How to Build fast/efficient cache in Java using SoftReference

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Building cache for a Java application is required many times. Writing an efficient cache can be really helpful for better application performance. If you want to build a faster and efficient cache in Java then it can be achieved using SoftReference based HashMap. This example demonstrates a sample cache using SoftReference.

As per Sun’s SoftReference API documentation:

Soft reference objects, which are cleared at the discretion of the garbage collector in response to memory demand. Soft references are most often used to implement memory-sensitive caches.

Suppose that the garbage collector determines at a certain point in time that an object is softly reachable. At that time it may choose to clear atomically all soft references to that object and all soft references to any other softly-reachable objects from which that object is reachable through a chain of strong references. At the same time or at some later time it will enqueue those newly-cleared soft references that are registered with reference queues.

All soft references to softly-reachable objects are guaranteed to have been cleared before the virtual machine throws an OutOfMemoryError.

Here is a code example which can be used to have SoftReference as cache. (Code taken from Java Specialists Archive)

import java.lang.ref.ReferenceQueue;
import java.lang.ref.SoftReference;
import java.util.AbstractMap;
import java.util.HashMap;
import java.util.LinkedList;
import java.util.Map;
import java.util.Set;

public class SoftHashMap extends AbstractMap {
  /** The internal HashMap that will hold the SoftReference. */
  private final Map hash = new HashMap();
  /** The number of "hard" references to hold internally. */
  private final int HARD_SIZE;
  /** The FIFO list of hard references, order of last access. */
  private final LinkedList hardCache = new LinkedList();
  /** Reference queue for cleared SoftReference objects. */
  private final ReferenceQueue queue = new ReferenceQueue();

  public SoftHashMap() { this(100); }
  public SoftHashMap(int hardSize) { HARD_SIZE = hardSize; }

  public Object get(Object key) {
    Object result = null;
    // We get the SoftReference represented by that key
    SoftReference soft_ref = (SoftReference)hash.get(key);
    if (soft_ref != null) {
      // From the SoftReference we get the value, which can be
      // null if it was not in the map, or it was removed in
      // the processQueue() method defined below
      result = soft_ref.get();
      if (result == null) {
        // If the value has been garbage collected, remove the
        // entry from the HashMap.
      } else {
        // We now add this object to the beginning of the hard
        // reference queue.  One reference can occur more than
        // once, because lookups of the FIFO queue are slow, so
        // we don't want to search through it each time to remove
        // duplicates.
        if (hardCache.size() > HARD_SIZE) {
          // Remove the last entry if list longer than HARD_SIZE
    return result;

  /** We define our own subclass of SoftReference which contains
   not only the value but also the key to make it easier to find
   the entry in the HashMap after it's been garbage collected. */
  private static class SoftValue extends SoftReference {
    private final Object key; // always make data member final
    /** Did you know that an outer class can access private data
     members and methods of an inner class?  I didn't know that!
     I thought it was only the inner class who could access the
     outer class's private information.  An outer class can also
     access private members of an inner class inside its inner
     class. */
    private SoftValue(Object k, Object key, ReferenceQueue q) {
      super(k, q);
      this.key = key;

  /** Here we go through the ReferenceQueue and remove garbage
   collected SoftValue objects from the HashMap by looking them
   up using the SoftValue.key data member. */
  private void processQueue() {
    SoftValue sv;
    while ((sv = (SoftValue)queue.poll()) != null) {
      hash.remove(sv.key); // we can access private data!
  /** Here we put the key, value pair into the HashMap using
   a SoftValue object. */
  public Object put(Object key, Object value) {
    processQueue(); // throw out garbage collected values first
    return hash.put(key, new SoftValue(value, key, queue));
  public Object remove(Object key) {
    processQueue(); // throw out garbage collected values first
    return hash.remove(key);
  public void clear() {
    processQueue(); // throw out garbage collected values
  public int size() {
    processQueue(); // throw out garbage collected values first
    return hash.size();
  public Set entrySet() {
    // no, no, you may NOT do that!!! GRRR
    throw new UnsupportedOperationException();


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