Day 21

Under the Hood

by Charles L. Perkins and Laura Lemay


Today the inner workings of the Java system will be revealed.

You'll find out all about Java's vision, Java's virtual machine, those bytecodes you've heard so much about, that mysterious garbage collector, and why you might worry about security but don't have to.

The title of this chapter well describes its content; the discussion in today's lesson is quite technical and assumes that you know something about low-level languages (assembly) and compiler/interpreter design concepts.

Let's begin, however, with the big picture.

The Big Picture

The Java team is very ambitious. Their ultimate goal is nothing less than to revolutionize the way software is written and distributed. They've started with the Internet, where they believe much of the interesting software of the future will live.

To achieve such an ambitious goal, a large portion of the Internet programming community itself must be marshaled behind a similar goal and given the tools to help achieve it. The Java language, with its four S's (small, simple, safe, secure) and its flexible, Net-oriented environment, hopes to become the focal point for the rallying of this new legion of programmers.

To this end, Sun Microsystems has done something rather gutsy. What was originally a secret, tens-of-millions-of-dollars research-and-development project, and 100 percent proprietary, has become a free, open, and relatively unencumbered technology standard upon which anyone can build. They are literally giving it away and reserving only the rights they need to maintain and grow the standard.

Any truly open standard must be supported by at least one excellent, freely available "demonstration" implementation. Sun has already shipped the 1.0 version of Java as part of the JDK, and has published specifications for the language itself and for the virtual machine and bytecode compilers. In parallel, several universities, companies, and individuals have already expressed their intention to duplicate the Java environment based on the open API that Sun has created.

In addition, the Java runtime environment is being incorporated into a wide variety of operating systems and environments on different platforms. Microsoft and Apple have licensed Java to include the runtime in Windows and the MacOS. A Java runtime will be available on IBM systems (OS/2 and AIX) as well as on nearly every commercial flavor of UNIX. What this means is that applications written in Java will be automatically executable on these systems, without any other software needing to be installed. These steps have been significant in making Java ubiquitous as not only the language for the Internet but also the language for future software development.

Throughout this book, the Java runtime and the Java virtual machine are referred to interchangeably. While there are some slight differences between the two, equating them highlights the single environment that must be created to support Java.

Several other languages are even contemplating compiling down to Java bytecodes, to help support them in becoming a more robust and widespread standard for moving executable content around on the Net.

Why It's a Powerful Vision

One of the reasons this brilliant move on Sun's part has a real chance of success is the pent-up frustration of literally a whole generation of programmers who desperately want to share their code with one another. Right now, the computer science world is balkanized into factions at universities and companies all over the world, with hundreds of languages, dozens of them widely used, dividing and separating us all. It's the worst sort of Tower of Babel. Java hopes to build some bridges and help tear down that tower. Because it is so simple, because it's so useful for programming over the Internet, and because the Internet is so "hot" right now-this confluence of forces should help propel Java onto center stage.

It deserves to be there. It is the natural outgrowth of ideas that, since the early 1970s inside the Smalltalk group at Xerox PARC, have lain relatively dormant in the mainstream. Smalltalk, in fact, invented the first object-oriented bytecode interpreter and pioneered many of the deep ideas that Java builds on today. Those efforts were not embraced over the intervening decades as a solution to the general problems of software, however. Today, with those problems becoming so much more obvious, and with the Net crying out for a new kind of programming, the soil is fertile to grow something stronger from those old roots, something that just might spread like wildfire. (Is it a coincidence that Java's previous internal names were Green and OAK?)

This new vision of software is one in which the Net becomes an ocean of objects, classes, and the open APIs between them. Traditional applications have vanished, replaced by skeletal frameworks like the Eiffel Tower into which can be fitted any parts from this ocean, on demand, to suit any purpose. User interfaces will be mixed and matched, built in pieces and constructed to taste, whenever the need arises, by their own users. Menus of choices will be filled by dynamic lists of all the choices available for that function, at that exact moment, across the entire ocean (of the Net).

In such a world, software distribution is no longer an issue. Software will be everywhere and will be paid for via a plethora of new micro-accounting models, which charge tiny fractions of cents for the parts as they are assembled and used. Frameworks will come into existence to support entertainment, business, and the social (cyber-)spaces of the near future.

This is a dream that many of us have waited all our lives to be a part of. There are tremendous challenges to making it all come true, but the powerful winds of change we all feel must stir us into action because, at last, there is a base on which to build that dream-Java.

The Java Virtual Machine

To make visions like this possible, Java must be ubiquitous. It must be able to run on any computer and any operating system-now and in the future. In order to achieve this level of portability, Java must be very precise not only about the language itself, but about the environment in which the language lives. You've seen throughout this book that the Java environment includes a generally useful set of packages of classes and a freely available implementation of them. This takes care of a part of what is needed, but it is crucial also to specify exactly how the runtime environment of Java behaves.

This final requirement is what has stymied many attempts at ubiquity in the past. If you base your system on any assumptions about what is beneath the runtime system, you lose. If you depend in any way on the computer or operating system below, you lose. Java solves this problem by inventing an abstract computer of its own and running on that.

This virtual machine, as it's called, and which you've used throughout this book as the Java bytecode interpreter, runs a special set of instructions, called bytecodes, that are simply a stream of formatted bytes, each of which has a precise specification of exactly what each bytecode does to this virtual machine. The virtual machine is also responsible for certain fundamental capabilities of Java, such as object creation and garbage collection.

Finally, in order to be able to move bytecodes safely across the Internet, you need a bulletproof model of security-and how to maintain it-and a precise format for how this stream of bytecodes can be sent from one virtual machine to another.

Each of these requirements is addressed in today's lesson.

Much of the following description is based closely on the latest "Virtual Machine Specifications" documents (and the 1.0 bytecodes), so if you delve more deeply into the details online, you should cover some familiar ground.

