value type hygiene
john.r.rose at oracle.com
Sun May 6 09:17:01 UTC 2018
Like many of us, I have been thinking about the problems of keeping values, nulls,
and objects separate in L-world. I wrote up some long-ish notes on the subject.
I hope it will help us wrap our arms around the problem, and get it solved.
TL;DR: Remi was right in January. We need a ValueTypes attribute.
P.S. Raw markdown source follows for the record.
# Value Type Hygiene
#### May 2018 _(v. 0.1)_
#### John Rose and the Valhalla Expert Group
Briefly put, types in L-world are ambiguous, leading to unhygienic
mixtures of value operations with reference operations, and
uncontrolled pollution from `null`s infecting value code.
This note explores a promising proposal for resolving the key
ambiguity. It is a cleaner design than the ad hoc mechanisms tried so
far. The resulting system would seem to allow more predictable and
debuggable behavior, a stronger backward compatibility story, and
## Problem statement
In the _L-world_ design for value types, the classfile type descriptor
syntax is left unchanged, and the pre-existing descriptor form
`"LFoo;"` is overloaded to denote value types as well as object types.
A previous design introoduced new descriptors for value types of the
form `"QFoo;"`, and possibly a union type `"UFoo;"`. This design
might be called _Q-world_. In comparison with Q-world, the L-world
design approach has two advantages--compatibility and migration--but
also one serious disadvantage: ambiguity.
L-world is _backward compatible_ with tools that must parse classfile
descriptors, since it leaves descriptor syntax unchanged. There have
been no changes to this syntax in almost thirty years, and there is a
huge volume of code that depends on its stability. The HotSpot JVM
itself makes hundreds of distinct decisions based on descriptor syntax
which would need careful review and testing if they were to be adapted
to take account of a new descriptor type (`"QFoo;"`, etc.).
Because of its backward compatibility, L-world also has a distinctly
simpler _migration story_ than previous designs. Some _value-based
classes_, such as `Optional` and `LocalTime`, have been engineered to
be candidates for migration to proper value types. We wish to allow
such a migration without recompiling the world or forcing programmers
to recode uses of the migrated types. It is very difficult to sustain
the illusion in Q-world that a value type `Qjava/util/Optional;` can
be operated on in old code under the original object type
`Ljava/util/Optional;`, since the descriptors do not match and a
myriad of adapters must be spun (one for every mention of the wrong
descriptor). With L-world, we have the simpler problem (addressed in
this document) of keeping straight the meaning of L-descriptors
in each relevant context, whether freshly recompiled or legacy
code; this is a simpler problem than spinning adapters.
But not all is well in L-world. The compatibility of descriptors
implies that, when a classfile must express a semantic distinction
between a reference type and an object type, it must be allowed to do
so unambiguously, in a side channel outside of the descriptor.
Our first thought was, "well, just load all the value types and then
you will know the list of them". If we have a global registry of
classes (such as the HotSpot system dictionary), nobody needs to
express any additional distinctions, since everybody can just ask the
register which are the value types.
This simple idea has a useful insight, but it goes wrong in three
ways. First, for some use cases such as classfile transformation, it
might be difficult to find such a global registry; in some cases we
might prefer to rely on local information in the classfile. We need a
way for a classfile to encode, within itself, which types it is using
as value types, so that all viewers of the classfile can make
consistent decisions about what's a value and what's not.
Second, if we are running in the JVM, the global registry of value
types has to be built up by loading classfiles. In order for every
classfile that _uses_ a value type to know its status, the classfile
the _defines_ the value type must be loaded _first_. But there is no
way to totally order these constraints, since it is easy to create
circular dependencies between value types, either directly or
indirectly. (N.B. Well-foundedness rules for layout don't eliminate
all the possible circularities.) And it won't work to add more
initialization phases ("first load all the classfiles, then let them
all start asking questions about their contents"), because that would
require preloading a classfile for every potential value type
mentioned in some other classfile. That's every name in every
`"LFoo;"` descriptor. Loading a file for every name mentioned
anywhere is very un-Java-like, and something that drastic would be
required in order to make correct decisions about value types.
That leads to the third problem, which comes from our desire to make a
migration story. Some classfiles need to operate on value types as if
they were object references. (Below, we will see details of how
operations can differ between value and reference types.) This means
that, if we are to support migration, we need a way for legacy
classfiles to make a _local_ decision to treat a given type as a
reference type, for backward compatibility. Luckily, this is
possible, but it requires a local indication in the classfile so the
JVM can adjust certain operations.
A solution to these problems requires a way for each classfile to
declare how it intends to use each type that is a value type, and
(what is more) a way for legacy classfiles to peacefully interoperate
with migrated value types. We have experimented with various partial
solutions, such as adding an extra bit in a context where a value type
may occur, to let the JVM know that the classfile intends a value
type. (This is the famous `ACC_FLATTENABLE` bit on fields.) But it
turns out that the number of places where value-ness is significant is
hard to limit to just a few spots where we can sprinkle a mode bit.
