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Issue 0322001-10-11 Category: Language Java version:

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Exceptional Constructors - Resurrecting the dead

by Dr. Heinz M. Kabutz

Welcome to the 32nd issue of The Java(tm) Specialists' Newsletter, the only Java newsletter for those of us who are considered Java Specialists. This week I want to look at what happens when an object is not properly initialised, the results are quite interesting, I think. The ideas in this newsletter were spawned by Bruce Eckel, who sent me a piece of code that was throwing exceptions from the constructor and that made us both scratch our heads and rethink "what happens".

I must apologize for sending you two copies of the last two newsletters; a few of you pointed it out in a very nice manner (well-mannered bunch we are, hey?). When I sent out Issue030, I was toying with the idea of prefixing the subject line, so that you can easily write a junk mail filter for these newsletters. I started by having a prefix of [TJSN] but after I pressed the "Send" button, decided it would be better to use a prefix of [JavaSpecialists], so I pressed the IE stop button. I then changed the prefix and pressed send again, voila! two copies to everyone :-(. Issue031 was even worse, as my mailing list provider had changed the user interface, so as a result, the newsletter could not be read using my Outlook 2000! I changed what I thought was the problem and resent the newsletter together with an apology, only to discover that it still did not work. I do hope these problems are sorted out now.

The latest "skindernuus" (Afrikaans for gossip) is that Microsoft have now produced J# (J-sharp) which is a language using the Java syntax that can be compiled onto the .NET platform. This should make it really easy to port your Java programs onto a Microsoft system. Is that bad news for me? Nope, it is fantastic news for me. Why? Because I have just finished writing a Design Patterns course on how to write Object-Oriented programs. I can now get customers who do Java, C++, C#, VB.NET and J# to come on my Design Patterns course. It's a classroom-based course and I will come and present it at your company anywhere in the world, if you can get together 10 programmers who wish to learn about Design Patterns from someone who's been "in the field" for a long time. Pop me an email if that interests you.

NEW: Please see our new "Extreme Java" course, combining concurrency, a little bit of performance and Java 8. Extreme Java - Concurrency & Performance for Java 8.

Exceptional Constructors

What happens when an Exception is thrown from within the constructor? Is the object created, or is it not created?

The answer is that the object is indeed constructed, but the handle to the object is not returned, so no-one will have a handle to it, so it can be garbage collected almost immediately. Naturally, when I hear something like "no-one", the wheels in my head start turning a bit faster.

What happens when you subclass a class that throws an exception out of its constructor? In the subclass, the first call has to be to the superclass, so if that throws an exception then the subclass cannot catch it.

Let's look at an example. We have a LicenseManager class that does some clever checking in its constructor and then throws an exception if the license is not valid.

public class LicenseManager {
  public LicenseManager() {
    if (!cleverLicenseValidation()) {
      throw new SecurityException("License invalid");
    }
  }
  private boolean cleverLicenseValidation() {
    // here you would typically read the license
    // file, do some obfuscated calculations, etc.
    // and return true if the license is valid.
    return false;
  }
}

This class is used together with the SecuritySystem class to which we pass an instance of LicenseManager:

public class SecuritySystem {
  private static LicenseManager licenseManager;
  public static void register(LicenseManager lm) {
    // only register if it is not initialized
    if (licenseManager == null) {
      if (lm == null) {
        System.out.println("License Manager invalid!");
        System.exit(1);
      }
      licenseManager = lm;
    }
  }
}

The SecuritySystem would be initialized at some point with the LicenseManager and used in the Application

public class Application {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    LicenseManager lm;
    try {
      lm = new LicenseManager();
    } catch(SecurityException ex) {
      lm = null;
    }
    SecuritySystem.register(lm);
    System.out.println("Now let's get things started");
  }
}

Yes, the code is rather convoluted, but I want to illustrate my point to you ;-). Let us assume, for the sake of this newsletter, that you cannot change any of the classes as they have been heavily obfuscated. Let's assume we want to attack this system by subclassing LicenseManager and having our own Application code load the Application. The problem we face is that if we try to subclass this LicenseManager with our own class, we cannot catch the exception from the parent. Let's have a look at the MyApplication class first:

public class MyApplication {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    MyLicenseManager lm;
    try {
      lm = new MyLicenseManager();
    } catch(SecurityException ex) {
      lm = null;
    }
    SecuritySystem.register(lm);
    // now we call the other application
    Application.main(args);
  }
}

Our first attempt at writing our own LicenseManager results in the following:

public class MyLicenseManager extends LicenseManager {
  public MyLicenseManager() {
    System.out.println("Created MyLicenseManager");
  }
}

When we run this, the result is:

License Manager invalid!

How do we get a handle to the MyLicenseManager class if it the parent constructor throws an exception?

An interesting use of finalize()

We could abuse finalize() to catch the handle to the MyLicenseManager class and then resurrect the object. (hihi). Now James Gosling says that you should never resurrect objects, but that is only because once resurrected, finalize will not be called again, which is actually what we want anyway. We therefore write a CleverLicenseManager that captures an instance in the finalize method:

public class CleverLicenseManager extends LicenseManager {
  private static CleverLicenseManager instance = null;
  public static CleverLicenseManager make() {
    try {
      new CleverLicenseManager();
    } catch(Exception ex) {} // ignore
    try {
      synchronized(CleverLicenseManager.class) {
        while (instance == null) {
          System.gc();
          CleverLicenseManager.class.wait(100);
        }
      }
    } catch(InterruptedException ex) {
      return null;
    }
    return instance;
  }
  public void finalize() {
    System.out.println("In finalize of " + this);
    synchronized(CleverLicenseManager.class) {
      instance = this;
      CleverLicenseManager.class.notify();
    }
  }
  public CleverLicenseManager() {
    System.out.println("Created CleverLicenseManager");
  }
}

This is then created with the make() method from within our CleverApplication:

public class CleverApplication {
  public static void main(String[] args) {
    CleverLicenseManager lm = CleverLicenseManager.make();
    SecuritySystem.register(lm);
    // now we call the other application
    Application.main(args);
  }
}

The result is:

In finalize of CleverLicenseManager@77d134
Now let's get things started

Obviously, the CleverLicenseManager could have some data members that are not properly initialized, even final data members could be uninitialized.

Say the original LicenseManager class was marked as final. How do we make it non-final?

Making a class non-final without decompiling

In the good ol' days we were able to decompile any class with a simple decompiler such as JAD. More recently, Java programmers have become more nasty and have started using obfuscators that do terrible things to your class, making it a major effort to change a class from final to non-final.

Luckily the class format is well-known to us, so with a simple hex editor, we can make a class non-final without decompiling. Here's the dummy guide on how to do it:

  1. Load the class in your favourite hex editor (e.g. frhed available at http://frhed.sourceforge.net)
  2. Look at the end of the method definitions, you will see a byte value that has bit 00010000 set, e.g. 0x31. Unset that bit and your class should now be non-final.

The non-dummy's guide would say that you should use a byte code library such as BCEL to change the class from final to non-final. Of course, if you're a freak like me, you'll just load the class in VI in binary mode and change the value of the correct character ;-)

Disclaimer! = you shouldn't really hack licenses...

Please note that I do not under any circumstances advocate hacking license managers to deprive worthy code authors of their salaries. It is just an example, ok? And besides, no programmer would ever write a LicenseManager like the one I wrote ;-)

Cheersio

Heinz

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