An Overview

It is worth quoting the introduction to the Java virtual machine documentation here, because it is so relevant to the vision outlined earlier:

The Java virtual machine specification has a purpose that is both like and unlike equivalent documents for other languages and abstract machines. It is intended to present an abstract, logical machine design free from the distraction of inconsequential details of any implementation. It does not anticipate an implementation technology or an implementation host. At the same time it gives a reader sufficient information to allow implementation of the abstract design in a range of technologies.
However, the intent of the [...] Java project is to create a language [...] that will allow the interchange over the Internet of "executable content," which will be embodied by compiled Java code. The project specifically does not want Java to be a proprietary language and does not want to be the sole purveyor of Java language implementations. Rather, we hope to make documents like this one, and source code for our implementation, freely available for people to use as they choose.
This vision [...] can be achieved only if the executable content can be reliably shared between different Java implementations. These intentions prohibit the definition of the Java virtual machine from being fully abstract. Rather, relevant logical elements of the design have to be made sufficiently concrete to allow the interchange of compiled Java code. This does not collapse the Java virtual machine specification to a description of a Java implementation; elements of the design that do not play a part in the interchange of executable content remain abstract. But it does force us to specify, in addition to the abstract machine design, a concrete interchange format for compiled Java code.

The Java virtual machine specification consists of the following:

Each of these is covered today.

Despite this degree of specificity, there are still several elements of the design that remain (purposely) abstract, including the following:

These places are where the creativity of a virtual machine implementor has full rein.

The Fundamental Parts

The Java virtual machine can be divided into five fundamental pieces:

Some of these might be implemented by using an interpreter, a native binary code compiler, or even a hardware chip-but all these logical, abstract components of the virtual machine must be supplied in some form in every Java system.

`The memory areas used by the Java virtual machine are not required to be at any particular place in memory, to be in any particular order, or even to use contiguous memory. However, all but the method area must be able to represent aligned 32-bit values (for example, the Java stack is 32 bits wide).

The virtual machine, and its supporting code, is often referred to as the runtime environment, and when this book refers to something being done at runtime, the virtual machine is what's doing it.

Java Bytecodes

The Java virtual machine instruction set is optimized to be small and compact. It is designed to travel across the Net, and so has traded off speed-of-interpretation for space. (Given that both Net bandwidth and mass storage speeds increase less rapidly than CPU speed, this seems like an appropriate trade-off.)

As mentioned, Java source code is "compiled" into bytecodes and stored in a .class file. On Sun's Java system, this is performed using the Java compiler (javac). The Java compiler is not exactly a traditional "compiler," because it translates source code into bytecodes, a lower-level format that cannot be run directly but must be further interpreted by each computer. Of course, it is exactly this level of indirection that buys you the power, flexibility, and extreme portability of Java code.

Quotation marks are used around the word "compiler" when talking about the Java compiler because later today you will also learn about the "just-in-time" compiler, which acts more like the back end of a traditional compiler. The use of the same word "compiler" for these two different pieces of Java technology is unfortunate, but somewhat reasonable, because each is really one-half (either the front or the back end) of a more traditional compiler.

A bytecode instruction consists of a one-byte opcode that serves to identify the instruction involved and zero or more operands, each of which may be more than one byte long, that encode the parameters the opcode requires.

When operands are more than one byte long, they are stored in big-endian order, high-order byte first. These operands must be assembled from the byte stream at runtime. For example, a 16-bit parameter appears in the stream as two bytes so that its value is first_byte * 256 + second_byte. The bytecode instruction stream is only byte-aligned, and alignment of any larger quantities is not guaranteed (except inside the special bytecodes lookupswitch and tableswitch, which have special alignment rules of their own).

Bytecodes interpret data in the runtime memory areas as belonging to a fixed set of types: the primitive types you've seen several times before, consisting of several signed integer types (8-bit byte, 16-bit short, 32-bit int, 64-bit long), one unsigned integer type (16-bit char), and two signed floating-point types (32-bit float, 64-bit double), plus the type "reference to an object" (a 32-bit pointer-like type). Some special bytecodes (for example, the dup instructions) treat runtime memory areas as raw data, without regard to type. This is the exception, however-not the rule.

These primitive types are distinguished and managed by the Java compiler, not by the Java runtime environment. These types are not identified in memory, and therefore cannot be distinguished at runtime. Different bytecodes are designed to handle each of the various primitive types uniquely, and the compiler carefully chooses from this palette based on its knowledge of the actual types stored in the various memory areas. For example, when adding two integers, the compiler generates an iadd bytecode; for adding two floats, fadd is generated.

Specifics about the Java bytecodes themselves are contained in appendix D, "Bytecodes Reference."


The registers of the Java virtual machine are just like the registers inside a real computer.

New Terms
Registers are used to temporarily store data. In the Java vritual machine registers hold the machine's state, affect its operation, and are updated after each bytecode is executed.

The following are the Java registers:

The virtual machine defines these registers to be 32 bits wide.

Because the virtual machine is primarily stack-based, it does not use any registers for passing or receiving arguments. This is a conscious choice skewed toward bytecode simplicity and compactness. It also aids efficient implementation on computer systems with fewer registers.
By the way, the pc register is also used when the runtime handles exceptions; catch clauses are (ultimately) associated with ranges of the pc within a method's bytecodes.

The Stack

The Java virtual machine is stack-based. A Java stack frame is similar to the stack frame of a conventional programming language-it holds the state for a single method call. Frames for nested method calls are stacked on top of this frame.

New Term
The stack is used to supply parameters to bytecodes and methods, and to receive results back from them.

Each stack frame contains three (possibly empty) sets of data: the local variables for the method call, its execution environment, and its operand stack. The sizes of the first two are fixed at the start of a method call, but the operand stack varies in size as bytecodes are executed in the method.

Local variables are stored in an array of 32-bit slots, indexed by the register vars. Most types take up one slot in the array, but the long and double types each take up two slots.

Long and double values, stored or referenced via an index N, take up the (32-bit) slots [N] and [N]+1. These 64-bit values are therefore not guaranteed to be 64-bit-aligned. Implementors are free to decide the appropriate way to divide these values between the two slots.

The execution environment in a stack frame helps to maintain the stack itself. It contains a pointer to the previous stack frame, a pointer to the local variables of the method call, and pointers to the stack's current "base" and "top." Additional debugging information can also be placed into the execution environment.

The operand stack, a 32-bit first-in-first-out (FIFO) stack, is used to store the parameters and return values of most bytecode instructions. For example, the iadd bytecode expects two integers to be stored on the top of the stack. It pops them, adds them together, and pushes the resulting sum back onto the stack.

Each primitive data type has unique instructions that know how to extract, operate, and push back operands of that type. For example, long and double operands take two positions on the stack, and the special bytecodes that handle these operands take this into account. It is illegal for the types on the stack and the instruction operating on them to be incompatible (the Java compiler outputs bytecodes that always obey this rule).

