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Memory Leak Detection in .NET First Posted

5 Jul 2007
By Deepak.Kumar | 21 Jul 2007 Downloads 0
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Windows .NET Visual-Studio Dev QA Advanced

Garbage collection and memory leak detection in .NET.

4.67 (57 votes)

Usually, it is very cumbersome to detect and locate memory leaks. This article will provide a way to
locate memory leaks in .NET applications. First, I will talk about Resource Allocation and Garbage
Collection algorithms, and then will talk about detecting leaks in .NET apps. Pay attention to the bold
texts in the code section.

Resource Allocation

The CLR (Common Language Runtime) allocates all the resources on the managed heap and releases
them when they are no longer required by the application. C/C++ applications were prone to memory
leaks because programmers had to manually allocate and free memory.

The Runtime maintains a NextObjPtr for the next free space on the heap. When a new process is
initialized, the CLR allocates a contiguous space on the heap for this process represented by
NextObjPtr, and increments the NextObjPtr pointer to the next free space. The space is
contiguous, and is different from the C++ heap where it is maintained as a linked list. GC heap is
efficient when compared to the C++ heap because to allocate new memory, the GC doesn't have to
search from a list of free memory or through a linked list. As times pass by, gaps start to appear in the
heap as objects get deleted, and so GC has to compact the heap, which is costly. GC in .NET uses the
Win32 API VirtualAlloc or VirtualAllocEX to reserve memory.

.NET uses several types of memory like stack, unmanaged heap, and managed heap.

Stack: It is managed on a per thread basis, and is used to store local variables, method
parameters, and temporary values. GC doesn't clean the stack as its get automatically cleaned
when the method returns. The references to objects are stored on the stack, but the actual
object gets allocated on the heap and the GC is aware of that. When the GC cannot find a
reference for an object, it removes it from the heap.
Unmanaged Heap: Unmanaged code will allocate objects on the unmanaged heap or stack.
Managed code can also allocate object on the unmanaged heap by calling Win32 APIs.
Managed Heap: Managed code allocates objects on the managed heap, and the GC takes care
of the management of the managed heap. The GC also maintains a Large Object Heap to
compensate the cost of moving large objects in memory.

Garbage Collection Algorithm

The garbage collector checks the heap for objects which are no longer used by the application. If such
objects exist, then the GC removes those objects from the heap. Now, the question is how GC finds
out about these objects which are not used by the application. Every application maintains a set of
roots. Roots are like pointers to the objects on the heap. All global and static object pointers are
considered as application roots. Any local variable on the thread stack is considered as application
root. This list of roots is maintained by the JIT compiler and the CLR, and is made available to the GC.

When the GC starts running, it treats all objects as garbage, and makes an assumption that none of

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the objects on the heap are accessible. It then starts walking with the list of application roots, and
starts building a graph of accessible objects. It marks all the objects on the heap as accessible if the
objects are directly accessible lie an application root or indirectly accessible via any other object. For
each application, the GC maintains a tree of references that tracks the objects referenced by the
application. Using this approach, GC builds a list of live objects, and then walks through the heap in
search of objects which are not present in this list of live objects. After finding out the objects which
are not present in this list of live objects, it marks them all as garbage, and starts to compact the
memory to remove holes which were created by unreferenced (dead) objects. It uses the memcpy
function to move the objects from one memory location to another, and modifies the application roots
to point to new locations.

If there is a live reference to the object, then it is said to be strongly rooted. .NET also has the concept
of Weak Reference. Any object can be created as a weak reference which tells the GC that we want to
access this object, but if the GC is going through garbage collection, then it can collect it. Weak
reference is generally used for very large objects which are easy to create but are costly to maintain
in memory.

