Does my NodeJS application leak memory? – 1

A Gentle Introduction

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step – Lao Tzu

One of the key requirements for writing software for emergency management is consistent performance. Every time user feedback and/or testing reveals performance issues, the question that always comes to my mind is whether the application is leaking memory or if is it something else. The last thing an emergency software developer wants to hear is that the alerts did not get to the recipients in time or that emergency personnel experienced sluggish performance.

Simply put, a memory leak is when an application can no longer efficiently manage its memory resources resulting either in a crash or sluggish performance. Putting it differently, a memory leak occurs when freed memory is not reclaimed for reuse. Depending on the size and frequency of leak an application could either crash or behave erratically. While all platforms and programming languages are susceptible to memory leaks, I will be restricting my scope to NodeJS/V8.

Memory leaks in the front end (or client) code can go unnoticed for a long time or may never be detected. This is because the user could shut down the browser or refresh the page before a potential memory leak causes a problem. This is not the case when you are writing backend server real time applications for messaging, authentication and Internet of Things. A server issue affects all its clients not just one user. It is not practical to restart the server every time there is an issue. 

The go to response of a developer is to scour the internet and typically end up examining heap dumps or watching the growth of memory. If one has not understood the theory behind memory leaks and garbage collection this exercise usually results in frustration. For example, just pure memory growth for some period of time does not necessarily mean that there is a leak.

I went through the same frustrations  like most of my fellow developers and decided that I had to find a simpler way to check for leaks. This was very important to me as all my work relates to developing NodeJS backend server apps.

One of the things we tend to ignore is the power of the logs. Both in terms of analyzing them and of implementing them in our code. Depending on the type of log, the vitals of the server app can be provided in realtime. This can provide warning of an upcoming problem, be it leak or a security threat.

There are a ton of log analysis and management tools, including monitoring tools available, but that creates a learning curve for a specific product which may not be available in the near future. Many also do not fit the budget of a small startup. Many free open source tools tend to have difficulty in keeping up with the evolution of NodeJS/V8.

In my quest to find something that was not dependent of any external product or that required code modification, I decided to stick with understanding the garbage collection trace events of V8/NodeJS. My journey took me through analyzing the V8 source code, thousands of lines of garbage collection traces, including a quick detour into the world of Linux internals.

In the series of posts that follow I will describe my journey on how I use the V8 logs to look for leaks starting with some basic information on memory management