Rafael is a software engineer at Kantega based in Oslo. He is a Java enthusiast with particular interests in byte code engineering, functional programming, multi-threaded applications and the Scala language. Rafael is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 5 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Understanding sun.misc.Unsafe

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The biggest competitor to the Java virtual machine might be Microsoft's CLR that hosts languages such as C#. The CLR allows to write unsafe code as an entry gate for low level programming, something that is hard to achieve on the JVM. If you need such advanced functionality in Java, you might be forced to use the JNI which requires you to know some C and will quickly lead to code that is tightly coupled to a specific platform. With sun.misc.Unsafe, there is however another alternative to low-level programming on the Java plarform using a Java API, even though this alternative is discouraged. Nevertheless, several applications rely on sun.misc.Unsafe such for example objenesis and therewith all libraries that build on the latter such for example kryo which is again used in for example Twitter's Storm. Therefore, it is time to have a look, especially since the functionality of sun.misc.Unsafe is considered to become part of Java's public API in Java 9.

Getting hold of an instance of sun.misc.Unsafe

The sun.misc.Unsafe class is intended to be only used by core Java classes which is why its authors made its only constructor private and only added an equally private singleton instance. The public getter for this instances performs a security check in order to avoid its public use:

public static Unsafe getUnsafe() {
  Class cc = sun.reflect.Reflection.getCallerClass(2);
  if (cc.getClassLoader() != null)
    throw new SecurityException("Unsafe");
  return theUnsafe;

This method first looks up the calling Class from the current thread’s method stack. This lookup is implemented by another internal class named sun.reflection.Reflection which is basically browsing down the given number of call stack frames and then returns this method’s defining class. This security check is however likely to change in future version. When browsing the stack, the first found class (index 0) will obviously be the Reflection class itself, and the second (index 1) class will be the Unsafe class such that index 2 will hold your application class that was calling Unsafe#getUnsafe().

This looked-up class is then checked for its ClassLoader where a null reference is used to represent the bootstrap class loader on a HotSpot virtual machine. (This is documented in Class#getClassLoader() where it says that “some implementations may use null to represent the bootstrap class loader”.) Since no non-core Java class is normally ever loaded with this class loader, you will therefore never be able to call this method directly but receive a thrown SecurityException as an answer. (Technically, you could force the VM to load your application classes using the bootstrap class loader by adding it to the –Xbootclasspath, but this would require some setup outside of your application code which you might want to avoid.) Thus, the following test will succeed:

@Test(expected = SecurityException.class)
public void testSingletonGetter() throws Exception {

However, the security check is poorly designed and should be seen as a warning against the singleton anti-pattern. As long as the use of reflection is not prohibited (which is hard since it is so widely used in many frameworks), you can always get hold of an instance by inspecting the private members of the class. From the Unsafe class's source code, you can learn that the singleton instance is stored in a private static field called theUnsafe. This is at least true for the HotSpot virtual machine. Unfortunately for us, other virtual machine implementations sometimes use other names for this field. Android’s Unsafe class is for example storing its singleton instance in a field called THE_ONE. This makes it hard to provide a “compatible” way of receiving the instance. However, since we already left the save territory of compatibility by using the Unsafe class, we should not worry about this more than we should worry about using the class at all. For getting hold of the singleton instance, you simply read the singleton field's value:

Field theUnsafe = Unsafe.class.getDeclaredField("theUnsafe");
Unsafe unsafe = (Unsafe) theUnsafe.get(null);

Alternatively, you can invoke the private instructor. I do personally prefer this way since it works for example with Android while extracting the field does not:

Constructor<Unsafe> unsafeConstructor = Unsafe.class.getDeclaredConstructor();
Unsafe unsafe = unsafeConstructor.newInstance();

The price you pay for this minor compatibility advantage is a minimal amount of heap space. The security checks performed when using reflection on fields or constructors are however similar.

Create an instance of a class without calling a constructor

The first time I made use of the Unsafe class was for creating an instance of a class without calling any of the class's constructors. I needed to proxy an entire class which only had a rather noisy constructor but I only wanted to delegate all method invocations to a real instance which I did however not know at the time of construction. Creating a subclass was easy and if the class had been represented by an interface, creating a proxy would have been a straight-forward task. With the expensive constructor, I was however stuck. By using the Unsafe class, I was however able to work my way around it. Consider a class with an artificially expensive constructor:

class ClassWithExpensiveConstructor {

  private final int value;

  private ClassWithExpensiveConstructor() {
    value = doExpensiveLookup();

  private int doExpensiveLookup() {
    try {
    } catch (InterruptedException e) {
    return 1;

  public int getValue() {
    return value;

Using the Unsafe, we can create an instance of ClassWithExpensiveConstructor (or any of its subclasses) without having to invoke the above constructor, simply by allocating an instance directly on the heap:

public void testObjectCreation() throws Exception {
  ClassWithExpensiveConstructor instance = (ClassWithExpensiveConstructor) 
  assertEquals(0, instance.getValue());

Note that final field remained uninitialized by the constructor but is set with its type's default value. Other than that, the constructed instance behaves like a normal Java object. It will for example be garbage collected when it becomes unreachable.

