Java Virtual Machines operate on Java bytecode, which is normally (but not necessarily) generated from Java source code; a JVM can also be used to implement programming languages other than Java. For example, Ada source code can be compiled to Java bytecode, which may then be executed by a JVM. JVMs can also be released by other companies besides Sun (the developer of Java) — JVMs using the "Java" trademark may be developed by other companies as long as they adhere to the JVM specification published by Sun (and related contractual obligations).
The JVM is a crucial component of the Java Platform. Because JVMs are available for many hardware and software platforms, Java can be both middleware and a platform in its own right — hence the expression "write once, run anywhere." The use of the same bytecode for all platforms allows Java to be described as "compile once, run anywhere", as opposed to "write once, compile anywhere", which describes cross-platform compiled languages. The JVM also enables such unique features as Automated Exception Handling which provides 'root-cause' debugging information for every software error (exception) independent of the source code.
The JVM is distributed along with a set of standard class libraries which implement the Java API (Application Programming Interface). The virtual machine and API have to be consistent with each other and are therefore bundled together as the Java Runtime Environment.
Programs intended to run on a JVM must be compiled into a standardized portable binary format, which typically comes in the form of .class files. A program may consist of many classes in different files. For easier distribution of large programs, multiple class files may be packaged together in a .jar file (short for Java archive).
The JVM runtime executes .class or .jar files, emulating the JVM instruction set by interpreting it, or using a just-in-time compiler (JIT) such as Sun's HotSpot. JIT compiling, not interpreting, is used in most JVMs today to achieve greater speed. Ahead-of-time compilers that enable the developer to precompile class files into native code for a particular platform also exist.
Like most virtual machines, the Java Virtual Machine has a stack-based architecture.
The JVM, which is the instance of the JRE (Java Runtime Environment), comes into action when a Java program is executed. When execution is complete, this instance is garbage-collected. JIT is the part of the JVM that is used to speed up the execution time. JIT compiles parts of the byte code that have similar functionality at the same time, and hence reduces the amount of time needed for compilation.
Although the JVM was primarily aimed at running compiled Java programs, other languages can now run on top of it, such as:
The JVM has currently no built-in support for Dynamically typed languages: the existing JVM instruction set is statically typed. The JVM has a limited support for dynamically modifying existing classes and methods. It currently only works in a debugging environment.
Built-in support for dynamic languages is currently planned for Java 7.
A basic philosophy of Java is that it is inherently "safe" from the standpoint that no user program can "crash" the host machine or otherwise interfere inappropriately with other operations on the host machine, and that it is possible to protect certain functions and data structures belonging to "trusted" code from access or corruption by "untrusted" code executing within the same JVM. Furthermore, common programmer errors that often lead to data corruption or unpredictable behavior such as accessing off the end of an array or using an uninitialized pointer are not allowed to occur. Several features of Java combine to provide this safety, including the class model, the garbage-collected heap, and the verifier.
The JVM verifies all bytecode before it is executed. This verification consists primarily of three types of checks:
The first two of these checks take place primarily during the "verification" step which occurs when a class is loaded and made eligible for use. The third is primarily performed dynamically, when data items or methods of a class are first accessed by another class.
The verifier permits only some bytecode sequences in valid programs, e.g. a jump (branch) instruction can only target an instruction within the same function or method. Because of this, the fact that JVM is a stack architecture does not imply a speed penalty for emulation on register-based architectures when using a JIT compiler. In the face of the code-verified JVM architecture, it makes no difference to a JIT compiler whether it gets named imaginary registers or imaginary stack positions that need to be allocated to the target architecture's registers. In fact, code verification makes the JVM different from a classic stack architecture whose efficient emulation with a JIT compiler is more complicated and typically carried out by a slower interpreter.
Code verification also ensures that arbitrary bit patterns cannot get used as an address. Memory protection is achieved without the need for a Memory management unit (MMU). Thus, JVM is an efficient way of getting memory protection on simple architectures that lack an MMU. This is analogous to managed code in Microsoft's .NET Common Language Runtime, and conceptually similar to capability architectures such as the Plessey 250, and IBM System/38.
The JVM has instructions for the following groups of tasks:
The aim is binary compatibility. Each particular host operating system needs its own implementation of the JVM and runtime. These JVMs interpret the byte code semantically the same way, but the actual implementation may be different. More complicated than just the emulation of bytecode is compatible and efficient implementation of the Java core API which has to be mapped to each host operating system.
A virtual machine architecture allows very fine-grained control over the actions that code within the machine is permitted to take. This is designed to allow safe execution of untrusted code from remote sources, a model used by Java applets. Applets run within a VM incorporated into a user's browser, executing code downloaded from a remote  server. The remote code runs in a restricted "sandbox", which is designed to protect the user from misbehaving or malicious code. Publishers can purchase a certificate with which to digitally sign applets as "safe", giving them permission to ask the user to break out of the sandbox and access the local file system and network...
From the point of view of a compiler, Java bytecode is just another processor with an instruction set for which code can be generated. The JVM was originally designed to execute programs written in the Java language. However, the JVM provides an execution environment in the form of a bytecode instruction set and a runtime system that is general enough that it can be used as the target for compilers of other languages.
Because of its close association with Java the JVM performs the runtime checks mandated by the Java specification. This can make it technically difficult to translate C code (which is much more lax with regard to runtime checking) to the JVM and expect it to run without issuing any warnings.
It can be easier to translate some language, such as C, to machine language first before converting to Java bytecode. This has been shown to be the case with NestedVM project and accompanying paper.
Starting with J2SE 5.0, changes to the JVM specification have been developed under the Java Community Process as JSR 924. As of 2006, changes to specification to support changes proposed to the class file format (JSR 202) are being done as a maintenance release of JSR 924. The specification for the JVM is published in book form, known as "blue book". The preface states:
Sun's JVM is called HotSpot. Clean-room Java implementations include Kaffe and IBM J9. Sun retains control over the Java trademark, which it uses to certify implementation suites as fully compatible with Sun's specification.