How to create jars that run like any other executable binary (./app.jar)

How to create jars that run like any other executable binary (./app.jar)


5 min read

Fat jars are a good way to package java applications, whether they are command-line programs or GUIs. However, a jar differs from other executables: instead of the regular ./app.jar, it must be invoked using java -jar app.jar. This is ok, but not ideal.

It is not a given though: Spring Boot is able to generate executable jars, that is jars that can be executed using the direct syntax ./app.jar like any other executable binary. How do they pull this off? And, more importantly, how can we apply the same logic to any jar? Let's find out!

Why not a native executable ๐Ÿ˜ ?

An even better way is to create a real native executable using GraalVM, which directly embeds a tiny Virtual Machine, so it can run even on machines that do not have a JRE installed. However, this process is tedious and has limitations... It won't work for any codebase! If you assume all your users will have a JRE, this solution is way easier.

The magic behind executable jars

The actual magic involved is pretty straightforward and based on a little-known fact about the Zip format. From the .ZIP format wiki page:

The .ZIP file format allows for a comment containing up to 65,535 (216โˆ’1) bytes of data to occur at the end of the file after the central directory [...]

This allows arbitrary data to occur in the file both before and after the ZIP archive data, and for the archive to still be read by a ZIP application. A side-effect of this is that it is possible to author a file that is both a working ZIP archive and another format, provided that the other format tolerates arbitrary data at its end, beginning, or middle.

Since JAR is a variant of ZIP, it works for them as well. It means it is possible to append a bash script, acting like a launcher, at the beginning of a jar file without corrupting it.

This is exactly what Spring Boot does. Take any executable Spring Boot jar (for example bbdata-api-*.jar), and run head on it. You should see:

head -n 10 /tmp/bbdata-api-2.0.0-alpha.jar
#    .   ____          _            __ _ _
#   /\\ / ___'_ __ _ _(_)_ __  __ _ \ \ \ \
#  ( ( )\___ | '_ | '_| | '_ \/ _` | \ \ \ \
#   \\/  ___)| |_)| | | | | || (_| |  ) ) ) )
#    '  |____| .__|_| |_|_| |_\__, | / / / /
#   =========|_|==============|___/=/_/_/_/
#   :: Spring Boot Startup Script ::

Turning a jar into an executable (with one bash command !)

With this trick in mind, turning any jar into an executable jar is as easy as running those two commands (see this gist for a variant):

# Append a basic launcher script to the jar
cat \
  <(echo '#!/bin/sh')\
  <(echo 'exec java -jar $0 "$@"')\
  <(echo 'exit 0')\
  original.jar > executable.jar

# Make the new jar executable
chmod +x executable.jar

And it works on all unix-like systems including Linux, MacOS, Cygwin, and Windows Linux subsystem!

Making executable jars using Gradle

Now that the process is understood, writing a Gradle Task for it is easy.

Custom Gradle Task

First, we need to define a new custom task in build.gradle.kts:

abstract class ExecutableJarTask: DefaultTask() {
    // This custom task will prepend the content of a
    // bash launch script at the beginning of a jar,
    // and make it executable (chmod +x)

    var originalJars: ConfigurableFileTree = 
      project.fileTree("${project.buildDir}/libs") { include("*.jar") }

    var outputDir: File = project.buildDir.resolve("bin") // where to write the modified jar(s)

    var launchScript: File = project.rootDir.resolve("") // script to prepend

    fun createExecutableJars() {
        originalJars.forEach { jar ->
            outputDir.resolve( {
                outputStream().use { out ->
                println("created executable: $path")

This task extends Gradle's DefaultTask (Kotlin DSL), and takes three arguments:

  1. the list of "normal" jars that need to be made executable (build/libs/*.jar by default),

  2. the directory where to output the transformed jars (bin by default),

  3. the bash launch script to prepend, which needs to exist! (<project_root>/ by default).

Then, the job is straightforward: for each jar found in inputJars, execute the equivalent of the cat and chmod commands outlined earlier, but in Kotlin.

Note that the jars will keep the same name, so ensure the outputDirectory doesn't match the input directory (or the jar will be corrupted). If you don't like this, adapt the script accordingly.

Invoking the custom task

We now need to register this new task, so it can be invoked from the command line. We also want it to run after the task of creating the jars. If you use the built-in jar task for the latter, this will do:

tasks.register<ExecutableJarTask>("exec-jar") {
    dependsOn("jar") // "jar" task should have run prior to it 

With this, you can now use: bash ./gradlew exec-jar

If you want to customize the task, for example, change the path to the launch script:

tasks.register<ExecutableJarTask>("exec-jar") {
    // customise directly here
    launchScript = project.rootDir.resolve("bin/")


An example launch script

Based on Spring Boot's script, I personally use the following launch script, which should run fine on all supported platforms:

[[ -n "$DEBUG" ]] && set -x

# Find Java (cf: spring-boot launcher)
if [[ -n "$JAVA_HOME" ]] && [[ -x "$JAVA_HOME/bin/java" ]]; then
elif type -p java > /dev/null 2>&1; then
    javaexe=$(type -p java)
elif [[ -x "/usr/bin/java" ]];  then
    echo "Unable to find Java"
    exit 1

# run jar
exec $javaexe -jar $0 "$@"
exit 0

Note the exit 0 at the end: this is very important if your jar has a finite runtime (vs a Spring Boot server application). Indeed, without it, your jar will run and exit, then bash will try to execute whatever is found after the exec line (that is, the zipped content of the jar) and will exit with an error.

Written with โ™ก by derlin