by Malcolm Rowe

Deadlocks in Java class initialisation

I recently ran across the fact that it’s possible to make the Java runtime deadlock while initialising a class — and that this behaviour is even mandated by the Java Language Specification.

Here’s a Java 7 program that demonstrates the problem:

public class Program {
  public static void main(String args[]) {
    new Thread(new Runnable() {
      @Override public void run() {


  private static class A {
    private static final B b = new B();
    static void initMe() {}

  private static class B {
    private static final A a = new A();
    static void initMe() {}

In addition to demonstrating that lambdas are a good idea (all that boilerplate to start a thread!), this also shows how cycles during class initialisation can lead to a deadlock. Here’s what happens when you run it1:

$ javac Program.java
$ java Program

That is, it hangs.

In Java, classes are loaded at some arbitrary point before use, but are only initialised — running the static {} blocks and static field initialisers — at defined points2.

One of these points is just before a static method is invoked, and so the two calls to A.initMe() and B.initMe() above will both trigger initialisation for the respective classes.

In this case, each class contains a static field that instantiates an instance of the other class. Instantiating the other class requires that that class is initialised, and so what we end up with is that each class’s initialisation is blocked waiting for the initialisation of the other class to complete.

If you trigger a thread dump at this point — by sending a SIGQUIT or hitting Ctrl-\ (or Ctrl-Break on Windows) — then you’ll see something like this:

Full thread dump OpenJDK 64-Bit Server VM (24.79-b02 mixed mode):

"Thread-0" prio=10 tid=0x00007efd50105000 nid=0x51db in Object.wait() [0x00007efd3f168000]
   java.lang.Thread.State: RUNNABLE
        at Program$A.<clinit>(Program.java:13)
        at Program$1.run(Program.java:5)
        at java.lang.Thread.run(Thread.java:745)

"main" prio=10 tid=0x00007efd5000a000 nid=0x51ca in Object.wait() [0x00007efd59d45000]
   java.lang.Thread.State: RUNNABLE
        at Program$B.<clinit>(Program.java:18)
        at Program.main(Program.java:9)


Interestingly, you can see that while both threads are executing an implicit Object.wait(), they’re listed as RUNNABLE rather than WAITING, and there’s no output from the deadlock detector. I suspect that the reason for both of these is that the details of class initialisation changed in Java 7:

In Java 6, the runtime would attempt to lock the monitor owned by each Class instance for the duration of the initialisation, while in Java 7, attempting to initialise a class that’s already being initialised by another thread just requires that that the caller be blocked in some undefined fashion until that initialisation completes.

There are other ways to trigger the same problem, too. Here’s another problematic snippet:

public class Foo {
  public static final Foo EMPTY = new EmptyFoo();

public class EmptyFoo extends Foo {}

Here we have Foo, and EmptyFoo, a special — presumably empty, in some fashion — version of Foo. EmptyFoo is usable directly, but it’s also available as Foo.EMPTY.

The problem here is that initialising EmptyFoo requires us to initialise the superclass, and initialising Foo requires initialisation of EmptyFoo for the static field. This would be fine in one thread, but if two threads attempt to initialise the two classes separately, deadlock results.

Cyclic dependencies between classes have always been problematic in both Java and C#, as references to non-constant static fields in classes that are already being initialised see uninitialised (Java) or default (C#) values. However, normally the initialisation does complete; here, it doesn’t, and here the dependencies are simply between the classes, not between their data members.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any convenient way to detect these cycles in Java: OpenJDK provides -XX:+TraceClassInitialization, which I suspect might be useful, but it’s only available in debug builds of the OpenJDK JRE3, and I haven’t been able to confirm exactly what it shows.

And for what it’s worth, I’m not aware of a better solution for detecting cycles in C# either. For Noda Time, we used a custom cycle detector for a while; it spotted some bugs resulting from reading default values, but it was too brittle and invasive (it required modifying each class), and so we removed it before 1.0.

I suppose that if we assume that class initialisation occurs atomically and on multiple threads, then this kind of problem is bound to come up4. Perhaps what’s surprising is that these languages do allow the use of partially-initialised classes in the single-threaded case?

If videos are your thing, the folks at Webucator have turned this post into a video as part of their free (registration required) Java Solutions from the Web course. They also offer a series of paid Java Fundamentals classes covering a variety of topics.

  1. Or at least, what happens when I run it, on a multiprocessor Debian machine running OpenJDK 7u79. I don’t think the versions are particularly important — this behaviour seems to be present in all Java versions — though I am a little surprised that I didn’t need to add any additional synchronisation or delays. 

  2. A similar situation exists in C# for classes with static constructors (for classes without, the runtime is allowed much more latitude as to when the type is initialised). 

  3. You can trace class loading with -XX:TraceClassLoadingPreorder and -XX:TraceClassLoading, but this doesn’t tell you when class initialisation happens. 

  4. He says, with a sample size of one. I haven’t managed to confirm what C# does, for example, and C++ avoids this problem by replacing it with a much larger one, the “static initialisation order fiasco”.