Java ClassLoaders

Jun 5, 2020, 10:47 AM

Tags: java osgi xpages
  1. Java Services (Not the RESTful Kind)
  2. Java ClassLoaders
  3. Managed Beans to CDI
  4. The Myriad Idioms For Finding Implementations In Java

In my last post, I casually mentioned the concept of ClassLoaders a couple times, and I think that they deserve their own post. ClassLoaders are exactly the kind of thing where, once you do Java long enough, you start to take for granted, but which aren't necessarily immediately obvious for people not as immersed.

The Basics

The core job of a ClassLoader is what it says on the tin: it loads classes. Say you have this bit of code using a class from the core Java library:

long now = System.currentTimeMillis();

This uses two types: long, which is a built-in primitive type and not a class at all, and java.lang.System. long doesn't have to come from anywhere, but java.lang.System does, and that's the job of a ClassLoader. In this case, the Java VM will ask the contextual ClassLoader for a class by that name, and the ClassLoader will (at least in Java 8 - things got weird later) look into the core library and find a file named "java/lang/System.class" within "rt.jar", parse its binary contents into an executable class, and hand it back to the VM.

ClassLoaders are also the source of two problem reports you've likely seen: ClassNotFoundException and NoClassDefFoundError. These two basically mean the same thing: the running app tried to load a class by name, but it wasn't found - they just differ in context (the former generally when a class is asked for dynamically, the latter when it's referenced as part of compiled code). This sort of thing can occur when you write code using a class that's present in your development environment but is not present when run later - among XPages developers, this happens quite a bit when people drop some JARs into jvm/lib/ext in their Designer installation but don't do the same on Domino.

Resource Loading

In addition to finding classes, ClassLoaders have a few other tasks, the main one of which of interest to us is loading resources. In my previous post, I talked about how ServiceLoader looks for service files by a given name, like META-INF/services/ It does this by checking with the current ClassLoader and calling cl.getResources("META-INF/services/"), which will return a listing of resources from JARs (and JAR-like sources, like an NSF) that it knows about matching that name. In that way, multiple JARs can declare services with the same name without conflicting.

ClassLoader Trees

Though conceptually your running program has "a ClassLoader", in reality it's almost definitely a chained series of ClassLoaders, rooted in the core system ClassLoader and then drilling down more specifically to your app's code. For example, take an application running in Apache Tomcat. In that case, Tomcat's documentation describes four basic tiers:

  • The core JVM ("bootstrap") ClassLoader that comes with any running Java program. As Tomcat's docs note, this implementation may vary
  • The central ("system") ClassLoader that contains the "just above the metal" classes, such as those you may add in the "CLASSPATH" environment variable
  • The Tomcat-specific ("common") ClassLoader, containing classes shared among all running applications. For example, javax.servlet.Servlet would be found here
  • Your app's ClassLoader, containing classes you write as well as any third-party JARs you bundled into your WAR file in WEB-INF/lib

When your code executes and requests a new class, the runtime will check first with your app's local ClassLoader and return what it finds there if present - if the class isn't present there, then that ClassLoader will delegate up to its parent, and so forth until it either finds a class or hits the root and throws a NoClassDefFoundError.

The way that each app has its own ClassLoader is also how you can have multiple apps on the same server that can each know about common core classes, but don't step on each others' toes with their own custom classes. Though javax.servlet.Servlet is the same class for two running apps, one app could have an internal class named "com.example.SomeBusinessLogic" and it wouldn't be visible by other running apps.

Dynamic ClassLoaders

Though the normal case of ClassLoaders is that sort of "do I have this class? If not, ask my parent" chain, the fact that a ClassLoader is itself a custom Java class means that its behavior can be pretty arbitrary. This is present in a normal web app ClassLoader: it knows to look in the WEB-INF/classes path within the WAR file instead of the normal behavior of checking from the root of a JAR, and it knows how to look in WEB-INF/lib for additional JARs to search.

In an XPages application, the active ClassLoader is roughly similar to Tomcat's app ClassLoader example, but with a couple additional capabilities. The main one is that the NSF's ClassLoader - an instance of - has knowledge of how to treat an NSF as if it were a WAR file. In Designer's "Package Explorer" pane, you get a view of the NSF that makes it look basically like a normal WAR, where classes go in WEB-INF/classes and JARs go in WEB-INF/lib. However, it's still really a nebulous pool of notes floating around, and so the ModuleClassLoader does design-collection lookups for file resources of various types and loads the class bytecode or resource data from there.

It also, in a move presumably designed to inconvenience me personally, has explicit restrictions on what classes it can load: even though it knows about, for example, org.eclipse or classes, it has a check to explicitly bar loading these. That's why, even if you configure Designer to see those classes and compile XPages code that references them, they won't be available at runtime.

