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Hi, I'm Kiran Rao.

Android Developer. Tech enthusiast. Serial dabbler.

Extensibility and Immutability in Java

Objective:

To devise a way to make thread-safe, a Java class designed to be extensible.

Introduction:

Effective Java, Second Edition: Item 15 says "Minimize Mutability". One should always try to make a class immutable. This has several advantages that I will not go over here (Since Effective Java explains it all). I will however point out one of those advantages since it is central to this discussion:

Making a class immutable is the easiest way to ensure that the class is thread-safe.

There is however a problem: to make a class truly immutable, you must prevent it from being sub-classed. Either the class must be declared final, or it should have a private constructor and provide static factory methods instead of constructors. The reasons for this are outlined in Effective Java. The basic premise is that a sub-class can violate the immutability guarantees.

This must-not-be-subclassed restriction may be fine if you are applying immutability to some value object like User, Point, Account etc. However, the same requirement turns out to be overly restrictive if you are applying the concept to logic classes. This is because logic classes are often meant to be customized by extension.

A strongly-immutable logic class:

As an example of a logic class, consider the following ReportGenerator:

public final class ReportGenerator{
private final DatabaseLayer mDatabaseLayer;
private final PresentationLayer mPresentationLayer;

public ReportGenerator(DatabaseLayer db, PresentationLayer pres){
this.mDatabaseLayer = db;
this.mPresentationLayer = pres;
}

public void generateMonthlyReport(User user){
Report report = mDatabaseLayer.getReport(user);
mPresentationLayer.present(report);
}
}

The other classes have been ommitted for brevity. Assume that DatabaseLayer and PresentationLayer classes are themselves immutable. This makes ReportGenerator strongly immutable and hence, thread-safe.

Now, suppose in the next phase of the project, you need to add a way to generate a historical report. The easiest way that comes to mind is to inherit from ReportGenerator. Unfortunately, we cannot do this since in order to make ReportGenerator immutable, we have declared it final. One possible approach to solving this issue is making ReportGenerator weakly immutable. This is discussed in the next section.

A weakly-immutable logic class:

One can relax the restriction that an immutable class must not be extensible, while still maintaining the guarantees, provided the sub-class adheres to the established contract. This is done by removing the final modifier from the class declaration, and making all fields protected final, or keep them private final and provide getters which we then use in the sub-classes. Both these approaches are shown in the code below.

public class ReportGenerator{
protected final DatabaseLayer mDatabaseLayer; //protected field approach
private final PresentationLayer mPresentationLayer; //private field with accessor approach

public ReportGenerator(DatabaseLayer db, PresentationLayer pres){
this.mDatabaseLayer = db;
this.mPresentationLayer = pres;
}

public PresentationLayer getPresentationLayer(){
return this.mPresentationLayer;
}

public void generateMonthlyReport(User user){
Report report = mDatabaseLayer.getReport(user);
mPresentationLayer.present(report);
}
}

We can now sub-class this as follows:

public class HistoricalReportGenerator extends ReportGenerator{

public HistoricalReportGenerator(DatabaseLayer db, PresentationLayer pres){
super(db, pres);
}

public void generateHistoricalReport(User user, Duration duration){
Report historicalReport = mDatabaseLayer.getReport(user, duration);
getPresentationLayer().present(historicalReport);
}
}

We could also have added more protected final fields to the sub-class if needed.

What we now have is a weakly immutable class. This class is immutable as long as sub-classes adhere to the contract. It is a good idea to establish in the class javadoc, the expectation that sub-classes MUST preserve the same weak immutability restrictions that this class adheres to. If a sub-class willfully violates the contract, then the logic class cannot be depended upon to work correctly.

Here's an example to how to establish this contract:

/**
* The logic class that generates the report.
* ... ...
* <br/><br/>
* This class is <em>weakly immutable</em>. It has been kept open for
* extensibility. Sub-classes <strong>MUST</strong> preserve the immutability
* guarantees of this class. In particular, they must have only immutable
* fields; and must not override any of the methods defined in this class to
* return a mutable reference.
*
*/

public class ReportGenerator{
//Class body omitted.
}

Since immutability is enforced by documentation rather than by the compiler, this is an acceptable compromise. It allows us to easily create thread-safe classes that are also extensible. This makes writing API's and frameworks that much easier.

Thread-safety is more than Immutability:

Of course, making a class immutable is not the only way to make a class thread-safe. A mutable class can be written such that it is thread-safe too. It is often desirable for an object to change its state during the execution of a program. How that is done is beyond the scope of this article. I suggest looking at Java Concurrency In Practice for details on this topic.

Extending the logic class by Composition:

There exists an alternative way to extend the functionality of ReportGenerator that does not involve inheriting from it: "Favor Composition over Inheritance" (Effective Java, Second Edition, Item 16). For completeness, I present the code for this approach here. Do note that this example uses the strongly immutable form of ReportGenerator.

public final class ReportGenerator{
private final DatabaseLayer mDatabaseLayer;
private final PresentationLayer mPresentationLayer;

public ReportGenerator(DatabaseLayer db, PresentationLayer pres){
this.mDatabaseLayer = db;
this.mPresentationLayer = pres;
}

public PresentationLayer getPresentationLayer(){
return this.mPresentationLayer;
}

public DatabaseLayer getDatabaseLayer(){
return this.mDatabaseLayer;
}

public void generateMonthlyReport(User user){
Report report = mDatabaseLayer.getReport(user);
mPresentationLayer.present(report);
}
}

public final class HistoricalReportGenerator{
private final ReportGenerator mReportGenerator;

public HistoricalReportGenerator(ReportGenerator reportgen){
this.mReportGenerator = reportgen;
}

public ReportGenerator getReportGenerator(){
return this.mReportGenerator;
}

public void generateHistoricalReport(User user, Duration duration){
Report historicalReport = mReportGenerator.getDatabaseLayer().getReport(user, duration);
mReportGenerator.getPresentationLayer().present(report);
}
}

This approach works fine when the class hierarchy is only a couple of levels deep. If it gets deeper than that, then getting a handle to the members of the base class becomes unwieldy. For example, suppose we have the following:

public class AnnualReportGenerator extends HistoricalReportGenerator
public class LeapYearReportGenerator extends AnnualReportGenerator

Now imagine a method in LeapYearReportGenerator needs access to the DatabaseLayer object. The code for this would look lik:

mAnnualReportGenerator().getHistoricalReportGenerator().getReportGenerator().getDatabaseLayer();

This is clearly something you want to avoid. With the composition approach, you also lose the runtime polymorphism advantage.

Conclusion

To summarize what this article discussed:

  • The easiest way to make a class thread-safe is to make it immutable.
  • Strong immutability closes the door on extensibility.
  • It is often convenient to make a class weakly immutable. This allows it to be sub-classed.
  • If you make an immutable class extensible, clearly establish in the javadoc, the contract that sub-classes must preserve the immutability guarantees.

Other than these observations, we also saw that:

  • Immutability is not the only way to achieve thread-safety, and in fact immutability is not always desirable.
  • Instead of inheriting from a weakly immutable class, one can also extend the functionality by composing a class with a strongly immutable object as its member. This has its own pros and cons - and both approaches must be evaluated before deciding on one.
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