Strong and Weak Reference

What are strong reference and weak reference?

Strong references

First I need to start with a refresher on strong references. A strong reference is an ordinary Java reference, the kind you use every day. For example, the code:

StringBuffer buffer = new StringBuffer();

creates a new StringBuffer() and stores a strong reference to it in the variable buffer. Yes, yes, this is kiddie stuff, but bear with me. The important part about strong references -- the part that makes them "strong" -- is how they interact with the garbage collector. Specifically, if an object is reachable via a chain of strong references (strongly reachable), it is not eligible for garbage collection. As you don't want the garbage collector destroying objects you're working on, this is normally exactly what you want.

When strong references are too strong

It's not uncommon for an application to use classes that it can't reasonably extend. The class might simply be marked final, or it could be something more complicated, such as an interface returned by a factory method backed by an unknown (and possibly even unknowable) number of concrete implementations. Suppose you have to use a class Widget and, for whatever reason, it isn't possible or practical to extend Widget to add new functionality.

What happens when you need to keep track of extra information about the object? In this case, suppose we find ourselves needing to keep track of each Widget's serial number, but the Widget class doesn't actually have a serial number property -- and because Widget isn't extensible, we can't add one. No problem at all, that's what HashMaps are for:

serialNumberMap.put(widget, widgetSerialNumber);

This might look okay on the surface, but the strong reference to widget will almost certainly cause problems. We have to know (with 100% certainty) when a particular Widget's serial number is no longer needed, so we can remove its entry from the map. Otherwise we're going to have a memory leak (if we don't remove Widgets when we should) or we're going to inexplicably find ourselves missing serial numbers (if we remove Widgets that we're still using). If these problems sound familiar, they should: they are exactly the problems that users of non-garbage-collected languages face when trying to manage memory, and we're not supposed to have to worry about this in a more civilized language like Java.

Another common problem with strong references is caching, particular with very large structures like images. Suppose you have an application which has to work with user-supplied images, like the web site design tool I work on. Naturally you want to cache these images, because loading them from disk is very expensive and you want to avoid the possibility of having two copies of the (potentially gigantic) image in memory at once.

Because an image cache is supposed to prevent us from reloading images when we don't absolutely need to, you will quickly realize that the cache should always contain a reference to any image which is already in memory. With ordinary strong references, though, that reference itself will force the image to remain in memory, which requires you (just as above) to somehow determine when the image is no longer needed in memory and remove it from the cache, so that it becomes eligible for garbage collection. Once again you are forced to duplicate the behavior of the garbage collector and manually determine whether or not an object should be in memory.
 

A strong reference is what you would normally consider a reference in java. For example, if I have the following code: 

Integer x = new Integer(10);   

Then x is a strong reference. What this means is that the garbage collector will treat the object (an Integer object) as not able to be collected because it is referred to by a reference (namely, the variable x). 
 

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<Widget> weakWidget = new WeakReference<Widget>(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.

To solve the "widget serial number" problem above, the easiest thing to do is use the built-in WeakHashMap class. WeakHashMap works exactly like HashMap, except that the keys (not the values!) are referred to using weak references. If a WeakHashMap key becomes garbage, its entry is removed automatically. This avoids the pitfalls I described and requires no changes other than the switch from HashMap to a WeakHashMap. If you're following the standard convention of referring to your maps via the Map interface, no other code needs to even be aware of the change.

Reference queues

Once a WeakReference starts returning null, the object it pointed to has become garbage and the WeakReference object is pretty much useless. This generally means that some sort of cleanup is required; WeakHashMap, for example, has to remove such defunct entries to avoid holding onto an ever-increasing number of dead WeakReferences.

The ReferenceQueue class makes it easy to keep track of dead references. If you pass a ReferenceQueue into a weak reference's constructor, the reference object will be automatically inserted into the reference queue when the object to which it pointed becomes garbage. You can then, at some regular interval, process the ReferenceQueue and perform whatever cleanup is needed for dead references.
 

A weak reference, on the other hand, is a reference that allows us to access an object, but it doesn't force the garbage collector not to collect that object. We create a weak reference with the following: 

WeakReference<Integer> y = new WeakReference<Integer> (x);   

Now, if we do the following: 

x = null;  

The garbage collector will now treat the object behind the reference y as collectable. 

So, the question is, "why would we want this?" And the answer is that sometimes, we don't want objects to stick around. This creates the Java equivalent of memory leaks. If we had a HashMap with keys that are objects, there isn't a great way to determine if the key is needed any longer. So, we can use the WeakHashMap, which uses WeakReferences as its keys. Thus, if there isn't another variable that is a (strong) reference to the key, it's removed from memory. Thus, we don't have object sticking around long after we need them. 

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