Symbolic References for Constants

Brian Goetz, March 2018

JEP 303 exposes compiler intrinsics so that Java source code can deterministically generate ldc and invokedynamic bytecodes. Further, JEP 309 defines a new loadable constant pool form, CONSTANT_Dynamic, where the constant is produced by linking a bootstrap method and invoking it. This document outlines JDK and compiler support for these feature. (This API is for low-level users; most users will never see this API.)


The JVM specification defines a number of constant pool forms, a subset of which (the loadable constants) can be used as the operand of an ldc instruction or included in the static argument list of a bootstrap method. These correspond to the Java types Integer, Long, Float, Double, String, Class, MethodType, and MethodHandle (and, soon, dynamically computed constants.) For each of these constant types, there is a corresponding "live" object type (String, Class.)

Activities such as bytecode generation have a frequent need to describe constants such as classes. However, a Class object is a poor description for an arbitrary class. Producing a Class instance has many environmental dependencies and failure modes; loading may fail in because the desired class does not exist or may not be accessible to the requestor, the result of loading varies with class loading context, loading classes has side-effects, and sometimes may not be possible at all (such as when the classes being described do not yet exist or are otherwise not loadable, as in during compilation of those same classes, or during jlink-time transformation.) So, while the String class is a fine description for a Constant_String_info, the Class type is not a very good description for a Constant_Class_info.

A number of activities share the need to deal with classes, methods, and other entities in a purely nominal form. Bytecode parsing and generation libraries must describe classes and method handles in symbolic form. Without an official mechanism, they must resort to ad-hoc mechanisms, whether descriptor types like ASM's Handle, or tuples of strings (method owner, method name, method descriptor), or ad-hoc (and error-prone) encodings of these into a single string. Bootstraps for invokedynamic that operate by spinning bytecode (such as LambdaMetafactory) would prefer to work in a symbolic domain rather than with live classes and method handles. Compilers and offline transformers (such as jlink plugins) need to describe classes and members for classes that cannot be loaded into the running VM. Compiler plugins (such as annotation processors) similarly need to describe program elements in symbolic terms. They would all benefit from having a single, official way to describe such constants.

Symbolic references

Our solution is to define a family of value-based symbolic reference (JVMS 5.1) types, capable of describing each kind of loadable constant. A symbolic reference describes a constant in purely nominal form, separate from class loading or accessibility context. Some classes can act as their own symbolic references (e.g., String); for linkable constants we define a family of symbolic reference types (ClassRef, MethodTypeRef, MethodHandleRef, and DynamicConstantRef) that contain the nominal information to describe these constants.


The symbolic reference API lives in the package java.lang.invoke.constant. The basic new abstraction is the ConstantRef<T> interface, which indicates that a class acts as a symbolic reference for a constant whose live type is T, and supports reflective resolution of constants, given a Lookup:

public interface ConstantRef<T> { 
    T resolveConstantRef(MethodHandles.Lookup lookup) 
        throws ReflectiveOperationException;

The classes String, Integer, Long, Float, and Double act as ConstantRef for themselves. Additionally, we provide interfaces ClassRef, MethodTypeRef, and MethodHandleRef to represent Class, MethodType, and MethodHandle, and concrete implementations ConstantClassRef, ConstantMethodHandleRef, and ConstantMethodTypeRef that correspond to the constant pool forms of similar name. We also provide DynamicConstantRef for dynamic (bootstrap-generated) constants.

ConstantRef can be used in APIs that wish to constrain their input or output to be symbolic references to classfile constants; such uses arise naturally in the intrinsification API, the API for describing invokedynamic bootstrap specifiers, bytecode APIs, compiler plugin APIs, etc.


A ClassRef describes a Class (including the Class mirrors associated with non-reference types, like int.class, and array classes.) ClassRef provides factories for creating class references, accessors for its state, and combinators to create new class references (such as going between a component type and the corresponding array type.)

public interface ClassRef extends ConstantRef<Class<?>> {
    // Factories
    static ClassRef of(String name);
    static ClassRef of(String packageName, String className);
    static ClassRef ofDescriptor(String descriptor);

    // Combinators
    ClassRef array();
    ClassRef inner(String innerName);
    ClassRef inner(String firstInnerName, String... moreInnerNames);

    // Accessors
    boolean isArray();
    boolean isPrimitive();
    ClassRef componentType();
    default String simpleName();
    String descriptorString();

Because some class mirrors are represented in the constant pool using Constant_Class_info, and others (primitives) are represented using dynamic constants, there are multiple concrete implementations of ClassRef.


