Piotr Kołaczkowski

Don't Share Java FileChannels

A user opens an issue complaining the server-side application you developed for them frequently crashes with “too many open files” error under heavy load. What do you do? Admin: “Just tell them to raise their file descriptor limits”. Software developer: “No, no, hold my beer, I can fix it in the app”.

A few minutes later, the developer dives into the code of their Java server. Very quickly they notice the application creates multiple FileChannel instances whenever a new request comes. Indeed, a session recorded with Java flight recorder confirms that under heavy load the number of opened FileChannel instances is crazy high, and the number of created file descriptors goes through the roof.

The first guess “maybe we’re not closing them sometimes and there’s a leak…” turns out to be wrong this time, because the number of descriptors drops back to the baseline when the load finishes.

Then they inspect which files are opened and it appears that actually only a dozen of files is responsible for all those descriptors.

– Ok, that’s easy then. Let’s open each FileChannel only once per file. If multiple things want to use them, then just share.

– But, isn’t it dangerous? Are they thread safe? What about file position?

– Indeed, some methods are not safe. We’ll write a facade that exposes only the safe methods.

Java’s FileChannel maintains an internal file position and offers methods that access or update that file position explicitly or implicitly. Obviously, those methods are not thread-safe, because this file position is shared.

However, there also exists a bunch of methods that take an explicit file position and promise to never update the shared one. They look quite ok, don’t they?

Hence, the developer creates a FileChannel facade exposing only the safe methods, and writes a few multi-threaded unit tests to confirm the methods work correctly and no data races happen. Everything seems to be working fine. And of course, the problem of too many file descriptors is gone now. The code gets through end-to-end testing and is finally released to the users. Users are happy and don’t complain on “too many open files” any more. The issue gets closed in the bug tracker as fixed. Total success!

However, in the following months, some new reports start appearing. Users report that app services sometimes fail randomly with ChannelClosedException. The problem happens very rarely, and despite many attempts, no-one can reproduce it for months. Initially developers suspect a use-after-close bug, but careful manual analysis of the code doesn’t reveal any problems. The exceptions gets thrown always when a FileChannel operation is attempted, e.g. read or write, as if another thread closed the shared channel without waiting for all the other users. However, the reference counting code that makes sure a shared FileChannel is closed after the last use also looks good. Logging confirms the app does not close the channel at all before the ChannelClosedException happens.

Eventually someone notices this tiny snippet of the FileChannel’s docs:

public abstract int read(ByteBuffer dst, long position) throws IOException


    ClosedChannelException - If this channel is closed
    ClosedByInterruptException - If another thread interrupts the current
        thread while the read operation is in progress, thereby closing the
        channel and setting the current thread's interrupt status

I bet many developers don’t read those “Throws” sections very carefully always (including me). If an I/O operation fails, they catch the exception somewhere, maybe a few layers up, log it or tell the user in other way that something bad happened. I also bet that whenever they see IOException in the signature they assume the cause is external to the application. E.g. a user placed a file in a wrong place. Or a disk failed. Or a client abruptly terminated a network connection. What we often don’t realize is that an IOException can be caused by the app itself, on demand.

If you read the docs carefully, you’ll notice words “interrupts” and “thereby closing the channel”. Interrupts are a Java mechanism that allows to unblock a thread stuck in an I/O operation. Of course interrupts can be used for many other things, but if a thread that’s blocked in an I/O operation receives an interrupt, the blocking call will immediately exit with ClosedByInterruptException. The exception is not the only side-effect. Another side-effect is closing the channel. Eh wait, what?! Closing the channel?

Yes! If a channel is shared and one of the threads using it receives an interrupt while being in a read or a write call, the channel gets closed. And if it gets closed, all the other threads that use it will also see it closed, and their I/O operations will start failing. That was the cause of unexpected ClosedChannelExceptions.


The JavaDoc for FileChannel nowhere mentioned the API was thread-safe. Even if some methods look like they can have safe happy path, the way they handle errors or interrupts may cause issues.

Lessons learned (again and again):

Share on: