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Understanding the Java Virtual Machine's -Xms and -Xmx parameters

Understanding the Java Virtual Machine's -Xms and -Xmx parameters

David Y.

The ProblemJump To Solution

When starting Java applications on the command line, I am often instructed to supply parameters such as -Xms512m or -Xmx2g. What are these parameters for?

The Solution

The -Xms and -Xmx parameters are used to control the initial and maximum heap size allocated to the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). This is the amount of memory in bytes that will be used for creating and storing objects. Values for these parameters can be specified as bytes or in the following larger units:

  • k for kilobytes (e.g. -Xms512k)
  • m for megabytes (e.g. -Xms256m)
  • g for gigabytes (e.g. -Xms1g)

The value specified in -Xms will be allocated to the heap when the program starts. For example, -Xms256m will allocate 256 megabytes to the heap. The heap is not a fixed size: if more memory is needed, it can grow, up to a maximum of the size specified in -Xmx. So, for example, -Xmx1g will set the maximum heap size to 1 gigabyte. When both of these example parameter values are used together, i.e. -Xms256m -Xmx1g, the size of the heap will initially be 256 megabytes but will be allowed to grow to 1 gigabyte during the program’s lifecycle.

The amounts provided to each parameter will depend on the resources of the system running the application and the application’s memory requirements. It is therefore difficult to provide a generic suggestion for setting these parameters. Keep the following points in mind:

  • Setting the initial heap size too low could slow down the application’s operations, as the JVM will spend extra time increasing the heap size. But setting it too high may waste system resources if the application’s memory use is far below the allocation.
  • Setting the maximum heap size too low may cause the application to run out of memory during normal operations, and throw this exception: java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: Java heap space. However, setting it too high may cause the application to interfere with other applications on the system.

If -Xms and -Xmx are not explicitly set, the JVM will set the initial heap size based on the amount of available physical memory on the system and the maximum heap size based on the total amount of physical memory on the system. The exact details of these default settings will depend on the JVM implementation in use and whether it is in client or server mode.

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