Monday, November 20, 2006

Platform independence (Java)

One characteristic, platform independence, means that programs written in the Java language must run similarly on diverse hardware. One should be able to write a program once and run it anywhere.

This is achieved by most Java compilers by translating the Java language code "halfway" to bytecode (specifically Java bytecode)—simplified machine instructions specific to the Java platform. The code is then run on a virtual machine (VM), a program written in native code on the host hardware that interprets and executes generic Java bytecode. Further, standardized libraries are provided to allow access to features of the host machines (such as graphics, threading and networking) in unified ways. Note that, although there's an explicit compiling stage, at some point, the Java bytecode is interpreted or converted to native machine instructions by the JIT compiler.

There are also implementations of Java compilers that translate the Java language code to native object code, such as GCJ, removing the intermediate bytecode stage, but the output of these compilers can only be run on a single architecture.

Sun's license for Java insists that all implementations be "compatible". This resulted in a legal dispute with Microsoft after Sun claimed that the Microsoft implementation did not support the RMI and JNI interfaces and had added platform-specific features of their own. Sun sued and won both damages (some $20 million) and a court order enforcing the terms of the license from Sun. In response, Microsoft no longer ships Java with Windows, and in recent versions of Windows, Internet Explorer cannot support Java applets without a third-party plugin. However, Sun and others have made available Java run-time systems at no cost for those and other versions of Windows.

The first implementations of the language used an interpreted virtual machine to achieve portability. These implementations produced programs that ran more slowly than programs compiled to native executables, for instance written in C or C++, so the language suffered a reputation for poor performance. More recent JVM implementations produce programs that run significantly faster than before, using multiple techniques.

The first technique is to simply compile directly into native code like a more traditional compiler, skipping bytecodes entirely. This achieves good performance, but at the expense of portability. Another technique, known as just-in-time compilation (JIT), translates the Java bytecodes into native code at the time that the program is run which results in a program that executes faster than interpreted code but also incurs compilation overhead during execution. More sophisticated VMs use dynamic recompilation, in which the VM can analyze the behavior of the running program and selectively recompile and optimize critical parts of the program. Dynamic recompilation can achieve optimizations superior to static compilation because the dynamic compiler can base optimizations on knowledge about the runtime environment and the set of loaded classes. JIT compilation and dynamic recompilation allow Java programs to take advantage of the speed of native code without losing portability.

Portability is a technically difficult goal to achieve, and Java's success at that goal has been mixed. Although it is indeed possible to write programs for the Java platform that behave consistently across many host platforms, the large number of available platforms with small errors or inconsistencies led some to parody Sun's "Write once, run anywhere" slogan as "Write once, debug everywhere".

Platform-independent Java is however very successful with server-side applications, such as Web services, servlets, and Enterprise JavaBeans, as well as with Embedded systems based on OSGi, using Embedded Java environments.