Java needs an immutable byte string

Author : Keith Turner
Reviewer(s) : Christopher Tubbs, Mike Walch
10 Nov 2016

Fluo Data Model and Transactions

Fluo uses a data model composed of key/values. Each key has four fields : row,family,qualifier,visibility. Each of these key fields is a sequence of bytes. Fluo transactions read key/values from a snapshot of a table. Any changes a transaction makes is buffered until commit. At the time of commit the changes are only made if no other transaction modified any of the key values.

While designing the Fluo API we were uncertain about making Fluo’s basic POJOs mutable or immutable. In the end we decided to go with immutable types to make writing correct Fluo code easier. One of the POJOs we created was Bytes, an immutable wrapper around a byte array. We also created BytesBuilder, which is analogous to StringBuilder, and makes it easy and efficient to construct Bytes.

What about the copies?

Bytes requires a defensive copy at creation time. When we were designing Fluo’s API we were worried about this at first. However a simple truth became apparent. If the API took a mutable type, then all boundary points between the user and Fluo would require defensive copies. For example assume Fluo’s API took byte arrays and consider the following code.

//A Fluo transaction
Transaction tx = ...
byte[] row = ...

tx.set(row, column1, value1);
tx.set(row, column2, value2);
tx.set(row, column3, value3);

Fluo will buffer changes until a transaction is committed. In the example above since Fluo accepts a mutable row, it would be prudent to do a defensive copy each time set() is called above.

In the code below where an immutable byte array wrapper is used, the calls to set() do not need to do a defensive copy. So when comparing the two examples, the immutable byte wrapper results in less defensive copies.

//A Fluo transaction
Transaction tx = ...
Bytes row = ...

tx.set(row, column1, value1);
tx.set(row, column2, value2);
tx.set(row, column3, value3);

We really did not want to create Bytes and BytesBuilder types, however we could not find what we needed in Java’s standard libraries. The following sections discuss some of the options we considered.

Why not use String?

Java’s String type is an immutable wrapper around a char array. In order to store a byte array in a String, Java must decode the byte array using a character set. Some sequences of bytes do not map in some characters sets. Therefore, trying to stuff arbitrary binary data in a String can corrupt the data. The following little program shows this, it will print false.

    byte bytes1[] = new byte[256];
    for(int i = 0; i<255; i++)
      bytes1[i] = (byte)i;

    byte bytes2[] = new String(bytes1).getBytes();

    System.out.println(Arrays.equals(bytes1, bytes2));

String can be made to work by specifying an appropriate character set. The following program will print true. However, this is error prone and inefficient. It’s error prone in the case where the character set is wrong or omitted. It’s inefficient because it results in copying from byte arrays to char arrays and visa versa. Also, char arrays use twice as much memory.

    byte bytes1[] = new byte[256];
    for(int i = 0; i<255; i++)
      bytes1[i] = (byte)i;

    String str = new String(bytes1, StandardCharsets.ISO_8859_1);
    byte bytes2[] = str.getBytes(StandardCharsets.ISO_8859_1);

    System.out.println(Arrays.equals(bytes1, bytes2));

Why not use ByteBuffer?

A read only ByteBuffer might seem like it would fit the bill of an immutable byte array wrapper. However, the following program shows two ways that ByteBuffer falls short. ByteBuffers are great for I/O, but it would not be prudent to use them when immutability is desired.

    byte[] bytes1 = new byte[] {1,2,3,(byte)250};
    ByteBuffer bb1 = ByteBuffer.wrap(bytes1).asReadOnlyBuffer();


The program above prints the following, which is less than ideal :


This little program shows two things. First, the only guarantee we are getting from asReadOnlyBuffer() is that bb1 can not be used to modify bytes1. However, the originator of the read only buffer can still modify the wrapped byte array. Java’s String and Fluo’s Bytes avoid this by always copying data into an internal private array that never escapes.

The second issue is that bb1 has a position and calling bb1.get() changes this position. Changing the position conceptually changes the contents of the ByteBuffer. This is why hashCode() returns something different after bb1.get() is called. So even though bb1 does not enable mutating bytes1, bb1 is itself mutable.

Why not use Protobuf’s ByteString?

Protocol Buffers has a beautiful implementation of an immutable byte array wrapper called ByteString. I would encourage its use when possible. I discovered this jewel after Bytes was implemented in Fluo. Using it was considered, however in Fluo’s case its not really appropriate to use for two reasons. First, any library designer should try to minimize what transitive dependencies they force on users. Internally Fluo does not currently use Protocol Buffers in its implementation, so this would be a new dependency for Fluo users. The second reason is going to require some background to explain.

Technologies like OSGI and Jigsaw seek to modularize Java libraries and provide dependency isolation. Dependency isolation allows a user to use a library without having to share a libraries dependencies. For example, consider the following hypothetical scenario.

  • Fluo’s implementation uses Protobuf version 2.5
  • Fluo user code uses Protobuf version 1.8

Without dependency isolation, the user must converge dependencies and make their application and Fluo use the same version of Protobuf. Sometimes this works without issue, but sometimes things will break because Protobuf dropped, changed, or added a method.

With dependency isolation, Fluo’s implementation and Fluo user code can easily use different versions of Protobuf. This is only true as long as Fluo’s API does not use Protobuf. So, this is the second reason that Fluo should not use classes from Protobuf in its API. If Fluo used Protobuf in its API then it forces the user to have to converge dependencies, even if they are using OSGI or Jigsaw.

Java should have an immutable byte array wrapper

So far, the following arguments have been presented:

  • An immutable byte array wrapper is useful and needed.
  • Java does not provide a good immutable byte array wrapper.
  • Using an immutable byte array wrapper from library X in library Y’s API may be problematic.

These arguments all point to the need for an immutable byte array wrapper to exist in Java. This need could also be satisfied by a library outside of Java with some restrictions. Assume a new library called Lib Immutable Byte Array Wrapper (libibaw) was created. In order for libibaw to be used in other libraries APIs, it would need to promise the following.

  • No dependencies other than Java.
  • Backwards compatibility.

The reason backwards compatibility is important is that it would make dependency convergence super easy. The following situation shows this.

  • Fluo uses libibaw 1.2 in its API
  • Fluo user code uses libibaw 1.1.

If libibaw promises backward compatibility, then all the user needs to do is use version 1.2 of libibaw. With the promise of backwards compatibility, using version 1.2 will not break the users code.

Having a library would be nice, but having something in Java would minimize copies. Outside of Java there will inevitably be multiple implementations and going between them will require a copy. For example if a user uses Fluo and Protobuf they may be forced to copy Fluo’s Bytes to Protobuf’s ByteString. If Protobuf and Fluo both used an immutable byte sequence type from Java, this would not be needed.

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