GWT Handler Registrations

Being a fat-client technology, GWT involves a lot of event listeners. The idiom for using them is pretty simple:

  new ValueChangeHandler<String>() {
    public void onValueChange(ValueChangeEvent<String> event) {
      // do logic here

One interesting question is what to do with the HandlerRegistration return value of the addValueChangeHandler method:

HandlerRegistration r = widget.addValueChangeHandler(
  new ValueChangeHandler<String>() {
    public void onValueChange(ValueChangeEvent<String> event) {
      // do logic here
// when do you call this?

Is Calling removeHandler() Required?

There are two relative points about calling removeHandler() on a HandlerRegistration:

  1. removeHandler is never required to avoid DOM-/browser-level memory leaks.

    Per UnderstandingMemoryLeaks in the GWT docs, GWT’s event system ensures that you’ll never end up with circular references between your event handlers and unattached DOM elements.

    In either Widget.onDetach or page unload, GWT will clean up the DOM event listeners so that garbage collections can happen.

    So, it’s tempting to think removeHandler is a quaint but unnecessary capability. However:

  2. removeHandler is required to avoid application-level memory leaks.

    If you have a “global” event source, like an always-visible navigation bar widget or an application-wide EventBus, and you have a transient event listener, like a presenter listening for events, the presenter’s event handler will keep it from being garbage collected until the EventBus is also garbage collected.

For example, if you have a FooPlacePresenter in a framework like Tessell:

public class FooPlacePresenter {
  public void onBind() {
      new BlahEventHandler() { ... });

Each time the user visits the #foo place, a new instance of FooPlacePresenter will get created and it will start listening for BlahEvents on the application-wide EventBus.

When the user navigates away from #foo, the FooPlacePresenter instance should be garbage collected, so that the memory is freed up for the next place in your application the user visits.

However, because of FooPlacePresenter’s BlahEventHandler that did not get unregistered, the EventBus still thinks FooPlacePresenter is interested in BlahEvents, and so the presenter instance will not be garbage collected.

After a while of in-application navigation, you could potentially have a lot of presenter instances kept in memory due to their handlers listening on the application-wide event bus.

What To Think About

To avoid application-level memory leaks, when adding event handlers, you need to think about:

  1. What is the scope of the event source (the widget or the EventBus)?
  2. What is the scope of the event handler (the presenter)?

And then:

  • If the scopes are the same: you can ignore the HandlerRegistration and trust that GWT/the garbage collection will clean things up for you.
  • If the handler scope is longer-lived than the source scope: the handler would keep the source in memory, so you need to call removeHandler() when appropriate.
  • If the source scope is longer-lived than the handler scope: the source would keep the handler in memory, so you also need to call removeHandler() when appropriate.

Be Proactive

You should also take steps to pro-actively avoid application-level memory leaks.

The best way to do this is to avoid directly exposing application-scoped event sources to place-scoped presenters. If place-scoped code is unable to attach directly to applicate-scoped sources, it will be impossible for place handlers to stay in memory longer than they should.

For example, GWT 2.1 uses this in its ActivityManager implementation. Instead of handing the application-wide EventBus directly to an activity, it wraps the EventBus in a ResettableEventBus.

ResettableEventBus keeps tracks of any handlers the current activity registers, and then when that activity is done, the ActivityManager calls ResettableEventBus removeHandlers() to forcibly remove the old activity’s handlers from the EventBus.

Now the activity doesn’t have to worry about calling removeHandler() on either its widgets or the EventBus, so it’s much less boilerplate and not as prone to programmer error. Both are big wins.

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