We need a _comprehensive_ solution that can clearly and consistently
define a classfile's (local) view of the status of each type it works
with, so that when the "value or reference?" question comes up, there
is a clear and consistent answer. We need to prevent the values and
the references from polluting each other; we need _value type
## Value vs. reference operations
Value types can be thought of as simpler than reference types, because
they lack two features of reference types:
- _identity:_ Two value types with the same immediate components are
indistinguishable, even if they were created by different code
paths. Objects, by contrast, "remember" when they were created,
and each object is a unique identity. Identities are
distinguished using the `acmp` family of instructions, and Java's
- _nullability:_ Any variable of any reference type can store the
value `null`; in fact, `null` is the initial value for fields and
array elements. So `null` is one of the possible values of any
reference type, including `Object` and all interfaces. By
contrast, `null` is _not_ the value of any value type. Value type
variables are not nullable, because `null` is a reference. (But
read on for an awkward exception.) The type `Object` can
represent all values and references. Casting an unknown operand
of type `Object` to a value type `Foo` must succeed if in fact the
operand is of type `Foo`, but a null `Object` reference must never
successfully cast to a value type.
This strong distinction between values and references is inspired, in
part, by the design of Java's primitive types, which also are identity
free and are not nullable. Every copy of the `int` value 42 is
completely indistinguishable from every other copy, and you can't cast
a `null` to `int` (without a null pointer exception). We hope
eventually to unify value types and primitives, but even if this
never comes to pass, our design slogan for value types is, _codes
like a class, works like an int_.
By divesting themselves of identity and nullability, value types are
able to enjoy new behaviors and optimizations akin to those of
primitives, notably flattening in the heap and scalarization in
To unlock these benefits, the JVM must treat values and references
as operationally distinct. Some of these operational distinctions
are quite subtle; some required months of discussion to elucidate,
though soon (we hope) they will be obvious in hindsight.
Here is a partial list of cases where the JVM should be able to
distinguish value types from reference types:
- _instance fields:_ A value field should be flattened (if possible)
to components in adjacent memory words. A reference field must
not be flattened, in order to retain identity and store the null
- _static fields:_ A static field must be properly initialized
to the default value of its type, not to null. This holds true
for all fields, in fact. Flattening does not seem to be important
for static fields.
- _array elements:_ An element of a value array (array whose
component type is a value type) should flatten its elements and
arrange them compactly in successive memory locations. Such
an array must be initialized to the default value of its value
type, and never to `null`.
- _methods:_ A value parameter or return value should be
flattened (if possible) to components in registers. A reference
must not be treated this way, because of identity and nullability.
- _verifier:_ The verifier needs to know value types, so it can
forbid inapplicable operations, such as `new` or `monitorenter`.
- _conversions:_ The `checkcast` operator for a value type might
reject `null` (as well as rejecting instances of the wrong type).
The `ldc` of a dynamic constant of value type must not produce
`null` (instead it must fail to link).
_ _comparisons:_ The `acmp` operator family must not detect
value type identities (since they are not present), so it must
operate differently on values and references. In some cases,
the verifier might reject `acmp` altogether.
- _optimization:_ The JIT needs to know whether it can discard
any internal reference (for a value type) and just explode the
value into registers. The possibility of `null` mixing with
This list can be tweaked to make it shorter, by adjusting the rules in
ways that lessen the impact of ambiguity in type names. The list is
also incomplete. (We will add to it later.) Each point of
distinction is the subject of detailed design trade-offs, many of
which we are sketching here.
Some of these distinctions can be pushed to instruction link time
(when resolved value classes may be present) or run time (when the
actual values are on stack). A dynamic check can make a final
decision, after all questions of value-ness are settled. This seems
to be a good decision for `acmp`. The linkage of a `new` instruction
can fail on a value class, or a `checkcast` instruction can reject
inspected as part of the dynamic execution of operations like `new`.
But this delaying tactic doesn't always work. For example, field
layout must be computed during class loading, which (as was seen
above) is too early to use the supposed global list of value types.
Even if some check can be delayed, like the detection of an erroneous
`new` on a value type, we may well decide it is more useful (or
"hygienic") to detect the error earlier, such as at verification time,
so that a broken program can be detected before it starts to run.
Also, some operations may be contextual, to support backward
compatibility. Thus, `checkcast` may need to consult the local
classfile about whether to reject nulls, so that legacy code won't
suddenly fail to verify or execute just because it mixes nulls with
(what it thought were) references. Basically, a "legacy checkcast"
should work correctly with nulls, while an "upgraded checkcast" should
probably reject nulls immediately, without requiring extra tests.
We will examine these points in more detail later, but now we need to
examine how to contextualize information about value types.
## Towards a solution
What is to be done? The rest of this note will propose some solutions
to the problem of value type hygiene, and specifically the problem of
preventing nulls from mixing with values ("null hygiene").
