How to solve Memory Leaks or Bloats in Ruby while keeping your sanity.

July 21, 2016

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Usually having a memory leak is a terrible experience. It seems to follow Murphy’s law; occurring at the worst possible time and often late in the development cycle. You often don’t know where to even begin all you know is that your application memory constantly increases overtime.

When a memory issue occurred on our site, I Initially upgraded ruby, as we were running a slightly older version, and the project’s gems with the hope that someone else had discovered and fixed the issue.

No luck there!

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to fix it and had to take a pragmatic option; automating reboot the application when the memory usage goes beyond a set threshold. It does get you over the line, though it's a terrible solution as it kills the application’s performance while it's rebooting.

The following steps were used to solve the memory issue, and to remove the reboot temporary solution.

How Ruby manages memory

Since Ruby 2.1, there are new diagnostic methods to allow low level Ruby introspection. But to use these tools, it first pays to have a good understanding of the Heap, Kernel, and Garbage Collector and how they relate to each other.


The Heap stores the live Ruby objects. When the below code is executed, a number of objects are added to the Heap including the class Foo, Foo object along with a reference foobar to Foo object.

class Foo


foobar =


The allocation of memory space, to store the Heap objects, is handled by the Kernal. If the programme continued to create objects, which are added to the Heap, there will come a time that the initial allocated space would be exhausted. It’s the Kernal’s responsibility to ensure that this doesn’t occur and allocates additional space as required.

However, once additional memory has been assigned to a Ruby process it doesn’t get re-assigned once it is no longer required1. This was particularly important in what happened to our application.

The Garbage Collector (GB)

Take the example below, using Rail’s ActiveRecord, the following objects are added to the Heap:

  1. String object created from the method name. This object is referenced by person_name and contains the string value chris
  2. Instance of Person class - populates the object with values from the database’s “person” table and the row corresponding to the record id= 1.
person_name = Person.find(1).name
=> chris

What is important here is that once this code has run, these two objects are added to the Heap, but only one of the objects, person_name (1), is reachable through the reference.

The instance of Person (2) is unreachable as it wasn’t assigned a reference variable - while a new instance of Person can be created the original object is unreachable; its lost in the sea of objects.

The Garbage Collector is responsible for the removal of these unreachable objects from the Heap, which reduces the memory footprint, and improves the application’s performance.

There are two strategies that Ruby uses to remove unreachable objects.

  1. Mark and Sweep strategy
  2. Generational strategy

Mark and Sweep Strategy

The Garbage Collector traces the object hierarchy from root objects and marks each “visited” object to be kept. Once finished, a “sweep” occurs which removes all unmarked objects. In our example above, the `person_name object would be marked but the object instance of Person would be a candidate for removal when the next “sweep” occurs

Generational Strategy

The implementation of the mark and sweep strategy is applied in two separate ways:

  • Minor Garbage Collection
  • Major Garbage Collection

Minor Garbage Collection

The idea here is that newly created objects are more likely to be removed than objects that were created a while ago and have survived numerous Mark and Sweeps

This is often seen in those nature shows, where a film crew follows a pack of animals over a year. The central theme often is the survival of the newly born animals. As a viewer, it can be a nail biting time as they struggle against the odds of surviving their first “critical year”. If they get past that first year, their survival rate dramatically improves.

Here the Garbage Collector only focuses on those “newly” created objects as a strategy to increase the likelihood of identifying unreachableobjects for garbage collection.

Major Garbage Collection

The Garbage Collector transverses the whole Heap for any objects that have become unreachable regardless of their age. Once a collection has occurred, any surviving objects that haven’t been collected before gets assigned to a new generation category. From this point onwards, all created objects will be kept separate for Minor Garbage Collection; they will become the next Generation when the next Major Garbage Collection occurs.

Note: The Generation number provides useful information on an object i.e. when and how many cycles ago it was created.

Stepping through our Investigation

Ubuntu utility, htop was used to examine which running processes were consuming the memory. Monitoring the memory usage, over a number of hours, the issue was with the Sidekiq processes as they increased in size from 30 MB to over 3000 MB.

Sidekiq is a Ruby application that executes tasks in a queue. It works by adding any new task to the queue, which is then executed by workers. Once a task is finished, the Worker then grabs the next task from the queue. Typically, it is used when the user doesn’t need an instant response i.e. sending email, generating reports, or updating external APIs.

