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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  • johncuyle - Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - link

    It's not a great reason to discourage the NDK. Many applications are written to be cross platform and run successfully on multiple architectures. It doesn't even increase your test load, since even if you're writing your application in Java you still do need to fully test it on every platform. Test is usually the expensive part. The exact wording of the page is just odd. It says that preferring C++ isn't a good reason to write your application in C++. That's a pretty obviously false assertion. Preferring C++ is a great reason to write your application in C++.
  • Exophase - Monday, July 7, 2014 - link

    Not directly, since this applies to DEX which never had a compatibility issue. But it might convince some app developers to stop using NDK due to the improved performance of DEX binaries.
  • johncuyle - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    The frame drop counts seem very odd with respect to the total milliseconds delayed. (Or I'm bad at math.) At 60 FPS a frame is 16 ms. A 4ms GC sweep might drop a single frame at 60fps. The output indicates it dropped 30 frames. That's 750fps. Plausible if you're running without vsync or framerate limiting on a static screen like a splash screen, but that's not really a meaningful example, nor is it especially noticeable to the end user. More interesting would be the frequency of a frame drop in an application with extensive animation running at an average of 30fps. That's going to be a situation where you notice every frame drop.
  • kllrnohj - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    It's a mistake in the article. Those log lines have nothing to do with each other. The Choreographer is reporting a huge amount of dropped frames because <unknown> took a really long time on the UI thread, *NOT* because specifically the GC took that time. This is actually pretty normal, as when an application is launched the UI loading & layout all happens on the UI thread, which the Choreographer reports as "dropped" frames even though there wasn't actually any frames to draw in the first place as the app hadn't loaded yet. So the 30 dropped frames there means the application took about 500ms to load, which isn't fantastic but it's far from bad.
  • Stonebits - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    "Overhead such as exception checks in code are largely removed, and method and interface calls are vastly sped up"

    This doesn't make sense to me--are exceptions handled some other way, or do you just keep executing?
  • extide - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    If an exception is not handled, your application crashes.
  • Gigaplex - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    If the compiler can statically prove that a given piece of code won't throw, there's no need to insert the exception handling support. Not all exceptions will be removed by the compiler though.
  • Impulses - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    Hah, that PBT link was pretty funny... PBT FTW
  • hackbod - Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - link

    Re: "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."

    There shouldn't really be any difference. Dalvik was carefully designed so that its odex format could be mmapped in to RAM, allowing the kernel to do the same page handling as with ELF executables. (Actually a little better than regular ELF executables, since odex doesn't need any relocations that cause dirty pages.)

    The "ProcessStateJankPerceptible" and "ProcessStateJankImperceptible" are the process coming in and out of the foreground. When it goes out of the foreground, the GC switches to a compacting mode that takes more time to run but saves more RAM. When it switches back to the foreground, it switches to the faster GC you have been looking at. The GC pauses here won't cause any jank, because these switches are never done when the app is on screen.
  • tuxRoller - Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - link

    KSM mostly kicks in on virt loads, but the ksmd overhead is so small that including it on memory starved, multiprocess devices isn't a bad idea.
    BTW, I believe that android use the dalvik cache partition to avoid unnecessary re-jitting, but the space is limited, and therefore dynamic, so apps can be vacated.

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