Both Remi Forax[] and Frederic Parain[] have proposed the idea
of having each classfile explicitly declare the list of all value
types that it is using. For the record, this author initially
resisted the idea[] as overkill: I was hoping to get away with a
band-aid (`ACC_FLATTENABLE`), but have since realized we need a more
aggressive treatment. Clean and tidy behavior from the JVM will make
it easier to implement clean and tidy support for value types in the
Throughout the processing of the classfile, the list can serve as a
reliable local registry of decisions about values vs. references.
First we will sketch the attribute, and then revisit the points above
to see how the list may be used.
## The `ValueTypes` attribute
As proposed above, let us define a new attribute called `ValueTypes`
which is simply a counted array of `CONSTANT_Class` indexes. Each
indexed constant is loaded and checked to be a value type. The JVM
uses this list of locally declared value types for all further
decisions about value types, relative to the current class.
As a running reference, let's call the loaded class `C`. `C` may be
any class, either an object or a value. The value types locally
declared by `C` we can call `Q`, `Q1`, `Q2`, etc. These are exactly
the types which would get `Q` descriptors in Q-world.
As an attribute, `ValueTypes` is somewhat like the `InnerClasses`
attribute. Both list all classes, within the context a particular
classfile, which need some sort of special processing. The
`InnerClasses` attribute includes additional data for informing the
special processing (including the break down of "binary names" into
outer and inner names, and extra modifier bits), but the `ValueTypes`
attribute only needs to mention the classes which are known to be
Already with the `ACC_FLATTENABLE` bit we have successfully defined
logic that pre-loads a supposed value type, ensures that it _is_ in
fact a value type, and then allows the JVM to use all of the necessary
properties of that value type to improve the layout of the current
class. The classes mentioned in `ValueTypes` would be pre-loaded
similarly. In fact, the `ACC_FLATTENABLE` bit is no longer needed,
since the JVM can simply flatten all fields whose type names are
mantioned in the local `ValueTypes` list.
We now come to the distinction between properly resolved classes
(`CONSTANT_Class` entries) and types named in descriptors. This
distinction is important to keep in mind. Once a proper class
constant `K` is resolved by `C`, everything is known about it, and a
permanent link to `K` goes into `C`'s constant pool. The same is not
true of other type names that occur within field and method
descriptors. In order for `C` to check whether its field type `"LK;"`
is a value type, it must _not_ try to resolve `K`. Instead it must
look for `K` _by name_ in the list of locally declared value types.
Later on, when we examine verifier types and the components of method
descriptors a similar by-name lookup will be necessary to decide
whether they refer to value types. Thus, there are two ways a type
can occur in a classfile and two ways to decide if it is a value type:
By resolving a proper constant `K` and looking at the metadata, and by
matching a name `"LK;"` against the local list. Happily, the answers
will be complete and consistent if all the queries look at the same
So a type name can be classified as a value type without resolution,
by looking for the same name in the names of the list of declared
value types. And this can be done even before the list of declared
value types is available. This means that any particular declared
value types might not need to be loaded until "hard data" is required
of it. A provisional determination of the value status of some `Q`
can be made very early before `Q`'s classfile is actually located and
pre-loaded. That provision answer might be enough to check some early
structural constraint. It seems reasonable to actually pre-load the
`Q` values lazily, and only when the JVM needs hard data about `Q`,
like its actual layout, or its actual supers.
What if an element of `ValueTypes` turns out to be a reference type?
(Perhaps someone deployed a value-type version of `Optional` but then
got cold feet; meanwhile `C` is still using it under the impression it
is a value type.) There are two choices here, loose and strict,
either pretend the type wasn't there anyway, or raise an error in the
loading of the current classfile. The strict behavior is safer; we
can loosen it later if we find a need. The case of an element failing
to load at all can be treated like the previous problem, either
loosely or strictly; strict is better all else being equal.
The strict treatment is also more in line with how to treat failed
resolution of super-types, which are a somewhat similar kind of
dependency: Super-types, like value types, are loaded as early as
possible, and play a role in all phases of classfile loading, notably
One corollary of making the list an attribute is that it can be easily
stripped, just like `InnerClasses` or `BootstrapMethods`. Is this a
bug or a feature? In the case of `InnerClasses`, stripping the
attribute doesn't affect execution of the classfile but it does break
some Core Reflection queries. In the case of `BootstrapMethods`, the
structural constraints on dynamic constant pool constants will break,
and the classfile will promptly fail to load. The effect of removing
a `ValueTypes` attribute is probably somewhere in between. Because
L-world types are ambiguous, and because we specifically allow value
types to be used as references from legacy classfiles (for migration),
there's always a way to "fake" enough reference behavior from a value
type in a classfile which doesn't make special claims about it. So it
seems reasonable to allow `ValueTypes` to be stripped, at least in
principle. At a worst case the classfile will fail to load, as in the
case of a stripped `BootstrapMethods`, but the feature might actually
prove useful (say, for before-and-after migration testing).
