Class Loaders in Java

Today, I've read about class loaders. Sort of interesting. Similar to our inheritance heirachy and most of the stuff is working as we think how it could be.

The Class loader concept, one of the cornerstones of the Java virtual machine, describes the behavior of converting a named class into the bits responsible for implementing that class. Because class loaders exist, the Java run time does not need to know anything about files and file systems when running Java programs.

Class loaders are hierarchical. Classes are introduced into the JVM as they are referenced by name in a class that is already running in the JVM. So how is the very first class loaded? The very first class is specially loaded with the help of static main() method declared in your class. All the subsequently loaded classes are loaded by the classes, which are already loaded and running. A class loader creates a namespace. All JVMs include at least one class loader that is embedded within the JVM called the primordial (or bootstrap) class loader. It is somewhat special because the virtual machine assumes that it has access to a repository of trusted classes which can be run by the VM without verification.

When a new JVM instance is started , the bootstrap class loader is responsible for loading key java classes like java.lang.Object and other runtime code into memory. The runtime classes are packaged inside jre/lib/rt.jar file. We cannot find the details of the bootstrap class loader in the java language specification, since this is a native implementation. For this reason the behavior of the bootstrap class loader will differ across JVMs.

Java can change its class storage model simply by changing the set of functions that implements the class loader.

Now let’s look at non-primordial class loaders. The JVM has hooks in it to allow user defined class loaders to be used in place of primordial class loader.

ex : Bootstrap (primordial) Loads JDK internal classes, java.* packages. (as defined in the sun.boot.class.path system property, typically loads rt.jar and i18n.jar) and is the parent in the Class loaders hierarchy.

next comes the Extensions (Loads jar files from JDK extensions directory (as defined in the java.ext.dirs system property – usually lib/ext directory of the JRE) and then System (Loads classes from system classpath (as defined by the java.class.path property, which is set by the CLASSPATH environment variable or –classpath or –cp command line options) ClassLoaders.

Classes loaded by Bootstrap class loader have no visibility into classes loaded by its descendants (ie Extensions and Systems class loaders).

The classes loaded by system class loader have visibility into classes loaded by its parents (ie Extensions and Bootstrap class loaders).

If there were any sibling class loaders they cannot see classes loaded by each other. They can only see the classes loaded by their parent class loader. For example Sibling1 class loader cannot see classes loaded by
Sibling2 class loader

Both Sibling1 and Sibling2 class loaders have visibilty into classes loaded by their parent class loaders (eg: System, Extensions, and Bootstrap)

Class loaders are hierarchical and use a delegation model when loading a class. Class loaders request their parent to load the class first before attempting to load it themselves. When a class loader loads a class, the child class loaders in the hierarchy will never reload the class again. Hence uniqueness is maintained. Classes loaded by a child class loader have visibility into classes loaded by its parents up the hierarchy but the reverse is not true

Note : Two objects loaded by different class loaders are never equal even if they carry the same values, which mean a class is uniquely identified in the context of the associated class loader. This applies to singletons too, where each class loader will have its own singleton.

At its simplest, a class loader creates a flat name space of class bodies that are referenced by a string name. The method definition is:

Class r = loadClass(String className, boolean resolveIt);

The variable className contains a string that is understood by the class loader and is used to uniquely identify a class implementation. The variable resolveIt is a flag to tell the class loader that classes referenced by this class name should be resolved (that is, any referenced class should be loaded as well).

We can build our own ClassLoader by being a subclass of java.lang.ClassLoader. The only abstract method that must be implemented is loadClass().

Static Class Loading :

Classes are statically loaded with Java’s 'new' operator.

class MyClass {
 public static void main(String args[]) {
  Car c = new Car();

A NoClassDefFoundException is thrown if a class is referenced with Java’s 'new' operator (i.e. static loading) but the runtime system cannot find the referenced class.

Dynamic class loading:

Dynamic loading is a technique for programmatically invoking the functions of a class loader at run time.

we can load classes dynamically by...

Class.forName (String className); //static method which returns a Class

The above static method returns the class object associated with the class name. The string className can be supplied dynamically at run time. Unlike the static loading, the dynamic loading will decide whether to load the class Car or the class Jeep at runtime based on a properties file and/or other runtime conditions. Once the class is dynamically loaded the following method returns an instance of the loaded class. It’s just like creating a class object with no arguments.

class.newInstance (); //A non-static method, which creates an instance of a class (i.e. creates an object).
Jeep myJeep = null ;

//myClassName should be read from a properties file or Constants interface.

//stay away from hard coding values in your program. 
String myClassName = "" ;
Class vehicleClass = Class.forName(myClassName) ;
myJeep = (Jeep) vehicleClass.newInstance();

A ClassNotFoundException is thrown when an application tries to load in a class through its string name using the following methods but no definition for the class with the specified name could be found:
1. The forName(..) method in class - Class.
2. The findSystemClass(..) method in class - ClassLoader.
3. The loadClass(..) method in class - ClassLoader.

The Java virtual machine has hooks in it to allow a user-defined class loader to be used in place of the primordial one. Furthermore, since the user class loader gets first crack at the class name, the user is able to implement any number of interesting class repositories, not the least of which is HTTP servers -- which got Java off the ground in the first place.

There is a cost, however, because the class loader is so powerful (for example, it can replace java.lang.Object with its own version), Java classes like applets are not allowed to instantiate their own loaders. (This is enforced by the class loader, by the way.) This column will not be useful if you are trying to do this stuff with an applet, only with an application running from the trusted class repository (such as local files).

Java class loaders can be broadly classified into below categories:
  • Bootstrap Class Loader
    Bootstrap class loader loads java’s core classes like java.lang, java.util etc. These are classes that are part of java runtime environment. Bootstrap class loader is native implementation and so they may differ across different JVMs.
  • Extensions Class Loader
    JAVA_HOME/jre/lib/ext contains jar packages that are extensions of standard core java classes. Extensions class loader loads classes from this ext folder. Using the system environment propery java.ext.dirs you can add ‘ext’ folders and jar files to be loaded using extensions class loader.
  • System Class Loader
    Java classes that are available in the java classpath are loaded using System class loader.
You can see more class loaders like, etc. Those are all extended from java.lang.ClassLoader