Java
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By Arnaud Roger

Deep Dive into Java 9’s Stack-Walking API

By Arnaud Roger
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The stack-walking API, released as part of Java 9, offers an efficient way to access the execution stack. (The execution stack represents the chain of method calls – it starts with the public static void main(String[]) method or the run method of a thread, contains a frame for each method that was called but did not yet return, and ends at the execution point of the StackWalker call.) In this article we will explore the different functionalities of the stack-walking API, followed by a look at its performance characteristics.

This article requires working knowledge of Java, particularly lambda expressions and streams.

Who Called Me?

There are situations when you need to know who called your method. For example, to do security checks or to identify the source of a resource leak. Every method call creates a frame on the stack and Java allows code to access the stack, so it can analyze it.

Before Java 9, the way most people would access the stack information was via instantiating a Throwable and use it to get the stack trace.

StackTraceElement[] stackTrace = new Throwable().getStackTrace();

This works but it is quite costly and hacky. It captures all the frames – except the hidden ones – even if you need only the first 2 and does not give you access to the actual Class instance in which the method is declared. To get the class you need to extend SecurityManager that has a protected method getClassContext that will return an array of Class.

To address those drawbacks Java 9 introduces the new stack-walking API (with JEP 259). We will now explore the different functionalities of the API followed by a look at its performance characteristics.

StackWalker Basics

Java 9 ships with a new type, the StackWalker, which gives access to the stack. We will now see how to get an instance and how to use it to execute a simple stack walk.

Getting a StackWalker

A StackWalker is easily accessible with the static getInstance methods:

StackWalker stackWalker1 =
        StackWalker.getInstance();
StackWalker stackWalker2 =
        StackWalker.getInstance(RETAIN_CLASS_REFERENCE);
StackWalker stackWalker3 =
        StackWalker.getInstance(
               Set.of(RETAIN_CLASS_REFERENCE, SHOW_HIDDEN_FRAMES));
StackWalker stackWalker4 =
        StackWalker.getInstance(Set.of(RETAIN_CLASS_REFERENCE), 32);

The different calls allow you to specify one option or a set of them as well as the estimated size of the number of frames to capture – I will discuss both further below.

Once you have your StackWalker you can access the stack information using the following methods.

The forEach Method

The forEach method will forward all the unfiltered frames to the specified Consumer<StackFrame> callback. So, for example, to just print the frames you do:

stackWalker.forEach(System.out::println);

Walk the walk

The walk method takes a function that gets a stream of stack frames and returns the desired result. It has the following signature (plus some wildcards that I removed to make it more readable):

<T> T walk(Function<Stream<StackWalker.StackFrame>, T> function)

You might ask why does it not just return the Stream? Let’s come back to that later. First, we’ll see how we can use it. For example, to collect the frames in a List you would write:

// collect the frames
List<StackWalker.StackFrame> frames = stackWalker.walk(
        frames -> frames.collect(Collectors.toList()));

To count them:

// count the number of frames
long nbFrames = stackWalker.walk(
        // the lambda returns a long
        frames -> frames.count());

One of the big advantages of using the walk method is that because the stack-walking API lazily evaluates frames, the use of the limit operator actually reduces the number of frames that are recovered. The following code will retrieve the first two frames, which, as we will see later, is much cheaper than capturing the full stack.

List<StackWalker.StackFrame> caller = stackWalker.walk(
        frames -> frames
                .limit(2)
                .collect(Collectors.toList()));
Concrete Stack Walker

Published by Rory Hyde under CC-BY-SA 2.0 / SitePoint changed colorization and field of view and shares under the same license

Advanced StackWalker

With the basics of how to get a stack walker and how use it to access the frames under our belt, it is time to turn to more advanced topics.

Why Taking a Function Instead of Just Returning the Stream?

When discussing the stack, it is easiest to imagine it as a stable data structure that the JVM only mutates at the top, either adding or removing individual frames when methods are entered or exited. This is not entirely true, though. Instead, you should think of the stack as something that the VM can restructure anytime (including in the middle of your code being executed) to improve performance.

So for the walker to see a consistent stack, the API needs to make sure that the stack is stable while it is building the frames. It can only do that if is in control of the call stack, which means your processing of the stream must happen within the call to the API. That’s why the stream can not be returned but must be traversed inside the call to walk. (Furthermore, the walk callbacks are executed from a JVM native function, as you can see on the comment for walk on StackStreamFactory and doStackWalk.)

If you try to leak the stream by passing an identity function it will throw an IllegalStateException once you try to process it.

