Introduction to Android NDK

Viacheslav Titov on
Android developer


To develop applications for Android OS, Google offers two development packages: SDK and NDK. There are many articles and books as well as good guidelines from Google about SDK. But even Google does not provide enough materials about NDK. Among all the existing books, I would like to single out only this one, “Cinar O. – Pro Android C++ with the NDK – 2012.”

This article is intended for those with a lack of (or some) background in Android NDK who would like to strengthen their knowledge. I will pay attention to JNI. It seems to me that I have to start just from this interface. Also, at the end, we will review a short example with two functions of file writing and reading.

What is Android NDK?

Android NDK (Native Development Kit) is a set of tools that allows you to implement a part of your application using such languages as С/С++.

When to use the NDK?

Google recommends using NDK only in rare cases. Usually, these cases are the following:

  • Necessity to increase performance (e.g. sorting of large data volumes);
  • Use of a third-party library. For example, many applications are written in the С/С++ languages and it is necessary to use the existing material. Examples of such libraries are Ffmpeg, OpenCV;
  • Programming on low level (for example, everything what goes beyond Dalvik).

What is JNI?

Java Native Interface is a standard mechanism for code execution under control of the Java Virtual Machine. The code is written in Assembler or С/С++ and assembled as dynamic libraries. It allows for the non-usage of the static binding. This provides an opportunity to call a С/С++ function from the program on Java and vice versa.

JNI Advantages

The main competitive advantage of JNI compared to its analogues (Netscape Java Runtime Interface or Microsoft’s Raw Native Interface and COM/Java Interface) is that it was initially developed for ensuring binary compatibility, for compatibility of applications written for JNI, for any Java virtual machines on the concrete platform (while speaking about JNI, I do not mean the Dalvik machine as JNI was written by Oracle for JVM which is suitable for all Java Virtual Machines). That is the reason the compiled code on С/С++ will be executed regardless of platform. Earlier versions did not allow for the implementation of binary compatibility.

Binary compatibility is a program compatibility type. It allows a program to work in different environments without changing its executable files.
Organization of JNI


Figure 1. – JNI – Interface pointer

The JNI table is organized like a table of virtual functions in С++. The VM can work with several such tables. For example, one will be for debugging, the other for usage. The JNI interface pointer is only valid in the current thread. This means that the pointer cannot move from one thread into another. However, native methods can be called from different threads.


jdouble Java_pkg_Cls_f__ILjava_lang_String_2 (JNIEnv *env, jobject obj, jint i, jstring s)
     const char *str = (*env)->GetStringUTFChars(env, s, 0); 
     (*env)->ReleaseStringUTFChars(env, s, str); 
     return 10;
  • *env – an interface pointer;
  • оbj – a reference to the object inside which the native method is declared;
  • i and s – passed arguments;

Primitive types are copied between the VM and native code and objects are passed by the reference. The VM should trace all references that are passed to native code. GC cannot free all references passed to native code. But at the same time native code should inform the VM that it does not need references for passed objects.

Local and Global References

JNI defines three reference types: local, global and weak global references. Local ones are valid until the method is finished. All Java objects returned by JNI functions are local references. A programmer should hope that the VM would clean all local references. Local references are available only in the thread where they were created. However, if it is necessary they can be freed at once using DeleteLocalRef the JNI method of the interface:

jclass clazz;
clazz = (*env)->FindClass(env, "java/lang/String");
(*env)->DeleteLocalRef(env, clazz);

Global references remain valid until they are explicitly freed. To create a global reference you have to call a NewGlobalRef method. If the global reference is unnecessary, then it can be deleted by the DeleteGlobalRef method:

jclass localClazz;
jclass globalClazz;
localClazz = (*env)->FindClass(env, "java/lang/String");
globalClazz = (*env)->NewGlobalRef(env, localClazz);
(*env)->DeleteLocalRef(env, localClazz);


JNI does not check for errors such as NullPointerException, IllegalArgumentException. Reasons:

  • decrease in performance;
  • in the most C libraries functions, it is very difficult to be protected from errors.

JNI allows for the usage of Java Exception. Most JNI functions return an error code but not Exception itself. Therefore, it is necessary to handle the code itself and throw Exception to Java. In JNI, the error code of the called functions should be checked and after that ExceptionOccurred() should be called to return an error object:

jthrowable ExceptionOccurred(JNIEnv *env);

For example, some JNI functions of access to arrays don’t return errors. But they can call the exception ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException or ArrayStoreException.

