object.

import java.util.HashMap;
public class Test {

public static void main(String args[]) {
HashMap aMap = new

Employee emp = new Employee("SARAL");
EmployeeVal val = new EmployeeVal("Developer");

aMap.put(emp, val);

emp = null;

System.out.println("Size of Map" + aMap.size());

Now, during the execution of the program we have made emp = null. The Map holding the the key makes no sense here as the it is null. In the above situaton, the object is not garbage collected.


WeakHashMap is one where the entries (key-to-value mappings) will be removed when it is no longer possible to retrieve them from the map.

Let me show the above example same with WeakHashMap

import java.util.WeakHashMap;

public class Test {

public static void main(String args[]) {
WeakHashMap aMap =
new WeakHashMap();

Employee emp = new Employee("SARAL");
EmployeeVal val = new EmployeeVal("Developer");

aMap.put(emp, val);

emp = null;

int count = 0;
while (0 != aMap.size()) {
System.out.println("Took " + count
+ " calls to System.gc() to result in weakHashMap size of : "
+ aMap.size());
Took 20 calls to System.gc() to result in aMap size of : 0.

WeakHashMap has only weak references to the keys, not strong references like other Map classes. There are situations which you have to take care when the value or key is strongly referenced though you have used WeakHashMap. This can avoided by wrapping the object in a WeakReference.

import java.lang.ref.WeakReference;
import java.util.HashMap;

public class Test {

public static void main(String args[]) {
HashMap map =
new HashMap();
WeakReference> aMap =
new WeakReference>(

map = null;

while (null != aMap.get()) {
aMap.get().put(new Employee("SARAL"),
new EmployeeVal("Developer"));
System.out.println("Size of aMap " + aMap.get().size());
System.out.println("Its garbage collected");
Soft References.

Soft Reference is slightly stronger that weak reference. Soft reference allows for garbage collection, but begs the garbage collector to clear it only if there is no other option.

The garbage collector does not aggressively collect softly reachable objects the way it does with weakly reachable ones -- instead it only collects softly reachable objects if it really "needs" the memory. Soft references are a way of saying to the garbage collector, "As long as memory isn't too tight, I'd like to keep this object around. But if memory gets really tight, go ahead and collect it and I'll deal with that." The garbage collector is required to clear all soft references before it can throw OutOfMemoryError.

Ankur Jain said...


Just one question i want to ask!! When ever we create a new Object like Employee e = new Employee(); then how will i make that object a weak reference or a phantom Reference or soft reference?? Because by default they are Strong reference.. so like how to make it oder references if i have to make it memory efficient an eligible for garbage collection!!

satish said...

To make WeekReference to Employee Object
use this line
WeakReference weakCounter = new WeakReference(e); //this line is making weak reference to Employee Object.
e= null; // now Employee object is eligible for garbage collection

Unknown said...

very detailed introduction, thanks a lot!

KC said...

Assume a JVM is kingdom, Object is a king of the kingdom, and GC is a attacker of the kingdom who tries to kill the king.
When King is Strong, GC can not kill him.
When King is Soft, GC attacks him but King still rule the kingdom with protection until resource available.
When King is Weak, GC attacks him but still rule the kingdom without protection.
When king is Phantom, GC killed him but still king is available via his soul.
If my analogy is wrong anywhere please update.

Anonymous said...

Anupam Tamrakar said...

Nice article

Unknown said...

can you explain me the exact diff b/w weak and phantom reference ?

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