The top of the operand stack and the top of the overall Java stack are almost always the same. Thus, "the stack" refers to both stacks, collectively.

The Heap

The heap is that part of memory from which newly created instances (objects) are allocated.

The heap is often assigned a large, fixed size when the Java runtime system is started, but on systems that support virtual memory, it can grow as needed, in a nearly unbounded fashion.

Because objects are automatically garbage-collected in Java, programmers do not have to (and, in fact, cannot) manually free the memory allocated to an object when they are finished using it.

Java objects are referenced indirectly in the runtime via handles, which are a kind of pointer into the heap.

Because objects are never referenced directly, parallel garbage collectors can be written that operate independently of your program, moving around objects in the heap at will. You'll learn more about garbage collection in the section "The Garbage Collector," later in this lesson.

The Method Area

Like the compiled code areas of conventional programming language environments, or the TEXT segment in a UNIX process, the method area stores the Java bytecodes that implement almost every method in the Java system. (Remember that some methods might be declared native, and thus implemented, for example, in C.) The method area also stores the symbol tables needed for dynamic linking as well as any other additional information debuggers or development environments that might want to associate with each method's implementation.

Because bytecodes are stored as byte streams, the method area is aligned on byte boundaries. (The other areas are all aligned on 32-bit word boundaries.)

The Constant Pool

In the heap, each class has an array of constants, called a constant pool, available to it. Usually created by the Java compiler, these constants encode all the names (of variables, methods, and so forth) used by any method in a class. The class contains a count of how many constants there are and an offset that specifies how far into the class description itself the array of constants begins. These constants are typed via specially coded bytes and have a precisely defined format when they appear in the .class file for a class. Later today, a little of this file format is covered, but everything is fully specified by the virtual machine specifications in your Java release.


The virtual machine, as currently defined, places some restrictions on legal Java programs by virtue of the choices it has made (some were previously described, and more will be detailed later today).

These limitations and their implications are

In addition, Sun's implementation of the virtual machine uses so-called _quick bytecodes, which further limit the system. Unsigned 8-bit offsets into objects may limit the number of methods in a class to 256 (this limit may not exist in the final release), and unsigned 8-bit argument counts limit the size of the argument list to 255 32-bit words. (Although this means that you can have up to 255 arguments of most types, you can have only 127 of them if they're all long or double.)

The Bytecode Interpreter

A bytecode interpreter examines each opcode byte (bytecode) in a method's bytecode stream, in turn, and executes a unique action for that bytecode. This might consume further bytes for the operands of the bytecode and might affect which bytecode will be examined next. It operates like the hardware CPU in a computer, which examines memory for instructions to carry out in exactly the same manner. It is the software CPU of the Java virtual machine.

Your first, naive attempt to write such a bytecode interpreter will almost certainly be disastrously slow. The inner loop, which dispatches one bytecode each time through the loop, is notoriously difficult to optimize. In fact, smart people have been thinking about this problem, in one form or another, for more than 20 years. Luckily, they've gotten results, all of which can be applied to Java.

The final result is that the interpreter shipped in the current release of Java has an extremely fast inner loop. In fact, on even a relatively slow computer, this interpreter can perform more than 590,000 bytecodes per second! This is really quite good-the CPU in that computer does only about 30 times better, and it has the advantage of using the hardware to do it.

This interpreter is fast enough for most Java programs (and for those requiring more speed, they can always use native methods-see yesterday's discussion), but what if a smart implementor wants to do better?

Just-in-Time Compilers

About a decade ago, a really clever trick was discovered by Peter Deutsch while trying to make Smalltalk run faster. He called it dynamic translation during interpretation. Sun calls it "just-in-time" (or JIT) compiling, which, effectively, means converting the relatively slow interpreted bytecode into native machine code just before running it-and therefore getting very close to native performance out of cross-platform Java bytecode.

The trick is to notice that the really fast interpreter you've just written-in C, for example-already has a useful sequence of native binary code for each bytecode that it interprets: the binary code that the interpreter itself is executing. Because the interpreter has already been compiled from C into native binary code, for each bytecode that it interprets, it passes through a sequence of native code instructions for the hardware CPU on which it is running. By saving a copy of each binary instruction as it's executed, the interpreter can keep a running log of the binary code it itself has run to interpret a bytecode. It can just as easily keep a log of the set of bytecodes that it ran to interpret an entire method.

You take that log of instructions and "peephole-optimize" it, just as a smart compiler does (peephole optimization involves taking a short sequence on instructions and replacing them with a shorter or faster set of instructions). This eliminates redundant or unnecessary instructions from the log, and makes it look just like the optimized binary code that a good compiler might have produced.

This is where the name compiler comes from, in "just-in-time" compiler, but it's really only the back end of a traditional compiler-the part that does code generation. By the way, the front end here is the Java compiler (javac).

Here's where the trick comes in. The next time that method is run (in exactly the same way), the interpreter can now simply execute directly the stored log of binary native code. Because this optimizes the inner-loop overhead of each bytecode, as well as any other redundancies between the bytecodes in a method, it can gain a factor of 10 or more in speed. In fact, an experimental version of this technology at Sun has shown that Java programs using it can run as fast as compiled C programs.

The parenthetical qualifier in the last paragraph is needed because if anything is different about the input to the method, it takes a different path through the interpreter and must be relogged. (There are sophisticated versions of this technology that solve this, and other, difficulties.) The cache of native code for a method must be invalidated whenever the method has changed, and the interpreter must pay a small cost up front each time a method is run for the first time. However, these small bookkeeping costs are far outweighed by the amazing gains in speed possible.

Just-in-time compilers, often called just JIT compilers, are becoming increasingly popular, and many major vendors (including Microsoft and Symantec) are competing in this realm. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 ships with a JIT compiler already. You'll learn more about the various JIT compilers available (or soon to be) on Day 28, "Emerging Technologies."

The Class File Format

A Java class file is the file generated by the Java compiler with a .class extension. You won't be given the entire .class file format here, only a taste of what it's like. (You can read all about it in the release documentation.) It's mentioned here because it is one of the parts of Java that needs to be specified carefully if all Java implementations are to be compatible with one another, and if Java bytecodes are expected to travel across arbitrary networks-to and from arbitrary computers and operating systems-and yet arrive safely.

The rest of this section paraphrases, and extensively condenses, the latest release of the class file documentation.

