Sunday, August 29, 2010

Java EE apps as first-class citizens

Juliano Viana writes that he hopes to see Java EE applications promoted to first-class citizens in Java EE 8.

His comments are focused on protecting apps running in a container from each other, and the container from the apps. The primary focus of the post is on resource leaks. He's interested in making it possible to cleanly and totally unload an app, much as you can kill a process on a regular OS to completely clean it up.

This lead me to an interesting realization, though one I'm sure others have had before:

Java EE containers are in some ways a lot like MS-DOS, Mac OS 6/7/8/9, Symbian, etc ... applications share the same memory space and have access to each other's innards. There's polite agreement not to poke where they don't belong, but no strong enforcement of that. Without pointers and the resulting fun with corrupted stacks and dangling pointers leading apps to trample all over each other's memory the JVM and Java EE don't have it quite so bad - but there are still real issues with access control, resource ownership, etc.

Currently a Java EE app can delve into the innards of the container if it wants. It's not *meant* to, but it's not easily prevented and it makes the container's integrity less trustworthy. An app can break the container or cause it to misbehave. Expecting apps to be well-written is, as demonstrated by the OSes listed above, a great way to get a reputation for being unstable and generally crap. More importantly, as the referenced article notes, Java EE apps can cause the container to leak resources, or can disrupt resources the apps shares with other apps via the container, like pooled connections. That makes it hard to share one container among many different apps, let alone different users/customers.

This (and garbage collection + resource use issues with big JVMs) makes admins reluctant to have many apps hosted in a single container, so you land up doing all sorts of icky inter-JVM work to make your environment managable. Shared-hosting services with Java are expensive and uncommon due to related issues.

I certainly think that much stronger protection is needed to isolate the container's private core from apps, and apps from each other. I'm not at all convinced that trying to build that isolation entirely in software in the JVM is best, though. Modern successful OSes isolate apps using *hardware* features to do most of the grunt-work and protect them from implementation bugs; apps and the kernel are isolated from each other by default and can only interact by configured exception. Protected mode, separate logical address spaces, and the security ring system in x86 provide rather strong OS/app isolation. Trying to implement similarly capable isolation purely in software in the JVM would be bug-prone and hard to get right, kind of like the half-baked and buggy app isolation in Windows 3.x or even 9x.

Perhaps a more viable future approach would be to let multiple JVMs running on a host integrate more tightly via shared memory, high performance IPC, or whatever, so the container could run in its own JVM and each app could have a private JVM, with only those resources *explicitly* shared between them accessible across JVMs. That way, apps cleanup would be as simple as killing the app's jvm and letting the OS+hardware clean up the mess. The exposed surface for problems would be restricted to that part of the container that's explicitly accessible via the shared resources.

Or ... maybe the JVM will need more OS co-operation than that, so the JVM its self can use hardware features to isolate apps running within the JVM. I can't imagine OS designers wanting to let the JVM get its hooks into the kernel's memory mapping and process management, but with the advent of VMs and VM-friendly CPU extensions like VT-X and VT-IO I wonder if the JVM could use those instructions, like the kernel of a guest OS does in a VM, to isolate apps running within the JVM.

Much as I'd love the JVM to be able to isolate apps properly, in my admittedly pretty ignorant opinion I don't see it happening without some kind of major re-design. I imagine a half-assed solution that works about as well as Windows 9x did is possible with the current JVM, but giving the impression apps can be isolated and cleaned up without being able to really do a comprehensive job of it is IMO in many ways worse than the current situation. Without some really powerful, low level isolation features I don't see that happening. Look at how well "shared" OSes have typically achieved app isolation for examples of just how hard the problem is.

I find the idea of using hardware VT-X support to help the JVM isolate apps in an EE container quite intriguing. I wonder if it's something anyone's done any investigation of.

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