Collections and Encapsulation in Java Never, ever return null when you're supposed to be returning a Collection.

A core tenet of object oriented programming is encapsulation: callers should not have access to the inner workings of a class. This is something that newer languages such as Kotlin, Swift, and Ceylon have solved well with first-class properties.

Java—having been around for quite awhile—does not have the concept of first-class properties. Instead, the JavaBeans spec was introduced as Java’s method of enforcing encapsulation. Writing JavaBeans means that you need to make your class’s fields private, exposing them only via getter and setter methods.

If you’re like me, you’ve often felt when writing JavaBeans that you were writing a bunch of theoretical boilerplate that rarely served any practical purpose. Most of my JavaBeans have consisted of private fields, and their corresponding getters and setters that do nothing more than, well, get and set those private fields. More than once I’ve been tempted to simply make the fields public and dispense with the getter/setter fanfare, at least until a stern warning from the IDE sent me back, tail between my legs, to the JavaBeans standard.

Recently, though, I’ve realized that encapsulation and the JavaBean/getter/setter pattern is quite useful in a common scenario: Collection-type fields. How so? Let’s fabricate a simple class:

public class MyClass {

    private List<String> myStrings;

}

We have a field—a List of Strings—called myStrings, which is encapsulated in MyClass. Now, we need to provide accessor methods:

public class MyClass {

    private List<String> myStrings;

    public void setMyStrings(List<String> s) {
        this.myStrings = s;
    }

    public List<String> getMyStrings() {
        return this.myStrings;
    }

}

Here we have a properly-encapsulated—if not verbose—class. So we’ve done good, right? Hold that thought.

Optional lessons

Consider the Optional class, introduced in Java 8. If you’ve done much work with Optionals, you’ve probably heard the mantra that you should never return null from a method that returns an Optional. Why? Consider the following contrived example:

public class Foo {

    private String bar;

    public Optional<String> getBar() {
        return (bar == null) ? null : Optional.of(bar);
    }

}

Now clients can use the method thusly:

foo.getBar().ifPresent(log::info);

and risk throwing a NullPointerException. Alternatively, they could perform a null check:

if (foo.getBar() != null) {
    foo.getBar().ifPresent(log::info);
}

Of course, doing that defeats the very purpose of Optionals. In fact, it so defeats the purpose of Optionals that it’s become standard practice that any API that returns Optional will never return a null value.

Back to Collections. Much like an Optional contains either none or one, a Collection contains either none or some. And much like Optionals, there should be no reason to return null Collections (except maybe in rare, specialized cases, of which I can’t currently think of any). Simply return an empty (zero-sized) Collection to indicate the lack of any elements.

Sock drawer
The drawer still exists even when all the socks are removed, right?

It’s for this reason that it’s becoming more common to ensure that methods that return Collection types (including arrays) never return null values, the same as methods that return Optional types. Perhaps you or your organization have already adopted this rule in writing new code. If not, you should. After all, would you (or your clients) rather do this?:

boolean isUnique = personDao.getPersonsByName(name).size() == 1;

Or have your code littered with the likes of this? :

List<Person> persons = personDao.getPersonsByName(name);
boolean isUnique = (persons == null) ? false :persons.size() == 1;

So how does this relate to encapsulation?

Keeping Control of our Collections

Back to our MyClass class. As it is, an instance of MyClass could easily return null from the getMyStrings() method; in fact, a fresh instance would do just that. So, to adhere to our new never-return-a-null-Collection guideline, we need to fix that:

public class MyClass {

    private List<String> myStrings = new ArrayList<>();

    public void setMyStrings(List<String> s) {
        this.myStrings = s;
    }

    public List<String> getMyStrings() {
        return this.myStrings;
    }

}

Problem solved? Not exactly. Any client could call aMyClass.setMyStrings(null), in which case we’re back to square one.

