Using Collections

When Java came out about 20 years, it was great to have a decent and quite extensive collection library available as part of the standard setup and ready to use.

Before that we often had to develop our own or find one of many interesting collection libraries and when writing and using APIs it was not a good idea to rely on them as part of the API.

Since Java 2 (technical name „Java 1.2“) collection interfaces have been added and now the implementation is kind of detached, because we should use the interfaces as much as possible and make the implementation exchangeable.

An interesting question arose in conjunction with concurrency. The early Java 1 default collections where synchronized all the way. In Java 2 non synchronized variants were added and became the default. Synchronization can be achieved by wrapping them or by using the old collections (that do implement the interfaces as well since Java 2).

This was a performance improvement, because most of the time it is expensive and unnecessary overhead to synchronize collections. As a matter of fact special care should be used anyway to know who is accessing a collection in what way. Even if the collection itself does not get broken by simultaneous access, your application most likely is, unless you really know what you are doing. Are you?

Now it is usually a good idea to control changes of a collection. This is achieved by wrapping it with some Collections.umodifyableXXX-method. The result is that accessing the wrapped collection with set or put will cause an exception. It was a good approach, as a first shot, but not where we want to be now.

Of the wrapped collection still references to the inner, non-wrapped collection can be around, so it can still change while being accessed. If you can easily afford it, just copy collections when taking them in or giving them out. Or go immutable all the way and wrap your own in an umnodifiable-wrapper, if that works.

What I would like to see is something along the following lines:

  • We have two kinds of collection interfaces, those that are immutable and those that are mutable.
  • The immutable should be the default.
  • We have implementations of the collections and construction facilities for the immutable collections
  • The immutable implementation is off course the default.

I do not want to advocate going immutable collections only, because that does come at a high price in terms of efficiency. The usual pattern is to still have methods that modify a collection, but these leave the original collection as it is and just create a modified copy. Usually these implementations have been done in such a smart way that they share a lot, which is no pain, because they are all immutable. No matter how smart and admirable these tricks are, I strongly doubt that they can reach the performance of modifiable collections, if modifications are actually used a lot, at least in a purely single threaded environment.

Ruby has taken an interesting approach. Collections have a method freeze that can be called to make them immutable. That is adding runtime checks, which is a good match for Ruby. Java should check this at compile time, because it is so important. Having different interfaces would do that.

I recommend checking out the guava-collection library from google. It does come with most of the issues described here addressed and I think it is the best bet at the moment for that purpose. There are some other collection libraries to explore. Maybe one is actually better then guava.

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