Java LanguageImmutable Objects

Remarks

Immutable objects have fixed state (no setters), so all state must be known at object creation time.

Although not technically required, it is best practice to make all fields final. This will make the immutable class thread-safe (cf. Java Concurrency in Practice, 3.4.1).

The examples show several patterns that can assist with achieving this.

Creating an immutable version of a type using defensive copying.

Some basic types and classes in Java are fundamentally mutable. For example, all array types are mutable, and so are classes like java.util.Data. This can be awkward in situations where an immutable type is mandated.

One way to deal with this is to create an immutable wrapper for the mutable type. Here is a simple wrapper for an array of integers

public class ImmutableIntArray {
    private final int[] array;
    
    public ImmutableIntArray(int[] array) {
        this.array = array.clone();
    }

    public int[] getValue() {
        return this.clone();
    }
}

This class works by using defensive copying to isolate the mutable state (the int[]) from any code that might mutate it:

  • The constructor uses clone() to create a distinct copy of the parameter array. If the caller of the constructor subsequent changed the parameter array, it would not affect the state of the ImmutableIntArray.

  • The getValue() method also uses clone() to create the array that is returned. If the caller were to change the result array, it would not affect the state of the ImmutableIntArray.

We could also add methods to ImmutableIntArray to perform read-only operations on the wrapped array; e.g. get its length, get the value at a particular index, and so on.

Note that an immutable wrapper type implemented this way is not type compatible with the original type. You cannot simply substitute the former for the latter.

The recipe for an immutable class

An immutable object is an object whose state cannot be changed. An immutable class is a class whose instances are immutable by design, and implementation. The Java class which is most commonly presented as an example of immutability is java.lang.String.

The following is a stereotypical example:

public final class Person {
    private final String name;
    private final String ssn;     // (SSN == social security number)

    public Person(String name, String ssn) {
        this.name = name;
        this.ssn = ssn;
    }

    public String getName() {
        return name;
    }
   
    public String getSSN() {
        return ssn;
    }
}

A variation on this is to declare the constructor as private and provide a public static factory method instead.


The standard recipe for an immutable class is as follows:

  • All properties must be set in the constructor(s) or factory method(s).
  • There should be no setters.
  • If it is necessary to include setters for interface compatibility reasons, they should either do nothing or throw an exception.
  • All properties should be declared as private and final.
  • For all properties that are references to mutable types:
    • the property should be initialized with a deep copy of the value passed via the constructor, and
    • the property's getter should return a deep copy of the property value.
  • The class should be declared as final to prevent someone creating a mutable subclass of an immutable class.

A couple of other things to note:

  • Immutability does not prevent object from being nullable; e.g. null can be assigned to a String variable.
  • If an immutable classes properties are declared as final, instances are inherently thread-safe. This makes immutable classes a good building block for implementing multi-threaded applications.

Typical design flaws which prevent a class from being immutable

Using some setters, without setting all needed properties in the constructor(s)

public final class Person { // example of a bad immutability
    private final String name;
    private final String surname;
    public Person(String name) {
        this.name = name;
      }
    public String getName() { return name;}
    public String getSurname() { return surname;}
    public void setSurname(String surname) { this.surname = surname); }
}

It’s easy to show that Person class is not immutable:

Person person = new Person("Joe");
person.setSurname("Average"); // NOT OK, change surname field after creation

To fix it, simply delete setSurname() and refactor the constructor as follows:

public Person(String name, String surname) {
    this.name = name;
    this.surname = surname;
  }

Not marking instance variables as private and final

Take a look at the following class:

public final class Person {
    public String name;
    public Person(String name) {
        this.name = name;
     }
    public String getName() {
        return name;
    }
    
}

The following snippet shows that the above class is not immutable:

Person person = new Person("Average Joe");
person.name = "Magic Mike"; // not OK, new name for person after creation

To fix it, simply mark name property as private and final.


Exposing a mutable object of the class in a getter

Take a look at the following class:

import java.util.List;
import java.util.ArrayList;
public final class Names {
    private final List<String> names;
    public Names(List<String> names) {
        this.names = new ArrayList<String>(names);
    }
    public List<String> getNames() {
        return names;
    }
    public int size() {
        return names.size();
    }
}

Names class seems immutable at the first sight, but it is not as the following code shows:

List<String> namesList = new ArrayList<String>();
namesList.add("Average Joe");
Names names = new Names(namesList);
System.out.println(names.size()); // 1, only containing "Average Joe"
namesList = names.getNames();
namesList.add("Magic Mike");
System.out.println(names.size()); // 2, NOT OK, now names also contains "Magic Mike"

This happened because a change to the reference List returned by getNames() can modify the actual list of Names.

To fix this, simply avoid returning references that reference class's mutable objects either by making defensive copies, as follows:

public List<String> getNames() {
   return new ArrayList<String>(this.names); // copies elements
}

or by designing getters in way that only other immutable objects and primitives are returned, as follows:

public String getName(int index) {
    return names.get(index);
}
public int size() {
    return names.size();
}

Injecting constructor with object(s) that can be modified outside the immutable class

This is a variation of the previous flaw. Take a look at the following class:

import java.util.List;
public final class NewNames {
    private final List<String> names;
    public Names(List<String> names) {
        this.names = names;
    }
    public String getName(int index) {
        return names.get(index);
    }
    public int size() {
        return names.size();
    }
}

As Names class before, also NewNames class seems immutable at the first sight, but it is not, in fact the following snippet proves the contrary:

List<String> namesList = new ArrayList<String>();
namesList.add("Average Joe");
NewNames names = new NewNames(namesList);
System.out.println(names.size()); // 1, only containing "Average Joe"
namesList.add("Magic Mike");
System.out.println(names.size()); // 2, NOT OK, now names also contains "Magic Mike"

To fix this, as in the previous flaw, simply make defensive copies of the object without assigning it directly to the immutable class, i.e. constructor can be changed as follows:

    public Names(List<String> names) {
        this.names = new ArrayList<String>(names);
    }

Letting the methods of the class being overridden

Take a look at the following class:

public class Person {
    private final String name;
    public Person(String name) {
        this.name = name;
      }
    public String getName() { return name;}
}

Person class seems immutable at the first sight, but suppose a new subclass of Person is defined:

public class MutablePerson extends Person {
    private String newName;
    public MutablePerson(String name) {
        super(name);            
    }
    @Override
    public String getName() {
        return newName;
    }
    public void setName(String name) {
        newName = name;
    }
}

now Person (im)mutability can be exploited through polymorphism by using the new subclass:

Person person = new MutablePerson("Average Joe");
System.out.println(person.getName()); prints Average Joe
person.setName("Magic Mike"); // NOT OK, person has now a new name!
System.out.println(person.getName()); // prints Magic Mike    

To fix this, either mark the class as final so it cannot be extended or declare all of its constructor(s) as private.