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... Preface -- 1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7 -- 8 -- 9 -- A -- B -- C -- Refs Front -- Contents -- Help
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Copyright 1999 Gary McGraw and Edward Felten. All rights reserved. Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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The Base Java Security Model: The Original Applet Sandbox
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CHAPTER SECTIONS: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9 / 10 / 11 / 12 / 13
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Section 7 -- The Class Loader Architecture
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One of the central tenets of Java is making code truly mobile. Every mobile code system requires the ability to load code from outside a system into the system dynamically. In Java, code is loaded (either from the disk or over the network) by a Class Loader. Java's class loader architecture is complex, but it is a central security issue, so please bear with us as we explain it. Recall that all Java objects belong to classes. Class loaders determine when and how classes can be added to a running Java environment. Part of their job is to make sure that important parts of the Java runtime environment are not replaced by impostor code. The fake Security Manager shown in Figure 2.4 must be disallowed from loading into the Java environment and replacing the real Security Manager. This is known as class spoofing.
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Figure 2.4 Spoofing occurs when someone or something pretends to be something it is not. In this figure, an external class has arrived from the Internet and declares itself to be the Security Manager (in order to replace the real Security Manager). If external code were allowed to do this, Java's security system would be trivial to break.
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Class loaders perform two functions. First, when the VM needs to load the byte code for a particular class, it asks a class loader to find the byte code. Each class loader can use its own method for finding requested
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byte code files: It can load them from the local disk, fetch them across the Net using any protocol, or it can just create the byte code on the spot. This flexibility is not a security problem as long as the class loader is trusted by the party who wrote the code that is being loaded. Second, class loaders define the namespaces seen by different classes and how those namespaces relate to each other. Namespaces are a subtle and security-critical issue that we'll have a lot more to say about later. Problems with namespace management have led to a number of serious security holes. It probably would have been better if Java's design had initially separated the two functions of class loaders and provided lots of flexibility in finding byte code but not much flexibility in defining namespaces. In a sense, this is what has come about as successive versions of Java have had increasingly restrictive rules about how namespaces may be managed. Java's class loader architecture was originally meant to be extensible, in the sense that new class loaders could be added to a running system. It became clear early on, however, that malicious class loaders could break Java's type system, and hence breach security. As a result, current Java implementations prohibit untrusted code from making class loaders. This restriction may be relaxed in the future, since there is some possibility that the Java 2 class loader specification is at last safe in the presence of untrusted class loaders.
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Varieties of Class Loaders
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There are two basic varieties of class loaders: Primordial Class Loaders and Class Loader objects. There is only one Primordial Class Loader, which is an essential part of each Java VM. It cannot be overridden. The Primordial Class Loader is involved in bootstrapping the Java environment. Since most VMs are written in C, it follows that the Primordial Class Loader is typically written in C. This special class loader loads trusted classes, usually from the local disk. Figure 2.5 shows the inheritance hierarchy of Class Loaders available in Java 2.
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Figure 2.5 Class Loaders provide Java's dynamic loading capability, which allows classes to arrive and depart from the runtime environment. Java 2 implements a hierarchy of Class Loaders. This figure, after Gong [Gong, 1998], shows the inheritance hierarchy of Class Loaders.
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The Primordial Class Loader The Primordial Class Loader uses the native operating system's file access capabilities to open and read Java class files from the disk into byte arrays. This provides Java with the ability to bootstrap itself and provide essential functions. The Java API class files (stored by default in the file) are usually the first files loaded by the VM. The Primordial Class Loader also typically loads any classes a user has located in the CLASSPATH. Classes loaded by the Primordial Class Loader are not subjected to the Verifier prior to execution. Sometimes the Primordial Class Loader is referred to as the "internal" class loader or the "default" class loader. Just to make things overly complicated, some people refer to classes loaded by the Primordial Class Loader as having no class loader at all.
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Class Loader Objects The second basic variety of class loader is made up of Class Loader objects. Class Loader objects load classes that are not needed to bootstrap the VM into a running Java environment. The VM treats classes loaded through Class Loader objects as untrusted by default. Class Loaders are objects just like any other Java object-they are written in Java, compiled into byte code, and loaded by the VM (with the help of some other class loader). These Class Loaders give Java its dynamic loading capabilities.
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There are three distinct types of Class Loader objects defined by the JDK itself: Applet Class Loaders, RMI Class Loaders, and Secure Class Loaders. From the standpoint of a Java user or a system administrator, Applet Class Loaders are the most important variety. Java developers who are interested in rolling their own Class Loaders will likely subclass or otherwise use the RMI Class Loader and Secure Class Loader classes. Applet Class Loaders are responsible for loading classes into a browser and are defined by the vendor of each Java-enabled browser. Vendors generally implement similar Applet Class Loaders, but they do not have to. Sometimes seemingly subtle differences can have important security ramifications. For example, Netscape now tracks a class not by its name, but by a pointer to actual code, making attacks that leverage Class Loading complications harder to carry out. Applet Class Loaders help to prevent external code from spoofing important pieces of the Java API. They do this by attempting to load a class using the Primordial Class Loader before fetching a class across the network. If the class is not found by the Primordial Class Loader, the Applet Class Loader typically loads it via HTTP using methods of the URL class. Code is fetched from the CODEBASE specified in the <APPLET> tag. If a fetch across the Web fails, a ClassNotFound exception is thrown. It should be clear why external code must be prevented from spoofing the trusted classes of the Java API. Consider that the essential parts of the Java security model (including the Applet Class Loader class itself) are simply Java classes. If an untrusted class from afar were able to set up shop as a replacement for a trusted class, the entire security model would be toast! The RMI Class Loader and Secure Class Loader classes were introduced with JDK 1.1 and Java 2, respectively. RMI Class Loaders are very similar to Applet Class Loaders in that they load classes from a remote machine. They also give the Primordial Class Loader a chance to load a class before fetching it across the Net. The main difference is that RMI Class Loaders can only load classes from the URL specified by Java's rmi.server.codebase property. Similar in nature to RMI Class Loaders, Secure Class Loaders allow classes to be loaded only from those directories specified in Java's property. Secure Class Loaders can only be used by classes found in the package and are extensively used by the Java 2 access control mechanisms.
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Roll-Your-Own Class Loaders Developers are often called upon to write their own class loaders. This is an inherently dangerous undertaking since class loading is an essential part of the Java security model. Homegrown class loaders can cause no end of security trouble. The right approach to take in writing a class loader is to avoid changing the structure of namespaces, and to change only the methods that find the byte code for a not-yetloaded class. This will allow you to fetch classes in new ways, such as through a firewall or proxy, or from a special local code library, without taking the risk inherent in namespace management. You can do this by overriding only the loadClass methods.