With the latest I/O conference, Google has finally publicly announced its plans for its new runtime on Android. The Android RunTime, ART, is the successor and replacement for Dalvik, the virtual machine on which Android Java code is executed on. We’ve had traces and previews of it available with KitKat devices since last fall, but there wasn’t much information in terms of technical details and the direction Google was heading with it.

Contrary to other mobile platforms such as iOS, Windows or Tizen, which run software compiled natively to their specific hardware architecture, the majority of Android software is based around a generic code language which is transformed from “byte-code” into native instructions for the hardware on the device itself.

Over the years and from the earliest Android versions, Dalvik started as a simple VM with little complexity. With time, however, Google felt the need to address performance concerns and to be able to keep up with hardware advances of the industry. Google eventually added a JIT-compiler to Dalvik with Android’s 2.2 release, added multi-threading capabilities, and generally tried to improve piece by piece.

However, lately over the last few years the ecosystem had been outpacing Dalvik development, so Google sought to build something new to serve as a solid foundation for the future, where it could scale with the performance of today’s and the future’s 8-core devices, large storage capabilities, and large working memories.

Thus ART was born.


First, ART is designed to be fully compatible with Dalvik’s existing byte-code format, “dex” (Dalvik executable). As such, from a developer’s perspective, there are no changes at all in terms of having to write applications for one or the other runtime and no need to worry about compatibilities.

The big paradigm-shift that ART brings, is that instead of being a Just-in-Time (JIT) compiler, it now compiles application code Ahead-of-Time (AOT). The runtime goes from having to compile from bytecode to native code each time you run an application, to having it to do it only once, and any subsequent execution from that point forward is done from the existing compiled native code.

Of course, these native translations of the applications take up space, and this new methodology is something that has been made possible today only due to the vast increases in available storage space on today’s devices, a big shift from the early beginnings of Android devices.

This shift opens up a large amount of optimizations which were not possible in the past; because code is optimized and compiled only once, it is worth to optimize it really well that one time. Google claims that it now is able to achieve higher level optimizations over the whole of an applications code-base, as the compiler has an overview of the totality of the code, as opposed to the current JIT compiler which only does optimizations in local/method chunks. Overhead such as exception checks in code are largely removed, and method and interface calls are vastly sped up. The process which does this is the new “dex2oat” component, replacing the “dexopt” Dalvik equivalent. Odex files (optimized dex) also disappear in ART, replaced by ELF files.

Because ART compiles an ELF executable, the kernel is now able to handle page handling of code pages - this results in possibly much better memory management, and less memory usage too. I’m curious what the effect of KSM (Kernel same-page merging) has on ART, it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

The implications to battery life are also significant - since there is no more interpretation or JIT-work to be done during the runtime of an app, that results in direct savings of CPU cycles, and thus, power consumption.

The only downside to all of this, is that this one-time compilation takes more time to complete. A device’s first boot, and an application’s first start-up will be much increased compared to an equivalent Dalvik system. Google claims that this is not too dramatic, as they expect the finished shipping runtime to be equivalent or even faster than Dalvik in these aspects.

The performance gains over Dalvik are significant, as pictured above; the gains are roughly a 2x improvement in speed for code running on the VM. Google claimed that applications such as Chessbench that represent an almost 3x increase are a more representative projection of real-world gains that can be expected once the final release of Android L is made available.

Garbage Collection: Theory and Practice
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  • NetMage - Tuesday, July 8, 2014 - link

    I think they could have produced a much better product if they had used C++ instead - native performance and battery life when it was needed in the early days, and probably faster than ios performance today.
  • iAPX - Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - link

    So why not people upgrade if it works so well on Android side?
  • zodiacsoulmate - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    Very impressive
  • mstestzzz000 - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    Inaccuracy in the article:
    "This new allocator, “rosalloc” or Rows-of-Slots-Allocator, ..."

    If you look at the source code for rosalloc (line 39 of https://android.googlesource.com/platform/art/+/ma... they call it "A runs-of-slots memory allocator"
  • Milind - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    I think you are absolutely right there. I doubt that merely doing AOT compiling is going to produce faster results and that's exactly what I experienced when I switched from Dalvik to ART in 4.4. Of course there are going to be more improvements in L since the code itself has improved. I mean who was launching an app on Android and wishing it would *launch* faster? There may have been apps that took their time launching. But not too many. On the other hand, better garbage collection and other improvements will certainly help in run-time performance. AOT is not doing anything much compared to JIT.

    I always wondered why Google didn't buy Sun. Both companies have similar DNA (certainly better than Oracle and Sun) and Android could have used all the expertise Sun had in building JVMs and Real Time Java in Android and the rest of Google. They could have sold off the hardware division to IBM/Oracle and not have had to deal with the heart ache and drama of the lawsuit.
  • Filiprino - Saturday, July 5, 2014 - link

    You'd be amazed on how can evolve a compiler in development stage.
    Most of the performance advantage from ART comes from AOT compilation. It can take the whole code and optimize it agressively. For example, when compiling GCC with the fastest optimizations you can get the whole program executing in the main function, with loop unrollings and vectorizations while taking into account the difference of having the functions inlined, optimizing references to variables and parameter passing.

    A JIT can only focus on the "hot spots", improving some parts of the program but it can't improve it as a whole because there's not enough performance history storage space to achieve that.

    Then, you've got the new Garbage Collection algorithms which improve interactivity quite a lot.
  • seoagile - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    thanks for information.
  • darwinosx - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    So many incorrect statements about jvms in this article it would take a half hour to list them all. Plus nothing at all was said about Googles major motivator which is it is obvious Dalvik was stolen from Sun and the lawsuits aren't over. Finally this is still a long way from true 64 bit and it's benefits. For example the only reason Apple can encrypt and decrypt fingerprints in real time is because encryption operations are dramatically faster in 64 bit.
    Way beneath Anandtech standards.
  • grahaman27 - Saturday, July 5, 2014 - link

    You are correct about apple's decision to use 64bit was partly because of the fingerprint scanner, but you are wrong that L is not fully 64bit compatible. In fact, it is easier for android to move to 64 bit because of the VM it runs on. The Linux kernel has always supported 64bit, but Google's runtime and libraries have not, and consequntly neither have the apps. Android L replaces the libraries and runtime with 64bit compatible versions and "enables" 64bit support for 85% of apps automatically with no work from the developers. That's pretty impressive.
  • PearlCParks - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    Contrary to other mobile platforms such as iOS, Windows or Tizen, whjich run software compiled natively to their specific hardwware architecture, the majority of Android software is based around a generic code language whicjh is transformed from “byte-code” into native insstructions for the hardware on the device itself. The performance gains over Dalvik are significant num.to/427-837-276-945

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