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Leading-Edge Java
More New I/O APIs for Java
A Conversation with Alan Bateman
by Frank Sommers
May 21, 2007
Summary
JSR 203 promises more new I/O APIs for Java, including several new I/O abstractions and a new I/O programming model. In this interview with Artima, JSR 203 spec lead Alan Bateman explains how JSR 203's file API solves current shortcomings with java.io.File, the new Watchable interface, and asynchronous I/O programming. Bateman is an engineer in the SE Core Technologies team at Sun.

Frank Sommers: Please give us a brief overview of JSR 203, More New I/O APIs for the Java Platform?

Alan Bateman: The first NIO specification was JSR 51, New I/O APIs for the Java Platform, led by Mark Reinhold. It was delivered into JDK 1.4, and that API put in the basis for NIO in Java, focusing on buffers, channels, and charsets. JSR 51 delivered the first piece of the scalable socket I/Os into the platform, providing a non-blocking, multiplexed I/O API, thus allowing the development of highly scalable servers without having to resort to native code.

JSR 203 takes over from JSR 51. For many developers, the most significant goal of JSR 203 is to address issues with java.io.File by developing a new file system interface. We've been living with java.io.File for ten years now. It has a lot of problems, and is missing a lot of functionality. We're trying to address in JSR 203 all those problems, and that's the largest part of this JSR.

We're also completing the socket channel functionality that was started in JSR 51. That means updating the existing socket channel API, and adding things like multitasking. The third part of JSR 203 is to develop an asynchronous I/O API for both sockets and files.

A relatively small piece of JSR 203 is that we revisited the buffers API in Java NIO. The original buffers were indexed by an int, and we defined a new set of buffer classes to be used by very large containers. If you want a contiguous mapping of a very large file, larger than 2GB, you can do that with this new API.

Our goal is to eventually put this API forward as a component that would go into Java SE 7.

Frank Sommers: What made it necessary to rethink java.io.File?

Alan Bateman: For starters, java.io.File defines a lot of methods that return a boolean value, rather than throwing exceptions when they fail. If you try to delete a file, for example, and that method returns false, you have no idea why that operation failed. That's a big problem that comes up very often, and we solved that in JSR 203.

java.io.File doesn't work well with symbolic links on the file system—we're providing an API for that. In addition, java.io.File only provides access to a very limited set of file attributes. We continuously get requests from people who want to access file permissions and access control lists, and those are some of the attributes we need to support in JSR 203.

A big issue with file attributes in java.io.File is performance when querying the file system. When you ask a file its modification time or what type of file it is, every one of those methods goes to the file system. It's very common to see multiple methods to java.io.File called together. Because each one of those goes to the file system, that causes performance problems. One of our goals for the new API was bulk access to file attributes, allowing you to get access to all the file attributes at the same time.

The way java.io.File works for directories just doesn't scale to large directories. There are also a lot of problems with how it handles paths. We get requests from people wanting file system access to other types of files, such as memory files, and java.io.File is missing a lot of basic functionality there, too.

You won't find a method in java.io.File that copies a file or one that moves a file. We have a rename() in there, and that drives people crazy because it doesn't work the way you'd expect it to.

Frank Sommers: Do you envision this API to replace java.io.File?

Alan Bateman: We don't propose to deprecate java.io.File. We have instead added a method in java.io.File that lets you get a reference to the new API and allows for interoperability. That solves some of the issues with java.io.File in a very localized way.

For example, to solve the problem of trying to delete a file and getting back a boolean false if the delete fails, you can just go to that piece of the code now and invoke the toPathReference() method to get access to the remove() method in the new API. That will give you more exceptions so you'll know why the operation actually failed.

Frank Sommers: What does the Watchable interface provide in the new API?

Alan Bateman: The Watchable interface is implemented by objects that can be watched. There is a WatchService class that watches objects in the file system for changes. Many developers would relate to the example when they work with an editor, and some file open in one of the editor buffers is changed outside the editor. The editor pops up a window to tell you that that file changed, and asks if you wanted to reload the file. That's a simple example for when you would want to get a notification.

A lot of applications, particularly editors and IDEs, are currently forced to poll the file system, and that creates big performance issues. We also see this requirement with servers that have a directory where you deploy JAR files to. The server wants to be able to recognize when a JAR file is being added so that it can load, or reload, that JAR. The server doesn't want to have to have a thread in the background polling a directory and hitting the file system all the time, but would want to be notified instead of file system or file changes. Watching configuration files is another thing that comes up periodically.

The WatchService plugs into the native file system notification mechanism, if one is available. Linux people will recognize this as an inotify-like interface. There are equivalent interfaces on Windows, and the Solaris folks have been working on a similar API for the next major release of Solaris. When there is no native file system support for notifications on file changes, the JSR 203 implementation will end up having to poll like the file I/O implementations do now.

