[Java] Avoiding != null statements



Answers

If you use (or planning to use) a Java IDE like JetBrains IntelliJ IDEA, Eclipse or Netbeans or a tool like findbugs then you can use annotations to solve this problem.

Basically, you've got @Nullable and @NotNull.

You can use in method and parameters, like this:

@NotNull public static String helloWorld() {
    return "Hello World";
}

or

@Nullable public static String helloWorld() {
    return "Hello World";
}

The second example won't compile (in IntelliJ IDEA).

When you use the first helloWorld() function in another piece of code:

public static void main(String[] args)
{
    String result = helloWorld();
    if(result != null) {
        System.out.println(result);
    }
}

Now the IntelliJ IDEA compiler will tell you that the check is useless, since the helloWorld() function won't return null, ever.

Using parameter

void someMethod(@NotNull someParameter) { }

if you write something like:

someMethod(null);

This won't compile.

Last example using @Nullable

@Nullable iWantToDestroyEverything() { return null; }

Doing this

iWantToDestroyEverything().something();

And you can be sure that this won't happen. :)

It's a nice way to let the compiler check something more than it usually does and to enforce your contracts to be stronger. Unfortunately, it's not supported by all the compilers.

In IntelliJ IDEA 10.5 and on, they added support for any other @Nullable @NotNull implementations.

See blog post More flexible and configurable @Nullable/@NotNull annotations.

Question

I use object != null a lot to avoid NullPointerException.

Is there a good alternative to this?

For example:

if (someobject != null) {
    someobject.doCalc();
}

This avoids a NullPointerException, when it is unknown if the object is null or not.

Note that the accepted answer may be out of date, see https://.com/a/2386013/12943 for a more recent approach.




I've tried the NullObjectPattern but for me is not always the best way to go. There are sometimes when a "no action" is not appropiate.

NullPointerException is a Runtime exception that means it's developers fault and with enough experience it tells you exactly where is the error.

Now to the answer:

Try to make all your attributes and its accessors as private as possible or avoid to expose them to the clients at all. You can have the argument values in the constructor of course, but by reducing the scope you don't let the client class pass an invalid value. If you need to modify the values, you can always create a new object. You check the values in the constructor only once and in the rest of the methods you can be almost sure that the values are not null.

Of course, experience is the better way to understand and apply this suggestion.

Byte!




The Google collections framework offers a good and elegant way to achieve the null check.

There is a method in a library class like this:

static <T> T checkNotNull(T e) {
   if (e == null) {
      throw new NullPointerException();
   }
   return e;
}

And the usage is (with import static):

...
void foo(int a, Person p) {
   if (checkNotNull(p).getAge() > a) {
      ...
   }
   else {
      ...
   }
}
...

Or in your example:

checkNotNull(someobject).doCalc();



Just don't ever use null. Don't allow it.

In my classes, most fields and local variables have non-null default values, and I add contract statements (always-on asserts) everywhere in the code to make sure this is being enforced (since it's more succinct, and more expressive than letting it come up as an NPE and then having to resolve the line number, etc.).

Once I adopted this practice, I noticed that the problems seemed to fix themselves. You'd catch things much earlier in the development process just by accident and realize you had a weak spot.. and more importantly.. it helps encapsulate different modules' concerns, different modules can 'trust' each other, and no more littering the code with if = null else constructs!

This is defensive programming and results in much cleaner code in the long run. Always sanitize the data, e.g. here by enforcing rigid standards, and the problems go away.

class C {
    private final MyType mustBeSet;
    public C(MyType mything) {
       mustBeSet=Contract.notNull(mything);
    }
   private String name = "<unknown>";
   public void setName(String s) {
      name = Contract.notNull(s);
   }
}


class Contract {
    public static <T> T notNull(T t) { if (t == null) { throw new ContractException("argument must be non-null"); return t; }
}

The contracts are like mini-unit tests which are always running, even in production, and when things fail, you know why, rather than a random NPE you have to somehow figure out.




  1. Never initialise variables to null.
  2. If (1) is not possible, initialise all collections and arrays to empty collections/arrays.

Doing this in your own code and you can avoid != null checks.

Most of the time null checks seem to guard loops over collections or arrays, so just initialise them empty, you won't need any null checks.

