Rubah is a Dynamic Software Updating system for Java that works on the stock Oracle HotSpot JVM, does not add any measurable overhead when running a program, and performs dynamic software updates efficiently.

In this post, I explain how Rubah uses the low-level unsafe operations available in class sun.misc.Unsafe (which I shall refer to as the unsafe API) to implement the optimizations that make it so efficient. I start by explaining what the unsafe API is and how to use it, then I describe the object memory layout of the Oracle HotSpot JVM and how to explore it with the unsafe API, then I discuss how Rubah does that to improve its performance, and finally I propose how to make some of the unsafe operations safer in a way that is compatible with Rubah.

What is sun.misc.Unsafe?

The class sun.misc.Unsafe is a proprietary API that enables a Java program to escape the control of the JVM and perform potentially unsafe operations, like direct memory manipulation. Here is a list of interesting methods that this API has (more documentation available here):

public class Unsafe {
	// use reflection instead, this method throws an exception if the calling
	// class is not on the bootstrap classpath
	public static Unsafe getUnsafe();

	// static field/Object field/array manipulation utilities
	public Object staticFieldBase    (Field f);
	public long   staticFieldOffset  (Field f);
	public long   objectFieldOffset  (Field f);
	public int    arrayBaseOffset    (Class c);
	public int    arrayIndexScale    (Class c);

	// reference-type field manipulation
	public Object getObject (Object o, long offset);
	public void   putObject (Object o, long offset, Object x);

	// int-type field manipulation (repeated for every other primitive type)
	public int    getInt    (Object o, long offset);
	public void   putInt    (Object o, long offset, int x);

	// compare-and-swap object/int/long
	public boolean compareAndSwapObject (Object o, long offset, Object expected, Object x);
	public boolean compareAndSwapInt    (Object o, long offset, int expected,    int x);
	public boolean compareAndSwapLong   (Object o, long offset, long expected,   long x);

	// allocate instance without running constructors
	public Object allocateInstance (Class cls);

	// try entering a monitor, fail with false instead of blocking if not able to
	public boolean tryMonitorEnter (Object o);


For instance, the following code sets an entire integer array to 1 using the unsafe API to avoid any bounds check:

// For this to work, add the class to the bootstrap classloader by passing
// the option -Xbootclasspath/a:. to the java command
Unsafe u    = Unsafe.getUnsafe();
int   size  = 1 << 16;
int[] array = new int[size];
int   base  = u.arrayBaseOffset(Integer.class);
int   scale = u.arrayIndexScale(Integer.class);

for (int i = 0 ; i < size ; i++)
  u.putInt(array, (base + i * scale), 1);

// Nothing prevents me writting out of bounds:
// u.putInt(array, (base + size * scale), 1);
// Or reading:
// u.getInt(array, (base + size * scale));

While this is faster than regular Java array manipulation, it may lead to out-of-bounds accesses that can be exploited maliciously.

The unsafe API is used extensively throughout the java.util.concurrent package to perform atomic compare-and-swap operations and volatile read/write on arrays. Currently, that is the only way to do those operations. However, the Oracle JVM development team is looking into ways to make this API safe and part of the Java API.

Most of the low-level memory operations can also be made through JNI native code. However, using the unsafe API is more efficient because it avoids the cost of switching context from Java to JNI and back. Besides, the JIT compiles some calls to the unsafe API directly to JVM intrinsics1.

HotSpot JVM object memory layout

There is a code pattern when using the unsafe API to manipulate data in object fields or arrays. The code above shows an example of that pattern: First, it gets a base pointer with method arrayBaseOffset, then, it gets the array scale factor with method arrayIndexScale, and ,finally, it computes the formula base + i * scale to manipulate position i on the array with methods getInt or putInt.

A similar pattern applies to manipulating objects, the following example shows:

// For this to work, add the class to the bootstrap classloader by passing
// the option -Xbootclasspath/a:. to the java command
Unsafe u       = Unsafe.getUnsafe();
LinkedList obj = new LinkedList();
Class c        = LinkedList.class;
Field f        = c.getDeclaredField("first");
long  offset   = u.objectFieldOffset(f);

u.getObject(obj, offset);
u.putObject(obj, offset, null);

// Nothing prevents me from writting a wrong type:
// u.putObject(obj, offset, c);

For manipulating object fields, we do not get a base pointer and a scale factor. We get, instead, the offset of each individual field with method objectFieldOffset. We can then manipulate object fields using methods getObject and putObject. Note that these are the same methods as in the previous example: If field first had type int, we would use methods getInt and putInt.

