JDK 1.8/1.7 Compatibility Gotcha

To help future weary souls out, here are the Google-friendly queries for what we’ll be talking about in this post:

  • java.lang.NoClassDefFoundError: java/lang/reflect/Executable
  • java.lang.ClassNotFoundException: java.lang.reflect.Executable

tldr: if you want to use -source 1.6/-target 1.6 (or 1.7), then compile with the JDK 1.6 or JDK 1.7, otherwise you risk newer/Java 1.8-only classes sneaking into the bytecode.


The other day, I built a trunk version of GWT with my machine’s default JDK, JDK 1.8.

GWT uses Ant/javac to build, with the -source 1.6 and -target 1.6 flags set. Previously, I had thought this was a very safe/normal thing to do.

However, when running this built-with-1.8 version GWT on a JDK 1.7 JVMs, an exception occurred:

Caused by: java.lang.ClassNotFoundException: java.lang.reflect.Executable
  at java.net.URLClassLoader$1.run(URLClassLoader.java:366)
  at java.net.URLClassLoader$1.run(URLClassLoader.java:355)
  at java.security.AccessController.doPrivileged(Native Method)
  at java.net.URLClassLoader.findClass(URLClassLoader.java:354)
  at java.lang.ClassLoader.loadClass(ClassLoader.java:425)
  at sun.misc.Launcher$AppClassLoader.loadClass(Launcher.java:308)
  at java.lang.ClassLoader.loadClass(ClassLoader.java:358)
  at com.google.gwt.dev.shell.JavaDispatchImpl.getMethod(JavaDispatchImpl.java:122)

Normally these sorts of errors are expected when a library uses new JDK 1.8 methods/classes. Then all downstream users also have to use JDK 1.8.

However, in this case, the GWT source code doesn’t reference Executable anywhere. The GWT code base is really supposed to be JDK 1.7 compatible.

What Is java.lang.reflect.Executable anyway?

Turns out Executable is the new base class for java.lang.reflect.Method and java.lang.reflect.Constructor in JDK 1.8.

Before Java 8, the base class of Method and Constructor was AccessibleObject.

Granted, in Java 8, AccessibleObject is still a base class of Method and Constructor, it’s just that Executable was inserted between AccessibleObject and Method and Constructor.

Which, I don’t know, changing base classes seems kinda risky, but they kept the old one, so I guess it seems innocent enough.

But Now Who Referenced Executable?

So, I was still very confused; the GWT code base doesn’t know anything about Executable. Sure, it uses Method and Constructor a lot, as part of normal reflection code. But no Executable.

A cursory javap -c -constants of every GWT .class file showed no reference, no cast, to Executable.

Looking back at the offending stack trace, the last method in the stack trace, JavaDispatchImpl.getMethod looks innocent:

public MethodAdaptor getMethod(int dispId) {
  if (dispId < 0) {
    throw new RuntimeException("Method does not exist.");

  Member m = getMember(dispId);
  if (m instanceof Method) {
    return new MethodAdaptor((Method) m);
  } else if (m instanceof Constructor<?>) {
    return new MethodAdaptor((Constructor<?>) m);
  } else {
    throw new RuntimeException();

The instanceof Method check passes as true, but the stack trace doesn’t get into MethodAdaptor, it first goes off and loads Executable, which fails and we end up stuck.

Look More Closely

Given the JVM was about to call into MethodAdaptor, and that it typically loads the dependencies referenced by a class the first time that the class is loaded, I got more suspicious about MethodAdaptors dependencies.

It turns out javap has a verbose flag, so trying that:

javap -s -constants -c -v ./com/google/gwt/dev/shell/MethodAdaptor.class 

Resulted in a lot of interesting output, but most pertinently, we finally found the smoking gun:

public java.lang.reflect.AccessibleObject getUnderlyingObject();
  descriptor: ()Ljava/lang/reflect/AccessibleObject;
  flags: ACC_PUBLIC
    stack=1, locals=1, args_size=1
       0: aload_0       
       1: getfield      #3                  // Field method:Ljava/lang/reflect/Method;
       4: ifnull        14
       7: aload_0       
       8: getfield      #3                  // Field method:Ljava/lang/reflect/Method;
      11: goto          18
      14: aload_0       
      15: getfield      #2                  // Field constructor:Ljava/lang/reflect/Constructor;
      18: areturn       
      line 91: 0
      Start  Length  Slot  Name   Signature
          0      19     0  this   Lcom/google/gwt/dev/shell/MethodAdaptor;
    StackMapTable: number_of_entries = 2
         frame_type = 14 /* same */
         frame_type = 67 /* same_locals_1_stack_item */
        stack = [ class java/lang/reflect/Executable ]

Notice the very last line: stack = [ class java/lang/reflect/Executable ].