Top view - Counting Objects on the Heap

The number of objects on the heap was outputted using the rake task below.

    namespace :memory do
      desc "memory object count"
      task :object_count => :environment do |t, args|

It works by adding a task to Sidekiq that counts the number of objects on the Heap.

    class Workers::Memory::ObjectCount
      include Sidekiq::Worker

      def perform
        counts = 0
        ObjectSpace.each_object do |o|
          counts += 1
        end "Object count by Sidekiq: Total count #{counts}"

Initially, the number of objects on the heap climb over time, which certainly looks like a memory leak. However, once the queue was emptied of tasks, the number of objects dramatically dropped. This is not consistent with a memory leak as the number of objects would continue to trend upward.

It suggests that the issue is Memory Bloat. Where additional objects caused the Kernal to allocate further memory to a process. These additional objects would eventually get garbage collected but the Ruby process doesn’t release the excess memory back to the Kernal.

A quick review: of what we know at this stage. There are a number of objects being created, that are referenced, and survive Garbage Collection. These objects consume the available memory, and trigger the Kernal to allocate additional memory. However this is not a memory leak as these objects eventually get collected by the Garbage Collector.

While the problem is Memory bloat, the steps to solve the issue is the same as a memory leak.

A deeper dive into the Heap

Snapshot the Heap

Ruby provides a meta snapshot of the objects on the Heap, along with their generation number and where in the code they were created. To collect this information, the trace has to be activated by using the code below.

require 'objspace'

The code ObjectSpace.dump_all is then used to output objects on the Heap. In the below code, this is saved to a file for further analysis.

  output ="/app/dump/Heap#{self.class.counter}.json", "w")
  ObjectSpace.dump_all(output: output)

To ensure that only actively referenced objects are captured, a sweep is requested before the dump occurs using the code GC.start.

In the code below, a “Dump” occurs every 1000 Sidekiq tasks, using this code self.class.counter % JOBS == 0.

The advantage of this is that we can compare the dumps over a period of time .

Analysis of the Heap Dump

The most successful way that I found to analysing the Heap snapshots was to use the Heapy gem. This produces a couple of useful summaries.

Summary of Number of Objects by Generation

This shows the number of objects on the Heap by their generation. If you are wondering why there is a nil generation. These are the objects that were created prior to starting the GC tracer.

In the analysis below, the Heap had a large number of initial objects, which is expected with the rails boot-up process. However, what wasn’t expected was a large number of objects created in generation 361.

 Analyzing Heap
Generation: nil object count: 375147
Generation: 44 object count: 2717
Generation: 45 object count: 4832
Generation: 46 object count: 6490
Generation: 47 object count: 5363
miss a few
Generation: 361 object count: 108755

Summary of a Heap by file location

The Heap gem provides a summary breakdown for a generation by the location in the program where the object was created.

This breakdown was applied to Generation 361 to find out what was the cause of all of these new objects.

The summary below shows the object’ count and their memory usage along with where in the code that they were created. The bulk of the objects where created in the New Relic gem directories. After a quick internet search, I found that a number of users had experienced similar issues and they advised that New Relic was not suitable for production usage.

Though if you haven’t used New Relic before give it a go. It is a fantastic diagnostic tool that gives insight into your application. I however will no be using it in production.

Once it was removed from the production server, the memory bloat disappeared. Awesome!

Analyzing Heap (Generation: 361)
allocated by memory (17588801) (in bytes)
13027511 /app/vendor/bundle/Ruby/2.3.0/gems/newrelic_rpm-
120632 /app/vendor/bundle/Ruby/2.3.0/gems/newrelic_rpm-
88400 /app/vendor/bundle/Ruby/2.3.0/gems/newrelic_rpm-

Code for Memory Dump

The existing Sidekiq code was modified as follows


    require "objspace"

    module Sidekiq
      module Middleware
        module Server
          class Profiler
            # Number of jobs to process before reporting
            JOBS = 1000

            class << self
              mattr_accessor :counter
              self.counter = 0

              def synchronize(&block)
                @lock || =

            def call(worker_instance, item, queue)
                self.class.synchronize do
                  self.class.counter += 1

                  if self.class.counter % JOBS == 0
           "reporting allocations after #{self.class.counter} jobs"
                    output ="/app/dump/Heap#{self.class.counter}.json", "w")
                    ObjectSpace.dump_all(output: output)
           "Heap saved to Heap.json"

    Sidekiq.configure_server do |config|

     config.server_middleware do |chain|
        chain.add Sidekiq::Middleware::Server::Profiler


  1. This doesn’t apply to JRuby it allows reallocation of memory back to the Kernal for allocation ↩︎