JNI Primitive Types

In JNI exists its own primitive and reference types of data.
Table 1. Primitive types.

Java Type Native Type Description
boolean jboolean unsigned 8 bits
byte jbyte signed 8 bits
char jchar unsigned 16 bits
short jshort signed 16 bits
int jint signed 32 bits
long jlong signed 64 bits
float jfloat 32 bits
double jdouble 64 bits
void void N/A

JNI Reference Types


Modified UTF-8

The JNI uses modified UTF-8 strings to represent different string types. Java uses UTF-16. UTF-8 is mainly used in C because it encodes u0000 as 0xc0, instead of the usual 0x00. Modified strings are encoded so that character sequences that contain only non-null ASCII characters can be represented using only one byte.

JNI Functions

The JNI interface includes not only its own dataset but also its own functions. It will take a lot of time to review the dataset and functions since there are plenty of them. You can find out more information from the official documentation.

Sample of using JNI functions

Below you will find a short example in order to make sure that you have correctly understood the material covered:

#include <jni.h>
JavaVM *jvm;
JNIEnv *env;
JavaVMInitArgs vm_args;
JavaVMOption* options = new JavaVMOption[1];
options[0].optionString = "-Djava.class.path=/usr/lib/java";
vm_args.version = JNI_VERSION_1_6;
vm_args.nOptions = 1;
vm_args.options = options;
vm_args.ignoreUnrecognized = false;
JNI_CreateJavaVM(&jvm, &env, &vm_args);
delete options;
jclass cls = env->FindClass("Main");
jmethodID mid = env->GetStaticMethodID(cls, "test", "(I)V");
env->CallStaticVoidMethod(cls, mid, 100);

Let’s analyze by string:

  • JavaVM – provides an interface for calling functions which allows for the creation and removal of JavaVM;
  • JNIEnv – ensures most of the JNI functions;
  • JavaVMInitArgs – arguments for JavaVM;
  • JavaVMOption – options for JavaVM;

The JNI_CreateJavaVM() method initializes JavaVM and returns a pointer to the JNI interface pointer.
JNI_DestroyJavaVM() method loads the created JavaVM.


The kernel manages all the threads running on Linux; still they can be attached to the JavaVM via functions AttachCurrentThread and AttachCurrentThreadAsDaemon. If the thread is not attached, it has no access to JNIEnv. Android doesn’t stop the threads created from JNI, even if the GC is running. The thread remains attached until it calls for the DetachCurrentThread method to detach itself from JavaVM.

First Steps

The structure of your project should look as is shown in Figure 3:


Figure. 3 – Project Structure

As Figure 3 shows, all the native code is stored to a jni folder. After a project build, the Libs folder should be separated into four subfolders. It means, one separate native library for each processor architecture. The quantity of libraries depends on the quantity of architectures selected.

To create a native project, create a mere Android project and follow the steps:

  1. Create a jni folder –  project sources root folder with native code sources;
  2. Create an to build a project;
  3. Create an to store compilation details. It is not required but is recommended as it allows for flexible compilation setting;
  4. Create an ndk-build file that will launch the compilation process (also not required).

As it was mentioned before, is a makefile for native project compilation. is used to group your code into modules. Under modules I mean statistic libraries, copied into the libs folder of your project, shared libraries and standalone executable.

Example of minimal configuration:

LOCAL_PATH :=$(call my-dir)
LOCAL_MODULE    := NDKBegining
LOCAL_SRC_FILES := ndkBegining.c

Let’s take a detailed look at:

  • LOCAL_PATH := $(call my-dir) – function call my-dir is used to return the path of the folder the file is called in;
  • include $(CLEAR_VARS) – cleans all the variables except LOCAL_PATH. It’s necessary to take into account as all the files are compiled in a single GNU Make context where all the variables are global;
  • LOCAL_MODULE – The name of the output module. In the above-mentioned example, the output module name is set as NDKBegining, but after the build, libNDKBeginin libraries are created in the libs folder. Android adds a lib prefix to the name, but in java code you should indicate the library name without a prefix (that is, the name should be the same as in makefiles);
  • LOCAL_SRC_FILES – listing source files to be built;
  • include $(BUILD_SHARED_LIBRARY) points type of the output module.