Stream<StackWalker.StackFrame> doNotDoThat =
        stackWalker.walk(frames -> frames);
doNotDoThat.count(); // throws an IllegalStateException

The getCallerClass Method

To make the common case fast and simple, the StackWalker provides an optimized way to get the caller class.

Class<?> callerClass = StackWalker
        .getInstance(RETAIN_CLASS_REFERENCE)
        .getCallerClass()

This call is faster than doing the equivalent call through the Stream and is faster than using the SecurityManager (more details in the benchmark)

 The StackFrame

The methods forEach and walk will pass StackFrame instances in the stream or to the consumer callback. This class allows direct access to:

  • Bytecode index: the index of the current bytecode instruction relative to the start of the method.
  • Class name: the name of the class declaring the called method.
  • Declaring class: the Class object of the class declaring the called method (You can’t just use Class.forName(frame.getClassName()) as you might not have the right ClassLoader; only accessible if RETAIN_CLASS_REFERENCE is used.)
  • Method name: the name of the called method.
  • Is native: whether the method is native.

It also gives lazy access to file name and line number but this will create a StackTraceElement to which it will delegate the call. The creation of the StackTraceElement is costly and deferred until it is needed for the first time. The toString method also delegates to StackTraceElement.

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The StackWalker Options

Now that we walk the walk lets have a look at the impact of the different StackWalker options. Because some of them handle frames with special properties, a normal call hierarchy does not suffice to demonstrate them all. We will hence have to do something more fancy, in this case use reflection to create a more complex stack.

We will look at the frames produced by the following call hierarchy:

public static void delegateViaReflection(Runnable task)
        throws Exception {
    StackWalkerOptions
        .class
        .getMethod("runTask", Runnable.class)
        .invoke(null, task);
}

public static void runTask(Runnable task) {
    task.run();
}

The Runnable task will be a lambda printing the stack using the StackWalker::forEach. The execution stack then contains the reflective code of delegateViaReflection and a hidden frame associated with the lambda expression.

Frame Visibility Options

By default the stack walker will skip hidden and reflective frames.

delegateViaReflection(() -> StackWalker
        .getInstance()
        .forEach(System.out::println));

That’s why we only see frames in our own code:

org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.lambda$main$0(StackWalkerOptions.java:15) org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.runTask(StackWalkerOptions.java:10) org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.delegateViaReflection(StackWalkerOptions.java:6) org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.main(StackWalkerOptions.java:15)

With the SHOW_REFLECT_FRAMES option we will see the reflection frames but the hidden frame is still skipped:

delegateViaReflection(() -> StackWalker
        .getInstance(Option.SHOW_REFLECT_FRAMES)
        .forEach(System.out::println)
);

org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.lambda$main$1(StackWalkerOptions.java:18)
org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.runTask(StackWalkerOptions.java:10)
java.base/jdk.internal.reflect.NativeMethodAccessorImpl.invoke0(Native Method)
java.base/jdk.internal.reflect.NativeMethodAccessorImpl.invoke(NativeMethodAccessorImpl.java:62)
java.base/jdk.internal.reflect.DelegatingMethodAccessorImpl.invoke(DelegatingMethodAccessorImpl.java:43)
java.base/java.lang.reflect.Method.invoke(Method.java:538)
org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.delegateViaReflection(StackWalkerOptions.java:6)
org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.main(StackWalkerOptions.java:18)

And finally, with SHOW_HIDDEN_FRAMES it outputs all the reflection and hidden frames:

delegateViaReflection(() -> StackWalker
        .getInstance(Option.SHOW_HIDDEN_FRAMES)
        .forEach(System.out::println)
);

org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.lambda$main$2(StackWalkerOptions.java:21)
org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions$$Lambda$11/968514068.run(Unknown Source)
org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.runTask(StackWalkerOptions.java:10)
java.base/jdk.internal.reflect.NativeMethodAccessorImpl.invoke0(Native Method)
java.base/jdk.internal.reflect.NativeMethodAccessorImpl.invoke(NativeMethodAccessorImpl.java:62)
java.base/jdk.internal.reflect.DelegatingMethodAccessorImpl.invoke(DelegatingMethodAccessorImpl.java:43)
java.base/java.lang.reflect.Method.invoke(Method.java:538)
org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.delegateViaReflection(StackWalkerOptions.java:6)
org.github.arnaudroger.StackWalkerOptions.main(StackWalkerOptions.java:21)

