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Dismantling invokedynamic

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Dismantling invokedynamic

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Many Java developers regarded the JDK's version seven release as somewhat a disappointment. On the surface, merely a few language and library extensions made it into the release, namely  Project Coin and  NIO2. But under the covers, the seventh version of the platform shipped the single biggest extension to the JVM's type system ever introduced after its initial release. Adding the invokedynamic instruction did not only lay the foundation for implementing lambda expressions in Java 8, it also was a game changer for translating dynamic languages into the Java byte code format.

While the invokedynamic instruction is an implementation detail for executing a language on the Java virtual machine, understanding the functioning of this instruction gives true insights into the inner workings of executing a Java program. This article gives a beginner's view on what problem the invokedynamic instruction solves and how it solves it.

Method handles

Method handles are often described as a retrofitted version of Java's reflection API, but this is not what they are meant to represent. While method handles can represent a method, constructor or field, they are not intended to describe properties of these class members. It is for example not possible to directly extract metadata from a method handle such as modifiers or annotation values of the represented method. And while method handles allow for the invocation of a referenced method, their main purpose is to be used together with an invokedynamic call site. For gaining a better understanding of method handles, looking at them as an imperfect replacement for the reflection API is however a reasonable starting point.

Method handles cannot be instantiated. Instead, method handles are created by using a designated lookup object. These objects are themselves created by using a factory method that is provided by the  MethodHandles class. Whenever this factory is invoked, it first creates a security context which ensures that the resulting lookup object can only locate methods that are also visible to the class from which the factory method was invoked. A lookup object can then be created as follows:

class Example {
  void doSomething() {
    MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();
  private void foo() { /* ... */ }

As argued before, the above lookup object could only be used to locate methods that are also visible to the  Example class such as foo. It would for example be impossible to look up a private method of another class. This is a first major difference to using the reflection API where private methods of outside classes can be located just as any other method and where these methods can even be invoked after marking such a method as accessible. Method handles are therefore sensible of their creation context which is a first major difference to the reflection API.

Apart from that, a method handle is more specific than the reflection API by describing a specific type of method rather than representing just any method. In a Java program, a method's type is a composite of both the method's return type and the types of its parameters. For example, the only method of the following  Counter class returns an  int representing the number of characters of the only  String-typed argument:

class Counter {
  static int count(String name) {
    return name.length();

A representation of this method's type can be created by using another factory. This factory is found in the  MethodType class which also represents instances of created method types. Using this factory, the method type for  Counter::count can be created by handing over the method's return type and its parameter types bundled as an array:

MethodType methodType = MethodType.methodType(int.class, new Class<?>[] {String.class});

By using the lookup object that was created before and the above method type, it is now possible to locate a method handle that represents the  Counter::count method as depicted in the following code:

MethodType methodType = MethodType.methodType(int.class, new Class<?>[] {String.class});
MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();
MethodHandle methodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Counter.class, "count", methodType);
int count = methodHandle.invokeExact("foo");
assertThat(count, is(3));

At first glance, using a method handle might seem like an overly complex version of using the reflection API. However, keep in mind that the direct invocation of a method using a handle is not the main intent of its use.

The main difference of the above example code and of invoking a method via the reflection API is only revealed when looking into the differences of how the Java compiler translates both invocations into Java byte code. When a Java program invokes a method, this method is uniquely identified by its name and by its (non-generic) parameter types and even by its return type. It is for this reason that it is possible to overload methods in Java. And even though the Java programming language does not allow it, the JVM does in theory allow to overload a method by its return type.

Following this principle, a reflective method call is executed as a common method call of the  Method::invoke method. This method is identified by its two parameters which are of the types  Object and  Object[]. In addition to this, the method is identified by its Object return type. Because of this signature, all arguments to this method need to always be boxed and enclosed in an array. Similarly, the return value needs to be boxed if it was primitive or null is returned if the method was void.