OSGi ClassLoaders

OSGi ClassLoaders are a particular kind of dynamic ClassLoader. In addition to the normal hierarchical view of the world, they take on special responsibilities for ensuring that your OSGi module (which an XPages app kind of is) sees classes from other bundles based on its dependency rules, but not necessarily their resources. For example, take rules like this in an OSGi bundle's META-INF/MANIFEST.MF:


These simple lines hide some beguiling complexity. With this definition, a running class in your bundle will be able to see:

  • All classes at the system level, such as java.lang.System
  • All classes contained within and exported by "", such as and
    • There's also special behavior going on here, because those classes are contained within an embedded JAR in the bundle, referenced as Bundle-ClassPath: lwpd.xsp.core.jar - this is an OSGi-ism
    • Though this bundle lists all of its packages in its Export-Package header, this is not a requirement: it's common for an OSGi bundle to have classes internally that are not accessible from outside
  • All classes exported by its bundle dependency that it marks as visibility:=reexport: "" and ""
    • This is why you can have a dependency on just "" and access javax.faces.context.FacesContext even though it's not in the core XSP bundle
    • This is also transitive, though neither of those re-exported dependencies themselves re-export any dependencies
  • The classes from the "" bundle in the "" package. This means that is visible, but is not, despite both being within the same bundle JAR

There are also tons of weird visibility and dependency details as well in OSGi, but that's the gist of it. Note that I specifically mentioned that the resources aren't visible. Though the Require-Bundle: line makes all classes exported from the XSP core visible to your code, calling ServiceLoader.load( will not find the DefaultHtmlFilteringFactory implementation declared in there, even though it's done in a ServiceLoader-compatible way. This is why IBM Commons papers over that difference with its "plugin.xml" extension declarations. OSGi actually contains a Service Loader Mediator specification to bridge this gap, but Domino doesn't include an implementation of that part.

Fragment Bundles

There's one special case with OSGi bundles that's worth highlighting: fragments. Normally, each bundle effectively has its own ClassLoader space, walled off from all others by OSGi's broker. However, if you declare your bundle as having a Fragment-Host of another active bundle, your code acts as if it's within the parent, gaining access to not just all of the parent bundle's classes, but also its non-class resources. Moreover, this works in the reverse: the parent also gains access to the fragment's classes as resources, though it generally won't "know" about them at the time of development.

This is a technique that's come in handy for me many times, in particular in cases like the XPages Jakarta EE Support project, where API bundles will use ServiceLoader to find their implementations. In those cases, one of the ways I get it to work in OSGi is to create a fragment bundle out of the implementation, meaning that the bundles remain distinct but now the API can find the META-INF/services files and classes it needs to operate.

This has a good number of other uses, too, such as providing platform-specific native code to an otherwise-platform-independent core bundle. The Notes.jar wrapper used in XPages land uses this type of technique. Though, to my knowledge, Notes.jar doesn't contain any actual native code, it's still delivered in two pieces:

  1. The "" bundle, which lists all of the exported packages but holds no code itself
  2. The "" bundle, which contains the actual Notes.jar and declares Fragment-Host:
    • I'm not sure why this is the case, but maybe Notes.jar is different on System i or something

If you have a bundle that needs access to lotus.domino classes, you then can either do Require-Bundle: or Import-Package: lotus.domino and it'll be resolved out of the fragment. There's also an Eclipse-ism in here: the first bundle has Eclipse-ExtensibleAPI: true, which is a tip-off to the IDE that it should specifically allow fragments to contribute available classes to the development environment. This is generally required when developing with Eclipse's plug-in tooling (shared with Designer), but it's not actually enforced one way or the other by the runtime.

Wrapping It Up

This is all definitely in the category of "you don't normally need to worry about it, but it's very helpful to know", like the previous ServiceLoader topic. Until you're implementing some low-level stuff, you're not likely to interact with the ClassLoader directly, especially to a level beyond finding Thread.currentThread().getContextClassLoader() or Foo.class.getClassLoader(). Knowing about it can help make clear what's going on in situations where a class shows up in development but not at runtime, or when the XPages ClassLoader tries to get to fancy and throws up on itself.

Commenter Photo

Jonas - Oct 28, 2022, 10:52 AM

Hi Jesse, We have some third party libraries we use in Xpages that we would like to call to preload as in servlets and init as they take time to load. Eg org.apache.common.BeanUtils. How is this done in Xpages world? Eg on start of server we would like to preload class x and class y adn use them later in application without loading time first use.

New Comment