Java programming dynamics, Part 2: Introducing reflection
Use run-time class information to limber up your programming
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03 Jun 2003
In "Java programming dynamics, Part 1," I gave you an introduction to Java programming classes and class loading. That article described some of the extensive information present in the Java binary class format. This month I cover the basics of using the Java Reflection API to access and use some of that same information at run time. To help keep things interesting even for developers who already know the basics of reflection, I'm including a look at how reflection performance compares with direct access.
Using reflection is different from normal Java programming in that it works with metadata -- data that describes other data. The particular type of metadata accessed by Java language reflection is the description of classes and objects within the JVM. Reflection gives you run-time access to a variety of class information. It even lets you read and write fields and call methods of a class selected at run time.
Reflection is a powerful tool. It lets you build flexible code that can be assembled at run time without requiring source code links between components. But some aspects of reflection can be problematic. In this article, I'll go into the reasons why you might not want to use reflection in your programs, as well as the reasons why you would. After you know the trade-offs, you can decide for yourself when the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
The starting point for using reflection is always a
java.lang.Class instance. If you want to work with a predetermined class, the Java language provides an easy shortcut to get the
Class instance directly:
When you use this technique, all the work involved in loading the class takes place behind the scenes. If you need to read the class name at run time from some external source, however, this approach isn't going to work. Instead, you need to use a class loader to find the class information. Here's one way to do that:
If the class has already been loaded, you'll get back the existing
Class information. If the class hasn't been loaded yet, the class loader will load it now and return the newly constructed class instance.
Class object gives you all the basic hooks for reflection access to the class metadata. This metadata includes information about the class itself, such as the package and superclass of the class, as well as the interfaces implemented by the class. It also includes details of the constructors, fields, and methods defined by the class. These last items are the ones most often used in programming, so I'll give some examples of working with them later in this section.
For each of these three types of class components -- constructors, fields, and methods -- the
java.lang.Class provides four separate reflection calls to access information in different ways. The calls all follow a standard form. Here's the set used to find constructors:
Constructor getConstructor(Class params)-- Gets the public constructor using the specified parameter types
Constructor getConstructors()-- Gets all the public constructors for the class
Constructor getDeclaredConstructor(Class params)-- Gets the constructor (regardless of access level) using the specified parameter types
Constructor getDeclaredConstructors()-- Gets all the constructors (regardless of access level) for the class
Each of these calls returns one or more
java.lang.reflect.Constructor instances. This
Constructor class defines a
newInstance method that takes an array of objects as its only argument, then returns a newly constructed instance of the original class. The array of objects are the parameter values used for the constructor call. As an example of how this works, suppose you have a
TwoString class with a constructor that takes a pair of
Strings, as shown in Listing 1:
Listing 1. Class constructed from pair of strings
The code shown in Listing 2 gets the constructor and uses it to create an instance of the
TwoString class using
Listing 2. Reflection call to constructor
The code in Listing 2 ignores several possible types of checked exceptions thrown by the various reflection methods. The exceptions are detailed in the Javadoc API descriptions, so in the interest of conciseness, I'm leaving them out of all the code examples.
While I'm on the topic of constructors, the Java programming language also defines a special shortcut method you can use to create an instance of a class with a no-argument (or default) constructor. The shortcut is embedded into the
Class definition itself like this:
Object newInstance()-- Constructs new instance using default constructor
Even though this approach only lets you use one particular constructor, it makes a very convenient shortcut if that's the one you want. This technique is especially useful when working with JavaBeans, which are required to define a public, no-argument constructor.
Class reflection calls to access field information are similar to those used to access constructors, with a field name used in place of an array of parameter types:
Field getField(String name)-- Gets the named public field
Field getFields()-- Gets all public fields of the class
Field getDeclaredField(String name)-- Gets the named field declared by the class
Field getDeclaredFields()-- Gets all the fields declared by the class
Despite the similarity to the constructor calls, there's one important difference when it comes to fields: the first two variants return information for public fields that can be accessed through the class -- even those inherited from an ancestor class. The last two return information for fields declared directly by the class -- regardless of the fields' access types.
java.lang.reflect.Field instances returned by the calls define
setXXX methods for all the primitive types, as well as generic
set methods that work with object references. It's up to you to use an appropriate method based on the actual field type, though the
getXXX methods will handle widening conversions automatically (such as using the
getInt method to retrieve a
Listing 3 shows an example of using the field reflection methods, in the form of a method to increment an
int field of an object by name:
Listing 3. Incrementing a field by reflection
This method starts to show some of the flexibility possible with reflection. Rather than working with a specific class,
incrementField uses the
getClass method of the passed-in object to find the class information, then finds the named field directly in that class.