Method handles are the exception to this rule. Instead of invoking a method handle by referring to the signature of MethodHandle::invokeExact signature which takes an  Object[] as its single argument and returns  Object, method handles are invoked by using a so-called polymorphic signature. A polymorphic signature is created by the Java compiler dependant on the types of the actual arguments and the expected return type at a call site. For example, when invoking the method handle as above with

int count = methodHandle.invokeExact("foo");

the Java compiler translates this invocation as if the  invokeExact method was defined to accept a single single argument of type String and returning an  int type. Obviously, such a method does not exist and for (almost) any other method, this would result in a linkage error at runtime. For method handles, the Java Virtual Machine does however recognize this signature to be polymorphic and treats the invocation of the method handle as if the  Counter::count method that the handle refers to was inset directly into the call site. Thus, the method can be invoked without the overhead of boxing primitive values or the return type and without placing the argument values inside an array. 

At the same time, when using the  invokeExact invocation, it is guaranteed to the Java virtual machine that the method handle always references a method at runtime that is compatible to the polymorphic signature. For the example, the JVM expected that the referenced method actually accepts a  String as its only argument and that it returns a primitive  int. If this constraint was not fulfilled, the execution would instead result in a runtime error. However, any other method that accepts a single  String and that returns a primitive  int could be successfully filled into the method handle's call site to replace  Counter::count

In contrast, using the  Counter::count method handle at the following three invocations would result in runtime errors, even though the code compiles successfully:

int count1 = methodHandle.invokeExact((Object) "foo");
int count2 = (Integer) methodHandle.invokeExact("foo");

The first statement results in an error because the argument that is handed to the handle is too general. While the JVM expected a  String as an argument to the method, the Java compiler suggested that the argument would be an  Object type. It is important to understand that the Java compiler took the casting as a hint for creating a different polymorphic signature with an Object type as a single parameter type while the JVM expected a  String at runtime. Note that this restriction also holds for handing too specific arguments, for example when casting an argument to an  Integer where the method handle required a Number type as its argument. In the second statement, the Java compiler suggested to the runtime that the handle's method would return an  Integer wrapper type instead of the primitive  int. And without suggesting a return type at all in the third statement, the Java compiler implicitly translated the invocation into a void method call. Hence,  invokeExact really does mean exact.

This restriction can sometimes be too harsh. For this reason, instead of requiring an exact invocation, the method handle also allows for a more forgiving invocation where conversions such as type castings and boxings are applied. This sort of invocation can be applied by using the  MethodHandle::invoke method. Using this method, the Java compiler still creates a polymorphic signature. This time, the Java virtual machine does however test the actual arguments and the return type for compatibility at run time and converts them by applying boxings or castings, if appropriate. Obviously, these transformations can sometimes add a runtime overhead. 

Fields, methods and constructors: handles as a unified interface

Other than  Method instances of the reflection API, method handles can equally reference fields or constructors. The name of the MethodHandle type could therefore be seen as too narrow. Effectively, it does not matter what class member is referenced via a method handle at runtime as long as its  MethodType, another type with a misleading name, matches the arguments that are passed at the associated call site.

Using the appropriate factories of a  MethodHandles.Lookup object, a field can be looked up to represent a getter or a setter. Using getters or setters in this context does not refer to invoking an actual method that follows the Java bean specification. Instead, the field-based method handle directly reads from or writes to the field but in shape of a method call via invoking the method handle. By representing such field access via method handles, field access or method invocations can be used interchangeably.

As an example for such interchange, take the following class:

class Bean {
  String value;
  void print(String x) {

For the above  Bean class, the following method handles can be used for either writing a string to the value field or for invoking the print method with the same string as an argument:

MethodHandle fieldHandle = lookup.findSetter(Bean.class, "value", String.class);
MethodType methodType = MethodType.methodType(void.class, new Class<?>[] {String.class});
MethodHandle methodHandle = lookup.findVirtual(Bean.class, "print", methodType);

As long as the method handle call site is handed an instance of Bean together with a  String while returning  void, both method handles could be used interchangeably as shown here:

anyHandle.invokeExact((Bean) mybean, (String) myString);

Note that the polymorphic signature of the above call site does  not match the method type of the above handle. However, within Java byte code, non-static methods are invoked as if they were static methods with where the this reference is handed as a first, implicit argument. A non-static method's nominal type does therefore diverge from its actual runtime type. Similarly, access to a non-static field requires an instance to be access.

