null checks vs class resolution: taking a few steps back

Frederic Parain frederic.parain at
Mon Apr 20 17:20:19 UTC 2020

Here’s a few thoughts about the null checks vs class resolution issue
(many thanks to Brian for his review and his improvements to this document).

Checkcast: is it a null issue or a type issue?

There has been some discussion recently on how casts should be translated.
While the static compiler has considerable latitude on how to translate language
constructs to bytecode, I’d like to make sure that we first have a clean story
at the bytecode level, and then take up the translation story (if we still need

History, and historical inconveniences

Before Valhalla, classfiles had two ways to denote a reference type: the plain
name used in CONSTANT_Class_info entries, and the name within an envelope in
the field and method descriptors used in CONSTANT_Fieldref_info,
CONSTANT_Methodref_info and CONSTANT_InterfaceMethodref_info entries.

Having two syntaxes was already a sign that something was weird, but we mostly
wrote that off as a historical accident. (Worse, it is not even applied
uniformly: arrays are always denoted with their envelope, even in
CONSTANT_Class_info entries.) Aesthetics aside, it worked because there was a
single unambiguous translation from a class name to a class name with envelope.

In the bytecode sequence:

 checkcast        #10                 // class Foo
 invokestatic     #19                 // Method Bar:(LFoo;)V
the real meaning of the checkcast was: “I guarantee that the top of stack is a
reference to an instance of class Foo (a.k.a. LFoo;), otherwise I’ll throw
an exception”. Because null is valid value of all reference types, the JVM
does not load the class Foo if the value on the top of the stack is a null,
and the verifier is still satisfied that the arguments on the stack match the
signature of the method begin invoked.

Valhalla turns up the pressure

The Valhalla project introduces a new kind of envelope: Q*;. The spelling has
remained the same, but it’s meaning has evolved with each prototype:

With the v* bytecodes, it was a marker of a new kind of type;
In L-world, it became a marker of null-hostility;
In the current user model, it has become part of the type.
The last two points require some explanation. In L-world, the L and Q flavors
of an inline class were projected from a single set of class metadata. In this
world, there were really three names — the L projection of C, the Q projection
of C, and the class C itself — all of which could be given meaning. So it
still could make sense to denote a class just by name — but it’s not clear this
was a very good idea.

For instance, the devaultvalue bytecode used a CONSTANT_Class_info entry
referring to the value class by its plain name. This was unambiguous, because
of course the defaultvalue bytecode was referring to the Q-version of the
type. (Until some future when we want to apply defaultvalue to reference
types, and get null out.) The information was missing from the constant pool
entry but deduced from the context because of the implicit assumption that
defaultvalue only applies to Q-types. But there were other cases where even
such implicit assumptions was not sufficient to deduce which variant of a value
type should be used. The checkcast bytecode was one of this cases; it then
becoame necessary to denote the class argument with the full envelope in order
to express the expected behavior. 

With the new model of inline types, a class can only have one envelope: either
Q if it is an inline type, or L otherwise. Which means that LFoo; and
QFoo; are not two variants of a same type, but are in fact two different

As much as we’d like to ignore it, if Foo is an inline type, it is still
possible to forge a reference with type LFoo; — we can create a class that
declares a field of type LFoo;, instantiate an instance, and read the field.
This LFoo; is a pretty silly type; it cannot interact with any other type, and
it can only hold null. But the JVM has to deal with such silly types all the
time, such as LBar; when Bar is a nonexistent class. But the reality is
that LFoo; and QFoo; are two different types (with completely disjoint value
sets!), and we should be honest about it.

In the current inline type model, the envelope is an essential part of the
identification of a type.


The legacy behavior of checkcast is on a collision course with the new type
system. If the following bytecode sequence:

 checkcast        #10                 // class Foo
still means the same as before — checking that the reference on the top of the
stack is of type LFoo; — we have a problem if Foo is an inline class,
because if the top of stack holds the null, the checkcast will succeed
(because null is indeed a valid value of the otherwise-useless type LFoo;),
but this is not really what we had in mind when we asked whether the top of the
stack held a Foo.

