Foojay Today

How & When to Use JDK Flight Recorder in Production

December 15, 2020

While it would certainly be useful to record the whole lifetime, this is unpractical, even airplane Flight Data Recorders (and Cockpit Voice Recorders) only keep recent history. Instead, it’s possible to aim at specific time frames where a recording could be useful:

  • At startup, the JVM does a lot of things, so does the application, it generally initializes a lot of long lived objects, generally services, threads, etc.
  • Continuously at runtime, this is likely a sliding time window in which one can access what’s happened in last X <time unit>(this is either limited by age or by size). It this case the dump could be done when required.
  • At shutdown whether the JVM was killed or crashed. It this case the JFR files are an alternative to heap dumps for the autopsy.

For more details on this topic, see Continuous Production Profiling and Diagnostics, by Marcus Hirt.

Record Application Startup

I mentioned startup as a separate time frame, because it’s useful to inspect startup recording. During this time, the JVM initialize a lot of things, most code has yet to be warmed up, depending on the workload there may be a lot of allocations.

I found that having this startup recording very useful to tune the readiness of an application, as we’ll see after. Time bound recording at JVM startup:


Eventually it’s possible to tweak this recording with, other parameters like:

  • path-to-gc-roots=true, which allows to identify leaks using the OldObjectSample (enabled in the profile settings)
  • maxsize to set a size threshold to the recording
  • disk=false if you want to keep the event in memory only before dumping to the configured filename. Otherwise the JVM will use it’s default strategy which is to evacuate chunks of event to disk, in the JFR repository (by default a folder in the temporary folder).

In addition to these recording parameter, it can be useful to set a few JFR wide options, i.e. that affects all recordings, e.g. -XX:FlightRecorderOptions=stackdepth=96, which augments the size of the captured stack, be advised, that the bigger the number the higher the impact. In the container, checking JFR:

❯ jcmd $(pgrep java) JFR.check
Recording 1: name=app-startup duration=6m (running) [1]
❯ jcmd $(pgrep java) JFR.check
No available recordings. [2]

Use jcmd 6 JFR.start to start a recording.
❯ ls -lah /var/log/jfr/app-startup.jfr
-rw-r--r--   1 root root 57M May  6 22:35 /var/log/jfr/app-startup.jfr
1Indicates the configured 30s recording is ongoing.
2No more recording once the duration is over.

I’ll show how to use this recording later in this article.

Record Application Post-Startup or Continuous Recording

Once startup has been recording, it’s useful to set up a continuous recording. The good thing is that the JVM allows to define multiple recording in the command line. Let’s add another -XX:StartFlightRecording with the delay parameter. Delayed continuous recording:


This will register a continuous profiling that will start 5m after the JVM starts. And it sets a retention of 10 minutes, or a retention of the default maximum size which is 250 MiB in JDK11.

If this is the only recording, JFR.check will output something like that.In the container, checking JFR:

$ jcmd $(pgrep java) JFR.check
Recording 1: name=post-startup maxage=10m (delayed) [1]
❯ jcmd $(pgrep java) JFR.check
Recording 1: name=app-startup maxage=10m (running) [2]
1Indicates there’s a recording that will start at some point in the future.
2Indicates the configured continuous recording is ongoing.

Note that in the case of the continuous recording it’s necessary to dump the recording via JFR.dump.

Recording for Shutdown

The only thing to do is to set the recording parameter dumponexit=true (on each recording). The record will be stored in the configured filename otherwise JFR will create a file similar to this the working directory of the process hotspot-pid-6-id-1-2020_05_03_12_54_14.jfr

The JVM source code suggests that JFR has the notion of emergency JFR dump, but the mechanism is different as it seems those are dumped in the working directory of the process, which may not be writable in a container. I don’t think it’s currently possible to change the location. But from what I’ve seen SOE or OOM are dumped fine via dumponexit=true and filename=…​.OutOfMemory ⇒ hs_oom_pid<pid>.jfrStackOverflowError ⇒ hs_soe_pid<pid>.jfrOther error ⇒ hs_err_pid<pid>.jfr

Putting It All Together

Putting it all together, let’s put these in the JDK_JAVA_OPTIONS. Record startup then record continuously, and dump on exit:


After acquiring the record files, you are ready to exploit them. We’ve seen jfr on which it’s possible to build upon, now in the upcoming sections, we'll briefly present the other elephant in the room (in a positive way), JDK Mission Control which empowers its users with remarkable diagnosis skills!


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    Brice Dutheil

    Brice Dutheil is a software engineer, aficionado of open source software. Previously a Mockito core contributor, now a Dad of 2.

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