At this point, encapsulation sounds like a practical—rather than solely theoretical—concept. Let’s expand the setMyStrings() method:

public void setMyStrings(List<String> s) {
    if (s == null) {
        this.myStrings.clear();
    } else {
        this.myStrings = s;
    }
}

Now, even when null is passed to the setter, myStrings will retain a valid reference (in the example here, we take null to mean that the elements should be cleared out). And of course, calling aMyClass.getMyStrings() = null will have no effect on aMyClass’ underlying myStrings variable. So are we all done?

Er, well, sort of. We could stop here. But really, there’s more we should do.

Consider that we are replacing our private ArrayList with the List passed to us by the caller. This has two problems: first, we no longer know the exact List implementation used by myStrings. In theory, this shouldn’t be a problem, right? Well, consider this:

myClass.setMyStrings(Collections.unmodifiableList("Heh, gotcha!"));

So if we ever update MyClass such that it attempts to modify the contents of myStrings, bad things can start happening at runtime.

The second problem is that the caller retains a reference to our underlying List. So now, that caller can now directly manipulate our List.

What we should be doing is storing the elements passed to us in the ArrayList to which myStrings was initialized. While we’re at it, let’s really embrace encapsulation. We should be hiding the internals of our class from outside callers. The reality is that callers of our classes shouldn’t care whether there’s an underlying List, or Set, or array, or some runtime dynamic code-generation voodoo, that’s storing the Strings that we pass to it. All they should know is that Strings are being stored somehow. So let’s update the setMyStrings() method thusly:

public void setMyStrings(Collection<String> s) {
    this.myStrings.clear(); 
    if (s != null) { 
        this.myStrings.addAll(s); 
    } 
}

This has the effect of ensuring that myStrings ends up with the same elements contained within the input parameter (or is empty if null is passed), while ensuring that the caller doesn’t have a reference to myStrings.

Now that myStrings‘ reference can’t be changed, let’s just make it a constant:

public class MyClass {
    private final List<String> myStrings = new ArrayList<>();
    ...
}

While we’re at it, we shouldn’t be returning our underlying List via our getter. That too would leave the caller with a direct reference to myStrings. To remedy this, recall the “defensive copy” mantra that Effective Java beat into our heads (or, at least, should have):

public List<String> getMyStrings() {
    // depending on what, exactly, we want to return
    return new ArrayList<>(this.myStrings);  
}

At this point, we have a well-encapsulated class that eliminates the need for null-checking whenever its getter is called. We have, however, taken some control away from our clients. Since they no longer have direct access to our underlying List, they can no longer, say, add or remove individual Strings. 

No problem. If we can simply add methods like

public void addString(String s) {
    this.myStrings.add(s);
}

and

public void removeString(String s) { 
    this.myStrings.remove(s); 
}

Might our callers need to add multiple Strings at once to a MyClass instance? That’s fine as well:

public void addStrings(Collection<String> c) {
    if (c != null) {
        this.myStrings.addAll(c);
    }
}

And so on…

public void clearStrings() {
    this.myStrings.clear();
}

public void replaceStrings(Collection<String> c) {
    clearStrings();
    addStrings(c); 
}

Collecting our thoughts

Here, then is what our class might ultimately look like:

public class MyClass {

    private final List<String> myStrings = new ArrayList<>();

    public void setMyStrings(Collection<String> s) {
        this.myStrings.clear(); 
        if (s != null) { 
            this.myStrings.addAll(s); 
        } 
    }

    public List<String> getMyStrings() {
        return new ArrayList<>(this.myStrings);
    }

    public void addString(String s) { 
        this.myStrings.add(s); 
    }

    public void removeString(String s) { 
        this.myStrings.remove(s); 
    }

    // And maybe a few more helpful methods...

}

With this, we’ve achieved a class that:

  • is still basically a POJO that conforms to the JavaBean spec
  • fully encapsulates its private member(s)

and most importantly ensures that its method that returns a Collection always does just that–returns a Collection–and never returns null.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *