Many claim that the maximum heap size for a JVM is 1.7 GB, but is this really true?
Well yes and no....
Probably yes, where in most cases the person asking the question is a developer using a Windows based PC. Invariably, the PC uses a Windows 32-bit OS on 32 bit hardware and the JVM in use is Sun's 32-but Hotspot JVM. However, start to change any of these host environment characteristics and the maximum heap size limit can vary significantly.
In many production scenarios, the characteristics of the host environment are very different from development, such as having a 64-bit OS on 64-bit hardware (eg. Solaris/SPARC). However, its often only the developers and not the system administrators that understand the subtleties of JVM memory management to any significant degree, so the whole discussion gets lost and everyone ends up assuming 1.7GB is a hard heap size limit across the board..
So here's my attempt to map out the actual maximum heap sizes a little more clearly. Hopefully the figures in the table below are pretty accurate. I've tested many of these variables, but I've not had the luxury of having an environment to test them all. So please correct me if you have evidence of discrepancies.
The table assumes that the host machine has sufficient physical RAM installed and that other OS processes aren't consuming a significant portion of the available memory. It is assumed that the 64-bit OS is Windows, Linux or Solaris, the 32-bit hardware is x86 and the 64-bit hardware is x86-64, IA-64 or SPARC. Other operating system or hardware architectures may have different subtleties.
Depending on the JVM you use, your mileage may vary. For example, JRockit is pretty good at being able to hit the maximum heap size limits listed, whereas inherent limitations in other JVMs may prevent this.
It is worth discussing the Windows /3G boot option (with PAE) a little further. Most JVMs, like Sun Hotspot 1.6, require a contiguous memory space. Using the /3G option on Windows does not guarantee a single contiguous memory space dedicated to a single process. Therefore, this option cannot be used by JVMs that cannot cope with non-contiguous memory and these JVMs thus have a maximum heap size of 1.7 GB. JRockit can handle non-contiguous memory and therefore can use the /3G option on Windows, enabling a maximum heap size of approximately 2.7 GB.
Why the difference between maximum OS process size and maximum heap size?
Well the memory used by a JVM process is not just composed of heap. It is also made up of JVM internal structures, generated code, loaded native libraries and thread stacks which are all a lot less predictable in size. As a result, the stated maximum JVM process memory size can only ever be approximate allowing some headroom for non-heap memory usage. The more native C libraries your Java application uses and the more threads your application uses, then the more the memory, outside of the heap, will be consumed. Also, some JVMs, like Sun Hotspot, store class definitions outside of the heap (eg. in a “Perm Space”), further adding to the size of a JVM process over and above the maximum heap size.
So even though the figures in the table are achievable in certain circumstances, the actual choice of JVM and the nature of the hosted Java application and its usage of non-heap based memory may mean, in practice, that you are not able to get close to achieving the indicated maximum heap size for your application.
 http://blogs.oracle.com/jrockit/2008/09/how_to_get_almost_3_gb_heap_on_windows.html (updated link following the move of the linked content from the old Dev2Dev site - 30-Jan-09)
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