javascript IE memory leak

An unfortunate side effect of closures is that they make it trivially easy to leak memory in Internet Explorer. JavaScript is a garbage collected language — objects are allocated memory upon their creation and that memory is reclaimed by the browser when no references to an object remain. Objects provided by the host environment are handled by that environment.

Browser hosts need to manage a large number of objects representing the HTML page being presented — the objects of the DOM. It is up to the browser to manage the allocation and recovery of these.

Internet Explorer uses its own garbage collection scheme for this, separate from the mechanism used for JavaScript. It is the interaction between the two that can cause memory leaks.

A memory leak in IE occurs any time a circular reference is formed between a JavaScript object and a native object. Consider the following:

function leakMemory() {
    var el = document.getElementById('el');
    var o = { 'el': el };
    el.o = o;
}

The circular reference formed above creates a memory leak; IE will not free the memory used by el ando until the browser is completely restarted.

The above case is likely to go unnoticed; memory leaks only become a real concern in long running applications or applications that leak large amounts of memory due to large data structures or leak patterns within loops.

Leaks are rarely this obvious — often the leaked data structure can have many layers of references, obscuring the circular reference.

Closures make it easy to create a memory leak without meaning to. Consider this:

function addHandler() {
    var el = document.getElementById('el');
    el.onclick = function() {
        el.style.backgroundColor = 'red';
    };
}

The above code sets up the element to turn red when it is clicked. It also creates a memory leak. Why? Because the reference to el is inadvertently caught in the closure created for the anonymous inner function. This creates a circular reference between a JavaScript object (the function) and a native object (el).

There are a number of workarounds for this problem. The simplest is not to use the el variable:

function addHandler(){
    document.getElementById('el').onclick = function(){
        this.style.backgroundColor = 'red';
    };
}

Surprisingly, one trick for breaking circular references introduced by a closure is to add another closure:

function addHandler() {
    var clickHandler = function() {
        this.style.backgroundColor = 'red';
    };
    (function() {
        var el = document.getElementById('el');
        el.onclick = clickHandler;
    })();
}

The inner function is executed straight away, and hides its contents from the closure created withclickHandler.

Another good trick for avoiding closures is breaking circular references during the window.onunloadevent. Many event libraries will do this for you. Note that doing so disables the back-forward cache in Firefox, so you should not register an unload listener in Firefox, unless you have other reasons to do so.

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