Both these code patterns map directly to how the JVM lays objects in memory. The following figure shows how objects look in memory (memory addresses of variables/fields from the code above are writen in a C-like style with a preceding &):

Given the similarity between the HotSpot and the OpenJDK, I shall use the OpenJDK names in the description of the object memory layout, with links to the relevant header files in the OpenJDK source. Every object starts with a fixed sized header that has two fields, as defined by the header file src/share/vm/oops/oop.hpp:

  • _mark: Defined in header file src/share/vm/oops/markOop.hpp. One word that contains either:
    • Unlocked object:
      • hash: Identity hash code;
      • age: GC information about the age of the object;
      • Some unused bits to keep the field word-aligned;
    • Locked object2:
      • ptr: pointer to where the header is (either on the stack or wrapped by an inflated lock);
      • lock: state of the lock (biased/inflated), 001 means not locked;
  • _klass: Defined in header file src/share/vm/oops/klassOop.hpp. Quoting the source: “A klassOop is the C++ equivalent of a Java class”. This is where the vtable is located, together with more low level information about each object of each particular class, such as its size and the offset where to find each field.

Arrays also have a header that starts with the same two fields, followed by an extra field, as defined by header file src/share/vm/oops/arrayOop.hpp:

  • lenght: Number of elements in this particular array

Manipulating the object model

Rubah uses the unsafe API to manipulate the metadata on the object header. This is extremely unsafe3 and getting it right was itself an important implementation challenge. This is also brittle because the unsafe API is not part of the standard Java API. Future versions of the HotSpot JVM are free to change how objects are layed out in memory.

In the following, I list all the different ways Rubah manipulates the header using the unsafe API:

  • Direct field access

    To migrate the program state, Rubah needs to traverse every object it finds. This means accessing every field, which may not be publicly visible. The unsafe API gives Rubah unrestricted and efficient access to every field of every object.

    Also, both migration algorithms that Rubah has (parallel and lazy) use compare-and-swap to ensure correctness while migrating the program state. The unsafe API is the only way to perform this operation on regular fields.4

  • Identity hash-code

    Rubah migrates objects between versions while keeping their identity. It does so by creating a new object in the new version that will replace the outdated one, and then migrating the state of the old object to the new one. When traversing the program state, Rubah replaces all references to the old object by references to the new one. This way, if two references are == to each other in the old version, they will also be == after the update takes place.

    However, the identity hash-code of such two objects will differ, and this can break the program semantics. For instance, if the class does not override the hashCode() method and the program keeps these objects in a java.util.HashMap, which is perfectly valid, then Rubah would break the semantics of the program: After the update, the objects will be on the wrong buckets of the HashMap and, therefore, impossible to find.

    Initially, Rubah solved this problem by rewritting the bytecode of all classes to add an extra field to keep the identity hash-code and to change every constructor to initialize such field. Rubah also added an hashCode() method to all classes that did not have any that just returned the value of the extra field. With this semantics preserving rewritting, migrating the identity hash-code between versions is just a matter of copying a field. However, this prevents the JIT compiler to use intrinsics to access the identity hash-code efficiently and prevented the JVM from initializing hash-codes lazily. As a result, this added about 5% overhead to steady-state execution. Also, it does not work for arrays.5

    Rubah now writes the identity hash-code of the new instance directly in the object header using the unsafe API. This works objects and arrays and removes the performance overhead. The following code example, adapted from a class in Rubah called UnsafeUtils, shows how Rubah does that:

// For this to work, add the class to the bootstrap classloader by passing
// the option -Xbootclasspath/a:. to the java command
Unsafe u     = Unsafe.getUnsafe();
Object o     = new Object();

// Valid for a 64 bit JVM with compressed oops
// Might not work for different architectures
long offset  = 1L;

int newHash  = 42;

int identityHashCode = System.identityHashCode(o);
int unsafeHashCode   = u.getInt(o, offset);

assert (identityHashCode == unsafeHashCode != newHash); 
u.putInt(o, offset, newHash);

int identityHashCode = System.identityHashCode(o);
int unsafeHashCode   = u.getInt(o, offset);

assert (identityHashCode == unsafeHashCode == newHash);
  • Changing the class of existing objects

    Rubah’s’ lazy program state migration algorithm introduces the concept of proxies, used to intercept method invocations on outdated objects that need migration. Each proxy class extend the proxied class and override all methods so that Rubah can intercept method calls. At the object layout level, this means that proxies have the same fields on the same offset but a different _klass. So, all Rubah needs to do is to install the proxy _klass on existing objects to turn them into proxies.

