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2.6. Frames

A frame is used to store data and partial results, as well as to perform dynamic linking, return values for methods, and dispatch exceptions.

A new frame is created each time a method is invoked. A frame is destroyed when its method invocation completes, whether that completion is normal or abrupt (it throws an uncaught exception). Frames are allocated from the Java Virtual Machine stack (§2.5.2) of the thread creating the frame. Each frame has its own array of local variables (§2.6.1), its own operand stack (§2.6.2), and a reference to the run-time constant pool (§2.5.5) of the class of the current method.

  • A frame may be extended with additional implementation-specific information, such as debugging information.

The sizes of the local variable array and the operand stack are determined at compile-time and are supplied along with the code for the method associated with the frame (§4.7.3). Thus the size of the frame data structure depends only on the implementation of the Java Virtual Machine, and the memory for these structures can be allocated simultaneously on method invocation.

Only one frame, the frame for the executing method, is active at any point in a given thread of control. This frame is referred to as the current frame, and its method is known as the current method. The class in which the current method is defined is the current class. Operations on local variables and the operand stack are typically with reference to the current frame.

A frame ceases to be current if its method invokes another method or if its method completes. When a method is invoked, a new frame is created and becomes current when control transfers to the new method. On method return, the current frame passes back the result of its method invocation, if any, to the previous frame. The current frame is then discarded as the previous frame becomes the current one.

Note that a frame created by a thread is local to that thread and cannot be referenced by any other thread.

2.6.1. Local Variables

Each frame (§2.6) contains an array of variables known as its local variables. The length of the local variable array of a frame is determined at compile-time and supplied in the binary representation of a class or interface along with the code for the method associated with the frame (§4.7.3).

A single local variable can hold a value of type boolean, byte, char, short, int, float, reference, or returnAddress. A pair of local variables can hold a value of type long or double.

Local variables are addressed by indexing. The index of the first local variable is zero. An integer is considered to be an index into the local variable array if and only if that integer is between zero and one less than the size of the local variable array.

A value of type long or type double occupies two consecutive local variables. Such a value may only be addressed using the lesser index. For example, a value of type double stored in the local variable array at index n actually occupies the local variables with indices n and n+1; however, the local variable at index n+1 cannot be loaded from. It can be stored into. However, doing so invalidates the contents of local variable n.

The Java Virtual Machine does not require n to be even. In intuitive terms, values of types long and double need not be 64-bit aligned in the local variables array. Implementors are free to decide the appropriate way to represent such values using the two local variables reserved for the value.

The Java Virtual Machine uses local variables to pass parameters on method invocation. On class method invocation, any parameters are passed in consecutive local variables starting from local variable 0. On instance method invocation, local variable 0 is always used to pass a reference to the object on which the instance method is being invoked (this in the Java programming language). Any parameters are subsequently passed in consecutive local variables starting from local variable 1.

2.6.2. Operand Stacks

Each frame (§2.6) contains a last-in-first-out (LIFO) stack known as its operand stack. The maximum depth of the operand stack of a frame is determined at compile-time and is supplied along with the code for the method associated with the frame (§4.7.3).

Where it is clear by context, we will sometimes refer to the operand stack of the current frame as simply the operand stack.

The operand stack is empty when the frame that contains it is created. The Java Virtual Machine supplies instructions to load constants or values from local variables or fields onto the operand stack. Other Java Virtual Machine instructions take operands from the operand stack, operate on them, and push the result back onto the operand stack. The operand stack is also used to prepare parameters to be passed to methods and to receive method results.

For example, the iadd instruction (§iadd) adds two int values together. It requires that the int values to be added be the top two values of the operand stack, pushed there by previous instructions. Both of the int values are popped from the operand stack. They are added, and their sum is pushed back onto the operand stack. Subcomputations may be nested on the operand stack, resulting in values that can be used by the encompassing computation.

Each entry on the operand stack can hold a value of any Java Virtual Machine type, including a value of type long or type double.

Values from the operand stack must be operated upon in ways appropriate to their types. It is not possible, for example, to push two int values and subsequently treat them as a long or to push two float values and subsequently add them with an iadd instruction. A small number of Java Virtual Machine instructions (the dup instructions (§dup) and swapswap)) operate on run-time data areas as raw values without regard to their specific types; these instructions are defined in such a way that they cannot be used to modify or break up individual values. These restrictions on operand stack manipulation are enforced through class file verification (§4.10).

At any point in time, an operand stack has an associated depth, where a value of type long or double contributes two units to the depth and a value of any other type contributes one unit.

2.6.3. Dynamic Linking

Each frame (§2.6) contains a reference to the run-time constant pool (§2.5.5) for the type of the current method to support dynamic linking of the method code. The class file code for a method refers to methods to be invoked and variables to be accessed via symbolic references. Dynamic linking translates these symbolic method references into concrete method references, loading classes as necessary to resolve as-yet-undefined symbols, and translates variable accesses into appropriate offsets in storage structures associated with the run-time location of these variables.

This late binding of the methods and variables makes changes in other classes that a method uses less likely to break this code.

2.6.4. Normal Method Invocation Completion

A method invocation completes normally if that invocation does not cause an exception (§2.10) to be thrown, either directly from the Java Virtual Machine or as a result of executing an explicit throw statement. If the invocation of the current method completes normally, then a value may be returned to the invoking method. This occurs when the invoked method executes one of the return instructions (§2.11.8), the choice of which must be appropriate for the type of the value being returned (if any).

The current frame (§2.6) is used in this case to restore the state of the invoker, including its local variables and operand stack, with the program counter of the invoker appropriately incremented to skip past the method invocation instruction. Execution then continues normally in the invoking method’s frame with the returned value (if any) pushed onto the operand stack of that frame.

2.6.5. Abrupt Method Invocation Completion

A method invocation completes abruptly if execution of a Java Virtual Machine instruction within the method causes the Java Virtual Machine to throw an exception (§2.10), and that exception is not handled within the method. Execution of an athrow instruction (§athrow) also causes an exception to be explicitly thrown and, if the exception is not caught by the current method, results in abrupt method invocation completion. A method invocation that completes abruptly never returns a value to its invoker.

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