Friday, November 26, 2021

The final days of finalizers in Java

If you are developing in Java long enough, you are surely aware of the Object::finalize() method and the concept of the finalizers in general.

protected void finalize() throws Throwable
Called by the garbage collector on an object when garbage collection determines that there are no more references to the object. A subclass overrides the finalize method to dispose of system resources or to perform other cleanup.

This reasonably good idea has gotten quite bad reputation over the years and definitely is one of the worst nightmares of the JVM developers. There are enough details and horror stories on the web related to finalizers (who did not implement it at least once?), but the end is near: JEP-421: Deprecate Finalization for Removal, proposed to become a part of the JDK-18 release, kicks off the process to phase finalizers out.

In this rather short post we are going to talk about java.lang.ref.Cleaner, the mechanism alternative to the finalizers, which allows to perform the cleaning actions once the corresponding object instance becomes phantom reachable. It was introduced by JDK-8138696 and is available starting from JDK-9 and onwards.

The usage of java.lang.ref.Cleaner is pretty straightforward (although advanced usage scenarios are also possible):

To illustrate it, let us consider a quick example. Assume we have been designing a ResourceAccessor class that accesses (or even allocates) some resources (possibly, natives ones, which are outside of the JVM control).

import java.lang.ref.Cleaner;

public class ResourceAccessor implements AutoCloseable {
    private static final Cleaner cleaner = Cleaner.create();
    private final Cleaner.Cleanable cleanable;
    private final Resource resource;

    public ResourceAccessor() {
        this.resource = new Resource();
        this.cleanable = cleaner.register(this, cleaner(resource));

    public void close() throws Exception {

    private static Runnable cleaner(Resource resource) {
        return () -> {
            // Perform cleanup actions

The ResourceAccessor allocates the resource and registers the cleanup action on construction, keeping the reference to Cleaner.Cleanable instance. It also implements AutoCloseable interface and the close() method just delegates to the Cleaner.Cleanable::clean.

Please notice that cleanup action should not hold any references to the object instance registered for cleanup, otherwise that instance will not become phantom reachable and the cleaning action will not be invoked automatically. This is why we have wrapped the lamdba expression behind the cleanup action inside the static method. Alternatively, usage of the standalone class or static nested class that implements Runnable is also possible. Essentially, this is all we need!

Although java.lang.ref.Cleaners provides better and safer alternative to the finalizers, you should not overuse them. The AutoCloseable and try-with-resources idiom should be the preferred approach to manage resources in the majority of situations.

try (final ResourceAccessor resource = new ResourceAccessor()) {
    // Safely use the resource            

In these rare conditions when the lifespan of the resource is not well defined, the java.lang.ref.Cleaner is here to help. If you are curious how JDK is using java.lang.ref.Cleaner internally, please take a look at, for example, java.util.Timer or classes.