Note that in principle a classfile generator could choose to ignore a
value type, and treat it as a (legacy) reference type. Because of
migration, the JVM must support at least some such moves, but such
picking and choosing is not the center of our design. In particular,
we do not want the same compilation unit to treat a type as a value
type in one line of code, and a reference type in the next. This may
come later, if we decide to introduce concepts of nullable values
and/or value boxes, but we think we can defer such features.
So for now, classfiles may differ among themselves about which types
are value types, but within a single classfile there is only one
source of local truth about value types. (Locally-sourced, fresh,
## Value types and class structure
Very early during class loading, the JVM assigns an instance layout to
the new class `C`. Before that point it must first load the declared
value types (`Q1`, `Q2`, ...), and then recursively extract the layout
information from each one. There is no danger of circularity in this
because a value type instance cannot contain another instance of
itself, directly or indirectly.
Both non-static and static fields of value type make sense (because a
value "works like an int"). But static fields interact differently
with the loading process than non-static fields.
A static value type field has no enclosing instance, unless the JVM
chooses to make one secretly. Therefore it doesn't need to be
flattened. The JVM can make an invisible choice about how to store a
static value type field:
- Buffered immutably on the heap and stored by (invisible) reference
next to the other statics. The `putstatic` instruction would
put the new value in a _different_ buffer and change the pointer.
- Buffered mutably somewhere, with the pointer stored next to
the other statics, or in metadata. The `putstatic` instruction
would store the flattened value into the _same_ buffer.
- Flattened fully into the same container as the other statics.
The first option seems easiest, but the second might be more
performant. The third difficult due to bootstrapping concerns.
In fact, the same implementation options apply for non-statics as for
statics, but only the third one (full flattening) is desirable. The
first one (immutable buffering) may be useful as a fallback
implemmentation technique for special cases like jumbo values and
fields which are `volatile`, and thus need to provide atomicity.
The root container for all of `C`'s statics, in HotSpot, happens to be
the relevant the `java.lang.Class` value `C.class`. Presumably it's a
good place to put the invisible pointers mentioned above.
A static field of value type `Q` cannot make its initial value
available to `getfield` until `Q`'s `<clinit>` method runs, (or in the
case of re-entrant initialization, has at least started). Since
classes can circularly refer to instances of each other via static
references, `Q` might return the favor and require materialization of
The first time `C` requires `Q`'s default value, if `Q` has not been
initialized, its `<clinit>` method should run. This may trigger
re-entry into the initializer for `C`, so `Q` needs to get its act
together _before_ it runs its `<clinit>`, and immediately create `Q`'s
own default value, storing it somewhere in `Q`'s own metadata (or else
the `Class` mirror looks like a good spot). The invariant is that,
before `Q`'s class initializer can run one bytecode, the default value
for `Q` is created and registered for all time. Creating the default
value before the initializer runs is odd but harmless, as long as no
bytecode can actually access the default value without triggering
This also implies that `C` should create and register its own default
value (if it is a value type) before it runs its own `<clinit>`
method, lest `Q` come back and ask `C` for its value type.
The JVM may be required to bootstrap value-type statics as invisible
null pointers, which are inflated (invisibly by the `getstatic` and/or
`putstatic` instructions) into appropriate buffers, after ensuring the
initialization of the value type class. But it seems possible that if
the previous careful sequencing is observed, there is no need to do
lazy inflation of nulls, which would simplify the code for `getstatic`
## Value types and method linkage
A class `C` includes methods as well as fields, of course. A method
can receive or return a value type `Q` simply by mentioning `Q` as a
component of its method descriptor (as an L-descriptor `"LQ;"`).
If a method `C.m()LD;` mentions some type `D` which is not on the
declared list, then that type `D` will be treated, like always, as a
nullable, identity-bearing reference.
Interestingly, migration compatibility requires this to be the case
whether or not `D` is in actual fact a value type. If `C` is
unconscious of `D`'s value-ness, the JVM must respect this, and
preserve the illusion that `D` values are "just references, nothing to
see here, move along". Perhaps `D` is freshly upgraded to a value
type, and `C` isn't recompiled yet. `C` should not be penalized
for this change, if at all possible.
This points to a core decision of the L-world design, that nearly all
of the normal operations on object references "just do the right
thing" when applied to value types. The two kinds of data use the
same descriptor syntax. Value types can be converted to `Object`
references, even though the resulting pseudo-reference does not expose
any identity (and will never be null). Instructions like `aload`
operate on values just as well as references, and so on.
Basically, values in L-world routinely go around lightly disguised as
references, special pseudo-references which do not retain object
identity. As long as nobody looks closely, the fiction that they are
references is unbroken. If someone tries a `monitorenter`
instruction, the game is over, but we think those embarassing moments
will be rare.
On the other hand, if a method `C.m()LQ;` uses a locally-declared
value type, then the JVM has some interesting options. It may choose
to notice that the `Q`-value is not nullable, has no identity. It can
adjust the calling sequence of `m` to work with undisguised "naked
values", which are passed on the stack, opr broken into components for
transport across the method API. This would almost be a purely
invisible decision, except that naked values cannot be null, and so
such calling sequences are hostile to null. Again, it "works like an
int". A null `Integer` value will do just the same thing if you try
to pass it to an `int`-recieving method. So we have to be prepared
for an occasional embarassing NPE, when one party thinks a type is a
nullable reference type and the other party knows it's a value type.
