Fully Dynamic Classes with ASM

Feb 12, 2016

Zone: Java

TLDR: ASM is a Java bytecode manipulation library. Mocking frameworks and runtime code generators use it to dynamically generate Java classes. Here is an introduction to how it works.

In two previous articles, I discussed Java’s built in dynamic proxy support and using CGLib to proxy concrete classes. In both cases, we provided some regular Java code, then dynamically generated classes that would wire up that Java code to any arbitrary interface or class.

But how does that wiring get created? There is no magic; it must itself be Java code that the Java Virtual Machine can run. But while most of it can exist as part of generic libraries, there must be at least a few parts that are created at runtime, completely dynamically. Similarly, if we use a mocking framework, most of the behavior of the framework can be written as regular Java (tracking method calls, throwing exceptions, returning values) but the actual class file that pretends to be an instance of a class or interface must be purely generated at runtime.

To do this, we need a library like ASM. With ASM, we write Java code to generate a class file at runtime, but because we can parameterize the Java code we write, the class file we generate can have any behavior whatsoever, and any characteristics whatsoever, including what fields and methods it has, the name of the class, its superclass, and any interfaces.

Of course, we could bypass ASM and go directly to writing bytecode ourselves; after all, a class file is just a binary file that happens to contain instructions for the Java virtual machine. But in that case we would have to do a lot of work ourselves to calculate offsets for jump statements and other assembly-level things. Having ASM do it for us is simpler, though you may not think so once you’ve seen how much there is to this “simple” example.

In this article, I’ll present a basic example of using ASM to generate a Java class file, load that class file, and run it. While I will be passing in constants for things like the name and package of the class and its methods, of course a real use of ASM would allow these things to be fed in as parameters.

ASM uses a “visitor” pattern for all of its methods. In practice, this mostly means that all of the methods start with “visit…”. But it also means that we can think of our creation of the class file hierarchically: we will start at the class as a whole, then proceed to the various pieces of the class, including its constructors and its methods.

Before I get into the ASM example, we need to think about what we’re going to do with this class when we have it. ASM is going to give us a regular Java byte array where the contents are the class file data itself. We could write that to a class file on disk and pretend to be a compiler, but ideally we would like to immediately load this class and run it. To do that, we need to load it with a class loader; then we can instantiate it using reflection.

It turns out that ClassLoader in Java does have a method we need to define a class using a byte array, but it’s protected. So we make our own dynamic class loader to expose that method:

public class DynamicClassLoader extends ClassLoader {
    public Class<?> defineClass(String name, byte[] b) {
        return defineClass(name, b, 0, b.length);

Also, once we have the class, we would like to be able to use it from regular Java code (i.e. not using reflection). So we’ll have the class implement an interface. Note that, in our Java source code, there won’t be any classes that implement this interface, but we can write to it and call its methods.

package dynamic;
public interface Calculator {
        int add(int left, int right);

Now that we have a way to load and use the class once we make it, we can start with ASM. For this discussion, I am using ASM 5.0.3, which is the version that ships with CGLib 3.2.0. Note that there are some backward-incompatible changes in both ASM and CGLib, which can make it a challenge when using libraries that use these two. For this reason, you will often see libraries rewrite package names and embed a private ASM.

One other quick note: in this class, I “import static” all of the variables in the “Opcodes” class in ASM. These opcodes are used extensively and it makes reading easier to refer to them directly. So anywhere you see a constant name, that’s where it comes from.

For this explanation, there’s no substitute for showing the purpose of each parameter to each method, so that’s what I’ve done. We start by getting ourselves a ClassWriter instance and “visiting” the class itself:

ClassWriter cw = new ClassWriter(ClassWriter.COMPUTE_FRAMES);
cw.visit(V1_7,                              // Java 1.7 
        ACC_PUBLIC,                         // public class
        "dynamic/DynamicCalculatorImpl",    // package and name
        null,                               // signature (null means not generic)
        "java/lang/Object",                 // superclass
        new String[]{ "dynamic/Calculator" }); // interfaces

Now we have a way to walk through the class, just as if we were writing source code. However, we have to be more explicit because there is no compiler to do things for us. This means we have to explicitly define a constructor, even a no-arg constructor, to make sure our class has one:

/* Build constructor */
MethodVisitor con = cw.visitMethod(
        ACC_PUBLIC,                         // public method
        "<init>",                           // method name 
        "()V",                              // descriptor
        null,                               // signature (null means not generic)
        null);                              // exceptions (array of strings)

The “name” in this case is a special name for constructors. The “descriptor” is also worth a look. This specifies the parameters accepted and the return type of the method. Nothing between the parentheses means this method takes no parameters. Capital “V” means the void type, so this method has no return value.