Similarly to fields and methods, it is possible to locate and invoke constructors which are considered as methods with a  voidreturn value for their nominal type. Furthermore, one can not only invoke a method directly but even invoke a super method as long as this super method is reachable for the class from which the lookup factory was created. In contrast, invoking a super method is not possible at all when relying on the reflection API. If required, it is even possible to return a constant value from a handle.

Performance metrics

Method handles are often described as being a more performant as the Java reflection API. At least for recent releases of the HotSpot virtual machine, this is not true. The simplest way of proving this is  writing an appropriate benchmark. Then again, is not all too simple to write a benchmark for a Java program which is optimized while it is executed. The de facto standard for writing a benchmark has become using JMH, a harness that ships under the OpenJDK umbrella. The full benchmark can be found as a gist in my GitHub profile. In this article, only the most important aspects of this benchmark are covered.

From the benchmark, it becomes obvious that reflection is already implemented quite efficiently. Modern JVMs know a concept named inflation where a frequently invoked reflective method call is replaced with runtime generated Java byte code. What remains is the overhead of applying the boxing for passing arguments and receiving a return values. These boxings can sometimes be eliminated by the JVM's Just-in-time compiler but this is not always possible. For this reason, using method handles can be more performant than using the reflection API if method calls involve a significant amount of primitive values. This does however require that the exact method signatures are already known at compile time such that the appropriate polymorphic signature can be created. For most use cases of the reflection API, this guarantee can however not be given because the invoked method's types are not known at compile time. In this case, using method handles does not offer any performance benefits and should not be used to replace it.

Creating an invokedynamic call site

Normally, invokedynamic call sites are created by the Java compiler only when it needs to translate a lambda expression into byte code. It is worthwhile to note that lambda expressions could have been implemented without invokedynamic call sites altogether, for example by converting them into anonymous inner classes. As a main difference to the suggested approach, using invokedynamic delays the creation of a similar class to runtime. We are looking into class creation in the next section. For now, bear however in mind that invokedynamic does not have anything to do with class creation, it only allows to delay the decision of how to dispatch a method until runtime.

For a better understanding of invokedynamic call sites, it helps to create such call sites explicitly in order to look at the mechanic in isolation. To do so, the following example makes use of  my code generation framework Byte Buddy which provides explicit byte code generation of invokedynamic call sites without requiring a any knowledge of the byte code format.

Any invokedynamic call site eventually yields a MethodHandle that references the method to be invoked. Instead of invoking this method handle manually, it is however up to the Java runtime to do so. Because method handles have become a known concept to the Java virtual machine, these invocations are then optimized similarly to a common method call. Any such method handle is received from a so-called bootstrap method which is nothing more than a plain Java method that fulfills a specific signature. For a trivial example of a bootstrap method, look at the following code:

class Bootstrapper {
  public static CallSite bootstrap(Object... args) throws Throwable {
    MethodType methodType = MethodType.methodType(int.class, new Class<?>[] {String.class})
    MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();
    MethodHandle methodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Counter.class, "count", methodType);
    return new ConstantCallSite(methodHandle);

For now, we do not care much about the arguments of the method. Instead, notice that the method is static what is as a matter of fact a requirement. Within Java byte code, an invokedynamic call site references the full signature of a bootstrap method but not a specific object which could have a state and a life cycle. Once the invokedynamic call site is invoked, control flow is handed to the referenced bootstrap method which is now responsible for identifying a method handle. Once this method handle is returned from the bootstrap method, it is invoked by the Java runtime.