One might think that it is straightforward to assign a value-using
method a calling sequence by examining the method signature and the
locally declared value types of the declaring class. But in fact
there are non-local constraints. Only static and private methods
can easily be adjusted to work with naked values.
Unlike fields, methods can override similar methods in some `C`'s
super-type `S`. This immediately leads to the possibility of `C` and
`S` differing as to the status of some type `X` in the method's
signature. If neither of the `ValueTypes` lists of `C` and `S`
mentions `X`, then the classes are agreed that `X` is an object type
(even if in truth it happens to be a value type). They can agree
to use a reference-based calling sequence for some `m` that works
If both lists mention some `Q`, then both classes agree, and in fact
it must be a value type. They might be able to agree to use "naked
values" for the `Q` type when calling the method. Or not: they still
have to worry about other supers that might have another opinion about
What if `C` doesn't list `Q` but `S` does, and they share a method
that returns `Q`? For example, what about `C.m()Q` vs. `S.m()Q`? In
that case, the JVM may have already set up `S.m` to return its `Q`
result as a naked value. Probably this happend before `C` was even
loaded. The code for `C.m` will expect simply to return a normal
reference. In reality, it will be unconsciously holding a
JVM-assigned pseudo-reference to the buffered `Q`-value. The JVM must
then unwrap the reference into a naked value to match the calling
sequence it assigned (earlier, before `C` was loaded) to `S.m`. The
bottom line is that even though `C.m` was loaded as a
reference-returning function, the JVM may secretly rewrite it to
return a naked value.
Since `C.m` returns a reference, it might choose to return `null`.
What happens then? The secretly installed adaptation logic cannot
extract the components of a buffer that doesn't exist. A
`NullPointerException` must be thrown, at the point where `C.m` is
adapted to `S.m`, which has the greater knowledge that `Q` is value
type (hence non-nullable). It will be as if the `areturn` instruction
of `C.m` included a hidden null check.
Is such a hidden null check reasonable? One might explain that the
`C` code thinks (wrongly) it is working with boxes, while the `S` code
_knows_ it is working with values. If the method were `C.m()Integer`
and it were overriding `S.m()int`, then if `C.m` returns `null` then
the adapter that converts to `S.m()int` must throw NPE during the
implicit conversion from `Integer` to `int`. A value "works like an
int", so the result must be similar with a value type. It is as if
the deficient class `C` were working with boxes for `Q` (indeed that's
all it sees) while the knowledgeable class `S` is working with true
values. The NPE seems justifiable in such terms, although there is no
visible adapter method to switch descriptors in this case.
The situation is a little odd when looked at the following way: If you
view nullability as a privilege, then this privilege is enjoyed only
by deficient classes, ones that have not yet been recompiled to "see"
that the type `Q` is a value type. Ignorant classes may pass `null`
back and forth through `Q` APIs, all day long, until they pass it
through a class that knows `Q` is a value. Then an `NPE` will end
their streak of luck. Is using `null` a privilege? Well, yes, but
remember also that if `Q` started its career as an object type, it was
a value-based class, and such classes are documented as being
null-hostile. The null-passers were in a fool's paradise.
What if `C` lists `Q` as a value but `S` doesn't? Then the calling
sequence assigned when `S` was loaded will use references, and these
references will in fact be pseudo-references to buffered `Q` values
(or `null`, as just discussed). The knowledgeable method `C.m()Q`
will never produce a `null` through this API. The JVM will arrange
to properly clothe the `Q`-value produced by `C.m` into a buffer
whose pointer can be returned from `S.m`.
Class hierarchies can be much deeper than just `C` and `S`, and
overrides can occur at many levels on the way down. Frederic Parain
has pointed out that the net result seems to be that the first
(highest) class that declares a given method (with descriptor) also
gets to determine the calling sequence, which is then imposed on all
overrides through that class. This leads to a workable implementation
strategy, based on v-table packing. A class's v-table is packed at
during the "preparation" phase of class linking, just after loading
before any subclass v-table is packed. The JVM knows, unambiguously,
whether a given v-table entry is new to a class, or is being
reaffirmed from a previous super-class (perhaps with an override,
perhaps just with an abstract). At this point, a new v-table slot can
be given a carefully selected internal calling sequence, which will
then be imposed on all overrides. An old v-table slot will have the
super's calling sequence imposed on it. In this scheme, the
interpreter and compiler must examine both the method descriptor and
some metadata about the v-table slot when performing `invokevirtual`
A method coming in "sideways" from an interface is harder to manage.