A MethodTypeRef describes a MethodType; MethodTypeRef uses ClassRef to describe the parameter and return types. MethodTypeRef includes a similar set of combinators as MethodType for modifying return and parameter types, so that bootstraps that want to work symbolically can perform similar operations as bootstraps that work on live objects.

public interface MethodTypeRef extends ConstantRef<MethodType> {
    // Factories
    static MethodTypeRef ofDescriptor(String descriptor);
    static MethodTypeRef of(ClassRef returnDescriptor, ClassRef... paramDescriptors);

    // Accessors
    String descriptorString();
    String simpleDescriptor();
    int parameterCount();
    ClassRef parameterType(int index);
    List<ClassRef> parameterList();
    ClassRef[] parameterArray();

    // Combinators
    MethodTypeRef changeReturnType(ClassRef returnType);
    MethodTypeRef changeParameterType(int index, ClassRef paramType);
    MethodTypeRef dropParameterTypes(int start, int end);
    MethodTypeRef insertParameterTypes(int pos, ClassRef... paramTypes);


A MethodHandleRef describes a method handle. It can describe both direct method handles (ConstantMethodHandleRef) and derived method handles; accessors for properties of direct method handles are defined on ConstantMethodHandleRef.

public interface MethodHandleRef extends ConstantRef<MethodHandle> {
    enum Kind {
        @Foldable STATIC(REF_invokeStatic),
        @Foldable VIRTUAL(REF_invokeVirtual),
        @Foldable INTERFACE_VIRTUAL(REF_invokeInterface),
        @Foldable SPECIAL(REF_invokeSpecial),
        @Foldable CONSTRUCTOR(REF_newInvokeSpecial),
        @Foldable GETTER(REF_getField),
        @Foldable SETTER(REF_putField),
        @Foldable STATIC_GETTER(REF_getStatic),
        @Foldable STATIC_SETTER(REF_putStatic);

    // Factories
    static ConstantMethodHandleRef of(Kind kind, ClassRef clazz, String name, MethodTypeRef type);
    static ConstantMethodHandleRef of(Kind kind, ClassRef clazz, String name, String descriptorString);
    static ConstantMethodHandleRef of(Kind kind, ClassRef clazz, String name, ClassRef returnType, ClassRef... paramTypes);
    static ConstantMethodHandleRef ofField(Kind kind, ClassRef clazz, String name, ClassRef type);

    // Accessors

    // Combinators
    MethodHandleRef asType(MethodTypeRef type);

public class ConstantMethodHandleRef implements MethodHandleRef {
    // Accessors
    public int refKind();
    public Kind kind();
    public ClassRef owner();
    public String methodName();
    public MethodTypeRef methodType();


A DynamicConstantRef describes a dynamic constant in terms of a bootstrap method, bootstrap arguments, and invocation name and type.

public class DynamicConstantRef<T> implements ConstantRef<T> {
    // Factories
    static<T> DynamicConstantRef<T> of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, String name, ClassRef type, ConstantRef<?>[] bootstrapArgs);
    static<T> DynamicConstantRef<T> of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, String name, ClassRef type);
    static<T> DynamicConstantRef<T> of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, ClassRef type);
    static<T> DynamicConstantRef<T> of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, String name);
    static<T> DynamicConstantRef<T> of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod);
    static<T> ConstantRef<T> ofCanonical(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, String name, ClassRef type, ConstantRef<?>[] bootstrapArgs);

    // Combinators
    public DynamicConstantRef<T> withArgs(ConstantRef<?>... bootstrapArgs);

    // Accessors
    public String constantName();
    public ClassRef constantType();
    public MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod();
    public ConstantRef<?>[] bootstrapArgs();

There are also subtypes of DynamicConstantRef for describing important runtime types such as enums (EnumRef) and VarHandles (VarHandleRef). The class ConstantRefs defines useful symbolic references such as CR_int (a ClassRef describing the primitive type int) or NULL (describing the null value).

