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.

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  • Gigaplex - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    "With the latest I/O conference, Google has finally publicly made public"

    Public, you say?

    "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."

    Windows has a fair amount of .NET.
  • jeffkibuule - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    I was about to make that comment but learned that at least for Windows Phone 8, it's not true. It uses a cloud compiler: http://www.reddit.com/r/programming/comments/1njas...
  • Gigaplex - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    I wasn't aware of that, thanks for the link. Windows Phone 8 isn't strictly the only Windows mobile platform though.
  • tipoo - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    What I don't get is why people say the Windows Phone stores cloud back compiles to native every time someone downloads an app. Can't they just keep the native code for each device, and compile it to the full amount of optimization just once? Yes they have more devices than Apple, but they also tightly control which SoCs WP uses.
  • skiboysteve - Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - link

    Yeah C# is very similar to Java in this regard. It even has a large object heap just like ART does.

    However, as pointed out in other places... Its not JITted on the device. Its done in the cloud.
  • Flunk - Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - link

    .NET on Windows (desktop_ has supported AOT compilation since at least version 2.0, possibly before (I don't recall). It also caches the JIT images so It's not 100% comparable to the way Dalvik works. Heck, even the user can generate native images for .NET programs by running the ngen.exe tool on .NET code.

    Most commercial .NET programs either use AOT compilation or compile the entire program on first run.
  • usama_ah - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    The first time I booted the Nexus 7 2013 on the L preview I actually killed the boot process. It was taking so long, it had to be frozen. I must've screwed up the flashing, I thought. So I flashed again, and this time was more patient. The initial boot took quite a while, but turns out it was probably related to these underlying changes in Android.

    The Nexus 7 2013 never felt slow, but I didn't know it could run this fast. The browser scrolls to an almost iOS like smoothness. I say almost because there are (very) rare hiccups in the FPS but I actually believe those maybe 2/2 to the "preview" nature of this OS.

    I am very happy and excited for where Android will go in the next year. I think Android can finally bring it to iOS and Windows Phone when it comes to interface/GUI smoothness.
  • jeffkibuule - Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - link

    I had no doubt Google would eventually get there in stock Android, only question is whether OEMs will muck it all up during their "optimization" process before they ship out their phones.
  • darwinosx - Thursday, July 3, 2014 - link

    Google isn't there. Not true 64 bit and using any JIT still doesn't best compiled code which has also gotten a lot more efficient.
  • Alexey291 - Sunday, July 6, 2014 - link

    erm you actually don't know what you're talking about do you :)

    Dalvik is JIT. Dalvik is the OLD runtime.
    ART is AOT. ART is the NEW runtime. That's precisely the precompiled code you were talking about.

    And the 64bit is about as "true" as the said 64bit in ios.


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