As obvious from the above example, a  MethodHandle is not returned directly from a bootstrap method. Instead, the handle is wrapped inside of a  CallSite object. Whenever a bootstrap method is invoked, the invokedynamic call site is later permanently bound to the  CallSite object that is returned from this method. Consequently, a bootstrap method is only invoked a single time for any call site. Thanks to this intermediate  CallSite object, it is however possible to exchange the referenced  MethodHandle at a later point. For this purpose, the Java class library already offers different implementations of  CallSite. We have already seen a  ConstantCallSite in the example code above. As the name suggests, a  ConstantCallSite always references the same method handle without a possibility of a later exchange. Alternatively, it is however also possible to for example use a MutableCallSite which allows to change the referenced  MethodHandle at a later point in time or it is even possible to implement a custom  CallSite class.

With the above bootstrap method and Byte Buddy, we can now implement a custom invokedynamic instruction. For this, Byte Buddy offers the  InvokeDynamic instrumentation that accepts a bootstrap method as its only mandatory argument. Such instrumentations are then fed to Byte Buddy. Assuming the following class:

abstract class Example {
  abstract int method();

we can use Byte Buddy to subclass  Example in order to override  method. We are then going to implement this method to contain a single invokedynamic call site. Without any further configuration, Byte Buddy creates a polymorphic signature that resembles the method type of the overridden method. However, for non-static methods, the  this reference is set as a first, implicit argument. Assuming that we want to bind the  Counter::count method which expects a  String as a single argument, we could not bind this handle to  Example::method because of this type mismatch. Therefore, we need to create a different call site without the implicit argument but with an  String in its place. This can be achieved by using Byte Buddy's domain specific language:

Instrumentation invokeDynamic = InvokeDynamic
 .bootstrap(Bootstrapper.class.getDeclaredMethod(“bootstrap”, Object[].class))

With this instrumentation in place, we can finally extend the Example class and override method to implement the invokedynamic call site as in the following code snippet:

Example example = new ByteBuddy()
int result = example.method();
assertThat(result, is(3));

As obvious from the above assertion, the characters of the  "foo" string were counted correctly. By setting appropriate break points in the code, it is further possible to validate that the bootstrap method is called and that control flow further reaches the Counter::count method.

So far, we did not gain much from using an invokedynamic call site. The above bootstrap method would always bind Counter::count and can therefore only produce a valid result if the invokedynamic call site really wanted to transform a  Stringinto an  int. Obviously, bootstrap methods can however be more flexible thanks to the arguments they receive from the invokedynamic call site. Any bootstrap method receives at least three arguments: 

As a first argument, the bootstrap method receives a  MethodHandles.Lookup object. The security context of this object is that of the class that contains the invokedynamic call site that triggered the bootstrapping. As discussed before, this implies that private methods of the defining class could be bound to the invokedynamic call site using this lookup instance.
The second argument is a  String representing a method name. This string serves as a hint to indicate from the call site which method should be bound to it. Strictly speaking, this argument is not required as it is perfectly legal to bind a method with another name. Byte Buddy simply serves the the name of the overridden method as this argument, if not specified differently.
Finally, the  MethodType of the method handle that is expected to be returned is served as a third argument. For the example above, we specified explicitly that we expect a  String as a single parameter. At the same time, Byte Buddy derived that we require an int as a return value from looking at the overridden method, as we again did not specify any explicit return type.

It is up to the implementor of a bootstrap method what exact signature this method should portray as long as it can at least accept these three arguments. If the last parameter of a bootstrap method represents an  Object array, this last parameter is treated as a varargs and can therefore accept any excess arguments. This is also the reason why the above example bootstrap method is valid.

Additionally, a bootstrap method can receive several arguments from an invokedynamic call site as long as these arguments can be stored in a class's constant pool. For any Java class, a constant pool stores values that are used inside of a class, largely numbers or string values. As of today, such constants can be primitive values of at least 32 bit size,  Strings,  Classes, MethodHandles and  MethodTypes. This allows bootstrap methods to be used more flexible, if locating a suitable method handle requires additional information in form of such arguments. 