Bytecode writing and reading

If a compiler or bytecode API uses symbolic references to describe constants, it will have to be able to write constants described by ConstantRef to the constant pool, and translate entries read from the constant pool to ConstantRef. For each type of constant pool entry, there is a corresponding concrete symbolic reference type, so a bytecode writer need only case over the types corresponding to each constant pool entry, cast to the appropriate type, and call the appropriate accessor methods. A bytecode reader would case over the constant pool types, and call the appropriate XxxRef factory method.

For dynamic constants whose bootstraps are "well-known", the library will lift dynamic constants to the appropriate subtype, if asked (via the DynamicConstantRef.ofCanonical() method.) For example, a dynamic constant describing the primitive type int.class using the bootstrap ConstantBootstraps.primitiveType() will be lifted to a ClassRef for int; a dynamic constant describing an enum via the bootstrap ConstantBootstraps.enumConstant() will be lifted to an EnumRef. Bytecode reading libraries need only materialize dynamic constants using the ofCanonical() factory to deliver strongly typed symbolic references to their clients.


The ConstantRef hierarchy will eventually be sealed (prohibiting new direct subtypes beyond the ones defined), but the DynamicConstantRef type will be left open for extension. Creating a symbolic reference type for an arbitrary type T can be done by creating a subtype of DynamicConstantRef, providing factories for describing the instances in nominal form, and implementing the resolveConstantRef() method. This is how EnumRef and VarHandleRef are implemented.

Representing invokedynamic sites

Call sites for invokedynamic are defined similarly to dynamic constants, with DynamicCallSiteRef.

public final class DynamicCallSiteRef {
    // Factories
    public static DynamicCallSiteRef ofCanonical(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, String name, MethodTypeRef type, 
                                                 ConstantRef<?>... bootstrapArgs);
    public static DynamicCallSiteRef of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, String name, MethodTypeRef type, 
                                        ConstantRef<?>... bootstrapArgs);
    public static DynamicCallSiteRef of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, String name, MethodTypeRef type);
    public static DynamicCallSiteRef of(MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod, MethodTypeRef type);

    // Combinators
    public DynamicCallSiteRef withNameAndType(String name, MethodTypeRef type);
    public DynamicCallSiteRef withArgs(ConstantRef<?>... bootstrapArgs);

    // Accessors
    public String name();
    public MethodTypeRef type();
    public MethodHandleRef bootstrapMethod();
    public ConstantRef<?>[] bootstrapArgs();

    // Reflection
    public MethodHandle dynamicInvoker(MethodHandles.Lookup lookup);


When the invokedynamic bytecode was introduced in Java SE 7, it was largely intended to be used as a compilation target; no provision was made for directly accessing the functionality of invokedynamic from Java source code, except through the reflective dynamicInvoker() mechanism. Over time, as more library functionality was exposed through bootstrap methods, it became more desirable to be able to express invokedynamic directly in Java source. In turn, this requires being able to describe the bootstrap method handle, and the static bootstrap arguments, as classfile constants. And, with the introduction of Constant_Dynamic (condy) in JEP 309, there are additional forms of classfile constants that would be convenient to express from Java source code.

Our approach is to expose methods that correspond to the ldc and invokedynamic instructions, that the compiler can deterministically intrinsify into the appropriate bytecode instruction, thus allowing Java source code to directly express these instructions and reason confidently about their translation by the compiler.

public class Intrinsics {
    public static <T> T ldc(ConstantRef<T> constant) { ... }

    public static Object invokedynamic(DynamicCallSiteRef site, 
                                       Object... dynamicArgs)
            throws Throwable { ... }

When intrinsifying an ldc() call, the compiler must first ensure that the arguments provided are compile-time constants, so that it can emit the appropriate entries into the constant pool of the class being generated, which it does by introspecting on the contents of the ConstantRef passed to ldc().