Java class files are used to hold the compiled versions of both Java classes and Java interfaces. Compliant Java interpreters must be capable of dealing with all class files that conform to the following specification.

A Java class file consists of a stream of 8-bit bytes. All 16-bit and 32-bit quantities are constructed by reading in two or four 8-bit bytes, respectively. The bytes are joined together in big-endian order. (Use java.io.DataInput and java.io.DataOutput to read and write class files.)

The class file format is presented below as a series of C-struct-like structures. However, unlike a C struct, there is no padding or alignment between pieces of the structure. Each field of the structure may be of variable size, and an array may be of variable size (in this case, some field prior to the array gives the array's dimension). The types u1, u2, and u4 represent an unsigned 1-, 2-, or 4-byte quantity, respectively.

Attributes are used at several different places in the class file format. All attributes have the following format:

GenericAttribute_info {
    u2 attribute_name;
    u4 attribute_length;
    u1 info[attribute_length];

The attribute_name is a 16-bit index into the class's constant pool; the value of constant_pool[attribute_name] is a string giving the name of the attribute. The field attribute_length gives the length of the subsequent information in bytes. This length does not include the 6 bytes needed to store attribute_name and attribute_length. In the examples in the rest of this section, whenever an attribute is required, names of all the attributes that are currently understood are listed. In the future, more attributes will be added. Class file readers are expected to skip over and ignore the information in any attributes they do not understand.

The following pseudo-structure gives a top-level description of the format of a class file:

ClassFile {
    u4  magic;
    u2  minor_version
    u2  major_version
    u2  constant_pool_count;
    cp_info         constant_pool[constant_pool_count - 1];
    u2  access_flags;
    u2  this_class;
    u2  super_class;
    u2  interfaces_count;
    u2  interfaces[interfaces_count];
    u2  fields_count;
    field_info      fields[fields_count];
    u2  methods_count;
    method_info     methods[methods_count];
    u2  attributes_count;
    attribute_info  attributes[attribute_count];

Here's one of the smaller structures used:

method_info {
    u2  access_flags;
    u2  name_index;
    u2  signature_index;
    u2  attributes_count;
    attribute_info  attributes[attribute_count];

Finally, here's a sample of one of the later structures in the class file description:

Code_attribute {
    u2  attribute_name_index;
    u2  attribute_length;
    u1  max_stack;
    u1  max_locals;
    u2  code_length;
    u1  code[code_length];
    u2  exception_table_length;
    {  u2   start_pc;
       u2   end_pc;
       u2   handler_pc;
       u2   catch_type;
    }  exception_table[exception_table_length];
    u2  attributes_count;
    attribute_info  attributes[attribute_count];

None of this is meant to be completely comprehensible (although you might be able to guess at what a lot of the structure members are for), but just suggestive of the sort of structures that live inside class files. Because the compiler and runtime sources are available, you can always begin with them if you actually have to read or write class files yourself. Therefore, you don't need to have a deep understanding of the details, even in that case.

Method Signatures

Because method signatures are used in class files, now is an appropriate time to explore them in the detail promised on earlier days-but they're probably most useful to you when writing the native methods of yesterday's lesson.

New Terms
The method signature, in this instance, is a string representing the type of method, field, or array.

A field signature represents the value of an argument to a method or the value of a variable and is a series of bytes in the following grammar:

    <field signature> := <field_type>
    <field type>      := <base_type> | <object_type> | <array_type>
    <base_type>       := B | C | D | F | I | J | S | Z
    <object_type>     := L <full.ClassName> ;
    <array_type>      := [ <optional_size> <field_type>
    <optional_size>   := [0-9]*

Here are the meanings of the base types: B (byte), C (char), D (double), F (float), I (int), J (long), S (short), and Z (boolean).

A return-type signature represents the return value from a method and is a series of bytes in the following grammar:

    <return signature>    := <field type> | V

The character V (void) indicates that the method returns no value. Otherwise, the signature indicates the type of the return value. An argument signature represents an argument passed to a method:

    <argument signature>  := <field type>

Finally, a method signature represents the arguments that the method expects and the value that it returns:

    <method_signature>    := (<arguments signature>) <return signature>
    <arguments signature> := <argument signature>*

Let's try out the new rules: A method called complexMethod() in the class my.package.name.ComplexClass takes three arguments-a long, a boolean, and a two-dimensional array of shorts-and returns this. Then its method signature is (JZ[[S)Lmy.package.name.ComplexClass;.

A method signature is often prefixed by the name of the method, or by its full package (using an underscore in the place of dots) and its class name followed by a slash (/) and the name of the method, to form a complete method signature. (You saw several of these generated in stub comments yesterday.) Now, at last, you have the full story! Thus, the following:


is the full, complete method signature of complexMethod(). (Phew!)

The Garbage Collector

Decades ago, programmers in both the Lisp and Smalltalk communities realized how extremely valuable it is to be able to ignore memory deallocation. They realized that, although allocation is fundamental, deallocation is forced on the programmer by the laziness of the system-it should be able to figure out what is no longer useful, and get rid of it. In relative obscurity, these pioneering programmers developed a whole series of garbage collectors to perform this job, each getting more sophisticated and efficient as the years went by. Finally, now that the mainstream programming community has begun to recognize the value of this automated technique, Java can become the first really widespread application of the technology those pioneers developed.

The Problem

Imagine that you're a programmer in a C-like language (probably not too difficult for you, because these languages are the dominant ones right now). Each time you create something, anything, dynamically in such a language, you are completely responsible for tracking the life of that object throughout your program and mentally deciding when it will be safe to deallocate it. This can be quite a difficult (sometimes impossible) task, because any of the other libraries or methods you've called might have "squirreled away" a pointer to the object, unbeknownst to you. When it becomes impossible to know, you simply choose never to deallocate the object, or at least to wait until every library and method call involved has completed, which could be nearly as long.

The uneasy feeling you get when writing such code is a natural, healthy response to what is inherently an unsafe and unreliable style of programming. If you have tremendous discipline-and so does everyone who writes every library and method you call-you can, in principle, survive this responsibility without too many mishaps. But aren't you human? Aren't they? There must be some small slips in this perfect discipline due to error. What's worse, such errors are virtually undetectable, as anyone who's tried to hunt down a stray pointer problem in C will tell you. What about the thousands of programmers who don't have that sort of discipline?

