An Introduction to the Java Debugger

An Introduction to the Java Debugger

In this article, we’ll explore Java Platform Debugger Architecture and how it actually works taking Eclipse as an example.

Eclipse Debugger:

Eclipse allows you to start a Java program in debug mode, Eclipse has a special debug perspective which gives you a preconfigured set of views. In this perspective you control the execution process of your program by setting breakpoints and can investigate the following:

  1. State of the variables
  2. Debug stack trace

A detailed article which describes on Debugging with Eclipse can be found here.

The Eclipse debugger is built on Java Platform Debugger Architecture (JPDA). JPDA is multi-tiered debugging architecture that allows developers to create portable debugger applications. The JPDA is used by all Java debugging tools.

Java Platform Debugger Architecture:

Eclipse debugger - diagram 1

JPDA consists of three layers:

JVMTI (Java VM Tool Interface), is a programming native interface implemented by the JVM which interacts with the execution of a program. It provides information of current stack frame and state of the variables, used by development and monitoring tools.

JDWP (Java Debug Wire Protocol), defines the communication between debuggee (JVMTI) and debugger (JDI) processes.

JDI (Java Debug Interface), defines a high-level Java language interface which tool developers can easily use to write remote debugger applications.

A detailed description about JPDA can be found here.

Java Virtual Machine (JVM) execution environment:

Before we start understanding how debug works in Eclipse, lets us understand the JVM execution environment.

The JVM runs in a single process, but it can execute several threads concurrently. Each of the threads are running their own tasks. For example, when we start executing a Java program, JVM process starts a main thread at the entry point ( i.e. main(String[] args) method). It also starts one more thread for Garbage Collection.

The primary objective of any Java Debugging tool is to suspend a JVM main thread when a registered line number (i.e. breakpoint) and Class are matched.

In this section let us explore how debugging is working in Eclipse. When we run a program in debug mode after setting a breakpoint, the JVM main thread is suspended when the breakpoint is reached.

This is depicted in the following sequence diagram.

Eclipse debugger - diagram 2

Debugging flow diagram (with HelloWorld example):

Eclipse debugger - diagram 3

We can see the stack trace from the above debugging flow diagram, which clearly shows a JVM main thread is suspended at line 7

The section below contains a short video which shows how to use the Eclipse debugger to suspend a program and view its internal state variables.

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