Bytecode is an intermediate representation of a Java program after the source code compilation. It is stored in .class files. When someone runs a program, JVM executes bytecode, and the program works. Bytecode is also a kind of a language that programmers can directly read, understand, and even modify, but it is more complicated than using Java.

In this topic, you will get some general idea of bytecode. It’s probably going to be useful for job interviews, especially if you are going to be a system developer.

Compiling the source file

First, let’s consider the source code of a small program inside the Main.java file.

public class Main {

    public static void main(String[] args) {
        int a = 1;
        int b = 2;
        System.out.println(a + b);
    }
}

As you can see, this program just prints 3.

Let’s compile it using javac:

javac Main.java

This command will create the Main.class file in the same directory. This is a structured binary file that contains bytecode instructions of the program.

It can be run directly by executing this:

java -cp . Main

The -cp (classpath) option tells JVM to search class files in the current folder; Mainis the name of the class.

Disassembling bytecode

All instructions in .class files are written in bytecode machine language. To make a .class file readable for humans, you should disassemble it. It’s possible to do that using the javap disassembler embedded in JDK. It has the following path:

<JDK installation folder>/bin/javap

Let’s disassemble our file:

javap -c Main.class

The -c argument means that we need to print out disassembled code, that is, the instructions that comprise Java bytecode for each of the methods in the class.

Here is our bytecode:

Compiled from "Main.java"
public class Main {
  public Main();
    Code:
       0: aload_0
       1: invokespecial #1  // Method java/lang/Object."<init>":()V
       4: return

  public static void main(java.lang.String[]);
    Code:
       0: iconst_1
       1: istore_1
       2: iconst_2
       3: istore_2
       4: getstatic     #2  // Field java/lang/System.out:Ljava/io/PrintStream;
       7: iload_1
       8: iload_2
       9: iadd
      10: invokevirtual #3  // Method java/io/PrintStream.println:(I)V
      13: return
}

You can see that the bytecode is quite readable. The file has a regular structure which is common for all .class files. It is interesting that Java compiler added the default no-arg constructor Main() for the class.

There is another argument -v for the javap command. It allows you to see more information about the class, file metadata, and values from the constant pool. Here is a part of the output:

Classfile /../../Main.class
  Last modified Oct 8, 2019; size 392 bytes
  MD5 checksum 7c6f013dc34260456bdde418433a1029
  Compiled from "Main.java"
public class Main
  minor version: 0
  major version: 55
  flags: (0x0021) ACC_PUBLIC, ACC_SUPER
  this_class: #4                    // Main
  super_class: #5                   // java/lang/Object
  interfaces: 0, fields: 0, methods: 2, attributes: 1
Constant pool:
   #1 = Methodref          #5.#14   // java/lang/Object."<init>":()V
   #2 = Fieldref           #15.#16  // java/lang/System.out:Ljava/io/PrintStream;
   #3 = Methodref          #17.#18  // java/io/PrintStream.println:(I)V
... a lot of other constants ...

We reduced the pool of constants since it was too long. Values from this pool are used during the program execution.

Bytecode instructions

Each bytecode instruction consists of a one-byte operation code: opcode followed by zero or more operands. There are about 200 bytecode instructions currently in use: the full list can be found on Wikipedia.

Many instructions have prefixes and/or suffixes referring to the types of operands they operate on: i for integer, l for long, s for short, b for byte, c for a character, f for float, d for double, a for a reference.

Let’s consider some of the most used in programs instructions:

  • aload_0 loads a reference onto the stack from local variable 0;
  • iconst_0, iconst_1, iconst_2 loads the int value 0, 1, or 2 onto the stack;
  • istore_0, istore_1, istore_2 stores int value into the variable 0, 1, 2;
  • iload_0, iload_1, iload_2 loads an int value from local variable 0, 1, 2;
  • iadd, isub, imul, idiv performs basic arithmetic operations with integers;
  • invokespecial invokes instance method on object objectref and puts the result on the stack;
  • invokevirtual invokes virtual method on object objectref and puts the result on the stack;
  • getstatic gets a static field value of a class, where the field is identified by field reference in the constant pool index;
  • return returns void from a method.

Many instructions use stack since JVM works as a stack machine for calculations.

Now, we can read bytecode of the main method.

iconst_1          // push 1 onto the stack
istore_1          // assign 1 to the variable 1 (a)
iconst_2          // push 2 onto the stack
istore_2          // assign 2 to the variable 2 (b)
getstatic     #2  // Field java/lang/System.out:Ljava/io/PrintStream;
iload_1           // loads 1 from a
iload_2           // loads 2 from b
iadd              // calculate 1 + 2
invokevirtual #3  // Method java/io/PrintStream.println:(I)V
return            // return from the method main

Here, the command invokevirtual #3 takes an argument from the constant pool.

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