Garbage collection and memory management

The PowerBuilder garbage collection mechanism checks memory automatically for unreferenced and orphaned objects and removes any it finds, thus taking care of most memory leaks. You can use garbage collection to destroy objects instead of explicitly destroying them using the DESTROY statement. This lets you avoid runtime errors that occur when you destroy an object that was being used by another process or had been passed by reference to a posted event or function.

A reference to an object is any variable whose value is the object. When the variable goes out of scope, or when it is assigned a different value, PowerBuilder removes a reference to the object and counts the remaining references, and the garbage collection process destroys the object if no references remain.

Garbage collection occurs:

  • When the garbage collection interval has been exceeded and the PowerBuilder application becomes idle and

  • When you explicitly call the GarbageCollect function.

When PowerBuilder completes the execution of a system-triggered event, it makes a garbage collection pass if the set interval between garbage collection passes has been exceeded. The default interval is 0.5 seconds. Note that this system-triggered garbage collection pass only occurs when the PowerBuilder application is idle, therefore if a long computation or process is in progress when the interval is exceeded, garbage collection does not occur immediately.

You can force immediate garbage collection by invoking the GarbageCollect function. When you use dot notation and OLEObjects, temporary variables are created. These temporary variables are released only during the garbage collection process. You might want to invoke GarbageCollect inside a loop that appears to be causing memory leaks.

The garbage collection pass removes any objects and classes that cannot be referenced, including those containing circular references (otherwise unreferenced objects that reference each other).

Posting events and functions

When you post an event or function and pass an object reference, PowerBuilder adds an internal reference to the object to prevent its memory from being reclaimed by the garbage collector between the time of the post and the actual execution of the event or function. This reference is removed when the event or function is executed.

Exceptions to garbage collection

There are a few objects that are prevented from being collected:

  • Visual objects

    Any object that is visible on your screen is not collected because when the object is created and displayed on your screen, an internal reference is added to the object. When any visual object is closed, it is explicitly destroyed.

  • Timing objects

    Any Timing object that is currently running is not collected because the Start function for a Timing object adds an internal reference. The Stop function removes the reference.

  • Shared objects

    Registered shared objects are not collected because the SharedObjectRegister function adds an internal reference. SharedObjectUnregister removes the internal reference.

Controlling when garbage collection occurs

Garbage collection occurs automatically in PowerBuilder, but you can use functions to force immediate garbage collection or to change the interval between reference count checks. Three functions let you control when garbage collection occurs: GarbageCollect, GarbageCollectGetTimeLimit, and GarbageCollectSetTimeLimit.

For information about these functions, see PowerScript Reference. For an example illustrating their use, see the Code Examples sample application, described in Using Sample Applications.

Performance concerns

You can use tracing and profiling to examine the effect of changing the garbage collection interval on performance.

For information about tracing and profiling, see Tracing and Profiling Applications in Users Guide.

Configuring memory management

You can set the PB_POOL_THRESHOLD environment variable to specify the threshold at which the PowerBuilder memory manager switches to a different memory allocation strategy.

When most windows, DataWindows, DataStores, or other PowerBuilder objects are destroyed or reclaimed by the garbage collector, the PowerBuilder heap manager returns the memory allocated for each object to a global memory pool and records its availability on a global free list. The freed memory is not returned to the operating system. When a new object is created, PowerBuilder allocates blocks of memory from the global memory pool (if sufficient memory is available in the global free list) or from the operating system (if it is not) to a memory pool for the object.

When the memory required by an object exceeds 256KB, PowerBuilder uses a different strategy. It allocates subsequent memory requirements from the operating system in large blocks, and returns the physical memory to the operating system when the object is destroyed. It retains the virtual memory to reduce fragmentation of the virtual address space.

For most applications and components, the threshold of 256KB at which PowerBuilder switches to the "large blocks" strategy works well and reduces the memory required by an application when it is working at its peak level of activity. However, if you want to keep the overall physical memory usage of your application as low as possible, you can try setting a lower threshold.

The advantage of setting a low threshold is that the size of the global memory pool is reduced. The application does not retain a lot of memory when it is inactive. The disadvantage is that large blocks of memory are allocated for objects that require more memory than the threshold value, so that when the application is running at its peak of activity, it might use more virtual memory than it would with the default threshold.

Setting a low threshold can be beneficial for long-running client applications that use many short-lived objects, where the client application's memory usage varies from low (when idle) to high (when active). For multithreaded applications, such as servers, a higher threshold usually results in lower virtual memory utilization.

Logging heap manager output

You can record diagnostic ouput from the PowerBuilder heap manager in a file to help you troubleshoot memory allocation issues in your application. The PB_HEAP_LOGFILENAME environment variable specifies the name and location of the file.

If you specify a file name but not a directory, the file is saved in the same directory as the PowerBuilder executable.

If you specify a directory that does not exist, the file is not created.

By default, the log file is overwritten when you restart PowerBuilder. If you want diagnostic output to be appended to the file, set PB_HEAP_LOGFILE_OVERWRITE to false.

You can set the variables in a batch file that launches the application, or as system or user environment variables on the computer or server on which the application or component runs.