Facebook Patch for Dalvik

If you can solve a problem by re-engineering your app or modifying Android, why would you modify Android?  That’s the burning question at the heart of this blog entry.

Picard to Warf: "Android 2.3 was written that way for a reason, Mr. Warf." (credit: appsgeyser.com)

Picard to Warf: “Android 2.3 was written that way for a reason, Mr. Warf.” (photo credit: CBS/startrek.com; blog source: Paramount)

Engineering mobile applications is embedded engineering.  It’s the art of using less code to accomplish something rather than more code.  And in this case, it’s also the art of avoiding a change that risks impacting every Android user that uses Android 2.3, and every carrier with Android 2.3 phones.

Recently, David Reiss, a Facebook engineer, posted on the Facebook blog information about a Dalvik “patch” that they were working on.  Interesting. My Android Spidey Sense tells me that the problem is more of an application issue, as opposed to an issue within Android OS itself.  So, I decided to find out with some quick analysis.

I’ve been working on Dalvik the past year, so you could say I’m a Dalvik “virtual machinist.”  This engineering problem is pretty juicy, and I couldn’t pass up looking at it.  Here’s the Facebook blog posting, and a quick summary of the issue David is seeing.

Under the Hood: Dalvik patch for Facebook for Android

The suggested fix does not consider that if Android 2.3 is updated from 5MB to 8MB, it may force all mobile phones using Android 2.3 to go through a round of regression testing.  That’s a lot of work for the carriers.  Depending on the hardware configuration on Android phones that run 2.3, the potential side effects far outweigh a more straightforward solution: Facebook simply re-engineers its application.  But that aside …

The issue that is reported by Facebook and others is not a “bug” in the sense that dexopt is crashing.  Nor is it the case that the failure is created by “deep” interface hierarchies, as the Google bug suggests.  In this case, dexopt is simply complaining that the application that Android is trying to load is too big: the code size is too big for the class loader to handle.  This kind of limit is nothing new to Android or any other mobile app.  It’s been there ever since mobile phones could run applications.  So, it could be said that this is an application level problem, as opposed to an OS problem.  This could be resolved using two approaches:

  1. re-engineer the application, especially in cases where you are trying to port code from one form (Javascript) to another (Java).
  2. modify the operating system to utilize more resources – which will affect all applications

For reasons I explain below, using #2 is a slippery slope.  It’s important to remember that 5MB is a lot of memory to  chew on for a device that was designed primarily to answer phone calls. And, as you’ll see, it’s not just 5MB versus 8MB anyway. The difference is potentially 10MB versus 16MB.  And, that my coder roadies, is a whole other ballgame.

Other Factors

The Facebook blog mentions that this limit was bumped into because code was ported from Javascript to Java.  So, this occurred when Facebook decided to add more features to their native Android application.

The Quick Conclusion/Upshot

The basic problem being reported is that when the Android phone loads your program to run, there are limits placed on the amount of code you can have in your application.  That’s a good thing.  If you exceed your limits, it’s much wiser to re-think your application design as opposed to tweaking the OS.

First of all, let me dis-abuse you of the notion that if dexopt fails in this way, it must be a “bug” in the Android platform.  Android was pretty thoroughly tested, as far as mobile operating systems go, so it’s just important to consider that your application design might just need to be re-worked.  In this case, while it appears that a Google engineer has signed on to address this “issue”, it doesn’t mean that Google thinks it’s a bug either.

The limit that is relevant here is a 5MB limit placed on all Android applications for Android 2.3.  These kinds of limits are there for a reason.  This is especially important to respect in the case of Android 2.3 because devices that run that version of the OS tend to be more limited on resources than Android 4.0 devices.

Bumping up the amount of memory that LinearAlloc uses will increase the amount of memory that ALL android applications consume on the outset when loading your classes. Each application that starts will have this amount of memory allocated to the class loader.

So, if you have 20 apps on your phone, each of those apps are going to allocate that amount of memory (5MB on Android 2.3, and 8MB on Android 4.0).  This is very important to consider because Android allows any of its applications to start background services.  For planning purposes, you must take into account the fact that every one of the apps on your phone may be running simultaneously because they may be running services.