We’ve now defined a constructor, but we don’t have any behavior yet. If the compiler was generating code for us, and we didn’t include an explicit call to a constructor in the superclass, the compiler would put one in. Here, we need to do that ourselves. Fortunately, for this simple example, that’s all we need our constructor to do:

con.visitCode();                            // Start the code for this method
con.visitVarInsn(ALOAD, 0);                 // Load "this" onto the stack
con.visitMethodInsn(INVOKESPECIAL,          // Invoke an instance method (non-virtual)
        "java/lang/Object",                 // Class on which the method is defined
        "<init>",                           // Name of the method
        "()V",                              // Descriptor
        false);                             // Is this class an interface?

con.visitInsn(RETURN);                      // End the constructor method
con.visitMaxs(1, 1);                        // Specify max stack and local vars

In order to invoke any method in Java byte code, we need a pointer to the object to be on the stack, and any parameters to be pushed onto the stack after it. There are no parameters needed to invoke the no-arg constructor on java.lang.Object, but we still need an object reference, specifically “this” since we are invoking a superclass constructor on ourselves. Because we are inside a method, “this” is available to us as our first local variable (number 0). So we can load it onto the stack.

We next add an “INVOKESPECIAL” operation. If you’ve looked at disassembled Java code, you know that most method calls use “INVOKEVIRTUAL”. But in this case, we don’t want virtual function behavior, because that would mean calling back into our own subclass no-arg constructor, which would be bad. So we need “INVOKESPECIAL”, which is used for private methods and other special cases like calling “super()”.

Finally, we have to explicitly return from the method; that’s another thing the compiler does for us. We then call visitMaxs() to provide a couple numbers to ASM so when this method is run, Java can make sure there is enough memory space for it. First, we specify a maximum stack size. Since we only push one thing onto the stack, this is 1. Second, we specify the maximum number of local variables. Even though we declared no local variables, and we have no parameters, our “this” counts as a local variable, so we have to set it to 1.

Lots of work so far, but we haven’t written any code that does anything! Fortunately, that is coming next. We can now implement the “add” method from our interface:

/* Build 'add' method */
MethodVisitor mv = cw.visitMethod(
        ACC_PUBLIC,                         // public method
        "add",                              // name
        "(II)I",                            // descriptor
        null,                               // signature (null means not generic)
        null);                              // exceptions (array of strings)
mv.visitVarInsn(ILOAD, 1);                  // Load int value onto stack
mv.visitVarInsn(ILOAD, 2);                  // Load int value onto stack
mv.visitInsn(IADD);                         // Integer add from stack and push to stack
mv.visitInsn(IRETURN);                      // Return integer from top of stack
mv.visitMaxs(2, 3);                         // Specify max stack and local vars

cw.visitEnd();                              // Finish the class definition

The call to visitMethod() looks very similar. Of course the name is different, as is the descriptor. In this case, (II)I states that this method takes two primitive “int”s as parameters, and returns an int.

Within the code block, we reference our two parameters, which show up as local variables. We load those onto the stack, call “add”, then return the result. For this method, we have two things on the stack at maximum (since the add operation takes the operands off before it pushes the result onto the stack), and we have three local variables: one for “this” and two for our parameters.

This was the last bit of code we needed, so we can now close things up. We now have all the definitions in place for our class; we just need to ask ASM to generate the bytecode for us, then load it and use it like any other Java class.

DynamicClassLoader loader = new DynamicClassLoader();
Class<?> clazz = loader.defineClass("dynamic.DynamicCalculatorImpl", cw.toByteArray());
Calculator calc = (Calculator)clazz.newInstance();
System.out.println("2 + 2 = " + calc.add(2, 2));

That was a lot of work to create a Java class that can be written in about five lines of code. But at least for me, stepping through this and learning it (and teaching to others) helped me understand some of the behind-the-scenes behavior of the Java Virtual Machine. Hopefully it’s helpful to you as well.