Frank Sommers: What sorts of native files and file systems will the JSR 203 API work with?

Alan Bateman: Out of the box, this API works with the native, or platform, file system. We also define a service-provider interface that allows people to develop their own file systems. A common example is to be able to develop memory file systems. You can reserve a chunk of memory in order to emulate a file system in memory. To do that, you can develop a file system provider that provides a file system interface, and that can just plug into the JSR 203 API implementation. The JSR 203 specification shows how to deploy these file system implementations so that everything just works.

There are other interesting ideas for file systems out there, and many of them are being pursued in other projects. There are file system interfaces into archive files, for example, such as JAR and zip files that are simple file systems, but are interesting in some cases. You'll be able to deploy those types of file system providers as well. In general, anything that you can develop a provider for, you'll be able to plug in, including distributed file systems.

Frank Sommers: What are I/O channels, and what new channel features do you provide in JSR 203?

Alan Bateman: The most important difference between channels and java.net.Sockets is that in the case of channels, the I/O is done with byte buffers. Byte buffers offer the potential for performance gain as the bytes may not need to be copied into a native buffer to perform the I/O.

The other big difference between sockets and channels is that the latter can be configured to be non-blocking and thus allowing for event-driven designs. That provides a much more scalable way to develop servers than the old, one thread-per-socket model does.

JSR 51 introduced several network-oriented channels: SocketChannel, ServerSocketChannel, and DatagramChannel. Those did not provide complete abstractions of a network socket: They didn't have methods that allow you to bind into the channel socket, set socket options, and so on. Instead, they use a socket adapter: A socket() method defined in each of those channels that provides a java.net.Socket that you actually use to bind and set options and so on. The reason for that was interoperability and, mostly, because there was no time to define a full socket channel API in JSR 51.

We've completed that work in JSR 203. If you look at the channels package in JSR 203, you'll see new interfaces such as NetworkChannel and MulticastChannel. Those let you actually bind and set options directly in the channels package. You don't have to mix the socket and the socket channel APIs to do those things, which has been very counter-intuitive for most people.

The second part of completing work on channels is about multicasting support: We didn't have multicast support in the channels package before, and now we've added that.

Frank Sommers: JSR 203 defines an asynchronous I/O API, in addition to the non-blocking I/O model introduced in JSR 51. What's the difference between asynchronous and non-blocking I/O?

Alan Bateman: With non-blocking I/O, you're getting events through a selector when the channel is ready to do I/O. The asynchronous API gives you a notification when the I/O is completed.

For example, with a socket channel in a non-blocking mode, you register with a selector, and the selector will give you a notification when there is data on that socket to read. With the asynchronous I/O, you actually start the read, and the I/O will complete sometime later when the read has happened and there is data in your buffer.

In the asynchronous API we have what we call a completion handler. You specify a completion handler when you do your read, and the completion handler is invoked to tell you that the I/O operation has completed.

We put a lot of thought into how the asynchronous API would be used in server applications. You'll see in the asynchronous I/O package that we allow high-end servers to be able to plug in their own thread pools, have their own configuration of thread pools, and so on.

Frank Sommers: How does a developer decide when to use the asynchronous API versus the non-blocking API?

Alan Bateman: When developing a highly scalable server, you have to take a lot of things into consideration. That includes the operating systems and hardware that the server will be deployed on.

The Selector in the current API can deliver great performance and scalability when mapped to an operating system that has a highly scalable polling interface—both Solaris and Linux have such interfaces for example. Asynchronous I/O delivers great performance when the underlying operating system has a high performance and scalable asynchronous I/O facility. The application and server design is also critical.

In terms of design patterns, the Selector in the existing API is the basis for the Reactor role in the Reactor pattern. The asynchronous I/O API, by contrast, enables the use of the Proactor pattern. When to use one or the other can be difficult to decide. In terms of complexity, they are both advanced APIs, but some developers may find the asynchronous I/O programming model and API easier to grasp.

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Resources

JSR 203, More New I/O APIs for the Java Platform
http://www.jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=203

JSR 51, New I/O APIs for the Java Platform
http://www.jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=51

Comparing Two High-Performance I/O Design Patterns
by Alexander Libman with Vladimir Gilbourd
http://www.artima.com/articles/io_design_patterns.html

About the author

Frank Sommers is Editor-in-Chief of Artima Developer. He also serves as chief editor of the IEEE Technical Committee on Scalable Computing's newsletter, and is an elected member of the Jini Community's Technical Advisory Committee. Prior to joining Artima, Frank wrote the Jiniology and Web services columns for JavaWorld.


This article is sponsored by the Java Community Process.

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