Sunday, 14 May 2017

Difference between ClassNotFoundException vs NoClassDefFoundError in Java


In last post we saw how classloading works in Java -
In this post we will try to understand the difference between ClassNotFoundException vs NoClassDefFoundError thet generally bugs all Java developers.

If you have not gone through above link I strongly suggest you do it right away. It will give you very good understanding on class loading mechanism that we will be using shortly to understand these two situations.

Difference between ClassNotFoundException vs NoClassDefFoundError in Java

  • First point to note is their types. ClassNotFoundException is a checked exception. So you will need to handle it. Either catch it or throw it in method signature. NoClassDefFoundError is an error. Error are generally something you cannot recover from. You can still catch and handle it though.
  • Both things are related to class not available during runtime. Difference is the cause of non availability which we will see shortly. 
  • ClassNotFoundException is throw by running application where as NoClassDefFoundError is thrown by Java runtime.
We have already seen an example of ClassNotFoundException in last post when we tried to load our custom class with Extension classloader which was parent of Application classloader that actually loaded the class. We said parent classloader does not have visibility of classes loaded by child class loaders. So it threw ClassNotFoundException. Generally ClassNotFoundException is thrown when you try to load a custom class using methods like -
  • Class.forName()
  • ClassLoader.loadClass()
  • ClassLoader.findSystemClass()
and the required class is not found in the classpath. This could be because your classpath is incorrectly configured. Famous example is when you connect to a database using Jave you load the driver class using - Class.forName() [We do this explicit loading pre Java 6. From java 6 this class loading happens automatically. All you have to do is make sure driver jar is present in classpath] -
So for above usecase if you don have a driver class in your classpath then it will led to  ClassNotFoundException. Also you must have noticed by not you need to explicitly handle this exception since this is checked exception.

To resolve this issue you need to check that the class is available in your classpath.

Now this unlike ClassNotFoundException is an Error which is hard to recover from. This generally happens when class is available at compile time but not available at runtime.

One example can be static method/block of a class throws error due to which class does not load (though it was available at compile time and went through in compilation phase). Now if such a class is reference at runtime then it will throw NoClassDefFoundError.

To resolve this error you need check your classpath. It is possible that in your configuration (say in gradle files) you have added jar is lets say test configuration only and not in runtime or compile time configuration. You also need to lookout for any Initialization errors in the logs.

Related Links

How classloader works in Java


We know how Java works. We create Java classes, create instances of it and they interact with each other. In this post we will see how classloaders work. We know javac is a compiler that converts human understandable Java code to class files containing bytecodes that JVM interpreted (java) understands. Classloaders are responsible for loading these classes at runtime. This is one of the good interview questions that is asked to experienced Java developers. This should also help you understand difference between NoClassDefFoundError and java.lang.ClassNotFoundException, So lets get to it.

Basic points

We will come to details of these but to begin with note down these points -
  1. Delegation - Each classloader first delegates loading of class to it's parent (goes all the way up the hierarchy). If parent is not able to load the class then class is tried to be loaded by it's child. If it cannot be loaded by any of the classloaders ClassNotFoundException exception is throws.
  2. Visibility  - Each classloader knows about the classes that it's parents have loaded. However it does not work the other way around. Parents will not know the classes loaded by their child. This brings us to the 3rd points.
  3. Uniqueness - Each class is loaded exactly once. Since each child delegates class loading to it's parent and know the classes it's parents have loaded, it will try to load classes only when it is not loaded by its parent.
Now these are ofcource default behavior of  classloaders that already exist. However you can write your own class loaders and break it (not recommended though).

