Improving the format of type annotation attributes

Alex Buckley alex.buckley at
Thu Sep 13 12:31:04 PDT 2012


John Rose at Oracle owns the Pack200 spec and has generously given of 
his time to analyze JSR 308's ClassFile attributes from a Pack200 point 
of view. His analysis is below. Please review it carefully.

With regard to target_type, the change from u1 to u2 was my fault. I was 
concerned that the number of contexts in the Java language where 
annotations may appear will grow significantly in future, e.g. for 
annotations on expressions. However, it seems likely that a u1 will 
suffice to classify contexts, as indeed a u1 suffices for JVM bytecodes. 
target_type will therefore be changed back to a u1.

Then we must make a choice. The low-risk approach is simply to move the 
location information earlier in the type_annotation structure. The 
high-risk approach is to drop the "counted" approach to location 
information and adopt the "nested" location approach.

In either case, the physical content in type_annotations will be hidden 
by the reflection APIs I proposed recently. Annotation consumers will 
never see a location array _or_ a type_location tree. OTOH, it is fairly 
clear that a strongly-typed type_location tree is more "beautiful" than 
an untyped location array. Readability and ease of understanding are as 
important for ClassFile attributes as for Java language features.

Your comments on which approach to take will be most welcome.


--- Mail from John Rose follows ---

I just read the updated type annotation spec (dated 7/03/2012) here:

I also read the change log.

On the whole, the project is clearly converging toward a good design. 
The annotation format is cleaner, as is the type annotation syntax.  The 
new receiver syntax is a good simplifying stroke, in my opinion, and the 
detailed disambiguation rules about whole-method vs. return type 
annotations feel clean and user-friendly.

In the light of the updated design, I'd like adjust the comments I made 
last November.

1. I am still not certain whether Pack200 can handle the new attribute 
layout proposed by JSR 308.  In order to test this in a timely manner, 
we will need a good sample of class files that exercises most or all the 
degrees of freedom in the new attribute format.  I think the best way 
for us to get this is to piggy-back on whatever unit tests you have, 
perhaps in the jsr308-langtools repository.  Please advise.

2. The change of target_type from u1 to u2 seems like premature 
optimization to me.  The class file format is so relentlessly 
byte-oriented that it is very hard to make use of any larger alignment. 
  In my 15 years of working with class files, I think I have seen only a 
few cases where a regular u2 type was technically helpful to class file 
parsing.  I don't think JSR 308 will be one of those cases, because not 
every element of the layout has an even byte count (parameter_index and 
typearg_target are examples).  Regarding future extensions, I don't 
think the extra 8 bits matters even slightly:  You are using 18*2 code 
points out of a possible 256, which leaves 220 remaining, and in the 
unlikely event that you need up to 50,000 new code points, you could 
define a secondary target_type_2 field of 8 bits, present only when the 
original target_type is not one of the original allowed values.

It seems to me that adding those extra 8 bits to every type annotation 
does not buy any tangible benefit.  (Pack200 will make them disappear, 
but they will make class files slightly larger.)

3. I see that you still use the odd/even trick to handle nesting; 
essentially the low bit of the target_type field gates whether or not 
there is a trailing location record.

I would like to critique the location record format, which records a 
tree branch within an occurrence of a complex type expression tree:

1. The length (tree depth) field is absurdly long at 16 bits.  No type 
expression tree has ever been so deep.
2. It is a "design smell" that the location_length field is never zero. 
  The natural "zero condition" is redundantly encoded elsewhere, making 
for a confusing design.
3. The nodes in the tree branch are unlabeled.  This means that the 
source code must be inspected to determine whether the location is 
within a wildcard, array type, etc.
4. Because the nodes in the branch are unlabeled, the 8-bit location 
index must carry *either* branch depth *or* parameter index information; 
in the case of nested types it refers to *both* kinds of information. 
This leads to the fragile rule about imputing type parameters to erased 
5. The location array and its length are orphan fields, not belonging to 
any particular structure.  This requires an informal "hand wavey" 
account of where they occur, which makes the design harder to understand 
and implement.

Using a nested instead of a counted branch location format would remedy 
flaws 1, 2, and 5, and would also remove the strange (from 2) asymmetry 
by which zero-length branches are denoted by the even/odd hack instead 
of by a zero count.  By "nested" I mean the format called 
"nested_target" below, where each node in the type tree branch is 
introduced by a label (wildcard, array, nested type, type bound) and an 
index (which could be elided for arrays).

I understand that even if a nested location format is theoretically the 
best, the weight of existing implementations is committed to the counted 
location format, and it would be awkward to change.  In this case, I 
would like to suggest a more modest change that would be slightly more 
compact than your present design, and would be simpler to describe and 
to parse by tools, including Pack200.

Specifically: Reduce the target_type field to 8 bits.  Add the location 
array immediately after the target_type field, with an 8-bit count 
(usually zero).  Put the polymorphic part of the target after both.  The 
result would be to move the low bit of the target_type into its own 
byte, which would serve as the location array count (if non-zero, of 
course).  The new JSR 308 fields would then look like this:

     u1 target_type;    // the type of the targeted program element, see 
Section 3.2

     u1 location_length;             //  ++ADDED
     u1 location[location_length];   //  ++ADDED

     union {
     } target_info;  // uniquely identifies the targeted program 
element, see Section 3.3

The odd/even hack would be unnecessary in this case, although it could 
be present redundantly in the target_type field.  In that case, the 
invariant would apply that the low bit of target_type is zero if and 
only if the location_length byte is zero.

Note that in this design the location_length and location array are no 
longer disembodied fields tacked onto a bunch of other layouts, but are 
first-class members of the type_annotation structure.  They could also 
be moved after the target_info structure (which is where they are now, 
de facto), although I think they are slightly easier to work with in the 
place suggested above.

I guess my minimum request, from a viewpoint centered only on Pack200, 
is to consider making the location_length field be either non-optional, 
or else to have it gated by a smaller number of target_type tag values 
(not the full 18, more like 1-4, as described below).  But I believe 
that, given the importance of type annotations as a technology for 
enhancing static type checkers, it is worth all of our time to remove as 
many design smells as possible.

Best wishes,
— John Rose

P.S.  For completeness, here is what a fully nested (non-counted) layout 
would look like, fixing problems 3 and 4 also:

     // New field in JSR 308:
     type_location location;
struct type_location {  //  ++ADDED recursive structure
     u1 target_type;    // the type of the targeted program element, see 
Section 3.2
     union {

         //  ++ADDED four more target_type values
         // (but deleted the 18 odd ones from the July spec):
         array_component_target = struct {
             type_location outer_array_type; };
         type_argument_target = struct {
             u1 parameter_index; type_location outer_type_expression; };
         nested_type_qualifier_target = struct {
             u1 qualifier_index; type_location qualified_type; };
         wildcard_bound_target = struct {
             type_location outer_wildcard_expression; };
     } target_info;  // uniquely identifies the targeted program
                     // element, see Section 3.3

The type_location structure is recursive in a way that naturally 
corresponds to the various location syntaxes.  Note that only type 
parameter edges absolutely require an extra index.  The others can 
select the proper level of structure (in array rank or nested type 
pathname) simply by repeating edges; I kept qualifier index to show the 
other option.  The ordering of data in this scheme is the reverse of 
that with a counted location, since the outermost location (such as a 
field type) must come last, since its target_info is non-recursive.

Each occurrence of array_component_target selects a nested component 
type (of exactly one less rank) from the enclosing array type.  Each 
occurrence of nested_type_qualifier selects one enclosing (qualifying) 
type, selected by the qualifier index (origin and direction not 
specified here).

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