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046"The Compiler Team Is Writing Useless Code Again ..."

Author: Dr. Heinz M. KabutzDate: 2002-05-05Java Version: 1.3Category: Software Engineering

Abstract: We found a gem in Java 1.3, where a simple typo resulted in a strange static initializer method.


Welcome to the 46th edition of The Java(tm) Specialists' Newsletter, read in 82 countries, with newest additions of Guatemala and Bharain. After spending two months in Germany consulting on a project to get a 3-tier architectured program running faster (a lot faster), I am safely back in my own home in Somerset West, South Africa. Amazingly, I'm actually sticking to the speed limit, possibly because my Alfa makes as much noise at 100km/h as my uncle's Audi A6 made at 180km/h. Please visit our new self-study course catalog to see how you can upskill your Java knowledge.

"The Compiler Team Is Writing Useless Code Again ..."

During the two months in Germany, I learned a lot of new tricks for solving performance related problems, and they will be making great newsletter topics over the next few weeks, so stay tuned. This newsletter is actually about how much confidence Sun's JDK developers have in the work of their compiler developers' abilities.

Cloning vs. Serialization

One of the performance improvements that we did was write a cache for our business objects sitting in the middleware. It was meant to be a read-only cache, so we actually wanted to copy the business objects when we put them into the cache.

Since we wanted our framework to be easy for application developers to use, our first attempt was to avoid using the clone() method [clone does a shallow copy, and writing a correct deep clone() method is quite challenging]. Instead, we simply serialized the objects into the cache, and then deserialized them again on access. Our gut feeling was that this was a bad idea due to the performance problems with serialization, and after some tests we found out that cloning was about ten times faster then copying via the serialization mechanism.

A Venture into Unread(able) Code

I was curious whether the serialization mechanism employed some clever tricks that I didn't know about, so I started digging a bit. I wonder how many have read the serialization code, specifically If you have, how far did you read? Right until the end?

Right at the bottom of the class in the JDK 1.3.1 is the following code (this gem was removed in JDK 1.4):

  private static final Class[] NULL_ARGS = {};

  //WORKAROUND compiler bug with following code.
  //static final Class[] OIS_ARGS = {ObjectInpuStream.class};
  //static final Class[] OOS_ARGS = {ObjectOutpuStream.class};
  private static Class[] OIS_ARGS = null;
  private static Class[] OOS_ARGS = null;
  private static void initStaticMethodArgs() {
      OOS_ARGS = new Class[1];
      OOS_ARGS[0] = ObjectOutputStream.class;
      OIS_ARGS = new Class[1];
      OIS_ARGS[0] = ObjectInputStream.class;

Higher up in the class we see where OIS_ARGS is used:

      /* Cache lookup of writeObject and readObject for
       * Serializable classes. (Do not lookup for
       * Externalizable)
      if (serializable && !forProxyClass) {
          /* Work around compiler bug.  See declaration for
           * more detail.
          if (OOS_ARGS == null || OIS_ARGS == null) {

          writeObjectMethod =
              getDeclaredMethod("writeObject", OOS_ARGS,
                      Modifier.PRIVATE, Modifier.STATIC);
          if (writeObjectMethod != null) {
              hasWriteObjectMethod = true;
          readObjectMethod =
              getDeclaredMethod("readObject", OIS_ARGS,
                      Modifier.PRIVATE, Modifier.STATIC);

What a strange piece of code? Why did the programmer write it like that? The reason for caching OIS_ARGS is obvious. It seems wasteful to construct a new class array each time you want to find the methods writeObject and readObject.

But what's this story about a compiler bug?

We All Make Mistakes

Let's look more carefully at the declaration:

  //WORKAROUND compiler bug with following code.
  //static final Class[] OIS_ARGS = {ObjectInpuStream.class};
  //static final Class[] OOS_ARGS = {ObjectOutpuStream.class};

I can picture the poor programmer tasked with producing the serialization mechanism in record time, typing ObjectInpuStream.class instead of ObjectInputStream.class then trying to compile his code, resulting in a message such as:

symbol  : class ObjectInpuStream
location: class ObjectStreamClass
static final Class[] OIS_ARGS = {ObjectInpuStream.class};

My first reaction would've been: "Oh no, those silly compiler guys cannot handle a circular dependency of classes within one package." I would then have had a coffee to destress and would've told all my colleagues that the compiler team were a bunch of boneheads who should've listened more carefully in their Compilers 101 class at university. I would also have realised that it was futile to try and convince "them" that they had made a mistake.

That was probably also the initial reaction of the Sun coder.

My second reaction would've been to initialize the static data members "lazily", that is, to write an init() method that is called at the first use. With that, I would've lost the "final" modifier on the data members.

That seemed to also have been the second reaction of the Sun coder.

My final reaction would've been to liberally sprinkle comments in my code to tell future readers that the compiler programmers are uncooperative boneheads who should rather be manually testing GUIs than writing compilers for a complicated language such as Java.

For some reason, I think that was also how our coder reacted.

I do not know how long it would have taken me to spot this simple spelling mistake. I know that if I counted all the hours that such small mistakes wasted, it would amount to quite a long time.

Lessons Learnt

Four eyes are better than two: Peer programming would have found this problem much quicker, and the programmer would not have been as easily tempted to churn out such code.

We all make mistakes: It is possible to write correct code that is poorly designed and inefficient. When something is slow or does not work, could it possibly be my fault?

Sun's JDK developers don't trust the ability of their compiler team: Should we?

Until the next issue...




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