Lambda expressions

Whenever the Java compiler translates a lambda expression into byte code, it copies the lambda's body into a private method inside of the class in which the expression is defined. These methods are named  lambda$X$Y with  X being the name of the method that contains the lambda expression and with  Y being a zero-based sequence number. The parameters of such a method are those of the functional interface that the lambda expression implements. Given that the lambda expression makes no use of non-static fields or methods of the enclosing class, the method is also defined to be static.

For compensation, the lambda expression is itself substituted by an invokedynamic call site. On its invocation, this call site requests the binding of a factory for an instance of the functional interface. As arguments to this factory, the call site supplies any values of the lambda expression's enclosing method which are used inside of the expression and a reference to the enclosing instance, if required. As a return type, the factory is required to provide an instance of the functional interface. 

For bootstrapping a call site, any invokedynamic instruction currently delegates to the  LambdaMetafactory class which is included in the Java class library. This factory is then responsible for creating a class that implements the functional interface and which invokes the appropriate method that contains the lambda's body which, as described before, is stored in the original class. In the future, this bootstrapping process might however change which is one of the major advantages of using invokedynamic for implementing lambda expressions. If one day, a better suited language feature was available for implementing lambda expressions, the current implementation could simply be swapped out.

In order to being able to create a class that implements the functional interface, any call site representing a lambda expression provides additional arguments to the bootstrap method. For the obligatory arguments, it already provides the name of the functional interface's method. Also, it provides a  MethodType of the factory method that the bootstrapping is supposed to yield as a result. Additionally, the bootstrap method is supplied another  MethodType that describes the signature of the functional interface's method. To that, it receives a  MethodHandle referencing the method that contains the lambda's method body. Finally, the call site provides a  MethodType of the generic signature of the functional interface's method, i.e. the signature of the method at the call site before type-erasure was applied.

When invoked, the bootstrap method looks at these arguments and creates an appropriate implementation of a class that implements the functional interface. This class is created using the  ASM library, a low-level byte code parser and writer that has become the de facto standard for direct Java byte code manipulation. Besides implementing the functional interface's method, the bootstrap method also adds an appropriate constructor and a static factory method for creating instances of the class. It is this factory method that is later bound to the invokedyanmic call site. As arguments, the factory receives an instance to the lambda method's enclosing instance, in case it is accessed and also any values that are read from the enclosing method.

As an example, consider the following lambda expression:

class Foo {
  int i;
  void bar(int j) {
    Consumer consumer = k -> System.out.println(i + j + k);

In order to be executed, the lambda expression requires access to both the enclosing instance of  Foo and to the value j of its enclosing method. Therefore, the desugared version of the above class looks something like the following where the invokedynamic instruction is represented by some pseudo-code:

class Foo {
  int i;
  void bar(int j) {
    Consumer consumer = <invokedynamic(this, j)>;
  private /* non-static */ void lambda$foo$0(int j, int k) {
    System.out.println(this.i + j + k);

In order to being able to invoke  lambda$foo$0, both the enclosing  Foo instance and the  j variable are handed to the factory that is bound by the invokedyanmic instruction. This factory then receives the variables it requires in order to create an instance of the generated class. This generated class would then look something like the following:

class Foo$$Lambda$0 implements Consumer {
  private final Foo _this;
  private final int j;
  private Foo$$Lambda$0(Foo _this, int j) {
    this._this = _this;
    this.j = j;
  private static Consumer get$Lambda(Foo _this, int j) {
    return new Foo$$Lambda$0(_this, j);
  public void accept(Object value) { // type erasure
    _this.lambda$foo$0(_this, j, (Integer) value);

Eventually, the factory method of the generated class is bound to the invokedynamic call site via a method handle that is contained by a  ConstantCallSite. However, if the lambda expression is fully stateless, i.e. it does not require access to the instance or method in which it is enclosed, the  LambdaMetafactory returns a so-called constant method handle that references an eagerly created instance of the generated class. Hence, this instance serves as a singleton to be used for every time that the lambda expression's call site is reached. Obviously, this optimization decision affects your application's memory footprint and is something to keep in mind when writing lambda expressions. Also, no factory method is added to a class of a stateless lambda expression.