It is easy to assume that this is just yet another bad nullity behavior, and
forgivable to make this assumption because null has been the source of so much
bad behavior in the past. But this would be putting the blame in the wrong

In this example, the checkcast operation is simply operating on the wrong
type, assuming LFoo; where it has no right to do so — LFoo; and QFoo; are
completely distinct types.

Quick, plug the hole!

There was a lot of discussions on the EG mailing list, and many proposals for
ways to restore peace and tranquility. Unfortunately, they all seem to be
“quick fixes”, are each likely to generate new problems of their own. Without
recapitulating the details of each of them, here’s a summary of their

Generate a different sequence of bytecodes when casting to an inline
type. This is a workaround for the current checkcast behavior, but is
likely to cause trouble for generic code in the future that is specializable
over both identity and inline types, because the goal is to share the
bytecode across instantiations, and only patch the constant pool or type
Use Class::cast. Class::cast is a generic method returning T, which
is erased to Object, which will hide the type information the verifier
needs to guarantee correctness of method arguments types.
Use invokedynamic to call custom behavior. This has serious risk of
bootstrapping issues.
Invent a checknull bytecode. This, and nother solutions focusing of
the handling of null, address the symptom, not the problem. The problem
is not the handling of null, it is checking that a particular value is
within the value set of this particular type. The handling of the null
reference should not be handled separately, and should just fall out of
addressing the general question of whether a given value is in the value set
of a given type.
All of these solutions feel like quick fixes that are likely to bite us back
in the fiture. Let’s solve the real problem instead.

Concrete proposal

Let’s fix this by fixing the underlying problem — being explicit about what
type we are dealing with. Specifically, from Valhalla and beyond, the way to
denote a class type in a classfile is always a class name with an envelope.

The two possible envelopes (currently) are the L-envelope for types with a value
set containing null, and the Q-envelope for types with a value set not
containing null.

This has several pleasant consequences:

All representations within the class file itself are unified:
CONSTANT_Class_info, CONSTANT_Fieldref_info, CONSTANT_Methodref_info
and CONSTANT_InterfaceMethodref_info will all use the same syntax, with no
more translation required between names and type descriptors. 
Class denotation will be aligned with array denotation, which already uses
type descriptors in CONSTANT_Class_info entries.
All bytecodes referencing a CONSTANT_Class_info entry will have access to
the full denotation, envelope + name, even when the class has not been
loaded yet.
The verifier will no longer have to translate between names and type
For the checkcast bytecode, the semantics has to be rephrased: checkcast
must ensure that the reference on the top of the stack is within the value set
of the type specified in argument, or throw an exception. For L types, this
is the same behavior as before, but for Q types, the behavior reflects the
value set of the type specified in the classfile. If we have:

 checkcast        #10                 // class LFoo;
then checkcast is being used with a type using a L-envelope, so we still know
null is within the value set of Foo without having to load Foo. If the
top of stack is not the null reference, then Foo must be loaded to check if
this value is part of the remaining of Foo‘s value set, as before.

On the other hand, if we have:

checkcast        #11                 // class QBar;
then checkcast is used with a type using a Q-envelope, which means null
cannot be part of the value set of Bar. So if the top of stack contains the
null reference, an exception can be thrown (again, without loading Bar if we
so desire). If the top of stack is not the null reference, then Bar must be
loaded to check if this value is part of Bar‘s value set, as before.

The bytecode sequence is the same for both inline types and not-inline-types,
with the behavior being controlled by a constant pool entry, making it suitable
for our specialization model, and the semantics being derived from the type on
which checkcast operates.

The benefits of always using a name+envelope will be less significant for other
bytecodes, but they still do exist. (For example, using new on an inline
type, could be caught at verification time instead of runtime.)

Let’s take this
opportunity to address the real problem — correct denotation of types — rather
than pinning the blame on null (however many sins it committed in the past.)
The current loose treatment of non-enveloped names has already caused trouble,
and will be a huge source of technical debt going forward. Let’s just pay it

Backward compatibility

Pre-Valhalla class files only know about the L-envelope, so the JVM can continue
to deal with them applying the old default translation from names to L*;
descriptors. The implementation of checkcast won’t have to check the class
file version, as the behavior can be deduced directly from the content of the
CONSTANT_Class_info (plain name -> old syntax, name with envelope -> new
syntax). New classfiles will reject the old syntax.

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