Not all memory leaks in .NET applications specifically relate to objects that are rooted or being referenced by rooted objects. There are other things that might produce the same behavior (memory increase) and we are going to talk about one of them.

What is the Finalizer Thread?
The finalizer thread is a specialized thread that the Common Language Runtime (CLR) creates in every process that is running .NET code. It is responsible to run the Finalize method (for the sake of simplicity, at this point, think of the finalize method as some kind of a destructor) for objects that implement it.

Who needs finalization?
Objects that needs finalization are usually objects that access unmanaged resources such as files, unmanaged memory and so on. Finalization is used to make sure these resources are closed or discarded to avoid actual memory leaks.

How does finalization works?
(NOTE: please email me if I’ve got something wrong or in accurate at this stage ;-) )

Objects that implement the finalize method, upon their creation, are being placed in a finalization queue. When no one references these objects (determined when the GC runs) they are moved to a special queue called FReachable queue (which means Finalization Reachable queue) which the finalizer thread iterates on and calls the finalize method of each of the objects there.
After the finalize method of an object is called it is read to be collected by the GC.

So how can the finalizer thread get blocked?
Finalizer thread block occurs when the finalizer thread calls to a finalize method of a certain object.
The implementation of that finalize method is dependat on a resource (its a general term for the sake of the general definition) that is blocked.
If that resource will not be freed and available for our finalize method, the finalizer thread will be blocked and none of the objects that are in the FReachable queue will get GCed.

For example:

  1. The implementation of the Finalize method contains code that requires a certain lock of a synchronization object (Critical Section, Mutex, Semaphore, etc) and that synchronization object is already blocked and is not getting freed (see previous post on Identifying Deadlocks in Managed Code for help on resolving this issue).
  2. The object that is being finalized is an Single Threaded Apratment (STA) COM object. Since STA COM objects have thread affinity, in order to call the destructor of that COM object we have to switch to the STA thread that created that object. If, for some reason, that thread is blocked, the finalizer thread will also get blocked due to that.

Symptoms of a blocked Finalizer thread

  • Memory is increasing
  • Possbile deadlock in the system (depends on a lot of factors, but it can happen)

How can we tell our Finalizer thread is blocked?

The technique for finding if the finalizer thread is blocked is quite easy and involves a few easy steps.

First of all, we need to take a series of dumps at fixed intervals (i.e. 5min apart). When we have the dumps we need to run the following set of commands from the SOS extension on all dumps and compare results (to find out how to load the SOS extension and set the symbols path look at this previous post):

  1. !FinalizeQueue – This dumps the finalization queue (not the FReachable queue). If you’ll see that the total number of object is increasing from dump to dump, we can start to suspect that our finalizer thread is blocked.
    NOTE: I say “suspect” because its still not certain at this point that the finalizer thread is blocked. This situation can also mean that the finalization of some of the objects takes a long time and the rate of objects being allocated vs. the rate of objects being finalized is in favor of the allocated objects, meaning, we are allocating objects that needs finalization faster than we are collecting them.
  2. !threads – This command will show us all .NET threads in the current process. The finalizer thread is marked at the end of the line by the text (finalizer) (surprisingly enough ;-) ). At the beginging of the line that has the (finalizer) text at the end of it you will see the thread’s index. We will need it to run the next command.
  3. ~[Finalizer Thread Index]k (i.e. ~24k)- This will dump the native call stack of the finalizer thread. If you will see in all dumps that the last function in the call stack (the top most) is something like ZwWaitForSingleObject or ZwWaitForMultipleObjects it means something is blocking our thread, usually a sync object.
    NOTE: If the call stack contains a call to a function named GetToSTA it means that the call to ZwWaitForSingleObject is there because we are tring to switch to the STA thread that created the STA objects and we are waiting to switch to it. This means that the STA thread is blocked for some reason.
  4. ~[Finalizer Thread Index]e!clrstack (i.e. ~24e!clrstack) – Dump the .NET call stack just to verify that if we don’t see a call to ZwWaitForSingleObject or ZwWaitForMultipleObjects we might be blocked due to a call to the .NET Monitor class (a native .NET implementation for a Critical Section). If we do see a call to Monitor.Enter it means we have some kind of a managed deadlock.

How to resolve a blocked finalizer thread?

If we are talking about a block that is being created due to a synchronization object (usually a critical section) we need to address it as a deadlock.

Managed Deadlock
To resolve a mangaed deadlock refer to the previous post on Identifying
Deadlock in Managed Code.

