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<title>Dalvik Optimization and Verification</title>
<h1>Dalvik Optimization and Verification With <i>dexopt</i></h1>
The Dalvik virtual machine was designed specifically for the Android
mobile platform. The target systems have little RAM, store data on slow
internal flash memory, and generally have the performance characteristics
of decade-old desktop systems. They also run Linux, which provides
virtual memory, processes and threads, and UID-based security mechanisms.
The features and limitations caused us to focus on certain goals:
<li>Class data, notably bytecode, must be shared between multiple
processes to minimize total system memory usage.
<li>The overhead in launching a new app must be minimized to keep
the device responsive.
<li>Storing class data in individual files results in a lot of
redundancy, especially with respect to strings. To conserve disk
space we need to factor this out.
<li>Parsing class data fields adds unnecessary overhead during
class loading. Accessing data values (e.g. integers and strings)
directly as C types is better.
<li>Bytecode verification is necessary, but slow, so we want to verify
as much as possible outside app execution.
<li>Bytecode optimization (quickened instructions, method pruning) is
important for speed and battery life.
<li>For security reasons, processes may not edit shared code.
The typical VM implementation uncompresses individual classes from a
compressed archive and stores them on the heap. This implies a separate
copy of each class in every process, and slows application startup because
the code must be uncompressed (or at least read off disk in many small
pieces). On the other hand, having the bytecode on the local heap makes
it easy to rewrite instructions on first use, facilitating a number of
different optimizations.
The goals led us to make some fundamental decisions:
<li>Multiple classes are aggregated into a single "DEX" file.
<li>DEX files are mapped read-only and shared between processes.
<li>Byte ordering and word alignment are adjusted to suit the local
<li>Bytecode verification is mandatory for all classes, but we want
to "pre-verify" whatever we can.
<li>Optimizations that require rewriting bytecode must be done ahead
of time.
The consequences of these decisions are explained in the following sections.
<h2>VM Operation</h2>
Application code is delivered to the system in a <code>.jar</code>
or <code>.apk</code> file. These are really just <code>.zip</code>
archives with some meta-data files added. The Dalvik DEX data file
is always called <code>classes.dex</code>.
The bytecode cannot be memory-mapped and executed directly from the zip
file, because the data is compressed and the start of the file is not
guaranteed to be word-aligned. These problems could be addressed by
storing <code>classes.dex</code> without compression and padding out the zip
file, but that would increase the size of the package sent across the
data network.
We need to extract <code>classes.dex</code> from the zip archive before
we can use it. While we have the file available, we might as well perform
some of the other actions (realignment, optimization, verification) described
earlier. This raises a new question however: who is responsible for doing
this, and where do we keep the output?
There are at least three different ways to create a "prepared" DEX file,
sometimes known as "ODEX" (for Optimized DEX):
<li>The VM does it "just in time". The output goes into a special
<code>dalvik-cache</code> directory. This works on the desktop and
engineering-only device builds where the permissions on the
<code>dalvik-cache</code> directory are not restricted. On production
devices, this is not allowed.
<li>The system installer does it when an application is first added.
It has the privileges required to write to <code>dalvik-cache</code>.
<li>The build system does it ahead of time. The relevant <code>jar</code>
/ <code>apk</code> files are present, but the <code>classes.dex</code>
is stripped out. The optimized DEX is stored next to the original
zip archive, not in <code>dalvik-cache</code>, and is part of the
system image.
The <code>dalvik-cache</code> directory is more accurately
<code>$ANDROID_DATA/data/dalvik-cache</code>. The files inside it have
names derived from the full path of the source DEX. On the device the
directory is owned by <code>system</code> / <code>system</code>
and has 0771 permissions, and the optimized DEX files stored there are
owned by <code>system</code> and the
application's group, with 0644 permissions. DRM-locked applications will
use 640 permissions to prevent other user applications from examining them.
The bottom line is that you can read your own DEX file and those of most
other applications, but you cannot create, modify, or remove them.
Preparation of the DEX file for the "just in time" and "system installer"
approaches proceeds in three steps:
First, the dalvik-cache file is created. This must be done in a process
with appropriate privileges, so for the "system installer" case this is
done within <code>installd</code>, which runs as root.