It is reasonable to treat such a method as "owned" by the first proper
class that makes a v-table entry for it. But that only works for one
class hierarchy; the same method might show up in a different
hierarchy with incompatible opinions about value types in the method
signature. It appears that interface default methods, if not class
methods, must be prepared to use more than one kind of calling
sequence, in some cases. It is as if, when a class uses a default
method, it imports that method and adjusts the method's calling
sequence to agree with that class's hierarchy.
Often an interface default method is completely new to a class
hierarchy. In that case, the interface can choose the calling
sequence, and this is likely to provide more coherent calling
sequences for that API point.
These complexities will need watching as value types proliferate and
begin to show up in interface-based APIs.
## Value types and the verifier
Let us assume that, if the verifier sees a value type, it should flag
all invalid uses of that value type immediately, rather than wait for
(This assumption can be relaxed, in which case many points in this
section can be dropped. We may also try to get away with implementing
as few of these checks as possible, saving them for a later release.)
When verifying a method, the verifier tracks and checks types by name,
mostly. Sometimes it pre-loads classes to see the class hierarchy.
With the `ValueTypes` attribute, there is no need to pre-load value
classes; the symbolic method is sufficient.
The verifier type system needs a way to distinguish value types from
regular object types. To keep the changes small, this distinction can
be expressed as a local predicate on type names called `isValueType`,
implemented by referring to `ValueTypes`. In this way, the
`StackMapTable` attribute does not need any change at all. Nor does
the verifier type system need a change: value types go under the
`Object` and `Reference` categories, despite the fact that value types
are not object types, and values are not references.
The verifier rules need to consult `isValueType` at some points. The
assignability rules for `null` must be adjusted to exclude value
isAssignable(null, class(X, _)) :- not(isValueType(X)).
This one change triggers widespread null rejection: wherever a value
type is required, the verifier will not allow a `null` to be on the
stack. Assuming `null` is on the stack and `Q` is a value type, the
following will be rejected as a consequence of the above change:
- `putfield` or `putstatic` to a field of type `Q`
- `areturn` to a return type `Q`
- any `invoke` passing `null` to a parameter of type `Q`
- any `invoke` passing `null` to a receiver of type `Q` (but this is rare)
Given comprehensive null blocking (along other paths also), the
implementation of the `putfield` (or `withfield`) instruction could go
ahead and pull a buffered value off the stack without first checking
for `null`. If the verifier does not actually reject such `null`s,
the dynamic behavior of the bytecodes themselves should, to prevent
null pollution from spreading.
The verifier rules for `aastore` and `checkcast` only check that the
input type is an object reference of some sort. More narrow type
checks are performed at runtime. A null may be rejected dynamically
by these instructions, but the verifier logic does not need to track
`null`s for them.
The verifier rules for `invokespecial` have special cases for `<init>`
methods, but these do not need special treatment, since such calls
will fail to link when applied to a value type receiver.
The verifier _could_ reject reference comparisons between value types
other operands (including `null`, other value types, and reference
types). This would look something like an extra pair of constraints
after the main assertion that two references are on the stack:
instructionIsTypeSafe(if_acmpeq(Target), Environment, _Offset, StackFrame,
NextStackFrame, ExceptionStackFrame) :-
canPop(StackFrame, [reference, reference], NextStackFrame),
+ not( canPop(StackFrame, [_, class(X, _)], _), isValueType(X) ),
+ not( canPop(StackFrame, [class(X, _), _], _), isValueType(X) ),
targetIsTypeSafe(Environment, NextStackFrame, Target),
(The JVMS doesn't use any such `not` operator. The actual Prolog
changes would be more complex, perhaps requiring a `real_reference`
target type instead of `reference`.)
This point applies equally to `if_acmpeq`, `if_acmpne`, `if_null`, and
This doesn't seem to be worth while, although it might be
interesting to try to catch javac bugs this way. In any case, such
comparisons are guaranteed to return `false` in L-world, and will
optimize quickly in the JIT.
In a similar vein, the verifier _could_ reject `monitorenter` and
`monitorexit` instructions when they apply to value types:
instructionIsTypeSafe(monitorenter, _Environment, _Offset, StackFrame,
NextStackFrame, ExceptionStackFrame) :-
canPop(StackFrame, [reference], NextStackFrame),
+ not( canPop(StackFrame, [class(X, _)], _), isValueType(X) ),
And a `new` or `putfield` could be quickly rejected if it applies to a
instructionIsTypeSafe(new(CP), Environment, Offset, StackFrame,
NextStackFrame, ExceptionStackFrame) :-
StackFrame = frame(Locals, OperandStack, Flags),
CP = class(X, _),
+ not( isValueType(X) ),
instructionIsTypeSafe(putfield(CP), Environment, _Offset, StackFrame,
NextStackFrame, ExceptionStackFrame) :-
CP = field(FieldClass, FieldName, FieldDescriptor),
+ not( isValueType(FieldClass) ),
Likewise `withfield` could be rejected by the verifier if applied to a
The effect of any or all of these verifier rule changes (if we choose
to implement them) would be to prevent local code from creating a
`null` and accidentally putting it somewhere a value type belongs, or
from accidentally applying an identity-sensitive operation to an
operand _known statically_ to be a value type. These rules only work
when a sharp verifier type unambiguously reports an operand as `null`
or as a value type.
