A Class of Its Own

Posted on March 12, 2018  |  

Anyone using Java is familiar with the concept of Java class file. It’s the artifact generated from a Java source file after a successful compilation. A class file contains bytecode (instructions) that is interpreted by a Java Virtual Machine (JVM) during execution. As shown in Figure 1, the bytecodes in a class file follows a strict format described in the JVM specification.


Figure 1. A class file layout

In this posting, I will be exploring different aspects of a Java class file. The best way to get familiar with the class file is to start with an example, ClassA.java, as shown in Figure 2. It’s a very simple example where methodX of ClassA combines the two input parameters and return them as a string. Once you compile the class, you will be getting the ClassA.class file.


Figure 2. Example ClassA.java

Our next step is to investigate the bytecode inside the class file. Java provides a javap command line utility to disassemble a class file. Its output is dependent on the options used during its usage. In the current example, 'javap -c -verbose' command is used to generate the content of the class file including the constant pool, stack size, etc. You can find the disassembled class file here. I will be using the disassembled ClassA.class as a reference to explain different parts of a Java class file. So, let’s start from the very beginning which is the magic number of the class file.

Magic Number

In computer science, a standard way to identify a file type is to insert some type of unique metadata at the beginning of a file. This is the convention followed by file types such as PNG, JPEG, etc. The unique identifier is termed as the magic number of a file.

In Java class file, the first four bytes represents the magic number. It uniquely identifies the class file format and has the value of CAFEBABE in hexadecimal format.

If the ClassA class file is viewed with a Hex editor, e.g., HxD for Windows or iHex for Mac OS, you will notice the magic number as shown in Figure 3.

class hex layout

Figure 3. Hexadecimal layout of ClassA.class

There is an interesting story behind the origin of CAFEBABE moniker. James Gosling, the father of Java, and his friends used to visit a restaurant where Grateful Dead allegedly played before they became famous. After the death of Jerry Garcia, James and his friends started calling the place Cafe Dead. While James was looking for a magic number for the object file, he decided to use CAFEDEAD. Going along with the cafe theme, he came up with CAFEBABE as the magic number of the class file.

Class File Version

The next four bytes of the class file contain major and minor version numbers. It allows the JVM to verify and identify the class file. A class file is rejected with a java.lang.UnsupportedClassVersionError exception if the numbers are greater than the versions allowed by a JVM. In the disassembled ClassA.class, the major version shows up as a hexadecimal value of 0x00000034 (the second hexadecimal number in Figure 3). In terms of decimal, it is magic number. This numeric value is associated with a corresponding version of Java SE. In this case, the number 52 indicates that the ClassA is a Java SE 8 compiled class. You can find more about the mapping here.

Constant Pool

All constants related to a class are stored in a constant pool table. The constants include class names, variable names, interface names, method names, signature, final variable values, string literals, etc. They are stored as a variable length array element in the constant pool. The array of constants are preceded by its array size known as the constant pool count. This helps the JVM to know the number of constants that are expected while loading the class file.

constant pool

Figure 4. ClassA’s constant pool

A constant pool table entry begins with a one byte tag indicating the type of entry. The type includes class, field, method, interface, string, int, etc. The rest of the information stored in the entry varies according to the type.

For instance in Figure 4, the constant pool entry at index 4 has a tag value of 7 followed by the number 42. The number 7 indicates that it’s an entry of type class. The number 42 indicates the index entry in the constant pool specifying the name of the class.

At index entry 42, the tag value of 1 indicates that the entry is of UTF-8 type. An UTF-8 table entry has two more fields. The single byte second field holds the length of the byte array used for storing the string value in the third field, example/simple/app/ClassB.

Access Flags

The access flags follows the constant pool. The flags are stored as bit masks in a two byte entry. It contains information related to the type of program code template stored in the file. In other words, it indicates if the file contains a a class or an interface definition. If it’s a class definition, extra flags are added to reveal if the class is public, abstract or final. All the access flags are retrieved by performing a bitwise AND operation with various bit masks, e.g., ACC_PUBLIC, ACC_SUPER, etc.

access flags

Figure 5. Access Flags

In Figure 5, the ACC_PUBLIC flag signals that it’s a public class. The ACC_SUPER flag is slightly confusing. Let’s say a class named, AnyClass overrides a method named anyMethod() from it’s super class, AnySuperClass. If the ACC_SUPER is not set, the JVM can skip AnyClass.anyMethod() and call AnySuperClass.anyMethod(). The absence of the ACC_SUPER flag is no longer honored by the JVM after Java 7u13 security update.