Moving objects in memory gives a significant performance hit. To improve performance, the GC does
several optimizations like large object heap and generations. Objects which are in size greater than
85,000 bytes are allocated on the large object heap. Moving large objects in memory is costly, so the
GC maintains a separate heap for large objects, which it never compacts. The GC also maintains
generations of objects. Whenever a new object is to be allocated and the managed heap doesn't have
enough memory for the new object, a GC collection is performed. For the first time, every object in
the heap is considered in Gen 0. After that, the GC performs a collection. The objects which survive
are moved to Gen 1, and similarly, those which survive the Gen 1 collection move to Gen 2. The GC
makes the assumption that a new object will have a short lifetime and an old object will have a longer
lifetime. Whenever new memory is required, the GC tries to collect memory from Gen 0, and if
enough memory can't be obtained from Gen 0 collections, then a Gen 1 or even Gen 2 collection is

GC Sequence

The following steps occur during each GC collection:

1. Execution Engine Suspension – The EE is suspended until all managed threads have reached a
point in their code execution deemed "safe".
2. Mark – Objects that don't have roots are marked garbage.
3. Plan – The GC creates a budget for each generation being collected, and then determines the
amount of fragmentation that will exist in the managed heap as a result of a GC collection.
4. Sweep – Deletes all objects marked for deletion.
5. Compact – Moves all non-pinned objects that survived the GC to the lower end of the heap.
6. Execution Engine Restart – Restart the execution of managed threads.

Roots in GC

There are different kinds of roots in the GC:

1. Strong Reference – If a strong reference exists for an object, then it is considered in use and is
not collected during the next GC collection.
2. Weak Reference – This is also a reference, but the object can live till the next GC collection.
Weak Reference works like a cache for an object.


The GC can track an unmanaged resource's lifetime, but it can't reclaim the memory used by the
resource unless destructors are used or code is written to override the Finalize in the base class.

A finalizer exists to allow the programmer to clean up the native resources used by the object before
the object is garbage collected. But, using a finalizer promotes the object collection to the next
generation. Whenever a new object with a Finalize method is allocated on the heap, a pointer to
that object is placed on the Finalization queue. During garbage collection, if the GC finds that an
object is not reachable, it then searches the Finalization queue for any reference to the object. If it
finds a reference, then it removes the object from the Finalization queue and appends it to other data

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structure called a Freachable queue. At this point, the Garbage Collector has finished identifying
garbage and compacts the memory. After that, the finalization thread empties the Freachable queue
by executing each object's Finalize method. The next time a GC collection is performed, the GC sees
this object as garbage and reclaims the memory assigned to this object.

It takes more time to reclaim the memory from objects having Finalize methods and affects
performance, so a Finalize method should only be used when required.

Detecting Memory Leaks

Memory leaks can occur either in the stack, unmanaged heap, or the managed heap. There are many
ways to find out that memory is leaking, like memory increasing in the Task Manager. Before starting
to correct the memory problem, you need to determine the kind of memory which is leaking. Perfmon
can be used to examine counters such as Process/Private bytes, .NET CLR Memory/# bytes in all
heaps, and the .NET CLR LocksAndThreads/# of the current logical thread. If the .NET CLR
LocksAndThreads/# is increasing unexpectedly, then the thread stack is leaking. If only
Process/Private bytes are increasing but the .NET CLR Memory is not increasing, then unmanaged
memory is leaking, else if both are increasing, then managed memory is leaking.

Figure 1 : Perfmon output for Privates Bytes and #Bytes in all heaps

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Stack Memory

Stack memory gets reclaimed after the method returns. Stack memory can get leaked in two ways.
First, a method call consumes a significant amount of stack resources that never returns, thereby
never releasing the associated stack frame. The other is by creating background threads and never
terminating them, thus leaking the thread stack.

Unmanaged Heap Memory

If the total memory usage is increasing but the .NET CLR memory is not increasing, then unmanaged
memory is leaking. Unmanaged memory can leak in several ways - if the managed code is
interoperating with unmanaged code and a leak exists in the unmanaged code. .NET doesn't make any
guarantee that the finalizer for each object will get called. In the current implementation, .NET has
one finalizer thread. If there exists a finalizer which blocks this thread, then the other finalizer will
never get called and the unmanaged memory will leak which was supposed to be released. When an
AppDomain is torn down, the CLR tries to run all the finalizers, but if a blocking finalizer exists, then it
can prevent the CLR from completing the AppDomain tear down. To prevent this, the CLR implements
a timeout on the process, after which it stops the finalization process, and the unmanaged memory
which was supposed to be removed is left leaked.