Nulls must also be rejected, and value types detected, when they are
hidden, at verification time, under looser types like `Object`.
Protecting local code from outside `null`s must also be done
Omitting all of these rules will simply shift the responsibility for
null rejection and value detection fully to dynamic checks at
execution time, but such dynamic checks must be implemented in any
case, so the verifier's help is mainly an earlier error check,
especially to prevent null pollution inside of a single stack frame.
For that reason, the only really important verifier change is the
`isAssignable` adjustment, mentioned first.
The dynamic checks which back up or replace the other verifier checks
will be discussed shortly.
## Value types and legacy classfiles
We need to discuss the awkward situation of `null` being passed as a
value type, and value types being operated on as objects, by legacy
classfiles. One legacy classfile can dump null values into surprising
places, even if all the other classfiles are scrupulous about
We will also observe some of the effects of having value types
"invade" a legacy classfile which expects to apply identity-sensitive
operations to them.
By "legacy classfile" we of course mean classfiles which lack
`ValueTypes` attributes, and which may attempt to misuse value types
in some way. (Force of habit: it's strong.) We also can envision
half-way cases where a legacy classfile has a `ValueTypes` attribute
which is not fully up to date. In any case, there is a type `Q` which
is _not_ locally declared as a value type, by the legacy class `C`.
The first bad thing that can happen is that `C` declares a field of
type `Q`. This field will be formatted as a reference field, even
though the field type is a value type. Although we implementors might
grumble a bit, the JVM will have to arrange to use pseudo-pointers to
represent values stored in that field. (It's as if the field were
volatile, or not flattenable for some other reason.) That wasn't too
bad, but look what's in the field to start with: It's a null. That
means that any legitmate operation on this initial value will throw an
`NPE`. Of course, the writer of `C` knew `Q` as a value-based class,
so the initial null will be discarded and replaced by a suitable
non-null value, before anything else happens.
What if `C` makes a mistake, and passes a `null` to another class
which _does_ know `Q` is a value? At that point we have a choice, as
with the verifier's null rejection whether to do more work to detect
the problem earlier, or whether to let the `null` flow through and
eventually cause an `NPE` down the line. Recall that if an API point
gets a calling sequence which recognizes that `Q` is a value type, it
will probably unbuffer the value, throwing `NPE` immediately if `C`
makes a mistake. This is good, because that's the earliest we could
hope to flag the mistake. But if the method accepts the boxed form of
`Q`, then the `null` will sneak in, skulk around in the callee's stack
frame, and maybe cause an error later.
Meanwhile, if the JVM tries to optimize the callee, it will have to
limit its optimizations somewhat, because the argument value is
nullable (even if only ever by mistake). To cover this case, it may
be useful to define that _method entry_ to a method that knows about
`Q` is null-hostile, even if the _calling sequence_ for some reason
allows references. This means that, at function entry, every known
value type parameter is null-checked. This needs to be an official
rule in the JVM, not just an optimization for the JIT, in order for
the JIT to use it.
What if our `C` returns a `null` value to a caller who intends to use
it as a value? That won't go well either, but unless we detect the
`null` aggressively, it might rattle around for a while, disrupting
optimization, before produing an inscrutable error. ("Where'd that
`null` come from??"). The same logic applies as with arguments: When
a `null` is returned from a method call that purports to return `Q`,
this can only be from a legacy file, and the calling sequences were
somehow not upgraded. In that case, the JVM needs to mandate a null
check on every method invocation which is known to return a value
The same point also applies if another class `A`, knowing `Q` as a
value type, happens to load a `null` from one of `C`'s fields. The
`C` field is formatted as a reference, and thus can hand `A` a
surprise `null`, but `A` must refuse to see it, and throw `NPE`.
Thus, the `getfield` instruction, if it is pointed at a legacy
non-flattened field, will need to null-check the value loaded
from the field.
Meanwhile, `C` is allowed to `putfield` and `getfield` `null` all day
long into its own fields (and fields of other benighted legacy classes
that it may be friends with). Thus, the `getfield` and `putfield`
instructions link to slightly different behavior, not only based on
the format of the field, but _also_ based on "who's asking". Code in
`C` is allowed to witness `null`s in its `Q` fields, but code in `A`
(upgraded) is _not_ allowed to see them, even though it's the same
`getfield` to the same symbolic reference. Happily, fields are not
shared widely across uncoordinated classfiles, so this is a corner
case mainly for testers to worry about.
What if `C` stores a `null` into somebody else's `Q` field, or into an
element of a `Q` array? In that case, `C` must throw an immediate
`NPE`; there's no way to reformat someone else's data structure,
however out-of-date `C` may be.
What if `C` gets a null value from somewhere and casts it to `Q`?