// Bad
ArrayList<String> lemmings;
String[] names;

void checkLemmings() {
    if (lemmings != null) for(lemming: lemmings) {
        // do something
    }
}



// Good
ArrayList<String> lemmings = new ArrayList<String>();
String[] names = {};

void checkLemmings() {
    for(lemming: lemmings) {
        // do something
    }
}

There is a tiny overhead in this, but it's worth it for cleaner code and less NullPointerExceptions.




This is a very common problem for every Java developer. So there is official support in Java 8 to address these issues without cluttered code.

Java 8 has introduced java.util.Optional<T>. It is a container that may or may not hold a non-null value. Java 8 has given a safer way to handle an object whose value may be null in some of the cases. It is inspired from the ideas of Haskell and Scala.

In a nutshell, the Optional class includes methods to explicitly deal with the cases where a value is present or absent. However, the advantage compared to null references is that the Optional<T> class forces you to think about the case when the value is not present. As a consequence, you can prevent unintended null pointer exceptions.

In above example we have a home service factory that returns a handle to multiple appliances available in the home. But these services may or may not be available/functional; it means it may result in a NullPointerException. Instead of adding a null if condition before using any service, let's wrap it in to Optional<Service>.

WRAPPING TO OPTION<T>

Let's consider a method to get a reference of a service from a factory. Instead of returning the service reference, wrap it with Optional. It lets the API user know that the returned service may or may not available/functional, use defensively

public Optional<Service> getRefrigertorControl() {
      Service s = new  RefrigeratorService();
       //...
      return Optional.ofNullable(s);
   }

As you see Optional.ofNullable() provides an easy way to get the reference wrapped. There are another ways to get the reference of Optional, either Optional.empty() & Optional.of(). One for returning an empty object instead of retuning null and the other to wrap a non-nullable object, respectively.

SO HOW EXACTLY IT HELPS TO AVOID A NULL CHECK?

Once you have wrapped a reference object, Optional provides many useful methods to invoke methods on a wrapped reference without NPE.

Optional ref = homeServices.getRefrigertorControl();
ref.ifPresent(HomeServices::switchItOn);

Optional.ifPresent invokes the given Consumer with a reference if it is a non-null value. Otherwise, it does nothing.

@FunctionalInterface
public interface Consumer<T>

Represents an operation that accepts a single input argument and returns no result. Unlike most other functional interfaces, Consumer is expected to operate via side-effects. It is so clean and easy to understand. In the above code example, HomeService.switchOn(Service) gets invoked if the Optional holding reference is non-null.

We use the ternary operator very often for checking null condition and return an alternative value or default value. Optional provides another way to handle the same condition without checking null. Optional.orElse(defaultObj) returns defaultObj if the Optional has a null value. Let's use this in our sample code:

public static Optional<HomeServices> get() {
    service = Optional.of(service.orElse(new HomeServices()));
    return service;
}

Now HomeServices.get() does same thing, but in a better way. It checks whether the service is already initialized of not. If it is then return the same or create a new New service. Optional<T>.orElse(T) helps to return a default value.

Finally, here is our NPE as well as null check-free code:

import java.util.Optional;
public class HomeServices {
    private static final int NOW = 0;
    private static Optional<HomeServices> service;

public static Optional<HomeServices> get() {
    service = Optional.of(service.orElse(new HomeServices()));
    return service;
}

public Optional<Service> getRefrigertorControl() {
    Service s = new  RefrigeratorService();
    //...
    return Optional.ofNullable(s);
}

public static void main(String[] args) {
    /* Get Home Services handle */
    Optional<HomeServices> homeServices = HomeServices.get();
    if(homeServices != null) {
        Optional<Service> refrigertorControl = homeServices.get().getRefrigertorControl();
        refrigertorControl.ifPresent(HomeServices::switchItOn);
    }
}

public static void switchItOn(Service s){
         //...
    }
}

The complete post is NPE as well as Null check-free code … Really?.




public static <T> T ifNull(T toCheck, T ifNull) {
    if (toCheck == null) {
           return ifNull;
    }
    return toCheck;
}



Java 7 has a new java.util.Objects utility class on which there is a requireNonNull() method. All this does is throw a NullPointerException if its argument is null, but it cleans up the code a bit. Example:

Objects.requireNonNull(someObject);
someObject.doCalc();

The method is most useful for checking just before an assignment in a constructor, where each use of it can save three lines of code:

Parent(Child child) {
   if (child == null) {
      throw new NullPointerException("child");
   }
   this.child = child;
}

becomes

Parent(Child child) {
   this.child = Objects.requireNonNull(child, "child");
}



Depending on what kind of objects you are checking you may be able to use some of the classes in the apache commons such as: apache commons lang and apache commons collections

Example:

String foo;
...
if( StringUtils.isBlank( foo ) ) {
   ///do something
}

or (depending on what you need to check):

String foo;
...
if( StringUtils.isEmpty( foo ) ) {
   ///do something
}

The StringUtils class is only one of many; there are quite a few good classes in the commons that do null safe manipulation.