Similarly, when intrinsifying an invokedynamic, the compiler will ensure that the DynamicCallSiteRef argument is a compile-time constants, and then use its contents generate an invokedynamic instruction and the corresponding entries in the constant pool and BootstrapMethods attribute. Since the DynamicCallSiteRef contains the MethodType for the invocation, the compiler will use that to determine the compile-time type of the result (unlike signature-polymorphic invocation, which cast context to condition the return type.)


If we want to load the method handle for String::isEmpty, we could do as follows, which would translate as an ldc of a MethodHandle constant.

MethodTypeRef mtr = MethodTypeRef.of(CR_void);
MethodHandleRef mhr = MethodHandleRef.of(VIRTUAL, CR_String, "isEmpty", mtr);
MethodHandle mh = Intrinsics.ldc(mhr);

Similarly, we can load a dynamic constant, but we must first know the bootstrap method (and describe it as a MethodHandleRef.) To load an enum constant, we could just ldc an EnumRef constant, but here's what it looks like using the enumConstant() bootstrap directly:

public static <T extends Enum<T>> T enumConstant(Lookup lookup, 
                                                 String name, 
                                                 Class<T> type);

We create a DynamicConstantRef to describe the desired constant:

// Convenience method inserts the standard condy preamble
MethodHandleRef bsm 
    = MethodHandleRef.ofDynamicConstant(ClassRef.of("MyBootstraps"), "enumConstant");
DynamicConstantRef ElementType_METHOD 
    = DynamicConstantRef.of(bsm, "METHOD", ClassRef.of("java.lang.ElementType"));
ElementType et = Intrinsics.ldc(ElementType_METHOD);

Suppose we have an invokedynamic bootstrap method:

public static CallSite returnsStaticArg(MethodHandles.Lookup lookup,
                                        String invocationName,
                                        MethodType invocationType,
                                        String arg) {
    return new ConstantCallSite(MethodHandles.constant(String.class, arg));

which takes a static string argument, and links a callsite that just always returns that string.

We can express an invokedynamic site for this in Java source with:

ClassRef owner = ClassRef.of("HelperClass");
MethodHandleRef bsm 
    = MethodHandleRef.ofDynamicCallSite(owner, "returnsStaticArg", 
                                        CR_String, CR_String);
String s = Intrinsics.invokedynamic(bsm, "theString");

Constant tracking, propagation, and folding

The arguments provided to Intrinsics calls must be compile-time constants. However, in the examples we've seen, they are the result of calling factory methods like ClassRef.of(), which don't qualify as constants. So, what's going on?

To implement our Intrinsics support, we extend the definition of compile-time constant, and improve the compiler's ability to do constant propagation and folding. The language has an existing notion of compile-time constant; rather than extend this notion, which would interact with ConstantValue treatment (inlining of constants across compilation units), we define an extended notion of compile-time constant-ness called a trackable constant (TC). To start with:


Rather than go right to constant folding or propagation, we use a technique called constant tracking that is more flexible. For each AST node, if the expression that the node describes is TC, the compiler evaluates the constant at compile time and associates the constant value with its node. For example, the node that describes a string literal stores a corresponding String instance as the tracked value of that node. When the compiler encounters a string concatenation operation, both of whose operand nodes have a tracked value, it computes the concatenation of that value, and tracks that value with the concatenation node. The compiler can then use the tracked value in later operations, or not; it can fold the node to its constant value, propagate the constant, or fall back to tree analysis and bytecode generation as it sees fit. Constant tracking broadens the reach of existing constant-based optimizations; we have always folded things like "a" + "b", but until now we haven't been willing to flow known constants through static final fields or effectively final locals to expose more opportunities for folding.

Constant tracking is inherently partial; there are many reasons a constant cannot be computed at compile time. If the attempt to compute a tracked values fails, the node simply has no tracked value, and is therefore not TC. For example, for the expression 12/0, while the compiler ordinarily folds simple arithmetic expressions on constants, if doing so would cause an exception, it simply treats the expression as not a constant and generates bytecode to compute 12/0 (which will surely throw at runtime) instead.