Here is the source of getUnderlingObject:

public AccessibleObject getUnderlyingObject() {
  return (method != null) ? method : constructor;

It’s very tiny. And no reference to Executable.

What’s a Stack Map Table?

Explain what the Stack Map is…

Here are some interesting links:

Reproducing It

Okay, so, sure, this problem happens in the large GWT codebase, but can we reproduce it?

It turns out, yes, it’s very easy. Here is a simple, standalone Java file to reproduce this behavior, Foo.java:

import java.lang.reflect.AccessibleObject;
import java.lang.reflect.Method;
import java.lang.reflect.Constructor;

public class Foo {
  private Method method;
  private Constructor constructor;

  public static void main(String[] args) throws Exception {
    Foo f = new Foo();

  public Foo() throws Exception {
    Class<?> c = Class.forName("java.util.HashMap");
    method = c.getMethods()[0];
    constructor = c.getConstructors()[0];

  public AccessibleObject pickOne() {
    return method != null ? method : constructor;

So, we’ll start out compiling with JDK 1.8:

$ javac -version
javac 1.8.0
$ javac Foo.java
$ java Foo

It compiles. And, if we look at the bytecode, our stack verification data looks just fine:

$ javap -v Foo | grep 'stack ='
      stack = [ class java/lang/reflect/AccessibleObject 

It’s using AccessibleObject, which will work in a JDK 1.7 JVM.

However, when we run Foo when JDK 1.7, it actually fails, although due to the typical major.minor mismatch error:

$ /usr/lib/jvm/java-7-oracle/bin/java Foo
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.UnsupportedClassVersionError: Foo :
  Unsupported major.minor version 52.0

Okay, fair enough, so let’s compile with -source 1.7 and -target 1.7:

$ javac -version
javac 1.8.0
$ javac -source 1.7 -target 1.7
warning: [options] bootstrap class path not set in conjunction with -source 1.7
$ java Foo
$ /usr/lib/jvm/java-7-oracle/bin/java Foo
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.NoClassDefFoundError: java/lang/reflect/Executable

Agh! It worked fine, until we ran with JDK 1.7, and we got the Executable error. And, sure enough, the offending Executable reference is back in the bytecode:

$ javap -v Foo | grep 'stack ='
      stack = [ class java/lang/reflect/Executable 

It seems like the JDK 1.8 compiler must have different algorithms for calculating the Stack Map Table, and when set to -source 1.7, it changes to an algorithm, that, ironically, picks a different type (Executable instead of AccessibleObject) for the table even though that type won’t be available on JDK 1.7.

How To Avoid This: Option 1

Astute readers might have noticed the tip off go by; javac warns about using the default (JDK 1.8) bootstrap classpath when compiling with source/target flags.

This is basically javac warning us that, right, it knows this might happen–we’re giving it a JDK 1.8 standard library, and expecting the compiler to “just know” not to include references to any 1.8-only classes (whether due to internal decisions like this stack map, or even to user-code level decisions like calling JDK 1.8-only methods).

The javac compiler, understandably, doesn’t really have this “what’s in 1.7 vs. 1.8” metadata, so it is requesting that we override the bootstrap classpath, and make sure we’re passing in a standard library that matches our source and target flags.

And, it turns out, if we heed the warning and use the bootstrap classpath:

$ javac -version
$ javac -source 1.7 -target 1.7 -bootclasspath /usr/lib/jvm/java-7-oracle/jre/lib/rt.jar Foo.java 
$ java Foo
$ /usr/lib/jvm/java-7-oracle/bin/java Foo

Then order is restored to the world, and we can run 1.8-compiled classes on both JDK 1.8 and JDK 1.7.

The bytecode has gone back to only knowing about AccessibleObject:

$ javap -v Foo | grep 'stack ='
      stack = [ class java/lang/reflect/AccessibleObject 

As (I assume), even though javac is using it’s “JDK 1.7” algorithm for the Stack Map Table, Executable isn’t even on the classpath at all, for it to find and reference. So the algorithm ends up with AccessibleObject instead, which is what we want.

What is odd about this option, ensuring to pass the -bootclasspath, is that, previously, I thought the whole point of compiling with -source/-target was to use them when you did not have old JVMs installed, but still needed to target their platforms.

This is showing saying that, even if you’re using a JDK 1.8 compiler, to avoid gotchas like this NoClassDefFoundError, even with codebases that look 100% JDK 1.7 compatible, you need to use the bootclasspath to ensure javac only uses 1.7-available classes in the resulting bytecode.

How To Avoid This: Option 2

Just compile with JDK 1.7.

If you have to have the bootstrap classpath anyway, might as well set JAVA_HOME to a JDK 1.7 install and be done with it.

This is what I did for my GWT trunk build, and it quickly went back to working as expected.

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