Unmanaged Deadlock
I’ll give a crash course to find unmanaged deadlocks, specifically Critical Sections since this is mainly a .NET debugging blog.

There is a Microsoft extension called sieextpub.dll (you can download it from here that is mainly focused at resolving COM issues. It has some useful commands for synchronization objects as well that we will use.

  • run the !critlist command. It will list all locked critical sections and the thread that is owning them (This is similar to running !locks but runs a lot faster).
  • Run ~[Thread ID]k (i.e. ~[22]k) to get the call stack of the owning thread.
  • If the problem is not with a critical section, but with another synchornization object such as a Mutex or a Semaphore, you can run !waitlist to see all the handles that every thread is blocking on. These handles should appear as parameters to functions such as WaitForSingleObject and WaitForMultipleObjects. We can use some native WinDbg commands to find these handles from the calls stack of the finalizer thread. For example:WaitForSingleObject:
    The handle itself will be shown in the call stack (using the kb or kv command, not just k) here:
    09b2f608 77ab4494 00000594 ffffffff 00000100 KERNEL32!WaitForSingleObject+0xf

    Compare this number to the number shown in the output of !waitlist and you will see who is the thread that is blocking the handle.

    WaitForMultipleObjects:
    Here the handle doesn’t appear directly in the kb command output since the function receives an array of handles. To find it we will need to find to parameters:
    00f4ff34 791d25d5 00000003 00f4ff58 00000000 KERNEL32!WaitForMultipleObjects+0x17

    The first bold one is the count of element in the passed array. The second one is the pointer to the array. To dump the array on the screen we will need to run the following command:
    dc 00f4ff58 – This will output the memory at that address and the output will look something like this:00f4ff58 00000700 00000708 000006d4 81b35acc ………….Z..
    00f4ff68 03a50008 b6788cb0 00000000 00000003 ……x………
    00f4ff78 00000000 ffffffff 00000000 00f4ff4c …………L…
    00f4ff88 8042f639 00f4ffdc 7920fd39 791d25e0 9.B…..9. y.%.y
    00f4ff98 ffffffff 00f4ffb4 791d254c 00000000 ……..L%.y….
    00f4ffa8 00dfcdf4 00000000 791d4d50 00f4ffec ……..PM.y….
    00f4ffb8 7c57b388 03a50008 00dfcdf4 00000000 ..W…………
    00f4ffc8 03a50008 7ff9f000 00dfc8ac 00f4ffc0 …………….

    We need to relate to the bolded number since we earlier saw that we have 3 handles to watch for. We should look to see if they appear in the output of the !waitlist to see who is blocking on them.

STA COM issues

STA COM issues are usualy caused due to the thread in which the STA object was created is blocked. To quickly find to which thread the finalizer thread is trying to switch to in order to call the destructor of the STA COM object we will use the sieextpub.dll that we mentioned above and call the !comcalls command which will simply show us the two important figures, the index of the thread that is trying to switch and the index of thread that we are trying to switch to.

Best resolution way – Avoidance

The best way of resolving blocked finalizer thread is avoiding it.
The first rule of thumb is AVOID FINALIZATION. If you don’t have to use it DON’T.

The only case implementing the finalize method is important is in a case where your class holds some private members that are native resources or that call native resources (SqlConnection for example, various Streams like FileStream and so on) in which case it is best to use the IDisposable pattern. You can find a lot of information on the internet about that but I’ll just point out a few interesting links such as this (from Eric Gunnerson’s blog. He is the Visual C# PM), and this excellent post (from Peter Provost’s blog).

In regards to STA COM object, the minute you don’t need them call Marshal.ReleaseComObject. This function wil guarentee that the COM object will get released the minute you call this function and NOT when the next GC will occur.

This was a long post, but I think it worthwhile. It a very important not to block the finalizer thread. I know that having only one without some watchdogging mechanisms is not a good design and Microsoft are aware of that.

Some additional resources for extra reading:

http://blogs.msdn.com/maoni/archive/2004/11/4.aspx – An excellent post by Maoni.

http://msdn.microsoft.com/msdnmag/issues/1100/GCI/ – An excellent article on Garbage Collection in .NET. Specifically read the “Forcing an Object to Clean Up” section which talks about the finalization of objects and a few other things.

http://www.devsource.com/article2/0,1759,1785503,00.asp – An excellent article on DevSource about .NET memory management and Finalization