Java Secrets Revealed #1
I know, I know, it's been far too long since I've made an entry. My younger son is ten months old now, so I suppose I should probably stop using "new baby" as an excuse for my laziness...
Before I joined Sun, I thought I knew a lot about Java. I had been using it for a decade and had dug into its innards more times than I could count. Anytime I ran into inexplicable Swing weirdness or whatnot I wouldn't hesitate to dive into the JRE's source code and study it, or even recompile the classes with my own diagnostic code added. I wrote my own classloaders, I manipulated bytecode on the fly, I even wrote my own compiler for a JVM-targeted language. I had earned the right to call myself a guru.
Or so I thought.
Joining Sun nearly two years ago was a humbling experience. You see, it turns out that knowing a lot about Java works as a third-party developer is very different than, say, having to figure out how to rip the JRE apart and reassemble it on the fly without running programs noticing (Java Kernel, for the uninitiated). I have had to learn more about Java's inner workings than I ever really wanted to know, and maybe you'll find some of it interesting. Towards that end I'm going to pick a couple of random topics to blather about here, with the intent of hopefully making this a semi-regular feature.
Why can Java Web Start specify JRE versions, but the Java Plug-In can't?
If you have worked with both JNLP programs and applets, you are no doubt aware of the incongruities. JNLP programs can specify which JRE version they need to run with, their memory settings, command-line arguments, and so forth. Applets, on the other hand, are stuck with whichever JRE is registered with the web browser, and have no control over any JRE settings. (JRE Settings can be changed via the Java Control Panel, but cannot be specified by or for individual applets.)
The limitation arises because the JRE which handles applets runs inside the web browser. It lives within the browser process and address space, and as far as the OS is concerned is merely another chunk of the browser's code, just as with any other plug-in. And you can't simply load more than one JRE into the same OS process, because they would have conflicting symbol definitions, entry points, and so forth. It would be like trying to boot two different operating systems on the same computer, without the benefit of (very sophisticated) tools like VMWare.
To fix this, you've got to run the JRE in a separate process, but have the applets appear within the web browser window. This, of course, introduces all sorts of challenges and requires some clever engineering, but fortunately people smarter than me were assigned to the task. A group led by Ken Russell has done just that, resulting in what is officially (and wordily) named Next-Generation Java