Should the `checkcast` throw `NPE` (as it should in a classfile where
`Q` is known to be a value type)? For compatibility, the answer is
"no"; old code needs to be left undisturbed if possible. After all,
`C` believes it has a legitimate need for `null`s, and won't be fixed
until it is recompiled and its programmer fixes the source code.
That's about it for `null`. If the above dynamic checks are
implemented, then legacy classfiles will be unable to disturb upgraded
classfiles with surprise null values. The goal mentioned above
about controlling `null` on all paths is fulfilled blocking `null`
across API calls (which might have a legacy class on one end), and by
verifying that `null`s never mix with values, locally within a single
There are a few other things `C`'s could do to abuse `Q` values.
Legacy code needs to be prevented immediately from making any of the
- `new` of `Q` should throw `ICCE`
- `putfield` to a field of `Q` should throw `ICCE`
- `monitorenter`, `monitorexit` on a `Q` value should throw `IllegalMonitorStateException`
Happily, the above rules are not specific to legacy code but apply
A final mistake is executing an `acmp` instruction on a value type.
Again, this is possible everywhere, not just in legacy files, even if
the verifier tries to prevent the obvious occurrences. There are
several options for `acmp` on value types. The option which breaks
the least code and preserves the O(1) performance model of `acmp` is
to quickly detect a value type operand and just report `false`, even
if the JVM can tell, somehow, that it's the same buffer containing the
same value, being compared to itself.
All of these mistakes can be explained by analogy, supposing that the
legacy class `C` were working with a box type `Integer` where other
classes had been recoded to use `int`. All variables under `C`'s
control are nullable, but when it works with new code it sees only
`int` variables. Implicit conversions sometimes throw `NPE`, and
`acmp` (or `monitorenter`) operations on boxed `Integer` values yield
unspecific (or nonsensical) results.
## Value types and instruction linkage
Linked instructions which are clearly wrong should throw a
`LinkageError` of some type. Examples already given are `new` and
`putfield` on value types.
When a field reference of value type is linked it will have to
correctly select the behavior required by both the physical layout of
the field, and also the stance toward any possible `null` if the field
is nullable. (As argued above, the stance is either lenient for
legacy code or strict for new code.)
A `getstatic` linkage may elect to replace an invisible `null` with
a default value.
When an `invoke` is linked it will have to arrange to correctly
execute the calling sequence assigned to its method or its v-table.
Linkage of `invokeinterface` will be even more dynamic, since the
calling sequence cannot be determined until the receiver class is
Linkage of dynamic constants in the constant pool must reject `null`
for value types. Value types can be determined either globally based
on the resolved constant type, or locally based on the `ValueTypes`
attribute associated with the constant pool in which the resolution
## Value types and instruction execution
Most of the required dynamic behaviors to support value type hygiene
have already been mentioned. Since values are identity-free and
non-nullable, the basic requirement is to avoid storing `null`s in
value-type variables, and degrade gracefully when value types are
queried about their identities. A secondary requirement is to support
the needs of legacy code.
For null hygeine, the following points apply:
- A nullable argument, return value (from a callee),
or loaded field must be null-checked before being further
processed in the current frame, if its descriptor is locally
declared as a value type.
- `checkcast` should reject `null` for _locally_ declared value
types, but not for others.
- If the verifier does not reject `null`, the `areturn`, `putfield`
`withfield` instructions should do so dynamically. (Otherwise the
other rules are sufficient to contain `null`s.)
- An `aastore` to a value type array (`Q`) should reject `null`
even if the array happens to use invisible indirections as an
implementation tactic (say, for jumbo values). This is a purely
dynamic behavior, not affected by the `ValueTypes` attribute.
Linked field and invoke instructions need sufficient linkage metadata
to correctly flatten instance fields and use unboxed (and/or `null`
hostile) calling sequences.
As discussed above, the `acmp` must short circuit on values. This is
a dynamic behavior, not affected by the `ValueTypes` attribute.
Generally speaking, any instruction that doesn't refer to the constant
pool cannot have contextual behavior, because there is no place to
store metadata to adjust the behavior. The `areturn` instruction is
an exception to this observation; it is a candidate for bytecode
rewriting to gate the extra null check for applicable methods.
## Value types and reflection
Some adjustments may be needed for the various reflection APIs, in
order to bring them into alignment with the changed bytecode.
- `Class.cast` should be given a null-hostile partner
`Class.castValue`, to emulate the updated `checkcast` semantics.
- `Field` should be given a dynamic `with` to emulate `withfield`,
and the `Lookup` API given a way to surface the corresponding MH.
- `Class.getValueTypes`, to reflect the attribute, may be useful.
The details are complex, but the story as a whole becomes more
intelligible when we require each classfile to locally declare its
value types, and handle all values appropriately according to the
Outside of legacy code, and at its boundaries, tight control of null
values is feasible. Inside value-rich code, and across value-rich
APIs, full optimization seems within reach.
Potential problems with ambiguity in L-world are effectively addressed
by a systematic side channel for local value type declarations,
assisting the interpratation of `L`-type descriptors. This side
channel can be the `ValueTypes` attribute.
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