One may set custom variables in; however they must stick to the following syntax: LOCAL_, PRIVATE_, NDK_, APP_, my-dir. Google recommends naming custom examples as MY_. For example:

MY_SOURCE := NDKBegining.c

To call a variable $(MY_SOURCE)
Variable can also be concatenated, for example:


This makefile defines several variables that make compilation more flexible:

  • APP_OPTIM – optional variable which is set either to release or debug. This variable is used for optimization when building an application’s modules. You may manage release as debug; however debug gives more information for settings;
  • APP_BUILD_SCRI defines an alternate path to;
  • APP_ABI – is probably one of the most essential variables. It specifies target processor architecture to compile the modules. By default, APP_ABI is set to ‘armeabi’, which corresponds to ARMv5TE architecture. For example, to support ARMv7, armeabi-v7a should be used; for IA-32– x86, for MIPS – mips, whereas for multiple architectures support, you should set APP_ABI := armeabi armeabi-v7a x86 mips. With NDK revision 7 and higher, you can simply set APP_ABI := all  rather than enumerating all the architectures.
  • APP_PLATFORM – names a target platform;
  • APP_STL Android provides a very minimal libstdc++ runtime library so a developer is limited in using C++ functionality. However, APP_STL variable enables support for the extended functionality;
  • NDK_TOOLCHAIN_VERSION – enables the selection of a GCC compiler version (which, by default, is set to 4.6)


ndk-build is a wrapper around GNU Make.

After the 4th revision, flags were implemented for ndk-build:

  • clean – cleans all the generated binary files;
  • NDK_DEBUG=1 – generates a debuggable code;
  • NDK_LOG=1 – displays log messages (is used for debugging);
  • NDK_HOST_32BIT=1 – Android supports 64-bit utilities version (for example, NDK_PATHtoolchainsmipsel-linux-android-4.8prebuiltwindows-x86_64, etc. );
  • NDK_APPLICATION_MK=<file> – indicates path to

In NDK revision 5, the NDK_DEBUG flag was introduced. When it is set to “1” the debug version will be built. If the flag is not set, the ndk-build by default will verify whether the attribute android:debuggable=”true” is set in AndroidManifest.xml. If you are using NDK above revision 8, Google does not recommend using attribute android:debuggable in AndroidManifest.xml. (As you are using “ant debug” or building the debug version by the means of and ADT plug-in, the NDK_DEBUG=1 flag will be added automatically).
By default, support of a 64-bit utilities version is set; however, you can force the use of a 32-bit toolchain by using NDK_HOST_32BIT=1. Still, Google recommends using 64-bit utilities to improve performance of the large programs.

How to build a project?

It used to be a painful process. You would install CDT plug-in and download cygwin or mingw compiler; download Android NDK; configure all this stuff in Eclipse settings; and finally, it won’t work. The first time I started working with Android NDK, it took me three days to configure all these things. The problem was in Cygwin: the permission 777 should have been set to the project folder.

Now it’s much easier. Just follow this link and download the ADT Bundle, which provides everything you need to start compiling.

Invoke the native methods from Java code

To call native code from Java, first of all you need to define native methods in Java class. For example:

native String nativeGetStringFromFile(String path) throws IOException;
native void nativeWriteByteArrayToFile(String path, byte[] b) throws IOException;

You should put the reserved word “native” before the method. In such a way, the compiler knows that this is an entry point in the JNI. These methods should be implemented in C/C++ files. Google also recommends starting naming methods with nativeX, where X stands for the method’s actual name.  Still, before implementing these methods manually you should generate a header file. You can perform this action either manually or using a JDK javah utility. Let’s take it a step further and not run it from the console, but rather by the standard Eclipse means.

  1. Go to Eclipse and select Run-External Tools-External Tools Configuration;
  2. Create new configuration;
    Indicate the path to javah.exe from jdk in Location field (for example, C:Program Files (x86)Javajdk1.6.0_35binjavah.exe);
  3. Indicate the path to the directory bin/classes (for example, «${workspace_loc:/NDKBegin/bin/classes}») in the working directory;
  4. Arguments should be populated with the following argument: “-jni ${java_type_name}” (with no inverted commas).

Now we can run it. Your header files will be stored in the bin/classes directory.

As a next step, copy these files into the jni directory of the native project. Next, open the project’s context menu and select Android Tools – Add Native Library. This allows us to use jni.h functions. Later on you can create a cpp file (sometimes Eclipse creates it by default) and write methods bodies that have been defined in the header file.

You won’t find here a sample of code, as I haven’t inserted it on purpose, for the sake of the article’s length and readability.  Visit my Github repository if you need an example.