Another way to ask this question is: Why should any programmers be forced to have this discipline when it is entirely possible for the system to remove this heavy burden from their shoulders?

Software engineering estimates have recently shown that for every 55 lines of production C-like code in the world, there is one bug. This means that your electric razor has about 80 bugs, and your TV, 400. Soon they will have even more, because the size of this kind of embedded computer software is growing exponentially. When you begin to think of how much C-like code is in your car's engine, it should give you pause.

Many of these errors are due to the misuse of pointers, by misunderstanding or by accident, and to the early, incorrect freeing of allocated objects in memory. Java addresses both of these-the former by eliminating explicit pointers from the Java language altogether, and the latter by including, in every Java system, a garbage collector that solves the problem.

The Solution

Imagine a runtime system that tracks each object you create, notices when the last reference to it has vanished, and frees the object for you. How could such a thing actually work?

One brute-force approach, tried early in the days of garbage collecting, is to attach a reference counter to every object. When the object is created, the counter is set to 1. Each time a new reference to the object is made, the counter is incremented, and each time such a reference disappears, the counter is decremented. Because all such references are controlled by the language-as variables and assignments, for example-the compiler can tell whenever an object reference might be created or destroyed, just as it does in handling the scoping of local variables, and thus it can assist with this task. The system itself maintains a set of root objects that are considered too important to be freed. The class Object is one example of such a V.I.P. object. (V.I.O.?) Finally, all that's needed is to test, after each decrement, whether the counter has hit 0. If it has, the object is freed.

If you think carefully about this approach, you will soon convince yourself that it is definitely correct when it decides to free anything. It is so simple that you can immediately tell that it will work. The low-level hacker in you might also feel that if it's that simple, it's probably not fast enough to run at the lowest level of the system-and you'd be right.

Think about all the stack frames, local variables, method arguments, return values, and local variables created in the course of even a few hundred milliseconds of a program's life. For each of these tiny, nano-steps in the program, an extra increment (at best) or decrement, test, and deallocation (at worst) will be added to the running time of the program. In fact, the first garbage collectors were slow enough that many predicted they could never be used at all!

Luckily, a whole generation of smart programmers has invented a big bag of tricks to solve these overhead problems. One trick is to introduce special "transient object" areas that don't need to be reference counted. The best of these generational scavenging garbage collectors today can take less than 3 percent of the total time of your program-a remarkable feat if you realize that many other language features, such as loop overheads, can be as large or larger!

There are other problems with garbage collection. If you are constantly freeing and reclaiming space in a program, won't the heap of objects soon become fragmented, with small holes everywhere and no room to create new, large objects? Because the programmer is now free from the chains of manual deallocation, won't he create even more objects than usual?

What's worse, there is another way that this simple reference counting scheme is inefficient: in space rather than time. If a long chain of object references eventually comes full circle, back to the starting object, each object's reference count remains at least 1 forever. None of these objects will ever be freed!

Together, these problems imply that a good garbage collector must, every once in a while, step back to compact or clean up wasted memory.

Memory compaction occurs when a garbage collector steps back and reorganizes memory, eliminating the holes created by fragmentation. Compacting memory is simply a matter of repositioning objects one by one into a new, compact grouping that places them all in a row, leaving all the free memory in the heap in one big piece.

Cleaning up the circular garbage still lying around after reference counting is called marking and sweeping. A mark-and-sweep of memory involves first marking every root object in the system and then following all the object references inside those objects to new objects to mark, and so on, recursively. Then, when you have no more references to follow, you "sweep away" all the unmarked objects and compact memory as before.

The good news is that this solves the space problems you were having. The bad news is that when the garbage collector steps back and does these operations, a nontrivial amount of time passes during which your program is unable to run-all its objects are being marked, swept, rearranged, and so forth, in what seems like an uninterruptible procedure. Your first hint to a solution is the word "seems."

Garbage collecting can actually be done a little at a time, between or in parallel with normal program execution, thus dividing up the large amount of time needed to step back into the numerous so-small-you-don't-notice-them chunks of time that happen between the cracks. (Of course, years of smart thinking went into the abstruse algorithms that make all this possible!)

One final problem that might worry you a little has to do with these object references. Aren't these references scattered throughout your program and not just buried in objects? Even if they're only in objects, don't they have to be changed whenever the object they point to is moved by these procedures? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding yes, and overcoming them is the final hurdle to making an efficient garbage collector.

There are really only two choices. The first, brute force, assumes that all the memory containing object references needs to be searched on a regular basis, and whenever the object references found by this search match objects that have moved, the old reference is changed. This assumes that there are "hard" pointers in the heap's memory-ones that point directly to other objects. By introducing various kinds of "soft" pointers, including pointers that are like forwarding addresses, the algorithm improves greatly. Although these brute-force approaches sound slow, it turns out that modern computers can do them fast enough to be useful.

You might wonder how the brute-force techniques identify object references. In early systems, references were specially tagged with a pointer bit so they could be unambiguously located. Now, so-called conservative garbage collectors simply assume that if it looks like an object reference, it is-at least for the purposes of the mark-and-sweep. Later, when actually trying to update it, they can find out whether it really is an object reference.

The final approach to handling object references, and the one Java currently uses, is also one of the very first ones tried. It involves using 100 percent soft pointers. An object reference is actually a handle, sometimes called an OOP, to the real pointer, and a large object table exists to map these handles into the actual object reference. Although this does introduce extra overhead on almost every object reference (some of which can be eliminated by clever tricks, as you might guess), it's not too high a price to pay for this incredibly valuable level of indirection.

This indirection allows the garbage collector, for example, to mark, sweep, move, or examine one object at a time. Each object can be independently moved out from under a running Java program by changing only the object table entries. This not only allows the step-back phase to happen in the tiniest steps, but it makes a garbage collector that runs literally in parallel with your program much easier to write. This is what the Java garbage collector does.

You need to be very careful about garbage collection when you're doing critical, real-time programs (such as those mentioned yesterday that legitimately require native methods)-but how often will your Java code be flying a commercial airliner in real time, anyway?

Java's Parallel Garbage Collector

Java applies almost all these advanced techniques to give you a fast, efficient, parallel garbage collector. Running in a separate thread, it cleans up the Java environment of almost all trash (it is conservative), silently and in the background; is efficient in both space and time; and never steps back for more than a small amount of time. You should never need to know it's there.