You might have noticed that the lambda expression's method body is contained in a private method which is now invoked from another class. Normally, this would result in an illegal access error. To overcome this limitation, the generated classes are loaded using so-called anonymous class loading. Anonymous class loading can only be applied when a class is loaded explicitly by handing a byte array. Also, it is not normally possible to apply anonymous class loading in user code as it is hidden away in the internal classes of the Java class library. When a class is loaded using anonymous class loading, it receives a host class of which it inherits its full security context. This involves both method and field access rights and the protection domain such that a lambda expression can also be generated for signed jar files. Using this approch, lambda expression can be considered more secure than anonymous inner classes because private methods are never reachable from outside of a class.

Under the covers: lambda forms

Lambda forms are an implementation detail of how MethodHandles are executed by the virtual machine. Because of their name, lambda forms are however often confused with lambda expressions. Instead, lambda forms are inspired by lambda calculus and received their name for that reason, not for their actual usage to implement lambda expressions in the OpenJDK.

In earlier versions of the OpenJDK 7, method handles could be executed in one of two modes. Method handles were either directly rendered as byte code or they were dispatched using explicit assembly code that was supplied by the Java runtime. The byte code rendering was applied to any method handle that was considered to be fully constant throughout the lifetime of a Java class. If the JVM could however not prove this property, the method handle was instead executed by dispatching it to the supplied assembly code. Unfortunately, because assembly code cannot be optimized by Java's JIT-compiler, this lead to non-constant method handle invocations to "fall off the performance cliff". As this also affected the lazily bound lambda expressions, this was obviously not a satisfactory solution. 

LambdaForms were introduced to solve this problem. Roughly speaking, lambda forms represent byte code instructions which, as stated before, can be optimized by a JIT-compiler. In the OpenJDK, a  MethodHandle's invocation semantics are today represented by a  LambdaForm to which the handle carries a reference. With this optimizable intermediate representation, the use of non-constant  MethodHandles has become significantly more performant. As a matter of fact, it is even possible to see a byte-code compiled  LambdaForm in action. Simply place a break point inside of a bootstrap method or inside of a method that is invoked via a  MethodHandle. Once the break point kicks it, the byte code-translated  LambdaForms can be found on the call stack.

Why this matters for dynamic languages

Any language that should be executed on the Java virtual machine needs to be translated to Java byte code. And as the name suggests, Java byte code aligns rather close to the Java programming language. This includes the requirement to define a strict type for any value and before invokedynamic was introduced, a method call required to specify an explicit target class for dispatching a method. Looking at the following JavaScript code, specifying either information is however not possible when translating the method into byte code:

function (foo) {

Using an invokedynamic call site, it has become possible to delay the identification of the method's dispatcher until runtime and furthermore, to rebind the invocation target, in case that a previous decision needs to be corrected. Before, using the reflection API with all of its performance drawbacks was the only real alternative to implementing a dynamic language.

The real profiteer of the invokedynamic instruction are therefore dynamic programming languages. Adding the instruction was a first step away from aligning the byte code format to the Java programming language, making the JVM a powerful runtime even for dynamic languages. And as lambda expressions proved, this stronger focus on hosting dynamic languages on the JVM does neither interfere with evolving the Java language. In contrast, the Java programming languages gained from these efforts.

Microservices for Java, explained. Revitalize your legacy systems (and your career) with Reactive Microservices Architecture, a free O'Reilly book. Brought to you in partnership with Lightbend.


Published at DZone with permission of Rafael Winterhalter, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.


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