this Class

After the access flags, the next two byte entry points refers to this class. It points to an entry in the constant pool. In Figure 6, this class points to a constant pool entry of 15. The entry 15 points to entry 51 which stores the name of the this class, i.e., example/simple/app/ClassA.

access flags

Figure 6. this Class

super Class

The next two bytes after this class is the super Class. Similar to this class entry, the super Class points to a constant pool entry. As show in Figure 7, it points to entry 16 which in turn points to entry 52. The entry 52 stores the name of the super class, i.e., java/lang/Object.

access flags

Figure 7. super Class


All the interfaces that are implemented by the class (or interface) defined in the file goes in the interfaces section of a class file. It comes next after the super class entry. The starting two bytes of the interface section is the interface count which gives the number of direct interfaces implemented by this class or interface. The interface count is followed by an array of indices pointing to the entries in the constant pool. Each index refers to a name of an interface implemented by this class. The interface count in the current example is 0 since ClassA doesn’t implement any interface.


A field is an instance or a class level variable (property) of the class or interface. The fields section, which comes after the interface section, contains only those fields that are defined by this class or interface and not the fields inherited from the super class or super interface. The first two bytes in the fields section represents the field count which gives the total number of fields in the fields section. An array of variable length structure follows the field count. Each array element represents one field. Some of the field information is stored in this array element while other information such as field names are stored in the constant pool.


Figure 8. ClassA’s fields

The Figure 8 shows the structure of a field element. The first two bytes holds the access flags of the field. The next four bytes hold constant pool table indexes that point to the field name and the field descriptor respectively.


The methods section, which comes afer fields section, contains information about methods that are explicitly defined by this class. It doesn’t contain any other methods that are inherited from the super class. The first two byte holds the method count of the methods declared in the class or the interface. Next is a variable length array with each element storing a different method structure. The method data structure, as shown in Figure 9, is very similar to that of a field entry except the last part of the method element holds the code attribute.


Figure 9. Methods of ClassA

A method code attribute contains several pieces of information including the method argument list, return type, and the number of stack words required for each of method’s local variables and operand stack, a table for exceptions, byte code sequence, etc.

access flags

Figure 10. Stack frame of ClassA’s methodX’s at various stage of operations

The instructions shown in Figure 10, has letter prefixes and numeric suffixes, e.g. aload_0, iload_2. A prefix denotes the type of data that is going to be handled by the the instruction. The prefix 'a' means the opcode is manipulating an object reference. While prefix 'i' means the opcode is manipulating an integer. A numeric suffix preceded by an underscore( '_' ) indicates the location of the data in the location variables table. The instruction aload_0 is going to operate on an object reference stored at position 0 of the local variables table while iload_2 plans to operate on an integer value stored at position 2 of the local variables table.

You may also notice some of the instructions accept numeric operands preceded by a hashtag('#'), e.g., #1, #2. These numbers are used to construct an index into the runtime constant pool of the current class.

Let’s consider the first few lines of the bytecode generated by method methodX of ClassA in Figure 10. It consists of mulitple opcode instructions. The first opcode aload_0 pushes the value from index 0 of the local variable table into the operand stack. For constructors and instance methods, reference to this object is always stored at location 0 of the local variable table.

The next opcode aload_1 pushes the method’s first parameter value, which is stored in the index 1 of the local variable table, into the operand stack. The putfield #2 opcode points to the index 2 of the constant pool which in turn points to the myAttrib1 field. The putfield expects the top of the stack to be a value and the one below it to be the object reference. After resolving the class name of the object reference, field name and its type, the putfield assigns the value stored in the last entry of the stack (value of the first method parameter param1 in our case) to this’s myAttrib1 field. After the assignment of the value, the top two entries are popped from the stack.

The next three opcode instructions perform similar tasks except they assign integer value from the method parameter param2 to this's myAttrib2 field.


The attributes section, which comes after the methods section, contains several attributes of a class file. The first two bytes in the attribute section is the attribute count followed by the class attributes. Each attribute entry has three different fields: name index, attribute length, and attribute info. The name index is a two byte entry which points to the constant pool index. The constant pool entry at the attribute index contains the name of the attribute. The attribute length item indicates the length of the subsequent attribute info.

The Figure 10 shows the relationship bewteen the attribute and the constant pool in the ClassA example. The attribute shown here is the source code attribute which reveals the name of the source file from which this class file was compiled. The attribute info entry in this case points to the constant pool index which is not always the case. A JVM will ignore any attribute that it doesn’t recognize.


Figure 11. Attributes of ClassA

I hope that I was able to clear up some of the mystery surrounding the Java class file. Now that we have a better understanding of a class file format, I will try to address the topic of bytecode manipulation in one of my future postings.