By the way, if you want to force a full mark-and-sweep garbage collection to happen soon, you can do so simply by calling the System.gc() method. You might want to do this if you just freed up a majority of the heap's memory in circular garbage, and want it all taken away quickly. You might also call this whenever you're idle, as a hint to the system about when it would be best to come and collect the garbage.

Ideally, you'll never notice the garbage collector, and all those decades of programmers beating their brains out on your behalf will simply let you sleep better at night-and what's wrong with that?

The Security Story

Speaking of sleeping well at night, if you haven't stepped back yet and said, "My goodness! You mean Java programs will be running rampant on the Internet!?!" you better do so now, for it is a legitimate concern. In fact, it is one of the major technical stumbling blocks (the others being mostly social and economic) to achieving the dream of ubiquity and code sharing for Java mentioned earlier in today's lesson.

Why You Should Worry

Any powerful, flexible technology can be abused. As the Net becomes mainstream and widespread, it, too, will be abused. Already, there have been many blips on the security radar screens of those of us who worry about such things, warning that (at least until today) not enough attention has been paid by the computer industry (or the media) to solving some of the problems that this new world brings with it. One of the benefits of constructively solving security once and for all will be a flowering unseen before in the virtual communities of the Net; whole new economies based on people's attention and creativity will spring to life, rapidly transforming our world in new and positive ways.

The downside to all this new technology is that we (or someone!) must worry long and hard about how to make the playgrounds of the future safe for our children, and for us. Fortunately, Java is a big part of the answer.

Why You Might Not Have To

What gives me any confidence that the Java language and environment will be safe, that it will solve the technically daunting and extremely thorny problems inherent in any good form of security, especially for networks?

One simple reason is the history of the people, and the company, who created Java. Many of them are the very smart programmers referred to throughout the book, who helped pioneer many of the ideas that make Java great and who have worked hard over the decades to make techniques such as garbage collection a mainstream reality. They are technically capable of tackling and solving the hard problems that need to be solved.

Sun Microsystems, the company, has been pushing networks as the central theme of all its software for more than a decade. Sun has the engineers and the commitment needed to solve these hard problems, because these same problems are at the very center of both its future business and its vision of the future, in which networking is the center of everything-and global networks are nearly useless without good security. Just this year, Sun has advanced the state of the art in easy-to-use Internet security with its new SunScreen products, and it has assigned Whitfield Diffie to oversee them, who is the man who discovered the underlying ideas on which essentially all interesting forms of modern encryption are based.

Enough on deep background. What does the Java environment provide right now that helps me feel secure?

Java's Applet Security Model

Java protects you against potential "nasty" Java code via a series of interlocking defenses that, together, form an imposing barrier to any and all such attacks.

Of course no one can protect you from your own ignorance or carelessness. If you're the kind of person who blindly downloads binary executables from your Internet browser and runs them you need read no farther! You are already in more danger than Java will ever pose.
As a user of this powerful new medium, the Internet, you should educate yourself to the possible threats this new and exciting world entails. In particular, downloading "auto running macros" or reading e-mail with "executable attachments" is just as much a threat as downloading binaries from the Net and running them.
Java does not introduce any new dangers here, but by being the first mainstream use of executable and mobile code on the Net, it is responsible for making people suddenly aware of the dangers that have always been there. Java is already, as you will soon see, much less dangerous than any of these common activities on the Net, and can be made safer still over time. Most of these other (dangerous) activities can never be made safe. So please, do not do them!
A good rule of thumb on the Net is: Don't download anything that you plan to execute (or that will be automatically executed for you) except from someone (or some company) you know well and with whom you've had positive, personal experience. If you don't care about losing all the data on your hard drive, or about your privacy, you can do anything you like, but for most of us, this rule should be law.
Fortunately, Java allows you to relax that law. You can run Java applets from anyone, anywhere, in relative safety.

Java's powerful security mechanisms act at four different levels of the system architecture. First, the Java language itself was designed to be safe, and the Java compiler ensures that source code doesn't violate these safety rules. Second, all bytecodes executed by the runtime are screened to be sure that they also obey these rules. (This layer guards against having an altered compiler produce code that violates the safety rules.) Third, the class loader ensures that classes don't violate namespace or access restrictions when they are loaded into the system. Finally, API-specific security prevents applets from doing destructive things. This final layer depends on the security and integrity guarantees from the other three layers.

Let's now examine each of these layers in turn.

The Language and the Compiler

The Java language and its compiler are the first line of defense. Java was designed to be a safe language.

Most other C-like languages have facilities to control access to object-like structures, but also have ways to gain unorthodox access to objects (or to parts of objects), usually by (mis-)using pointers. This introduces two fatal security flaws to any system built on these languages. One is that no object can protect itself from outside modification, duplication, or spoofing (other objects pretending to be that object). Another is that a language with powerful pointers is more likely to have serious bugs that compromise security. These pointer bugs, where a pointer starts modifying some other object's memory, were responsible for most of the public (and not-so-public) security problems on the Internet this past decade.

Java eliminates these threats in one stroke by eliminating pointers from the language altogether. There are still pointers of a kind-object references-but these are carefully controlled to be safe: they are unforgeable, and all casts are checked for legality before being allowed. In addition, powerful new array facilities in Java not only help to offset the loss of pointers, but add additional safety by strictly enforcing array bounds, catching more bugs for the programmer (bugs that, in other languages, might lead to unexpected and, therefore, bad-guy-exploitable problems).

The language definition, and the compilers that enforce it, create a powerful barrier to any Java programmer with evil intentions.

Because an overwhelming majority of the Net-savvy software on the Internet may soon be Java, its safe language definition and compilers help to guarantee that most of this software has a solid, secure base. With fewer bugs, Net software will be more predictable-a property that thwarts attacks.

Verifying the Bytecodes

What if that programmer with evil intentions gets a little more determined, and rewrites the Java compiler to suit his nefarious purposes? The Java runtime, getting the lion's share of its bytecodes from the Net, can never tell whether those bytecodes were generated by a trustworthy compiler. Therefore, it must verify that they meet all the safety requirements.

Before running any bytecodes, the runtime subjects them to a rigorous series of tests that vary in complexity from simple format checks all the way to running a theorem prover to make certain that they are playing by the rules. These tests verify that the bytecodes do not forge pointers, violate access restrictions, access objects as other than what they are (InputStream objects are always used as InputStream objects, and never as anything else), call methods with inappropriate argument values or types, nor overflow the stack.