Intrinsification uses constant tracking in the obvious way: if the node corresponding to the arguments of an intrinsic does not have a tracked value, it is an error, and if it does, the compiler introspects on that value to generate the correct code.

Obviously, better support for identification, propagation, and folding of constants is useful for far beyond mere intrinsification of constants.

Constant propagation

Tracking also enables us to perform constant propagation. In the following code:

String s = "Foo";

We would normally translate this as:

ldc "Foo"
astore n
aload n
invokestatic m

However, if we know that s is TC (because it is an effectively final local with an TC initializer), rather than fetching from s, we can directly propagate the known constant value instead. Rather than loading its value from the local variable, we can load it directly from the constant pool, so the second line translate to:

ldc "Foo"
invokestatic m

By propagating constants to their points of use, we reduce the complexity of the data flow and expose opportunities for other optimizations, such as dead code elimination.


To complete the story of why intrinsification works, we have to add some more ways to generate TC constants. We mark certain methods, including certain static factories, accessors, and combinators in the ConstantRef types, as "foldable":

To mark a method or field as foldable, the current prototype uses the @Foldable annotation. The constraints on foldable methods are high; in order for constant-folding such invocations to be semantically equivalent, the method must be free of observable side-effects (since it might well get folded away) and be a pure function of its inputs (and receiver.) A foldable method applied to TC arguments (and with an TC receiver, if an instance method) can be evaluated at compile time reflectively using the tracked values of the arguments and receiver. (Obviously that means that the foldable code must be on the classpath during compilation; currently @Foldable is restricted to java.base.) If the reflective invocation completes successfully, the result is tracked with the invocation node.


The arguments to the intrinsics methods ldc() and invokedynamic(), with the exception of the dynamic arguments to invokedynamic (the last Object... argument), must be TC. This means the trees associated with their arguments must have tracked constants associated with them. If they do not, it is a compile-time error, and the compiler issues an error identifying which argument was non-constant; if they do, the tree is replaced with a ldc() node, with constant information scraped from the argument, which must be String, Integer, Long, Float, Double, ConstantClassRef, ConstantMethodTypeRef, ConstantMethodHandleRef, or DynamicConstantRef. The compiler will reflectively inspect the arguments, test them against these types, and cast them to the appropriate type and call the appropriate accessor methods to extract class names, descriptor strings, etc, and write them to the classfile.


So far, we've made relatively little use of the tracked constants, other than to intrinsify ldc() and invokedynamic(), and to propagate string and numeric constants. In order to do more, we need to be able to map back from tracked values (including the result of reflective evaluation of foldable methods and fields) to constants that can be described in the constant pool. Just as a ConstantRef has a resolveConstantRef() method that allows you to reflectively go from the nominal constant description to the live object it describes, Constable provides the reverse direction. A type is Constable if it can produce a ConstantRef to describe its live values.

public interface Constable<T> {
    Optional<? extends ConstantRef<? super T>> toConstantRef(MethodHandles.Lookup lookup);

The types String, Integer, Long, Float, Double, Class, MethodType, MethodHandle, Enum, and VarHandle have been fitted to implement Constable. As with @Foldable, the bar for Constable is high; the effect of loading the constant described by toConstantRef() must be identical, in value and observable side-effects, as executing the path by which the Constable was created.

Constant folding

With the addition of Constable, we are finally ready to perform more comprehensive compile-time constant folding. If a node has a tracked value, and it is an instance of Constable, we can attempt to convert it to a ConstantRef (a partial operation), and, if that succeeds, fold the node into an ldc of the corresponding ConstantRef. (Not all @Foldable methods must yield a Constable; builder instances may not be Constable themselves, but if their build() method produces a Constable, we can constant-fold that.)

As an example, consider this code:

ClassRef cr1 = ClassRef.of("java.lang.String");
ClassRef cr2 = cr1.array();

Because ClassRef.of() is @Foldable and its argument is constant, the compiler reflectively invokes it and tracks the resulting ClassRef (which represents String) with the invocation node, and propagates that value into the symbol for the effectively-final variable cr1. At the next line, we can repeat the process; the receiver cr1 is a constant, so we can invoke the foldable array() method, and get the ClassRef for String[], and track that with cr2. Finally, descriptorString() is also foldable, and yields a String, which is Constable (its toConstantRef() returns itself, since String and friends act as their own nominal descriptor.) At this point, we can fold away the tree for cr2.descriptorString(), and replace it with an ldc of the descriptor string pulled out of cr2 at compile time, [Ljava/lang/String;.

