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InfoQ Homepage News OpenJDK's JEP 451: Balancing Serviceability and Integrity in JVM

OpenJDK's JEP 451: Balancing Serviceability and Integrity in JVM

JEP 451, Prepare to Disallow the Dynamic Loading of Agents, has been completed from Target status for JDK 21. This JEP has evolved from its original intent to disallow the dynamic loading of agents into a running JVM by default to issue warnings when agents are dynamically loaded into a running JVM. The goals of this JEP include: reassessing the balance between serviceability and integrity; and ensuring that a majority of tools, which do not need to load agents dynamically, are unaffected.

The primary goal of this proposal is to prepare for a future release of the JDK that will, by default, disallow the loading of agents into a running JVM. This change is designed to reassess the balance between serviceability, which involves ad-hoc changes to running code, and integrity, which assumes that running code is not arbitrarily changed. It is important to note that the majority of tools, which do not need to load agents dynamically, will remain unaffected by this change.

In JDK 21, the dynamic loading of agents is allowed, but the JVM issues a warning when it occurs. For example:

WARNING: A {Java,JVM TI} agent has been loaded dynamically (file:/u/bob/agent.jar)
WARNING: If a serviceability tool is in use, please run with -XX:+EnableDynamicAgentLoading to hide this warning
WARNING: If a serviceability tool is not in use, please run with -Djdk.instrument.traceUsage for more information
WARNING: Dynamic loading of agents will be disallowed by default in a future release

To allow tools to load agents without warnings dynamically, developers must run with the -XX:+EnableDynamicAgentLoading option on the command line.

Agents in the Java platform are components that can alter the code of an application while it is running. They were introduced by the Java Platform Profiling Architecture in JDK 5 as a way for tools, notably profilers, to instrument classes. This means altering the code in a class so that it emits events to be consumed by a tool outside the application without otherwise changing the code's behaviour.

However, over time, advanced developers found use cases such as Aspect-Oriented Programming that change application behaviour in arbitrary ways. There is also nothing to stop an agent from altering code outside the application, such as code in the JDK itself. To ensure that the owner of an application approved the use of agents, JDK 5 required agents to be specified on the command line with the -javaagent or -agentlib options and loaded the agents immediately at startup. This represented an explicit grant of privileges by the application owner.

Serviceability is the ability of a system operator to monitor, observe, debug, and troubleshoot an application while it runs. The Java Platform's excellent serviceability has long been a source of pride. To support serviceability tools, JDK 6 introduced the Attach API which is not part of the Java Platform but, rather, a JDK API supported for external use. It allows a tool launched with appropriate operating-system privileges to connect to a running JVM, either local or remote, and communicate with that JVM to observe and control its operation.

However, despite a conceptual separation of concerns between libraries and tools, some libraries provide functionality that relies upon the code-altering superpower afforded to agents. For example, a mocking library might redefine application classes to bypass business-logic invariants, while a white-box testing library might redefine JDK classes so that reflection over private fields is always permitted.

Unfortunately, some libraries misuse dynamically loaded agents, leading to a loss of integrity. They use the Attach API to silently connect to the JVMs in which they run and load agents dynamically, in effect masquerading as serviceability tools. This misuse of dynamically loaded agents by libraries has led to the need for stronger measures to prevent such actions and maintain the integrity of the JVM.

The proposal aims to require the dynamic loading of agents to be approved by the application owner, moving the Java Platform closer to the long-term vision of integrity by default. In practical terms, the application owner will have to choose to allow the dynamic loading of agents via a command-line option.

The impact of this change will be mitigated by the fact that most modern server applications are designed with redundancy, so individual nodes can be restarted with the command-line option as needed. Special cases, such as a JVM that must never be stopped for maintenance, can typically be identified in advance so that the dynamic loading of agents can be enabled from the start.

This change will allow the Java ecosystem to attain the vision of integrity by default without substantially constraining serviceability. It is a significant step towards ensuring the security and reliability of applications running on the JVM. The proposal is a clear indication of OpenJDK's commitment to enhancing the integrity of the JVM and ensuring the secure operation of Java applications.

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