Mozilla gets tough on Firefox memory leaks

'Pressing need to deal with memory usage' spurs new plan to tackle long-running problem

Mozilla will try to plug more memory leaks in Firefox with a new, aggressive approach that relies on weekly bug triage meetings, the company said last week.

"It's become increasingly clear over the last several months that we have a pretty pressing need to deal with increases in memory usage in Firefox," said Johnny Stenback, a Finnish developer who works for Mozilla, in a message on a company mailing list last Thursday. "Since we released [Firefox] 4 (and before, too), we've seen lots of reports about Firefox memory usage being higher than in older versions, and that Firefox memory usage is growing over time."

In response, Mozilla has launched an initiative dubbed "MemShrink" that hopes to put an end to Firefox's memory leaks.

As part of MemShrink, Mozilla will kick off weekly meetings where developers will triage bugs, come up with plans to quash the bugs, and assign them to specific programmers. "It's pretty clear by now that this is a much bigger problem than any one person can likely tackle," said Stenback.

Mozilla has also posted a MemShrink entry on its in-house wiki that provides more details on the project.

In the wiki, Mozilla spelled out its goals, including, "Get the number of leaks reported against a single version of Firefox down to zero, and keep it there."

Firefox has long been criticized for using large amounts of RAM. The complaints have usually centered on the browser's penchant of not releasing memory when tabs are closed, leading to performance degradation or in some cases, locking up the browser.

Mozilla has tried to stop the leaks before. In 2008, a pair of company engineers claimed that work done on the then-under-construction Firefox 3 had paid off, with improved memory-handling compared to earlier versions and rivals.

A year before that, Christopher Blizzard, currently the Web platform director at Mozilla but at the time a director on the Mozilla Foundation's board, said the Firefox leaks had to be plugged if the browser was ever going to migrate to mobile.

Mozilla acknowledged the importance of corking memory leaks on smartphones in its MemShrink wiki. "These factors [of speed, stability and perception] are doubly important for Firefox Mobile," stated the wiki, referring to Mozilla's browser for Android.

The first weekly MemShrink triage meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, June 14.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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