More Details and Analysis

Here are the basic working of how LinearAllocHdr (LinearAlloc) is managed by Android:

LinearAllocHdr is a data structure in Android that so far appears to be used only by the class loader.  But, nothing says it can’t be used for other things in the future.  Here’s the structure:

29 * Linear allocation state.  We could tuck this into the start of the
30 * allocated region, but that would prevent us from sharing the rest of
31 * that first page.
32 */
33typedef struct LinearAllocHdr {
34    int     curOffset;          /* offset where next data goes */
35    pthread_mutex_t lock;       /* controls updates to this struct */
37    char*   mapAddr;            /* start of mmap()ed region */
38    int     mapLength;          /* length of region */
39    int     firstOffset;        /* for chasing through */
41    short*  writeRefCount;      /* for ENFORCE_READ_ONLY */
42} LinearAllocHdr;

mapAddr points to the block of memory that is allocated.

This structure is instantiated by the function dvmLinearAllocCreate.   The 5MB that David’s post talks about is actually a 5MB file that gets memory mapped. The length of the file is defined by DEFAULT_MAX_LENGTH:

/* default length of memory segment (worst case is probably "dexopt") */
72 #define DEFAULT_MAX_LENGTH  (5*1024*1024)

Memory mapping files is commonly done in Android.  In fact Dalvik maps your entire application code into memory this way.  This means two things for the problem at hand:

  1. 5MB of disk space is used to store the underlying data, and
  2. 5MB of memory is taken up to store the file’s contents in active memory.

So, the impact on the operating system is actually 10MB (worst case). So, we’re not just talking about 5MB here, we’re talking about potentially using twice that.  If you increase that to 8MB, you’re impacting OS with potentially a 16MB memory allocation.  Now, we’re getting into some serious memory for a mobile device to manage.  Remember, it’s an embedded system on a slow processor – especially in the case of Android 2.3 and OMAP.

dvmLinearAllocCreate is called by dvmClassStartup (Class.c), so that confirms that the only place that this is used is by the class loader (for now).  But, this is a very critical part of memory. The more memory used by the class loader, the more overhead you cause for Linux, and the slower your applications might boot up.  Again, perhaps not noticeable on Android 4.0, but it might be noticed on an Android 2.3 device – especially a cheap one that uses lower end hardware.  Especially when that is applied to all applications that run on the device.

An open letter to Facebook.

If I were to work for Facebook, I would advocate for some critical changes in product features.  I need to point no further than a great article on Wired as to why what I’m about to write is important:

Proposed Privacy Law Demands Court Warrants for Cloud Data

Facebook is mentioned specifically in the article.  The interesting thing is, if there’s a push to restrict snooping by government into the cloud without a warrant, then it probably means that it’s already a problem.

So, how can companies like Facebook become an advocate for the common citizen instead of becoming a quasi domestic surveillance arm of the government?

I believe that can happen by starting with some self criticism. Self criticism can be the most powerful agent for positive change and product improvement.  I apply that belief first and foremost to myself.  And, of course my employer. I’m usually quiet about my self imposed high standards, but from time to time I feel a public statement must be made.  This blog posting is one such public statement.  Something inside me has given me an obligation to post this blog.

I think the presumption of privacy in the U.S. is fading fast.  And I think it’s a tragedy.  It’s common for companies to justify things like GPS tracking with logic such as

“We don’t have privacy any more anyway, so what’s the difference?”

Product managers at those companies don’t seem to understand that the U.S. legal system was based on a presumption of privacy.  Rationalizing products into being that threaten that privacy is, in my opinion, dangerous.

Mobile engineers and product managers have a responsibility to insist on a higher standard of privacy to protect people from unscrupulous snoopers.

So, here is an open letter I sent to Facebook as feedback for their Friendship Pages feature.  Mark Z., if I sound harsh, it’s because I feel frustrated that I can’t embrace Facebook as much as I would like to. And I suspect I’m not alone.  I sent the following to Facebook on their feedback form for Facebook Friendship pages just now.

I have chosen to reproduce only part of my feedback here in this public forum.  I’ll let Facebook employees decide how much of the extended version they want when they read my feedback.  What I’m trying to do is generate some honest debate about product features:

I appreciate the work that has gone into friendship pages, but ….

I want you to realize how much angst you put into my mind with your new “features” like Friendship pages? and GPS tracking. GPS is another issue, but this message is about friendship pages.

I don’t know if I can send a message to a good friend of mine without other people watching it on “friendship pages.” How rude of you to leave me with that impression. You may not think you did, but you did.

it’s left me with the impression that messages to one of my friends may be seen my other friends of mine, perhaps mutual friends.

I don’t want this.

Just because you CAN develop a social feature into Facebook, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

I feel Facebook has a responsibility to protect user privacy, and build features that strengthen the presumption of privacy.  Nice words that indicate you’ll safeguard things are no safeguard at all when they seem contrary to the features actually implemented in your products and the language in your EULAs.