Class loading in Java. Takeaways.

It is easy to find an answer to any kind of a question by searching it in web. I’m a strong believer that a good programmer tries to understand and analyze the problem, read documentation first before searching for an easy answer.

As a Java developer, the very first source of documentation for me is Java Specification itself. Some people find it pointless to read the long specification when you can find an answer just by few clicks. I disagree, everything is hard until it gets easy. Once you start digging into the original documentation you find not only an answer to your question, but an insight into the nature, reasoning behind and much more.

Recently, while trying to run a small program in JVM, I’ve faced java.lang.VerifyError and went through the specs of Class Loading in JVM and have few interesting findings which I’d like to share.

I’ll give a basic introduction of how the class gets into the JVM’s execution state and add a few takeaways with some nuances.

Java Virtual Machine purpose is to consume class files and execute the byte code within that classes. JVM starts up by loading given class which contains a valid main method corresponding to the Java Specs, however before the code is ready to be used (the class is in execution state of JVM) there are several steps required.

Suppose we have a simple HelloWorld Java class with a main method which prints Hello World to the console.

Step 1: Loading of classes and interfaces

When we try to run our program, JVM tries to find the binary representation (a compiled .class file) of the HelloWorld class with a fully qualified name. Obviously the initial search attempt fails and thats when JVM loads the binary representation of the new class. You may wonder what happens if it can’t find the class? That is when we have the famous NoClassDefFoundError.


  • The loading process is implemented by the class ClassLoader (and its subclasses).
  • Class loaders are using delegation model - before some child A class loader tries to load a class, it first looks if it’s parent B class loader has already loaded it or not. If it finds the class, it doesn’t load the class itself.
  • The same class will never be loaded twice by the same or sibling/parent/child class loader.
  • Class loader constructs Class object from the binary representation of the class and adds a static property named class in it (e.g. when you use SomeObject.class).
  • The class loading may fail with an OutOfMemoryError because it involves allocation of new data structures.

Step 2: Linking of classes and interfaces

After the class is loaded JVM tries to link it into the runtime state of itself. There are three different subphases involved during the linking; verification, preparation and resolution.

  • Verification makes sure that the class (binary representation) is structurally and semantically correct(static checks such as correct method signature). Here is where it may fail with java.lang.VerifyError which tells us that the definition of class or interface didn’t pass a required checks to verify that the semantics of the JVM language are correct.
  • During preparation some precomputation of additional data structures may happen in order to make later operations more efficient. In addition the static fields of a class are initialized to the default values (Important to note that this does not mean that code gets executed).
  • In the resolution phase the symbolic references of the class are resolved. Whenever JVM faces a reference to another class it repeats the same steps of the loading and linking for that reference. Accordingly, the same problems/errors may occur while trying to load or link a symbolic reference.


  • Checks during verification enable the skipping of runtime checks.
  • Some internal Java classes do not require verification before they are linked.
  • Preparation involves memory allocation actions, therefore OutOfMemoryError may occur.
  • Resolution phase is optional in fact. JVM may skip resolving symbolic reference until the time of it’s actual usage (lazy resolution).
  • During the resolution JVM replaces the symbolic reference with the actual reference to the object.

Step 3: Initialization of classes and interfaces

When the class is loaded and linked it’s time to initialize it. Initialization of a class consists of execution of the static initializer blocks or the initializers for static fields. Once the class is initialized it’s ready to be used by JVM.


  • A class will be initialized only before the first occurrence of one of the following
    1. An instance of class is created
    2. A static method declared in class is invoked
    3. A static field declared in class is assigned/used
    4. An assert statement is executed in the class (in this case the class should be top level class)
  • When class is initialized, first it’s super class gets initialized. Initialization of interface does not cause the initialization of its super interfaces.
  • Important: A reference to a static field of the class causes initialization of only the class that actually declares it (so that references do not get initialized)
  • The class or interface may be loaded and linked but not initialized.
Written on September 14, 2016