Second, the <code>classes.dex</code> entry is extracted from the the zip
archive. A small amount of space is left at the start of the file for
the ODEX header.
Third, the file is memory-mapped for easy access and tweaked for use on
the current system. This includes byte-swapping and structure realigning,
but no meaningful changes to the DEX file. We also do some basic
structure checks, such as ensuring that file offsets and data indices
fall within valid ranges.
The build system uses a hairy process that involves starting the
emulator, forcing just-in-time optimization of all relevant DEX files,
and then extracting the results from <code>dalvik-cache</code>. The
reasons for doing this, rather than using a tool that runs on the desktop,
will become more apparent when the optimizations are explained.
Once the code is byte-swapped and aligned, we're ready to go. We append
some pre-computed data, fill in the ODEX header at the start of the file,
and start executing. (The header is filled in last, so that we don't
try to use a partial file.) If we're interested in verification and
optimization, however, we need to insert a step after the initial prep.
We want to verify and optimize all of the classes in the DEX file. The
easiest and safest way to do this is to load all of the classes into
the VM and run through them. Anything that fails to load is simply not
verified or optimized. Unfortunately, this can cause allocation of some
resources that are difficult to release (e.g. loading of native shared
libraries), so we don't want to do it in the same virtual machine that
we're running applications in.
The solution is to invoke a program called <code>dexopt</code>, which
is really just a back door into the VM. It performs an abbreviated VM
initialization, loads zero or more DEX files from the bootstrap class
path, and then sets about verifying and optimizing whatever it can from
the target DEX. On completion, the process exits, freeing all resources.
It is possible for multiple VMs to want the same DEX file at the same
time. File locking is used to ensure that dexopt is only run once.
The bytecode verification process involves scanning through the instructions
in every method in every class in a DEX file. The goal is to identify
illegal instruction sequences so that we don't have to check for them at
run time. Many of the computations involved are also necessary for "exact"
garbage collection. See
<a href="verifier.html">Dalvik Bytecode Verifier Notes</a> for more
For performance reasons, the optimizer (described in the next section)
assumes that the verifier has run successfully, and makes some potentially
unsafe assumptions. By default, Dalvik insists upon verifying all classes,
and only optimizes classes that have been verified. If you want to
disable the verifier, you can use command-line flags to do so. See also
<a href="embedded-vm-control.html"> Controlling the Embedded VM</a>
for instructions on controlling these
features within the Android application framework.
Reporting of verification failures is a tricky issue. For example,
calling a package-scope method on a class in a different package is
illegal and will be caught by the verifier. We don't necessarily want
to report it during verification though -- we actually want to throw
an exception when the method call is attempted. Checking the access
flags on every method call is expensive though. The
<a href="verifier.html">Dalvik Bytecode Verifier Notes</a> document
addresses this issue.
Classes that have been verified successfully have a flag set in the ODEX.
They will not be re-verified when loaded. The Linux access permissions
are expected to prevent tampering; if you can get around those, installing
faulty bytecode is far from the easiest line of attack. The ODEX file has
a 32-bit checksum, but that's chiefly present as a quick check for
corrupted data.
Virtual machine interpreters typically perform certain optimizations the
first time a piece of code is used. Constant pool references are replaced
with pointers to internal data structures, operations that always succeed
or always work a certain way are replaced with simpler forms. Some of
these require information only available at runtime, others can be inferred
statically when certain assumptions are made.
The Dalvik optimizer does the following:
<li>For virtual method calls, replace the method index with a
vtable index.
<li>For instance field get/put, replace the field index with
a byte offset. Also, merge the boolean / byte / char / short
variants into a single 32-bit form (less code in the interpreter
means more room in the CPU I-cache).
<li>Replace a handful of high-volume calls, like String.length(),
with "inline" replacements. This skips the usual method call
overhead, directly switching from the interpreter to a native
<li>Prune empty methods. The simplest example is
<code>Object.&lt;init&gt;</code>, which does nothing, but must be
called whenever any object is allocated. The instruction is
replaced with a new version that acts as a no-op unless a debugger
is attached.
