Java - How Classpath works in Java

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What is CLASSPATH in Java

Classpath in Java is path to directory or list of directory which is used by ClassLoaders to find and load class in Java program. Classpath can be specified using CLASSPATH environment variable which is case insensitive, -cp or -classpath command line option or Class-Path attribute in manifest.mf file inside JAR file in Java.

Don't confuse Classpath with PATH in Java, which is another environment variable used to find java binaries located in JDK installation directory, also known as JAVA_HOME. Main difference between PATH and CLASSPATH is that former is used to locate Java commands while later is used to locate Java class files.

Setting Java Classpath in Windows

In order to set Classpath for Java in Windows (any version either Windows XP,  Windows 2000 or Windows 7) ，you need to specify value of environment variable CLASSPATH, name of this variable is not case sensitive and it doesn’t matter if name of your environment variable is Classpath, CLASSPATH or classpath in Java.

1) open Environment variable window
2)  specify your environment variable CLASSPATH and put the value of your JAVA_HOME\lib and also include current directory by including (dot or period sign).
3)  Now to check the value of Java classpath in windows type "echo %CLASSPATH%" in your DOS command prompt and it will show you the value of directory which are included in CLASSPATH.

Setting Java Classpath in UNIX or Linux

To set Classpath for Java In Linux you can simply add "export CLASSPATH="your classpath" " to either your .bash_profile or .bashrc script which will run whenever you login into your Linux or Unix Machine.

Type "echo ${CLASSPATH}" to check value of Java CLASSPATH in Linux. Overriding Classpath in Java You can override classpath by providing option "-cp" or "-classpath" while running Java program. This is the best way to have different classpath for different Java application running on same Unix or Windows machine. standard way to define classpath for Java application is creating start-up script for Java program and set classpath there as shown below : CLASSPATH=/home/tester/classes java -cp$CLASSPATH Test

By default Java CLASSPATH points to current directory denoted by "." and it will look for any class only in current directory.

In case you have multiple directories defined in CLASSPATH variable, Java will look for a class starting from first directory and only look second directory in case it did not find the specified class in first directory.

I have used this feature of Java Classpath to test my patch releases. We used to have a folder called "patch" listed as first element in Java CLASSPATH and any point of time we want to put any debug statement or want to test any bug we just modify Java source file , compile it and generate class file and put that inside patch folder instead of creating JAR file and releasing whole new Java application. This is very handy if you are working in a large project where you don't have development environment setup in Windows and your project only runs on Unix server. This approach is much faster than remote debugging Java application in Eclipse

It's also worth noting that when you use the  java -jar command line option to run your Java program as an executable JAR, then the CLASSPATH environment variable will be ignored, and also the -cp and -classpath switches will be ignored. In this case you can set your Java classpath in the META-INF/MANIFEST.MF file by using the Class-Path attribute. In short, Class-path attribute in manifest file overrides classpath specified by -cp, -classpath or CLASSPATH environment variable.

Now a common question if I have my CLASSPATH variable pointing to current directory "." and I have class called "Test" inside package "testing" and with below directory structure C:\project\testing\Test.class in my computer.

What will happen if I run command "java Test" from directory "C:\project\testing\"? will it run?
No， it will not run it will give you :
Exception in thread "main" java.lang.NoClassDefFoundError: Test
Since name of the class is not Test, instead it’s testing.Test even though your classpath is set to current directory.

Now what will happen if I give command  java testing.Test from C:\project\testing\ it will again not run and give error?

Exception in thread "main" java.lang.NoClassDefFoundError: testing/Test

Why because now it looking for class called Test which is in package testing, starting from current directory "." but don't find it since there is no directory called "testing after this path "C:\project\testing\".

To run it successfully you need to go back to directory  C:\project and now run
C:\project>java testing.Test  and It will run successfully.
Because of Classpath issues I prefer to use Eclipse rather than running Java program from command prompt.

Errors related to Classpath in Java

If you are working in Java you must have faced some errors and exception related to classpath in java, two most common issues related to java classpath is ClassNotFoundException and NoClassDefFoundError.

Here is the reason of these Java classpath errors :

ClassNotFoundException is an Exception and will be thrown when Java program dynamically tries to load a Java class at Runtime and don’t find corresponding class file on classpath. Two keyword here “dynamically” and “runtime”. Classic example of these errors is whey you try to load JDBC driver by using Class.forname(“driver name”) and greeted with java.lang.ClassNotFoundException: com.mysql.jdbc.Driver. So this error essentially comes when Java try to load a class using forName() or by loadClass() method of ClassLoader. Key thing to note is that presence of that class on Java classpath is not checked on compile time. So even if those classes are not present on Java classpath your program will compile successfully and only fail when you try to run.

On the other hand NoClassDefFoundError is an Error and more critical than ClassNotFoundException. NoClassDefFoundError comes when a particular class was present in Java Classpath during compile time but not available during run-time. Classic example of this error is using log4j.jar for logging purpose and forgot to include log4j.jar on classpath in java during run-time. Keyword here is,  class was present at compile time but not available on run-time.  This is normally occurring due to any method invocation on a particular class which is part of library and not available on classpath in Java.

Summary of CLASSPATH in Java

1. Classpath in Java is an environment variable used by Java Virtual machine to locate or find  class files in Java during class loading.

2. You can override value of Classpath in Java defined by environment variable CLASSPATH by providing JVM command line option –cp or –classpath while running your application.

3. If two classes with same name exist in Java Classpath then the class which comes earlier in Classpath will be picked by Java Virtual Machine.

4. By default CLASSPATH in Java points to current directory denoted by "." and it will look for any class only in current directory.

5. When you use the -jar command line  option to run your program as an executable JAR, then the Java CLASSPATH environment variable will be ignored, and also the -cp and -classpath switches will be ignored and In this case you can set your java classpath in the META-INF/MANIFEST.MF file by using the Class-Path attribute.

6. In Unix of Linux Java Classpath contains names of directory with colon “:” separated , On Windows Java Classpath will be  semi colon “;” separated while if you defined java classpath in Manifest file those will be space separated.

7. You can check value of classpath in java inside your application by looking at following system property “java.class.path”  System.getProperty("java.class.path")

Class-Path attribute is used to contain classpath inside manifest file. Also make sure that your manifest file must end with a blank line (carriage return or new line) , here is an example of java classpath in manifest file.

Main-Class: com.classpathexample.Demo_Classpath
Class-Path: lib/tibco.jar lib/log4j.jar

8. It’s also important to note that path specified in manifest file is not absolute instead they are relative from application jar’s path. For example in above if your application jar file is in C:\test directory you must need a lib directory inside test and tibco.jar and log4j.jar inside that.

9. ClassNotFoundException is an Exception and will be thrown when Java program dynamically tries to load a particular Class at Runtime and don’t find that on Java classpath due to result of Class.forName() or loadClass() method invocation.

10. NoClassDefFoundError comes when a particular class was present in Java Classpath during compile time but not available during runtime on Classpath in Java.

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Java - How Classpath works in Java