== Levent Kaya ==
Technical & Personal Blog

Creating a Java Virtual Machine in C++(Again) - part #1

jvm java cpp compiler


The first implementation of CVM (in C) : CMV/archive

The WIP re-implementation of CVM a.k.a CVM++ (in C++) : CVM/dev

The CVM++

About a year ago, I decided to write a jvm in C, and I did. It just wasn’t quite what I wanted and it lacked many functions. Actually, I wrote a java debugger on a binary level rather than a jvm. A year later, I decided to look at this project again and give it the functionality it deserves. This time, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and do it in C++ instead of C (Also, I’m too old to deal with string manipulation in C anymore).

I believe this series will be quite long and will be useful for both Java and C++. Welcome to the first part.

The Functional Requirements

Since I didn’t want to make the same mistakes as last time, I wanted to start by writing the functional requirements of the jvm that I wanted to create. The software I will make throughout this series will have the following functional requirements.

  • Class loading
    • Load classes from the file system
    • Resolve symbolic references.
  • Bytecode verification
    • Verify bytecode integrity to prevent security vulnerabilities and ensure correct behavior.
    • Perform structural and behavioral checks on bytecode instructions.
  • Runtime Data Areas
    • Implement runtime data areas such as heap, method area, program counter (PC), stack, and native method stacks.
    • Manage memory allocation and deallocation.
    • Handle thread-local storage for each thread executing on the JVM.
  • Execution Engine
    • Interpret bytecode instructions or use just-in-time (JIT) compilation for performance optimization.
    • Support execution of Java bytecode instructions according to the Java Virtual Machine Specification.
    • Implement support for core instructions like load/store, arithmetic, flow control, method invocation, and exception handling.

Of course, a JVM that can be used for real production should have much more than these features. But my goal in this series is to make a working jvm, it does not need to be used in the real world.

What is the .class file ?

A .class file is a binary file format used by the Java programming language to store compiled Java bytecode. When you compile a Java source file (.java), the Java compiler (javac) generates a .class file for each class defined in the source code.

The structure of .class

A .class file follows a specific structure defined by the Java Virtual Machine Specification. Here’s a brief overview of its structure:

  • Magic Number: The first 4 bytes of the file represent a magic number (0xCAFEBABE), which identifies it as a valid Java class file.
  • Version Information: The next 4 bytes represent the minor and major version numbers of the Java compiler used to generate the file.
  • Constant Pool: The constant pool contains various constant values used by the class (e.g., strings, numbers, class and method references). It starts with a 2-byte count of entries in the pool.
  • Access Flags: 2 bytes representing access flags indicating the access permissions and properties of the class.
  • This Class and Super Class: 2 bytes each representing indices into the constant pool, specifying the class and its direct superclass.
  • Interfaces: 2 bytes representing the number of interfaces implemented by the class, followed by 2-byte indices into the constant pool for each interface.
  • Fields: 2 bytes representing the number of fields defined in the class, followed by field definitions.
  • Methods: 2 bytes representing the number of methods defined in the class, followed by method definitions.
  • Attributes: Additional attributes, such as annotations, debugging information, and method code, are stored as attributes.

The purpose of .class:

.class files serve as the intermediary between Java source code and the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). They contain the compiled bytecode, which is platform-independent and can be executed by any JVM regardless of the underlying hardware and operating system. When you run a Java application, the JVM loads the appropriate .class files, interprets the bytecode, and executes the program instructions.

A Humble Goal


My modest goal is this, I will write a very small Java program and my own JVM will run this program. For this, I created a structure like this:

├── CMakeLists.txt
├── Dockerfile
├── Makefile
├── README.md
├── cmake
│   ├── CVMConfig.cmake.in
│   ├── CompilerWarnings.cmake
│   ├── Conan.cmake
│   ├── Doxygen.cmake
│   ├── SourcesAndHeaders.cmake
│   ├── StandardSettings.cmake
│   ├── StaticAnalyzers.cmake
│   ├── Utils.cmake
│   ├── Vcpkg.cmake
│   └── version.hpp.in
├── codecov.yaml
├── docs
│   └── banner.jpg
├── include
│   └── cvm
│       ├── fmt_commons.hpp
│       └── tmp.hpp
├── sample
│   ├── Add.class
│   └── Add.java
├── src
│   ├── main.cpp
│   └── tmp.cpp
└── test
    ├── CMakeLists.txt
    └── src
        └── tmp_test.cpp

I thought it was a modern and very versatile project structure, so I started writing the Java code that I would run next.

  public class Add {
      public static int add(int a, int b) {
          return a + b;

As you can see, it is a very simple program, then I compiled this program with javac and created the .class file.

The hexdump of the .class file:

00000000: cafe babe 0000 0042 000f 0a00 0200 0307  .......B........
00000010: 0004 0c00 0500 0601 0010 6a61 7661 2f6c  ..........java/l
00000020: 616e 672f 4f62 6a65 6374 0100 063c 696e  ang/Object...<in
00000030: 6974 3e01 0003 2829 5607 0008 0100 0341  it>...()V......A
00000040: 6464 0100 0443 6f64 6501 000f 4c69 6e65  dd...Code...Line
00000050: 4e75 6d62 6572 5461 626c 6501 0003 6164  NumberTable...ad
00000060: 6401 0005 2849 4929 4901 000a 536f 7572  d...(II)I...Sour
00000070: 6365 4669 6c65 0100 0841 6464 2e6a 6176  ceFile...Add.jav
00000080: 6100 2100 0700 0200 0000 0000 0200 0100  a.!.............
00000090: 0500 0600 0100 0900 0000 1d00 0100 0100  ................
000000a0: 0000 052a b700 01b1 0000 0001 000a 0000  ...*............
000000b0: 0006 0001 0000 0001 0009 000b 000c 0001  ................
000000c0: 0009 0000 001c 0002 0002 0000 0004 1a1b  ................
000000d0: 60ac 0000 0001 000a 0000 0006 0001 0000  `...............
000000e0: 0003 0001 000d 0000 0002 000e            ............

We will be doing a detailed review of this hexdump in the series. But I would like to draw attention to the phrase cafe babe at the beginning. This is a magic number used to verify that what the JVM is reading is a .class file. Maybe I’ll tell you his story sometime. Anyway, after this point, I had a .class file, now all I have to do is load this class file and then parse it. At this point, I’m taking advantage of Oracle’s JVM specification.

The ClassLoader

So here is my base class loader class:

class loader

I started the project with this simple loader. Basically, its function is to load the class file compiled with javac into memory and validate it.

  • std::vector<uint8_t> loadClassFile(const std::string& filePath): Loads the .class file from the specified file path into memory.
  • void parseClassFile(const std::vector<uint8_t>& buffer): Parses the contents of the .class file buffer.

Thanks to this class, I was able to import .class files and start processing them. We will examine the structure of these .class files in the next part of the series, until then, goodbye.

class loader