Java agents, Javassist and Byte Buddy

Java Virtual Machine (JVM) is a really great platform, mature, and well-established. Apart from lots of normal features used by all developers, there are some that are more low-level, designed to serve more “system” or “tooling” purposes. One example is sun.misc.Unsafe, which gives e.g. low-level access to memory. Another such feature is agents. –źgents are the JVM mechanism that enables external code to integrate with a running JVM, including access to the bytecode before it’s loaded and executed.

In this post:

  1. The basics of Java agents and Instrumentation API.
  2. An example agent for metrics collection.
  3. Libraries for bytecode manipulation: Javassist and Byte Buddy.

Agents were introduced in Java 1.5, but programming them is rarely a part of JVM programmer’s everyday job. However, having JVM code in production means a high probability of using some agents. I’d like to mention several widely used classes of them:

  • JMX-HTTP bridges, e.g. Jolokia, which gives access to JXM MBeans over HTTP (very useful for monitoring);
  • profilers, e.g. YourKit or JProfiler;
  • debuggers, namely Java Debug Wire Protocol (JDWP) agent;
  • aspect-oriented programming toolkits, AspectJ in particular;
  • hot code reloading tools like JRebel, which are especially useful in Java EE environment.

There are two types of agents in JVM: Java agents and native agents. Java agents are in JVM bytecode (i.e. written in one of JVM languages, most commonly in Java) packed in JARs and follow special code organisation convention so as JVM could use them. Native agents are different: they’re in native code (most commonly compiled from C++) packed in dynamic libraries, use JVM Tool Interface, and operate on a more low level than Java agents. Particularly, they can affect the garbage collector, thread management, locking and synchronisation, etc. Profilers and debuggers use native agents.

In this post, we’re focusing solely on Java agents.

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