<li>Append pre-computed data. For example, the VM wants to have a
hash table for lookups on class name. Instead of computing this
when the DEX file is loaded, we can compute it now, saving heap
space and computation time in every VM where the DEX is loaded.
All of the instruction modifications involve replacing the opcode with
one not defined by the Dalvik specification. This allows us to freely
mix optimized and unoptimized instructions. The set of optimized
instructions, and their exact representation, is tied closely to the VM
Most of the optimizations are obvious "wins". The use of raw indices
and offsets not only allows us to execute more quickly, we can also
skip the initial symbolic resolution. Pre-computation eats up
disk space, and so must be done in moderation.
There are a couple of potential sources of trouble with these
optimizations. First, vtable indices and byte offsets are subject to
change if the VM is updated. Second, if a superclass is in a different
DEX, and that other DEX is updated, we need to ensure that our optimized
indices and offsets are updated as well. A similar but more subtle
problem emerges when user-defined class loaders are employed: the class
we actually call may not be the one we expected to call.
<p>These problems are addressed with dependency lists and some limitations
on what can be optimized.
<h2>Dependencies and Limitations</h2>
The optimized DEX file includes a list of dependencies on other DEX files,
plus the CRC-32 and modification date from the originating
<code>classes.dex</code> zip file entry. The dependency list includes the
full path to the <code>dalvik-cache</code> file, and the file's SHA-1
signature. The timestamps of files on the device are unreliable and
not used. The dependency area also includes the VM version number.
An optimized DEX is dependent upon all of the DEX files in the bootstrap
class path. DEX files that are part of the bootstrap class path depend
upon the DEX files that appeared earlier. To ensure that nothing outside
the dependent DEX files is available, <code>dexopt</code> only loads the
bootstrap classes. References to classes in other DEX files fail, which
causes class loading and/or verification to fail, and classes with
external dependencies are simply not optimized.
This means that splitting code out into many separate DEX files has a
disadvantage: virtual method calls and instance field lookups between
non-boot DEX files can't be optimized. Because verification is pass/fail
with class granularity, no method in a class that has any reliance on
classes in external DEX files can be optimized. This may be a bit
heavy-handed, but it's the only way to guarantee that nothing breaks
when individual pieces are updated.
Another negative consequence: any change to a bootstrap DEX will result
in rejection of all optimized DEX files. This makes it hard to keep
system updates small.
Despite our caution, there is still a possibility that a class in a DEX
file loaded by a user-defined class loader could ask for a bootstrap class
(say, String) and be given a different class with the same name. If a
class in the DEX file being processed has the same name as a class in the
bootstrap DEX files, the class will be flagged as ambiguous and references
to it will not be resolved during verification / optimization. The class
linking code in the VM does additional checks to plug another hole;
see the verbose description in the VM sources for details (vm/oo/Class.c).
If one of the dependencies is updated, we need to re-verify and
re-optimize the DEX file. If we can do a just-in-time <code>dexopt</code>
invocation, this is easy. If we have to rely on the installer daemon, or
the DEX was shipped only in ODEX, then the VM has to reject the DEX.
The output of <code>dexopt</code> is byte-swapped and struct-aligned
for the host, and contains indices and offsets that are highly VM-specific
(both version-wise and platform-wise). For this reason it's tricky to
write a version of <code>dexopt</code> that runs on the desktop but
generates output suitable for a particular device. The safest way to
invoke it is on the target device, or on an emulator for that device.
<h2>Generated DEX</h2>
Some languages and frameworks rely on the ability to generate bytecode
and execute it. The rather heavy <code>dexopt</code> verification and
optimization model doesn't work well with that.
We intend to support this in a future release, but the exact method is
to be determined. We may allow individual classes to be added or whole
DEX files; may allow Java bytecode or Dalvik bytecode in instructions;
may perform the usual set of optimizations, or use a separate interpreter
that performs on-first-use optimizations directly on the bytecode (which
won't be mapped read-only, since it's locally defined).
<address>Copyright &copy; 2008 The Android Open Source Project</address>