Scaling Java Workloads on Kubernetes: A Dive into CPU and Memory Metrics

by Thomas Memenga on 2022-01-29

Scaling Java Workloads on Kubernetes: A Dive into CPU and Memory Metrics

In the dynamic world of container orchestration, Kubernetes stands out as a robust platform for managing diverse workloads. For Java applications, particularly, the decision of how to effectively scale in a Kubernetes environment is nuanced, involving a careful consideration of both CPU and memory metrics. This complexity is rooted in the unique characteristics of Java’s memory management.

Understanding Kubernetes Scaling Mechanisms

Kubernetes’ Horizontal Pod Autoscaler (HPA) is a pivotal feature for automatically scaling applications. By default, it uses CPU utilization as the primary metric. However, this doesn’t always suit Java applications, which are often more memory-intensive than CPU-bound. This discrepancy leads to the question: should we scale Java applications based on memory consumption?

The Intricacies of JVM Memory Management

The Java Virtual Machine (JVM) plays a critical role in how Java applications use memory. Its behavior significantly impacts the effectiveness of memory-based scaling:

Heap Memory Allocation: The JVM allocates heap memory for Java objects. Once allocated, this memory is not readily released back to the operating system, often leading to a high memory footprint.

Garbage Collection (GC): Java’s garbage collection mechanism, which is responsible for freeing up memory occupied by unused objects, can be unpredictable. Different garbage collectors (like G1, ZGC, and Shenandoah) have their own mechanisms and efficiencies, affecting how memory is managed and reported.

Recent JDK Enhancements: Newer JDK versions have introduced significant improvements in garbage collection and memory management. These advancements aim to reduce latency and increase throughput, but they also add complexity to the decision-making process for scaling.

Challenges in Memory-Based Scaling

Scaling based on memory consumption in Java applications is not straightforward due to the JVM’s characteristics:

Perceived Constant High Memory Usage: The JVM’s tendency to hold onto allocated memory can mislead the scaling mechanism into thinking that the application constantly needs more resources.

Garbage Collection Overheads: Aggressive scaling in response to memory usage can lead to frequent garbage collection cycles, potentially impacting application performance.

Best Practices for Effective Scaling

Balanced Metric Approach: Combine CPU and memory metrics for a more holistic view. This helps in scaling the application based on actual resource needs rather than on a single aspect of resource usage.

JVM Tuning: Optimize JVM settings, including heap size and garbage collector configurations. This tuning can help in making memory usage more efficient and predictable.

Custom Metrics and Observability: Implement custom metrics that reflect the application’s operational state more accurately. Tools like Prometheus for metric collection and Grafana for visualization can provide deeper insights into both JVM and application performance.

Leverage Advanced Garbage Collectors: Utilize the advanced garbage collectors available in newer JDK versions for better memory management. Each collector has its strengths and is suitable for different types of workloads.

Regular Performance Testing: Conduct performance tests to understand how your application behaves under different loads. This understanding is crucial for setting appropriate scaling thresholds.

Cluster Autoscaler Consideration: In addition to HPA, consider using Kubernetes Cluster Autoscaler for dynamically adjusting the number of nodes in your cluster based on the workload.


Scaling Java applications in Kubernetes is a complex task that requires a deep understanding of both Kubernetes’ scaling capabilities and Java’s memory management. By adopting a balanced approach that considers both CPU and memory metrics, tuning JVM parameters, and leveraging modern JDK improvements, organizations can scale their Java workloads more effectively. This approach ensures optimal performance, efficient resource utilization, and cost-effectiveness in a Kubernetes environment.