Retain Class Reference

By default, if you try to access the getDeclaringClass method it will throw an UnsupportedOperationException:

delegateViaReflection(() -> StackWalker
        .getInstance()
        .forEach(frame -> System.out.println(
                "declaring class = "
                // throws UnsupportedOperationException
                + frame.getDeclaringClass())));

You will need to add the RETAIN_CLASS_REFERENCE option to gain access to it.

delegateViaReflection(() -> StackWalker
        .getInstance(Option.RETAIN_CLASS_REFERENCE)
        .forEach(frame -> System.out.println(
                "declaring class = "
                + frame.getDeclaringClass())));

Performance

A main reason for the new API was to improve performance, so it makes sense to have a look and benchmark it. The following benchmarks were created with JMH, the Java Microbenchmarking Harness, which is a great tool to test small snippets of code without unrelated compiler optimizations (dead code elimination for example) skewing the numbers. Check out the GitHub repository for the code and instructions on how to run it.

Exception vs StackWalker

In this benchmark we compare the performance of getting the stack via a Throwable and via the StackWalker. To make it a fair fight, we use StackWalker::forEach, thus forcing the creation of all frames (because using Throwable does the same thing). For the new API we also distinguish between operating on StackFrame vs creating the more expensive StackTraceElement.

Benchmark exceptionStackTrace 31.929, stackWalkerForEach 15.350, stackWalkerForEachRetainClass 1.366, stackWalkerForEachToStackTraceElement 39.675 us/op

We can see that:

  • StackWalker is faster than the exception as long as you don’t instantiate the StackTraceElement.
  • Instantiating a StackTraceElement is quite expensive, so beware of getFileName, getLineNumber and toString.
  • Getting access to the declaring class has no cost, it is just an access check.

Partial Stack Capture

The StackWalker is already faster when capturing the full stack, but what if we retrieve only part of the stack frames? We would expect the lazy evaluation of frames to further increase performance. To explore that we use StackWalker::walk and Stream::limit on the stream it hands us.

Impact of limit

Let’s look at a benchmark that will capture the stacks with different limits:

StackWalker
    .getInstance()
    .walk(frames -> {
            frames.limit(limit).forEach(b::consume);
            return null;
        });

(The b in b::consume is a JMH class, the Blackhole. It makes sure that something actually happens, to prevent dead code elimination, but quickly, to prevent skewing the results.)

Here are the results:

Benchmark  1 3.233, 2 3.062, 4 3.341, 6 3.331, 8 9.663, 10 8.724, 12 8.946, 14 8.921, 16 14.480 us/op

It appears that there is a threshold effect where the cost increases at 8 and 16. If you look at how the walkis implemented, it is no surprise. The StackWalker fetches the frames with an initial batch of 8 if the estimated size is not specified and will fetch another batch once all the frames are consumed.

Impact of limit and Estimated Size

Could we make the call more performant if we specified the estimated size? We will need to add 2 to the limit as the first two frames are reserved. We also need to use the SHOW_HIDDEN_FRAMES option as hidden and reflective frames will occupy a slot even if we skip them. The StackWalker call in the benchmark is as follows:

int estimatedSize = limit + 2;
StackWalker
    .getInstance(Set.of(SHOW_HIDDEN_FRAMES), estimatedSize)
    .walk(frames -> {
            frames.limit(limit).forEach(b::consume);
            return null;
        });

As you can see here the threshold effect disappears:

Benchmark 1 3.371, 2 3.112, 4 3.101, 6 3.245, 8 3.897, 10 4.897, 12 5.627, 14 6.458, 16 6.986 us/op

Impact of skip

If limit reduces the cost of the capture, does skip help? Another benchmark to check the impact of skip on different values:

StackWalker
    .getInstance()
    .walk(frames -> {
            frame.skip(skip).forEach(b::consume);
            return null;
        });

Benchmark 1 14.797, 2 14.701, 4 14.650, 6 14.748, 8 14.709, 10 14.566, 12 14.424, 14 14.826, 16 14.774 us/op

As you would expect the StackWalker still has to walk past the skipped frames resulting in no benefits.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen the stack-walking API provides an easy way to access the current execution stack by just writing:

StackWalker.getInstance().walk(frames -> ...);

Its core characteristics are:

  • the default behavior excludes hidden and reflection frames but options allow their inclusion
  • the API exposes the declaring class, which used to be cumbersome to access
  • it is significantly faster than using Throwable when you avoid instantiating the StackTraceElement – including getLineNumber, getFileName, toString
  • performance can be further improved by reducing the number of recovered frames with Stream.limit
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