    Besides proxies, Rubah also changes the class of existing objects for another reason. Between two versions, the vast majority of objects do not need to be migrated because their class was not updated. However, consider the following example: Class A changed, class B did not change and has a field of type A. Of course, we have to migrate every instance of A. However, class B has the same layout in memory in both versions. Rubah just needs to update the code of class B to use the field with the correct new type.

    Both this scenarios illustrate the need for Rubah to change the class of existing objects by using the unsafe API to adjust the _klass field on the object header. This is the most brittle optimization that Rubah performs. In fact, getting it to work was a challenge. In part, because the code the JIT compiler emits assumes that the _klass does not change during the execution of a method. If it does, the JVM crashes. So, Rubah is carefully implemented in a way that prevents the code that changes the _klass from ever being inlined with application code.

    Besides the JIT compiler, the garbage collector uses the _klass to access the size and structure of objects it visits. However, this is not as problematic because both the old and the new _klass fields agree on the same information the GC needs to do its job. Therefore, the regular GC operation does not cause the JVM to crash when Rubah modifies the _klass field.

    Note that the alternative to deal with instances of unchanged classes between versions would be to either: (1) Copy them or (2) erase the type of all fields to java.lang.Object and inject the appropriate type cast before every bytecode that manipulates fields. Option (1) would always require a deep copy of the whole heap at every update, so we discarded it from the start. Early versions of Rubah implemented option (2), which added a steady state overhead of 5%.5

    The following code examples, adapted from class UnsafeUtils in Rubah, shows how to change the class of an existing object by manipulating the _klass field:

class A { /* empty */ }
class B { /* empty */ }

// For this to work, add the class to the bootstrap classloader by passing
// the option -Xbootclasspath/a:. to the java command
Unsafe u     = Unsafe.getUnsafe();
Object a     = new A();
Object b     = new B();

// Valid for a 64 bit JVM with compressed oops
// Might not work for different architectures
long offset  = 8L;

// Do not keep this around for long, it changes over time
int klass    = u.getInt(a, offset);

assert (a instanceof A);
assert (b instanceof B);

u.putInt(b, offset, klass);

assert (a instanceof A);
// If this code gets JITed, the following line may terminate the JVM with SIGSEGV
assert (b instanceof A);

How to make sun.misc.Unsafe safer

Useful as it may be, sun.misc.Unsafe is a proprietary API that will disappear or be modified in future releases of the HotSpot JVM. Rubah relies on features of the unsafe API that might disappear. So, in this section, I propose some alternatives to make those features safe so that they can be made part of the standard Java API.

  • Identity hash-code

    The simplest approach, assuming that a method similar to sun.misc.Unsafe.allocateInstance makes it to the standard API, is to add an integer argument that sets the identity hash-code to be the least significant bits (the size of a Java hash-code) of that integer argument:

    // allocate instance without running constructors
    public Object allocateInstance (Class cls);
    public Object allocateInstance (Class cls, int hashCode);

    Assuming that this method does not make it to the standard API, Rubah could still allocate instances without running any real constructor by injecting dummy constructors to every class that do not do anything interesting. However, Rubah needs to set the identity hash-code of the new object being constructed.

    In this scenario, one key observation is that it is safe to set the identity hash-code of any object being constructed before any reference to that object escapes the constructor. The invariant that the identity hash-code does not change during the lifetime of the object is kept, except for the constructor code that actually changes the identity hash-code. I claim that this behavior is safe and acceptable.

    The bytecode sequence that creates an object involves a NEW instruction and a INVOKESPECIAL instruction to invoke a constructor of the superclass on the newly created object. Between these two bytecodes, the object is instantiated but not constructed. The JVM performs escape analysis to reject any bytecode that leaks references to this object by writing it to some field or passing it as an argument to some method.