Managed Heap Memory

Managed memory can also get leaked by several ways like fragmentation of the Large Object Heap.
The memory in the Large Object Heap never gets compacted, so there is a loss in memory over there.
Also, if there exist some objects which are not needed, but there exists a reference to the objects,
then GC never claims the memory assigned to these objects.

This kind of leak is common, and can be resolved using SOS.dll. There are two ways to use SOS.dll:

WinDbg tool: This tool can be downloaded from Microsoft.

Run the application which you want to debug for memory problems. Start the WinDbg tool and
attach it to the application process.


1. Open the application in Visual Studio 2005. Go to the properties of the project. In the Debug
tab, make sure you have "Enable unmanaged code debugging" checked, or if you are attaching
to a process, then in the "Attach to Process" window, click Select, and then select "Managed
code" and "Native code". Run the application, and set a breakpoint in the code somewhere you
want your application to break. Hit the breakpoint. Go to Debug -> Windows -> Immediate.
2. Run .load SOS.dll

The SOS.dll is the most popular debugging extension used to debug managed code. It has many
powerful commands that can obtain information such as managed call stack, details about
managed heap, objects in heap, and much more.

3. Run !dumpheap –stat or !dumpheap –type PolicyEditor

This command scans the GC heaps and lists the objects that lie therein. The –Stat argument is
used to display the output to a statistical summary. More information about this (any) command
can be found by using !help dumpheap.

The output will be like:

03f354ec 20 1120 View.Console.Configuration.Workspace

03713e44 35 1120 System.Windows.Forms.LayoutEventHandler
03710bec 56 1120 System.ComponentModel.Container+Site
024dc014 70 1120 System.Configuration.PropertySourceInfo
0492ed48 94 1128 Infragistics.Shared.SubObjectBase+NotifyId
081d9ac4 2 1136 View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor
03d79898 1 1140 System.Text.RegularExpressions.RegexCharClass+
08857bdc 22 1144 Infragistics.Win.UltraWinToolbars.ComboBoxTool+
0869c604 8 1152 Infragistics.Win.UltraWinEditors.UltraTextEditorUIElement

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4. The above command will list all the objects present in the memory. If you think that an object
should not be present in memory and should have been garbage collected, then open a Find
(Ctrl +F) window and type the name of the object and search for it. If you cannot find the
object, then either it has been garbage collected, or it was not instantiated. If you find the
object, for example, the PolicyEditor object in the above list, then copy the MT (Method
Table) address, which is 081d9ac4 in the above case.
5. Run !dumpheap -mt 081d9ac4

This will list all the objects with this MethodTable address. Those objects are the instances of

The output will be something like:

Heap 0
Address MT Size
total 0 objects
Heap 1
Address MT Size
total 0 objects
Heap 2
Address MT Size
28404fd8 081d9ac4 568
total 1 objects
Heap 3
Address MT Size
2c49f098 081d9ac4 568
total 1 objects
total 2 objects
MT Count TotalSize Class Name
081d9ac4 2 1136 View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor
Total 2 objects

Copy the address of any instance, for example, 28404fd8.

6. Run !gcroot 28404fd8

This will list the path to this object from the root of the GC tree. If some path exists for
this object, then this is considered non garbage and is not collected by the GC, which
could be a reason for memory leakage.

The output will be like:

Error during command: warning!

Extension is using a feature which Visual does not implement.
Scan Thread 6460 OSTHread 193c
Scan Thread 1884 OSTHread 75c
Scan Thread 7520 OSTHread 1d60
Scan Thread 7716 OSTHread 1e24
Scan Thread 0 OSTHread 0
Scan Thread 7428 OSTHread 1d04
Scan Thread 0 OSTHread 0
Scan Thread 4728 OSTHread 1278