Dead code elimination

Having done constant propagation and folding, the local variables cr1 and cr2 are now effectively unused, and their initializers (because we know the properties of the ConstantRef classes) are known to be side-effect free. So both the variables and their initializers can be eliminated entirely, and the above snippet compiles to:

getfield System::out
ldc `[Ljava/lang/String;`
invokevirtual println(String)V

If the initializers were Constable but not ConstantRef, we couldn't completely eliminate the initializers (they might have side effects such as loading and initializing classes), but we cans still replace the initializer with an ldc of the constant described by the result of Constable.toConstantRef() -- which will still likely be more efficient and compact than emitting the corresponding bytecode.

Path optimization

If the result of cr2 were used elsewhere, compile-time folding would still pays dividends, because we can optimize the path by which cr2 is created. The source code first creates a ClassRef for String and then uses it to derive a ClassRef for String[]. But if you examine the ConstantRef that results from calling toConstantRef() on cr2, you'll see that it corresponds to an invocation (via condy) of ClassRef.ofDescriptor("[Ljava/lang/String;"). So if we fold other uses of cr2 to an ldc of this ClassRef, not only do we get the caching and sharing that the constant pool gives us for free, but the initialization takes a more optimal path (going straight to String[], rather than the indirect path through String.) In this way, builder-like APIs can fold at compile time and we only need to reproduce the end result as a constant, not the full path by which it was computed. (The burden is on such @Foldable and Constable APIs to ensure that this difference is not observable, except as a performance improvement.)

String folding

Exposing a constexpr-like mechanism for java.base can be used as part of our language evolution strategy. In JEP 326, which adds raw (and multi-line) string literals to the Java language, the issue of indentation trimming came up -- if we have a multi-line snippet of HTML embedded in a Java string, the indentation of the HTML may not be what is wanted, as it will include the indentation of the HTML plus the indentation of the Java. Some people wanted the compiler to implement a complex algorithm to normalize the indentation, but the language is not the place for this; it is unlikely than any one normalization algorithm will satisfy all comers, and it adds complexity to the language. Better to expose such functionality through libraries, such as a String.trimIndent() method:

String s = `a long multi-
            line string`.trimIndent();

But then people will immediately complain that (a) the overly-long string is what gets put in the constant pool, and (b) the trimming is done at run time, possibly redundantly, unless the result is pulled into a static field. But, because trimIndent() is a pure function of its receiver, we can mark trimIndent() as foldable and do the trimming at compile time, and put the trimmed string in the constant pool (and do constant propagation on it.) Supporting compile-time foldable libraries can reduce the pressure to have the language do things that really should be the province of libraries.

De-capturing of lambdas

Lambdas that capture effectively final local variables from the enclosing lexical context are compiled differently, and are more expensive to evaluate, than non-capturing lambdas. Constant propagation can move constant information into lambdas, potentially moving them from capturing to non-capturing. For example, given:

String prefix = "#> "; -> p + s).forEach(System.out::println);

The lambda s -> p + s is a capturing lambda, capturing the local variable p from the enclosing context. However, if the compiler is able to identify it as a compile-time constant (which it now can), it can constant-propagate the constant into the lambda, which reduces the number of captured arguments (in this case, from 1 to 0.)


The ConstantRef API is useful for intrinsics, but it is also useful for a number of other activities, such as bytecode APIs (which must deal in unresolved constants), bootstraps that spin bytecode (such as LambdaMetafactory, and offline code analyzers (annotation processors, jlink plugins.) So while our initial target was intrinsics for ldc and invokedynamic, the resulting API is far more generally useful for many low-level activities.

Similarly, the language support for constant propagation and folding were initially motiviated by the needs of intrinsics, but the mechanism is far more general and has the potential to pay generous dividends in the form of generating better code.