5 Secure Class Loading

Dynamic class loading is an important feature of the Java Virtual Machine because it provides the Java platform with the ability to install software components at run-time. It has a number of unique characteristics. First of all, lazy loading means that classes are loaded on demand and at the last moment possible. Second, dynamic class loading maintains the type safety of the Java Virtual Machine by adding link-time checks, which replace certain run-time checks and are performed only once. Moreover, programmers can define their own class loaders that, for example, specify the remote location from which certain classes are loaded, or assign appropriate security attributes to them. Finally, class loaders can be used to provide separate name spaces for various software components. For example, a browser can load applets from different web pages using separate class loaders, thus maintaining a degree of isolation between those applet classes. In fact, these applets can contain classes of the same name -- these classes are treated as distinct types by the Java Virtual Machine.

The class loading mechanism is not only central to the dynamic nature of the Java programming language. It also plays a critical role in providing security because the class loader is responsible for locating and fetching the class file, consulting the security policy, and defining the class object with the appropriate permissions.

5.1 Class Loader Class Hierarchies

When loading a class, because there can be multiple instances of class loader objects in one Java Virtual Machine, an important question is how do we determine which class loader to use. The Java 2 SDK has introduced multiple class loader classes are introduced that have distinct properties, so another important question is what type of class loader we should use.

The root of the class loader class hierarchy is an abstract class called java.lang.ClassLoader, originally defined in JDK 1.0 and since expanded. Class, introduced in Java 2 SDK, v 1.2, is a subclass and a concrete implementation of the abstract ClassLoader class. Class is a subclass of SecureClassLoader.

A utility program called Appletviewer uses a private class sun.applet.AppletClassLoader to load applets. In JDK 1.0, AppletClassLoader is a subclass and concrete implementation of ClassLoader. In Java 2 SDK, it is a subclass of URLClassLoader.

When creating a custom class loader class, one can subclass from any of the above class loader classes, depending on the particular needs of the custom class loader. Because AppletClassLoader is a private class defined in the sun.* package, it is not supported and is subject to change, so one should not subclass from it.

5.2 The Primordial Class Loader

Because each class is loaded by its class loader, and each class loader itself is a class and must be loaded by another class loader, we seem to have the obvious chicken-and-egg problem, i.e., where does the first class loader come from? There is a "primordial'' class loader that bootstraps the class loading process. The primordial class loader is generally written in a native language, such as C, and does not manifest itself within the Java context. The primordial class loader often loads classes from the local file system in a platform-dependent manner.

Some classes, such as those defined in the java.* package, are essential for the correct functioning of the Java Virtual Machine and runtime system. They are often referred to as base classes. Due to historical reasons, all such classes have a class loader that is a null. This null class loader is perhaps the only sign of the existence of a primordial class loader. In fact, it is easier to simply view the null class loader as the primordial class loader.

Given all classes in one Java application environment, we can easily form a class loading tree to reflect the class loading relationship. Each class that is not a class loader is a leaf node. Each class's parent node is its class loader, with the null class loader being the root class. Such a structure is a tree because there cannot be cycles -- a class loader cannot have loaded its own ancestor class loader.

5.3 Class Loader Delegation

When one class loader is asked to load a class, this class loader either loads the class itself or it can ask another class loader to do so. In other words, the first class loader can delegate to the second class loader. The delegation relationship is virtual in the sense that it has nothing to do with which class loader loads which other class loader. Instead, the delegation relationship is formed when class loader objects are created, and in the form of a parent-child relationship. Nevertheless, the system class loader is the delegation root ancestor of all class loaders. Care must be taken to ensure that the delegation relationship does not contain cycles. Otherwise, the delegation process may enter into an infinite loop.

5.4 Class Resolution Algorithm

The default implementation of the Java 2 SDK ClassLoader method for loading a class searches for classes in the following order: Here, the first step looks into the class loader's local cache (or its functional equivalent, such as a global cache) to see if a loaded class matches the target class. The last step provides a way to customize the mechanism for looking for classes; thus a custom class loader can override this method to specify how a class should be looked up. For example, an applet class loader can override this method to go back to the applet host and try to locate the class file and load it over the network.

If at any step a class is located, it is returned. If the class is not found using the above steps, a ClassNotFound exception is thrown.

Observe that it is critical for type safety that the same class not be loaded more than once by the same class loader. If the class is not among those already loaded, the current class loader attempts to delegate the task to the parent class loader. This can occur recursively. This ensures that the appropriate class loader is used. For example, when locating a system class, the delegation process continues until the system class loader is reached.

We have seen the delegation algorithm earlier. But, given the name of any class, which class loader do we start with in trying to load the class? The rules for determining the class loader are the following:

Note that rules about the use of URLClassLoader and AppletClassLoader instances have exceptions and can vary depending on the particular system environment. For example, a web browser may choose to reuse an existing AppletClassLoader to load applet classes from the same web page.

Due to the power of class loaders, we severely restrict who can create class loader instances. On the other hand, it is desirable to provide a convenient mechanism for applications or applets to specify URL locations and load classes from them. We provide static methods to allow any program to create instances of the URLClassLoader class, although not other types of class loaders.


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