Classloading in Java

Java has 3 main classloaders that are used to load classes at runtime -
  1. Bootstrap ClassLoader (Also called Primordial classLoader)
  2. Extension ClassLoader
  3. Application  ClassLoader
In that order. So  Bootstrap is parent of Extension and Extension is parent of Application classloader. Each of these classlaoders load classes from a predefined location

Above diagram says it all but let me reiterate -

  • Bootstrap ClassLoader is the topmost level classloader. It does not have any parent. This classloader is a native implementation . This class loader is responsible of loading all standard JDK classes. It does this from path - <JRE>/lib/rt.jar. Since this is native implementation it does not refer to ClassLoader class.
  • Extension ClassLoader is direct child of Bootstrap classLoader. When this classloader tries to load a class it first delegates it to it's parent - Bootstrap ClassLoader. If parent is unsuccessful then Extension ClassLoader will try to load classes from path <JRE>/lib/ext or from path specified in java.ext.dirs system variable. In JVM this is implemented by - sun.misc.Launcher$ExtClassLoader
  • Application classloader is child of Extension classloader. Execution sequence remains same. When a class is loaded from this classloader it delegates to it's parent Extension which in turn delegates it to it's parent Bootstrap. If parents are unsuccessful in loading classes then Application classloaded will try to load class from the classpath - you can give it with arguments -classpath or -cp or specify it in manifest file of jar. In JVM this is implemented by sun.misc.Launcher$AppClassLoader

If application classloader is not able to load the class then it throws ClassNotFoundException. When JVM loads this is the order in which classloaders execute and load classes.

 Code Demo

Let's try to understand few things with code now. First thing we discussed is Bootstrap classloader and how it's the topmost classloader with native implementation and that it does not have any parent. However you cannot refer to Bootstrap classloader in Java. It will give null - Since it is native implementation.

    public static void main(String args[]) throws InterruptedException, IOException {
        ClassLoader classLoader  = String.class.getClassLoader();
        System.out.println(classLoader==null?"Bootstrap classloader not available from Java":"Bootstrap classloader available from Java");

and you should get -
Bootstrap classloader not available from Java

Now lets try to check our visibility principle. By that parent classes should not be able to load classes loaded by their child. We are going to create a new class called HelloWorld and from it check which classloader loaded it (from out previous knowledge all classpath classes are loaded by Application classloader) and well see it's parent (should be Extension classloader) and finally try to load the same HelloWorld class using parent classloader (should fail as parent should not have visibility to classes loaded by child) -

    public static void main(String args[]) throws InterruptedException, IOException {
        ClassLoader classLoader  = HelloWorld.class.getClassLoader();
        System.out.println("Current classloader : " + classLoader);
        System.out.println("Current classloaders parent : " + classLoader.getParent());
        try {
            Class.forName("HelloWorld", true, HelloWorld.class.getClassLoader().getParent());
        } catch (ClassNotFoundException e) {
            System.out.println("Class could not be loaded by the classloader");

Output is -
Current classloader : sun.misc.Launcher$AppClassLoader@4554617c
Current classloaders parent : Current classloaders parent : sun.misc.Launcher$ExtClassLoader@677327b6
Class could not be loaded by the classloader
java.lang.ClassNotFoundException: HelloWorld
    at java.lang.ClassLoader.loadClass(
    at java.lang.ClassLoader.loadClass(
    at java.lang.Class.forName0(Native Method)
    at java.lang.Class.forName(
    at HelloWorld.main(

You can also see for yourself the way classes are loaded . Just use option -verbose:class while running Java. Example in screenshot below -

  • JVM maintains a runtime pool is permgen area where classes are loaded. Whenever a class is referenced default class loader finds the class is the class path and loads it into this pool. And this is not specific to user defined classes or classes provided in JDK. When a class id referenced it is loaded into the memory.
  •  Yes and ClassLoader instance does not get GCed as it is referenced by JVM thread. Infact that is why even if you have a Singleton class it is possible to create two instances with two different class loaders.
  •  No ClassLoader instances are same as any other Objects in the heap. The statement that it does not get GCed come from the fact that ClassLoaders have references from JVM threads which run till the java process is completed and JVM shuts down. For eg the Bootstrap Class Loader is a native implementation meaning its code is embedded in JVM. So it's reference will always be alive. Hence we say they are not the potential candidates for GC. Other than that GC treats them the same way.

Related Links

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