The Java run time itself creates objects without calling a constructor when for example creating objects for deserialization. Therefore, the ReflectionFactory offers even more access to individual object creation:

public void testReflectionFactory() throws Exception {
  Constructor<ClassWithExpensiveConstructor> silentConstructor = ReflectionFactory.getReflectionFactory()
      .newConstructorForSerialization(ClassWithExpensiveConstructor.class, Object.class.getConstructor());
  assertEquals(10, silentConstructor.newInstance().getValue());

Note that the ReflectionFactory class only requires a RuntimePermission called reflectionFactoryAccess for receiving its singleton instance and no reflection is therefore required here. The received instance of ReflectionFactory allows you to define any constructor to become a constructor for the given type. In the example above, I used the default constructor of java.lang.Object for this purpose. You can however use any constructor:

class OtherClass {

  private final int value;
  private final int unknownValue;

  private OtherClass() {
    this.value = 10;
    this.unknownValue = 20;

public void testStrangeReflectionFactory() throws Exception {
  Constructor<ClassWithExpensiveConstructor> silentConstructor = ReflectionFactory.getReflectionFactory()
  ClassWithExpensiveConstructor instance = silentConstructor.newInstance();
  assertEquals(10, instance.getValue());
  assertEquals(ClassWithExpensiveConstructor.class, instance.getClass());
  assertEquals(Object.class, instance.getClass().getSuperclass());

Note that value was set in this constructor even though the constructor of a completely different class was invoked. Non-existing fields in the target class are however ignored as also obvious from the above example. Note that OtherClass does not become part of the constructed instances type hierarchy, the OtherClass's constructor is simply borrowed for the "serialized" type.

Not mentioned in this blog entry are other methods such as Unsafe#defineClass, Unsafe#defineAnonymousClass or Unsafe#ensureClassInitialized. Similar functionality is however also defined in the public API's ClassLoader.

Native memory allocation

Did you ever want to allocate an array in Java that should have had more than Integer.MAX_VALUE entries? Probably not because this is not a common task, but if you once need this functionality, it is possible. You can create such an array by allocating native memory. Native memory allocation is used by for example direct byte buffers that are offered in Java's NIO packages. Other than heap memory, native memory is not part of the heap area and can be used non-exclusively for example for communicating with other processes. As a result, Java's heap space is in competition with the native space: the more memory you assign to the JVM, the less native memory is left.

Let us look at an example for using native (off-heap) memory in Java with creating the mentioned oversized array:

class DirectIntArray {

  private final static long INT_SIZE_IN_BYTES = 4;
  private final long startIndex;

  public DirectIntArray(long size) {
    startIndex = unsafe.allocateMemory(size * INT_SIZE_IN_BYTES);
    unsafe.setMemory(startIndex, size * INT_SIZE_IN_BYTES, (byte) 0);

  public void setValue(long index, int value) {
    unsafe.putInt(index(index), value);

  public int getValue(long index) {
    return unsafe.getInt(index(index));

  private long index(long offset) {
    return startIndex + offset * INT_SIZE_IN_BYTES;

  public void destroy() {

public void testDirectIntArray() throws Exception {
  long maximum = Integer.MAX_VALUE + 1L;
  DirectIntArray directIntArray = new DirectIntArray(maximum);
  directIntArray.setValue(0L, 10);
  directIntArray.setValue(maximum, 20);
  assertEquals(10, directIntArray.getValue(0L));
  assertEquals(20, directIntArray.getValue(maximum));

First, make sure that your machine has sufficient memory for running this example! You need at least (2147483647 + 1) * 4 byte = 8192 MB of native memory for running the code. If you have worked with other programming languages as for example C, direct memory allocation is something you do every day. By calling Unsafe#allocateMemory(long), the virtual machine allocates the requested amount of native memory for you. After that, it will be your responsibility to handle this memory correctly.

The amount of memory that is required for storing a specific value is dependent on the type's size. In the above example, I used an int type which represents a 32-bit integer. Consequently a single int value consumes 4 byte. For primitive types, size is well-documented. It is however more complex to compute the size of object types since they are dependent on the number of non-static fields that are declared anywhere in the type hierarchy. The most canonical way of computing an object's size is using the Instrumented class from Java's attach API which offers a dedicated method for this purpose called getObjectSize. I will however evaluate another (hacky) way of dealing with objects in the end of this section.

Be aware that directly allocated memory is always native memory and therefore not garbage collected. You therefore have to free memory explicitly as demonstrated in the above example by a call to Unsafe#freeMemory(long). Otherwise you reserved some memory that can never be used for something else as long as the JVM instance is running what is a memory leak and a common problem in non-garbage collected languages. Alternatively, you can also directly reallocate memory at a certain address by calling Unsafe#reallocateMemory(long, long) where the second argument describes the new amount of bytes to be reserved by the JVM at the given address.

Also, note that the directly allocated memory is not initialized with a certain value. In general, you will find garbage from old usages of this memory area such that you have to explicitly initialize your allocated memory if you require a default value. This is something that is normally done for you when you let the Java run time allocate the memory for you. In the above example, the entire area is overriden with zeros with help of the Unsafe#setMemory method.

When using directly allocated memory, the JVM will neither do range checks for you. It is therefore possible to corrupt your memory as this example shows:

public void testMallaciousAllocation() throws Exception {
  long address = unsafe.allocateMemory(2L * 4);
  unsafe.setMemory(address, 8L, (byte) 0);
  assertEquals(0, unsafe.getInt(address));
  assertEquals(0, unsafe.getInt(address + 4));
  unsafe.putInt(address + 1, 0xffffffff);
  assertEquals(0xffffff00, unsafe.getInt(address));
  assertEquals(0x000000ff, unsafe.getInt(address + 4));
Note that we wrote a value into the space that was each partly reserved for the first and for the second number. This picture might clear things up. Be aware that the values in the memory run from the "right to the left" (but this might be machine dependent).

The first row shows the initial state after writing zeros to the entire allocated native memory area. Then we override 4 byte with an offset of a single byte using 32 ones. The last row shows the result after this writing operation.

Published at DZone with permission of Rafael Winterhalter, author and DZone MVB. (source)

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