Class reflection calls to access method information are very similar to those used for constructors and fields:
Method getMethod(String name, Class params)-- Gets the named public method using the specified parameter types
Method getMethods()-- Gets all public methods of the class
Method getDeclaredMethod(String name, Class params)-- Gets the named method declared by the class using the specified parameter types
Method getDeclaredMethods()-- Gets all the methods declared by the class
As with the field calls, the first two variants return information for public methods that can be accessed through the class -- even those inherited from an ancestor class. The last two return information for methods declared directly by the class, without regard to the access type of the method.
java.lang.reflect.Method instances returned by the calls define an
invoke method you can use to call the method on an instance of the defining class. This
invoke method takes two arguments, which supply the class instance and an array of parameter values for the call.
Listing 4 takes the field example a step further, showing an example of method reflection in action. This method increments an
int JavaBean property defined with
set methods. For example, if the object defined
setCount methods for an integer
count value, you could pass "count" as the
name parameter in a call to this method in order to increment that value.
Listing 4. Incrementing a JavaBean property by reflection
To follow the JavaBeans convention, I convert the first letter of the property name to uppercase, then prepend
get to construct the read method name and
set to construct the write method name. JavaBeans read methods just return the value and write methods take the value as the only parameter, so I specify the parameter types for the methods to match. Finally, the convention requires the methods to be public, so I use the form of lookup that finds public methods callable on the class.
This example is the first one where I've passed primitive values using reflection, so let's look at how this works. The basic principle is simple: whenever you need to pass a primitive value, just substitute an instance of the corresponding wrapper class (defined in the
java.lang package) for that type of primitive. This applies to both calls and returns. So when I call the
get method in my example, I expect the result to be a
java.lang.Integer wrapper for the actual
int property value.
Arrays are objects in the Java programming language. Like all objects, they have classes. If you have an array, you can get the class of that array using the standard
getClass method, just as with any other object. However, getting the class without an existing instance works differently than for other types of objects. Even after you have an array class there's not much you can do with it directly -- the constructor access provided by reflection for normal classes doesn't work for arrays, and arrays don't have any accessible fields. Only the base
java.lang.Object methods are defined for array objects.
The special handling of arrays uses a collection of static methods provided by the
java.lang.reflect.Array class. The methods in this class let you create new arrays, get the length of an array object, and read and write indexed values of an array object.
Listing 5 shows a useful method for effectively resizing an existing array. It uses reflection to create a new array of the same type, then copies all the data across from the old array before returning the new array.
Listing 5. Growing an array by reflection
Security can be a complex issue when dealing with reflection. Reflection is often used by framework-type code, and for this you may want the framework to have full access to your code without concern for normal access restrictions. Yet uncontrolled access can create major security risks in other cases, such as when code is executed in an environment shared by untrusted code.
Because of these conflicting needs, the Java programming language defines a multi-level approach to handling reflection security. The basic mode is to enforce the same restrictions on reflection as would apply for source code access:
- Access from anywhere to public components of the class
- No access outside the class itself to private components
- Limited access to protected and package (default access) components
There's a simple way around these restrictions, though -- at least sometimes. The
Method classes I've used in the earlier examples all extend a common base class -- the
java.lang.reflect.AccessibleObject class. This class defines a
setAccessible method that lets you turn the access checks on or off for an instance of one of these classes. The only catch is that if a security manager is present, it will check that the code turning off access checks has permission to do so. If there's no permission, the security manager throws an exception.
Listing 6 demonstrates a program that uses reflection on an instance of the Listing 1
TwoString class to show this in action:
Listing 6. Reflection security in action
If you compile this code and run it directly from the command line without any special parameters, it'll throw an
IllegalAccessException on the
field.get(inst) call. If you uncomment the
field.setAccessible(true) line, then recompile and rerun the code, it will succeed. Finally, if you add the JVM parameter
-Djava.security.manager on the command line to enable a security manager, it will again fail, unless you define permissions for the
Reflection is a powerful tool, but suffers from a few drawbacks. One of the main drawbacks is the effect on performance. Using reflection is basically an interpreted operation, where you tell the JVM what you want to do and it does it for you. This type of operation is always going to be slower than just doing the same operation directly. To demonstrate the performance cost of using reflection, I prepared a set of benchmark programs for this article (see Resources for a link to the full code).