    This is the right moment to set the identity hash-code of the new object. One option is to add a special API method. However, this involves passing the instantiated but not constructed object to that method, which makes the bytecode verifier to reject such bytecode. This option thus require modifications to the bytecode verifier:

    NEW java.lang.Object
    ICONST 42
    INVOKESTATIC java.lang.System.setIdentityHashCode
    INVOKESPECIAL java.lang.Object()

    Another option is to add an extra constructor to java.lang.Object that takes an integer and sets the identity hash-code to that value. The bytecode verifier remains unchanged, but we are now exposing a new constructor that should almost never be used. This problem could be mitigated by making this method invisible to the compiler and only accessible through reflection:

      .getConstructor(new Class[]{ Integer.class })
      .invoke(new Object[]{ new Integer(42) });

    Yet another option is to have the developer add a constructor that takes an integer as the first argument and has a special annotation to note that such argument is actually the identity hash-code of the object being constructed. Or, instead of an integer, that argument has a special type (e.g. java.lang.IdentityHashCode), so that it does not collide with any existing constructor that already takes an integer:

    public class A {
      public A(java.lang.IdentityHashCode hash) {
  • Changing the class of an object

    The JVM keeps the invariant that the class of any given object does not change during the lifetime of that object. Therefore, no matter how safe we make this operation, it violates this invariant by design. This is our starting point in making this operation safe.

    Rubah gets away with it in part because it traverses the heap and fixes references to instances of java.lang.Class. So, if some structure maps classes to objects of that class, Rubah changes the class of every object and all references to the instance of java.lang.Class associated with the outdated class (e.g. Rubah supports updating instances kept in instances of java.util.EnumMap, which does something similar).

    However, finding some way to relax this invariant allows efficient implementations of proxies. A proxy, in this sense, is a class that extends the proxied class, does not define any fields, and overrides all methods to redirect the invocation to some other new method that the developer can customize. From the point of view of the object memory layout, a proxy looks exactly the same as the proxied instance (same size, same fields at the same offset) except for the _klass field in the object header. Proxying an object, or turning an existing proxy into real objects, can be as simple as a writing over the _klass field.

    void changeClass(E object, Class<? extends E> newClass)
      throws IllegalArgumentException;

    To change the class of an object safely to another class that defines a different set of fields in this way, by changing the _klass field, we have to place restrictions on how different the set of fields can be. The idea is that the representation of the object in memory should, at least, have the same size. So, we can require the new class to define the same number of fields of the same broad type (reference or same primitive type).

    If this pre-condition is met, we can take a CLOS-like approach to map the fields: Pass, as an argument to the method that changes the class, an object that implements method mapFields which takes two maps from fields to their values and initalizes the new map given the values on the old map:

    interface Mapper {
      void mapFields(
          Map<Field, Object> oldMap, 
          Map<Field, Object> newMap);
    void changeClass(E object, Class<? extends E> newClass, Mapper mapper)
      throws IllegalArgumentException;

  1. From wikipedia:

    In compiler theory, an intrinsic function is a function available for use in a given programming language whose implementation is handled specially by the compiler. Typically, it substitutes a sequence of automatically generated instructions for the original function call, similar to an inline function. Unlike an inline function though, the compiler has an intimate knowledge of the intrinsic function and can therefore better integrate it and optimize it for the situation. This is also called builtin function in many languages.

    For instance, calling System.identityHashCode is compiled to an intrinsic operation that just reads the hash code from the object header in a few native instructions, rather than to a method call. 

  2. Locking in the JVM is complex, using both biased and thin locks, which I do not discuss in this post for the sake of simplicity. From the JVM documentation:

    -XX:+UseBiasedLocking Enables a technique for improving the performance of uncontended synchronization. An object is “biased” toward the thread which first acquires its monitor via a monitorenter bytecode or synchronized method invocation; subsequent monitor-related operations performed by that thread are relatively much faster on multiprocessor machines. Some applications with significant amounts of uncontended synchronization may attain significant speedups with this flag enabled; some applications with certain patterns of locking may see slowdowns, though attempts have been made to minimize the negative impact.

    Thin locks are explained in the paper Thin locks: featherweight Synchronization for Java 

  3. To work with a different JVM, Rubah needs to be ported to use the memory layout of objects on that JVM. For instance, Rubah can be ported to the Jikes RVM , which has a similar object memory layout, but all the sun.misc.Unsafe operations have to be rewritten to use instead VM Magic.

    We argue that Rubah is portable between JVMs because it does not require any modification to the JVM itself. Other DSU systems for Java require a custom GC algorithm and are much harder to port to different JVMs. 

  4. The only way to perform compare-and-swap in a Java program without using the unsafe API is to use class java.util.concurrent.AtomicReference ,which is internally implemented using the unsafe API

  5. The steady-state overhead of the type-erasure AND hash-code field together was around 8%, and not 10% as the reader might expect.  2