Consider the following Java code sample:

public class VectorTest {
    public int  array[];

    public int  sum() {
        int[]  localArray = array;
        int    sum        = 0;

        for (int  i = localArray.length;  -i >= 0;  )
            sum += localArray[i];
        return sum;

The bytecodes generated when this code is compiled look something like the following:

    aload_0              Load this
    getfield #10         Load this.array
    astore_1             Store in localArray
    iconst_0             Load 0
    istore_2             Store in sum
    aload_1              Load localArray
    arraylength          Gets its length
    istore_3             Store in i
A:  iinc 3 -1            Subtract 1 from i
    iload_3              Load i
    iflt B               Exit loop if  < 0
    iload_2              Load sum
    aload_1              Load localArray
    iload_3              Load i
    iaload               Load localArray[i]
    iadd                 Add sum
    istore_2             Store in sum
    goto A               Do it again
B:  iload_2              Load sum
    ireturn              Return it

The excellent examples and descriptions in this section of the book are paraphrased from the tremendously informative "Low Level Security in Java" paper by Frank Yellin. You can read this document at http://java.sun.com:80/sfaq/verifier.html.

Extra Type Information and Requirements
Java bytecodes encode more type information than is strictly necessary for the interpreter. Even though, for example, the aload and iload opcodes do exactly the same thing, aload is always used to load an object reference and iload used to load an integer. Some bytecodes (such as getfield) include a symbol table reference-and that symbol table has even more type information. This extra type information allows the runtime system to guarantee that Java objects and data aren't illegally manipulated.
Conceptually, before and after each bytecode is executed, every slot in the stack and every local variable has some type. This collection of type information-all the slots and local variables-is called the type state of the execution environment. An important requirement of the Java type state is that it must be determinable statically by induction-that is, before any program code is executed. As a result, as the runtime system reads bytecodes, each is required to have the following inductive property: given only the type state before the execution of the bytecode, the type state afterward must be fully determined.
Given straight-line bytecodes (no branches) and starting with a known stack state, the state of each slot in the stack is therefore always known. For example, starting with an empty stack:
iload_1                Load integer variable. Stack type state is I.
iconst 5               Load integer constant. Stack type state is II.
iadd                   Add two integers, producing an integer.
                       Stack type state is I.

Smalltalk and PostScript bytecodes do not have this restriction. Their more dynamic type behavior does create additional flexibility in those systems, but Java needs to provide a secure execution environment. It must therefore know all types at all times in order to guarantee a certain level of security.

Another requirement made by the Java runtime is that when a set of bytecodes can take more than one path to arrive at the same point, all such paths must arrive there with exactly the same type state. This is a strict requirement, and implies, for example, that compilers cannot generate bytecodes that load all the elements of an array onto the stack. (Because each time through such a loop the stack's type state changes, the start of the loop-"the same point" in multiple paths-would have more than one type state, which is not allowed.)
The Verifier
Bytecodes are checked for compliance with all these requirements, using the extra type information in the class file, by a part of the runtime called the verifier. It examines each bytecode in turn, constructing the full type state as it goes, and verifies that all the types of parameters, arguments, and results are correct. Thus, the verifier acts as a gatekeeper to your runtime environment, letting in only those bytecodes that pass muster.

The verifier is the crucial piece of Java's security, and it depends on your having a correctly implemented (no bugs, intentional or otherwise) runtime system. As of this writing, only Sun is producing Java runtimes (and licensing them to companies such as Netscape and Microsoft for use in their browsers), and they are secure. In the future, however, you should be careful when downloading or buying another company's (or individual's) version of the Java runtime environment. Eventually, Sun will implement validation suites for runtimes, compilers, and so forth to be sure that they are safe and correct. In the meantime, caveat emptor! Your runtime is the base on which all the rest of Java's security is built, so make sure it is a good, solid, secure base.

When bytecodes have passed the verifier, they are guaranteed not to do any of the following: cause any operand stack under- or overflows; use parameter, argument, or return types incorrectly; illegally convert data from one type to another (from an integer to a pointer, for example); or access any object's fields illegally (that is, the verifier checks that the rules for public, private, package, and protected are obeyed).
As an added bonus, because the interpreter can now count on all these facts being true, it can run much faster than before. All the required checks for safety have been done up front, so it can run at full throttle. In addition, object references can now be treated as capabilities, because they are unforgeable-capabilities allow, for example, advanced security models for file I/O and authentication to be safely built on top of Java.

Because you can now trust that a private variable really is private, and that no bytecode can perform some magic with casts to extract information from it (such as your credit card number), many of the security problems that might arise in other, less safe environments simply vanish! These guarantees also make erecting barriers against destructive applets possible, and easier. Because the Java system doesn't have to worry about dangerous bytecodes, it can get on with creating the other levels of security it wants to provide to you.

The Class Loader

The class loader is another kind of gatekeeper, albeit a higher-level one. The verifier is the security of last resort. The class loader is the security of first resort.

When a new class is loaded into the system, it is placed into (lives in) one of several different realms. Commonly, there are three possible realms: your local computer, the firewall-guarded local network on which your computer is located, and the Internet (the global Net). Each of these realms is treated differently by the class loader.

Actually, there can be as many realms as your desired level of security (or paranoia) requires. This is because the class loader is under your control. As a programmer, you can make your own class loader that implements your own peculiar brand of security. (This is a radical step; you may have to give the users of your program a whole bunch of classes-and they give you a whole lot of trust-to accomplish this.)

In particular, the class loader never allows a class from a less protected realm to replace a class from a more protected realm. The file system's I/O primitives, about which you should be very worried (and rightly so), are all defined in a local Java class, which means that they all live in the local-computer realm. Thus, no class from outside your computer (from either the supposedly trustworthy local network or from the Internet) can take the place of these classes and spoof Java code into using nasty versions of these primitives. In addition, classes in one realm cannot call upon the methods of classes in other realms, unless those classes have explicitly declared those methods public. This implies that classes from other than your local computer cannot even see the file system I/O methods, much less call them, unless you or the system wants them to.

In addition, every new applet loaded from the network is placed into a separate package-like namespace. This means that applets are protected even from each other! No applet can access another's methods (or variables) without its cooperation. Applets from inside the firewall can even be treated differently from those outside the firewall, if you like.