Listing 7 shows an excerpt from the field access performance test, including the basic test methods. Each method tests one form of access to fields --
accessSame works with member fields of the same object,
accessOther uses fields of another object accessed directly, and
accessReflection uses fields of another object accessed by reflection. In each case, the methods perform the same computations -- a simple add/multiply sequence in a loop.
Listing 7. Field access performance test code
The test program calls each method repeatedly with a large loop count, averaging the time measurements over several calls. The time for the first call to each method is not included in the average, so initialization time isn't a factor in the results. In the test runs for this article, I used a loop count of 10 million for each call, running on a 1GHz PIIIm system. My timing results with three different Linux JVMs are shown in Figure 1. All tests used the default settings for each JVM.
Figure 1. Field access times
The logarithmic scale of the chart allows the full range of times to be displayed, but lessens the visual impact of the differences. In the case of the first two sets of figures (the Sun JVMs), the execution time using reflection is over 1000 times greater than that using direct access. The IBM JVM does somewhat better by comparison, but the reflection method still takes more than 700 times as long as the other methods. There were no significant differences in times between the other two methods on any JVM, though the IBM JVM did run these almost twice as fast as the Sun JVMs. Most likely, this difference reflects the specialized optimizations used by the Sun Hot Spot JVMs, which tend to do poorly in simple benchmarks.
Besides the field access time tests, I did the same sort of timing test for method calls. For method calls, I tried the same three access variations as for field access, with the added variable of using no-argument methods versus passing and returning a value on the method calls. Listing 8 shows the code for the three methods used to test the passed-and-returned value form of the calls.
Listing 8. Method access performance test code
Figure 2 shows my timing results for method calls. Here again, reflection is much slower than the direct alternative. The differences aren't quite as large as for the field access case, though, ranging from several hundred times slower on the Sun 1.3.1 JVM to less than 30 times slower on the IBM JVM for the no-argument case. The test performance for reflection method calls with arguments are substantially slower than the calls with no arguments on all JVMs. This is probably partially because of the
java.lang.Integer wrapper needed for the
int value passed and returned. Because
Integers are immutable, a new one needs to be generated for each method return, adding considerable overhead.
Figure 2. Method call times
Reflection performance was one area of focus for Sun when developing the 1.4 JVM, which shows in the reflection method call results. The Sun 1.4.1 JVM shows greatly improved performance over the 1.3.1 version for this type of operation, running about seven times faster in my tests. The IBM 1.4.0 JVM again delivered even better performance for this simple test, though, running two to three times faster than the Sun 1.4.1 JVM.
I also wrote a similar timing test program for creating objects using reflection. The differences for this case aren't nearly as significant as for the field and method call cases, though. Constructing a simple
java.lang.Object instance with a
newInstance() call takes about 12 times longer than using
new Object() on the Sun 1.3.1 JVM, about four times longer on the IBM 1.4.0 JVM, and only about two times longer on the Sun 1.4.1 JVM. Constructing an array using
Array.newInstance(type, size) takes a maximum of about two times longer than using
new type[size] for any tested JVM, with the difference decreasing as the array size grows.
Java language reflection provides a very versatile way of dynamically linking program components. It allows your program to create and manipulate objects of any classes (subject to security restrictions) without the need to hardcode the target classes ahead of time. These features make reflection especially useful for creating libraries that work with objects in very general ways. For example, reflection is often used in frameworks that persist objects to databases, XML, or other external formats.
Reflection also has a couple of drawbacks. One is the performance issue. Reflection is much slower than direct code when used for field and method access. To what extent that matters depends on how reflection is used in a program. If it's used as a relatively infrequent part of the program's operation, the slow performance won't be a concern. Even the worst-case timing figures in my tests showed reflection operations taking only a few microseconds. The performance issues only become a serious concern if reflection is used in the core logic of performance-critical applications.
A more serious drawback for many applications is that using reflection can obscure what's actually going on inside your code. Programmers expect to see the logic of a program in the source code, and techniques such as reflection that bypass the source code can create maintenance problems. Reflection code is also more complex than the corresponding direct code, as can be seen in the code samples from the performance comparisons. The best ways to deal with these issues are to use reflection sparingly -- only in the places where it really adds useful flexibility -- and document its use within the target classes.
In the next installment, I'll give a more detailed example of how to use reflection. This example provides an API for processing command line arguments to a Java application, a tool you may find useful for your own applications. It also builds on the strengths of reflection while avoiding the weaknesses. Can reflection simplify your command line processing? Find out in Part 3 of Java programming dynamics.