Here follows an example of how you can use null vallidation in JAVA when you include apache library(commons-lang-2.4.jar)

public DOCUMENT read(String xml, ValidationEventHandler validationEventHandler) {
    Validate.notNull(validationEventHandler,"ValidationHandler not Injected");
    return read(new StringReader(xml), true, validationEventHandler);
}

And if you are using Spring, Spring also has the same functionality in its package, see library(spring-2.4.6.jar)

Example on how to use this static classf from spring(org.springframework.util.Assert)

Assert.notNull(validationEventHandler,"ValidationHandler not Injected");



I highly disregard answers that suggest using the null objects in every situation. This pattern may break the contract and bury problems deeper and deeper instead of solving them, not mentioning that used inappropriately will create another pile of boilerplate code that will require future maintenance.

In reality if something returned from a method can be null and the calling code has to make decision upon that, there should an earlier call that ensures the state.

Also keep in mind, that null object pattern will be memory hungry if used without care. For this - the instance of a NullObject should be shared between owners, and not be an unigue instance for each of these.

Also I would not recommend using this pattern where the type is meant to be a primitive type representation - like mathematical entities, that are not scalars: vectors, matrices, complex numbers and POD(Plain Old Data) objects, which are meant to hold state in form of Java built-in types. In the latter case you would end up calling getter methods with arbitrary results. For example what should a NullPerson.getName() method return?

It's worth considering such cases in order to avoid absurd results.




I'm a fan of "fail fast" code. Ask yourself - are you doing something useful in the case where the parameter is null? If you don't have a clear answer for what your code should do in that case... I.e. it should never be null in the first place, then ignore it and allow a NullPointerException to be thrown. The calling code will make just as much sense of an NPE as it would an IllegalArgumentException, but it'll be easier for the developer to debug and understand what went wrong if an NPE is thrown rather than your code attempting to execute some other unexpected contingency logic - which ultimately results in the application failing anyway.




Wow, I almost hate to add another answer when we have 57 different ways to recommend the NullObject pattern, but I think that some people interested in this question may like to know that there is a proposal on the table for Java 7 to add "null-safe handling"—a streamlined syntax for if-not-equal-null logic.

The example given by Alex Miller looks like this:

public String getPostcode(Person person) {  
  return person?.getAddress()?.getPostcode();  
}  

The ?. means only de-reference the left identifier if it is not null, otherwise evaluate the remainder of the expression as null. Some people, like Java Posse member Dick Wall and the voters at Devoxx really love this proposal, but there is opposition too, on the grounds that it will actually encourage more use of null as a sentinel value.


Update: An official proposal for a null-safe operator in Java 7 has been submitted under Project Coin. The syntax is a little different than the example above, but it's the same notion.


Update: The null-safe operator proposal didn't make it into Project Coin. So, you won't be seeing this syntax in Java 7.




Asking that question points out that you may be interested in error handling strategies. Your team's architect should decide how to work errors. There are several ways to do this:

  1. allow the Exceptions to ripple through - catch them at the 'main loop' or in some other managing routine.

    • check for error conditions and handle them appropriately

Sure do have a look at Aspect Oriented Programming, too - they have neat ways to insert if( o == null ) handleNull() into your bytecode.




Ultimately, the only way to completely solve this problem is by using a different programming language:

  • In Objective-C, you can do the equivalent of invoking a method on nil, and absolutely nothing will happen. This makes most null checks unnecessary, but it can make errors much harder to diagnose.
  • In Nice, a Java-derived language, there are two versions of all types: a potentially-null version and a not-null version. You can only invoke methods on not-null types. Potentially-null types can be converted to not-null types through explicit checking for null. This makes it much easier to know where null checks are necessary and where they aren't.



Only for this situation - Avoiding checking for null before a string compare:

if ( foo.equals("bar") ) {
 // ...
}

will result in a NullPointerException if foo doesn't exist.

You can avoid that if you compare your Strings like this:

if ( "bar".equals(foo) ) {
 // ...
}





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