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282e427c(System.Collections.Generic.Dictionary`2[[System.Object, mscorlib],
[[Microsoft.Win32.SystemEvents+SystemEventInvokeInfo, System]],
282e4444(System.Collections.Generic.Dictionary`2+Entry[[System.Object, mscorlib],
[[Microsoft.Win32.SystemEvents+SystemEventInvokeInfo, System]],
[[Microsoft.Win32.SystemEvents+SystemEventInvokeInfo, System]])->


7. In the above output, we can see that the PolicyClarificationBrowser object has an event
handler which holds a reference to PolicyEditor. To find out who is hooking up this event,
take the address of the event handler, which is 2448f478, and dump this object.
8. !dumpobj 2448f478

Name: System.EventHandler
MethodTable: 7910d61c
EEClass: 790c3a7c
Size: 32(0x20) bytes
MT Field Offset Type VT Attr Value Name
790f9c18 40000f9 4 System.Object 0 instance 2c4e3714 _target
79109208 40000fa 8 ...ection.MethodBase 0 instance 00000000 _methodBase
790fe160 40000fb c System.IntPtr 0 instance 140144060 _methodPtr
790fe160 40000fc 10 System.IntPtr 0 instance 0 _methodPtrAux
790f9c18 4000106 14 System.Object 0 instance 00000000 _invocationList
790fe160 4000107 18 System.IntPtr 0 instance 0 _invocationCount

9. If you take the address of the target in the above output, which is 2c4e3714, and run a
!dumpobj with this address, then you can see in the output that it is of type PolicyEditor. To
get the method that is hooked up as a handler, convert the int value in _methodPtr to hex.


(This command will not work in the Immediate Window. To run this command, you need to
attach WinDbg to this or any other managed process, or use Google to do that.)

The output will be:

Evaluate expression: 140144060 = 085a6dbc

And then run !ip2md 085a6dbc

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Failed to request MethodData, not in JIT code range

Sometimes this works, and will give you the name of the method, but if doesn't work, then we
can dump the object and then find out the method.

10. !dumpobj 2c4e3714

The output will be:

Name: View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor
MethodTable: 0820865c
EEClass: 08219fd8
Size: 568(0x238) bytes
(C:\Documents and Settings\testuser\Application Data\View\SMC-D-44725-B\View.Manger.UI.dll)
MT Field Offset Type VT Attr Value Name
790f9c18 4000184 4 System.Object 0 instance 00000000 __identity
024c1798 40008bc 8 ...ponentModel.ISite 0 instance 00000000 site
036f9c3c 40008bd c ....EventHandlerList 0 instance 2448f8ac events
790f9c18 40008bb 108 System.Object 0 static 242e1afc EventDisposed

11. !dumpmt -md 0820865c

The output will be:

EEClass: 08219fd8
Module: 036e48d8
Name: View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor
mdToken: 02000069 (C:\Documents and Settings\testuser\Application Data\
BaseSize: 0x238
ComponentSize: 0x0
Number of IFaces in IFaceMap: 15
Slots in VTable: 430
MethodDesc Table
Entry MethodDesc JIT Name
022a9fc5 022a9ec8 NONE System.ComponentModel.Component.ToString()
793539c0 7913bd50 PreJIT System.Object.Equals(System.Object)

085a6d44 08208578 NONE View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor.btnStatementDelete_Click(
System.Object, System.EventArgs)
085a6de4 08208580 NONE View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor.btnProperties_Click(
System.Object, System.EventArgs)
085a6dbc 08208588 NONE View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor.ClarificationBrowser_OpenClick(
System.Object, System.EventArgs)
08208f0d 08208590 NONE View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor.OpenClarification()
085a6dd0 08208598 NONE View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor.Clarification_SelectionChanged(
System.Object, View.Manger.UI.SelectEventArgs)
085a6d94 082085a0 NONE View.Manger.UI.PolicyEditor.btnExceptionNew_Click(
System.Object, System.EventArgs)

In the above output, search for the hex address we calculated above from _methodptr, and you
will get the name of the method which is still holding a reference to the PolicyEditor object
and is the reason for the memory leak.

Initially posted on Jul 3, 2007.

This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open
License (CPOL)

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About the Author

Deepak.Kumar Software Engineer

Web Developer Houston TX
United States


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