Actually, it's all a little more complex than this. In the current release, an applet is in a package namespace along with any other applets from that source. This source, or origin, is most often a host (domain name) on the Internet. This special "subrealm" is used extensively in the next section. Depending on where the source is located, outside the firewall or inside, further restrictions may apply (or be removed entirely). This model is likely to be extended in future releases of Java, providing an even finer degree of control over which classes get to do what.

The class loader essentially partitions the world of Java classes into small, protected little groups, about which you can safely make assumptions that will always be true. This type of predictability is the key to well-behaved and secure programs.

You've now seen the full lifetime of a method. It starts as source code on some computer, is compiled into bytecodes on some (possibly different) computer, and can then travel (as a .class file) into any file system or network anywhere in the world. When you run an applet in a Java-enabled browser (or download a class and run it by hand using java), the method's bytecodes are extracted from its .class file and carefully looked over by the verifier. After they are declared safe, the interpreter can execute them for you (or a code generator can generate native binary code for them using either the just-in-time compiler or java2c, and then run that native code directly).

At each stage, more and more security is added. The final level of that security is the Java class library itself, which has several carefully designed classes and APIs that add the final touches to the security of the system.

The Security Manager

SecurityManager is an abstract class that collects, in one place, all the security policy decisions that the system has to make as bytecodes run. You learned before that you can create your own class loader. In fact, you may not have to, because you can subclass SecurityManager to perform most of the same customizations.

An instance of some subclass of SecurityManager is always installed as the current security manager. It has complete control over which of a well-defined set of potentially dangerous methods are allowed to be called by any given class. It takes the realms from the last section into account, the source (origin) of the class, and the type of the class (standalone or loaded by an applet). Each of these can be separately configured to have the effect you (the programmer) like on your Java system. Note that environments such as Web browsers typically already have a security manager in place to handle basic applet security (all the restrictions you've learned about so far in this book), and that security manager cannot be replaced or changed.

What is this "well-defined set" of methods that are protected?

File I/O is a part of the set, for obvious reasons. Applets, by default, can open, read, or write files on the local system.

Also in this protected set are the methods that create and use network connections, both incoming and outgoing.

The final members of the set are those methods that allow one thread to access, control, and manipulate other threads. (Of course, additional methods can be protected as well, by creating a new subclass of SecurityManager that handles them.)

Signed Applets

There is a middle ground between the "sandbox" restrictions that applets always have and an application that can freely run amok on your system. This middle ground involves establishing where an applet comes from, so different applet sources can be allowed different kinds of access.

For example, you might specify different groups of trusted domains (companies), each of which is allowed added privileges when applets from that group are loaded. Applets from systems on an internal network, for example, are more trustworthy than applets from the Internet at large. Some groups can be more trusted than others, and you might even allow groups to grow automatically by allowing existing members to recommend new members for admission. (The Java seal of approval?)

In any case, the possibilities are endless, as long as there is a secure way of recognizing the original creator of an applet.

You might think this problem has already been solved, because classes are tagged with their origin. In fact, the Java runtime goes far out of its way to be sure that that origin information is never lost-any executing method can be dynamically restricted by this information anywhere in the call chain. So why isn't this enough?

Because what you'd really like to be able to do is permanently "tag" an applet with its original creator (its true origin), and no matter where it has traveled, a browser could verify the integrity and authenticate the creator of that applet.

If somehow those applets were irrevocably tagged with a digital signature by their creator, and that signature could also guarantee that the applet had not been tampered with, you'd be golden.

Luckily, Sun is planning to do exactly that for Java, to have a mechanism for using public key cryptography to "sign" a fragment of code (an applet, an application, a single class) so that you can reliably and securely tell who created or verified that the piece of Java code was trustworthy. With the signature in place, that code could then break out of the sandbox and use the local system more freely. Expect this capability to become more popular and available in the future.

Coming Up in Java 1.1

Promised in Java 1.1 is a set of extension APIs for managing security and encryption in Java. These new classes include support for the digital signature capabilities mentioned in the previous section, as well as general-purpose low-level and high-level cryptography, key management, access control lists, message digest hashes (MD5), and other tools and utilities. On Day 27, "The Standard Extension APIs," you'll learn more about the new security classes in Java.


Today you have learned about the grand vision that some of us have for Java, and about the exciting future it promises.

Under the hood, the inner workings of the virtual machine, the bytecode interpreter (and all its bytecodes), the garbage collector, the class loader, the verifier, the security manager, and the powerful security features of Java were all revealed.

You now know almost enough to write a Java runtime environment of your own-but luckily, you don't have to. You can simply download the latest release of Java-or use a Java-enabled browser to enjoy most of the benefits of Java right away.


I'm still a little unclear about why the Java language and compiler make the Net safer. Can't they just be "side-stepped" by nasty bytecodes?
Yes, they can-but don't forget that the whole point of using a safe language and compiler was to make the Net as a whole safer as more Java code is written. An overwhelming majority of this Java code will be written by honest Java programmers, who will produce safe bytecodes. This makes the Net more predictable over time, and thus more secure.
I know you said that garbage collection is something I don't have to worry about, but what if I want (or need) to?
So, you are planning to fly a plane with Java. Cool! For just such cases, there is a way to ask the Java runtime, during startup (java -noasyncgc), not to run garbage collection unless forced to, either by an explicit call (System.gc()) or by running out of memory. (This can be quite useful if you have multiple threads that are messing each other up and want to stop the gc thread from getting in the way while testing them.) Don't forget that turning garbage collection off means that any object you create will live a long, long time. If you're real-time, you never want to step back for a full gc-so be sure to reuse objects often, and don't create too many of them!
Is there anything else I can do to the garbage collector?
You can also force the finalize() methods of any recently freed objects to be called immediately via System.runFinalization(). You might want to do this if you're about to ask for some resources that you suspect might still be tied up by objects that are gone but not forgotten (waiting for finalize()). This is even rarer than starting a gc by hand, but it's mentioned here for completeness.
I've heard of a tool called java2c, which would convert Java code to C code. Does this exist? Where can I get it?
An experimental java2c translator was rumored to exist inside Sun, but was never released. It may be released at a later date.
What's the last word on Java?
Java adds much more than it can ever take away. It has always done so for me, and now, I hope it will for you as well.

The future of the Net is filled with as-yet-undreamt horizons, and the road is long and hard, but Java is a great traveling companion.

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