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7.2 Writing Classes to Work with Serialization

Writing a class that works with serialization is a bit more complicated than simply using that class for serialization. Essentially, an ObjectOutputStream must write enough of an object's state information so that the object can be reconstructed. If an object refers to other objects, those objects must be written, and so on, until all of the objects the original object refers to, directly or indirectly, are written. An ObjectOutputStream does not actually write a Class object that describes an object it is serializing. Instead, an ObjectOutputStream writes an ObjectStreamClass object that identifies the class of the object. Thus, a program that reads a serialized object must have access to a Class object that describes the object being deserialized.

When you are writing a new class, you need to decide whether or not it should be serializable. Serialization does not make sense for every class. For example, a Thread object encapsulates information that is meaningful only within the process that created it, so serialization is not appropriate. In order for instances of a class to be serializable, the class must implement the Serializable interface. The Serializable interface does not declare any methods or variables, so it simply acts as an indicator of serializability. The writeObject() method of an ObjectOutputStream throws a NotSerializableException if it is asked to serialize an object that does not implement the Serializable interface.

The default serialization mechanism is implemented by the writeObject() method in ObjectOutputStream. When an object is serialized, the class of the object is encoded, along with the class name, the signature of the class, the values of the non-static and non-transient fields of the object, including any other objects referenced by the object (except those that do not implement the Serializable interface themselves). Multiple references to the same object are encoded using a reference-sharing mechanism, so that a graph of objects can be restored appropriately. Strings and arrays are objects in Java, so they are treated as objects during serialization (and deserialization).

The default deserialization mechanism mirrors the serialization mechanism. The default deserialization mechanism is implemented by the readObject() method in ObjectInputStream. When an object is deserialized, the non-static and non-transient fields of the object are restored to the values they had when the object was serialized, including any other objects referenced by the object (except for those objects that do not implement the Serializable interface themselves). New object instances are always allocated during the deserialization process, to prevent existing objects from being overwritten. Deserialized objects are returned as instances of type Object, so they should be cast to the appropriate type.

Some classes can simply implement the Serializable interface and make use of the default serialization and deserialization mechanisms. However, a class may need to handle two other issues in order to work with serialization:

A class can override the default serialization logic by defining the following method:

private void writeObject(ObjectOutputStream stream) throws IOException

Now, when an object of the class is serialized, this method is called instead of the default mechanism. Note that writeObject() is private, so it is not inherited by subclasses. The implementation of a writeObject() method normally begins by calling the defaultWriteObject() method of ObjectOutputStream, which implements the default serialization logic. After that, a writeObject() method normally goes on to write whatever information is appropriate to reconstruct values that are not directly serialized.

By the same token, a class can override the default deserialization logic by defining the following method:

private void readObject(ObjectInputStream stream)
             throws IOException, ClassNotFoundException

Now, when an object of the class is deserialized, this method is called instead of the default mechanism. readObject() is also private and thus not inherited by subclasses. The implementation of a readObject() method normally begins by calling the defaultReadObject() method of ObjectInputStream, which implements the default deserialization logic. After that, a readObject() method normally goes on to read whatever information is appropriate to reconstruct the values that are not directly serialized.

Let's take a look at a Serializable class that has writeObject() and readObject() methods. The example below is a partial listing of a class that accesses data using a RandomAccessFile object. RandomAccessFile objects are not Serializable because they encapsulate information that is meaningful only on the local system and only for a limited amount of time.

public class TextFileReader implements Serializable {
    private transient RandomAccessFile file;
    private String browseFileName;
    ...
    private void writeObject(ObjectOutputStream stream) throws IOException{
        stream.defaultWriteObject();
        stream.writeLong(file.getFilePointer());
    }
    private void readObject(ObjectInputStream stream) throws IOException {
        try {
            stream.defaultReadObject();
        }catch (ClassNotFoundException e) {
            String msg = "Unable to find class";
            if (e.getMessage() != null)
                msg += ": " + e.getMessage();
            throw new IOException(msg);
        }
        file = new RandomAccessFile(browseFileName, "r");
        file.seek(stream.readLong());
    }
}

The above example gets around being unable to serialize RandomAccessFile objects by having enough information during deserialization to construct a RandomAccessFile object that is similar to the original. The name of the file accessed by the RandomAccessFile object is specified by the browseFileName variable; this state information is handled by the default serialization mechanism. In addition, the writeObject() method writes out the current value returned by the original RandomAccessFile object's getFilePointer() method, so that readObject() can pass that value to the seek() method of a new RandomAccessFile object.

Some sets of objects are more complicated to reconstruct than an instance of the above class and its RandomAccessFile object. In such cases, the information to reconstruct the objects may be spread out over multiple objects in the set. The ObjectInputValidation interface provides a way to handle this situation. As the readObject() method of ObjectInputStream reads a set of objects, it notices which of those objects implement the ObjectInputValidation interface. After readObject() is done reading a set of objects, but before it returns, it calls the validateObject() method for each object in the set that implements the ObjectInputValidation interface. If one of those methods is unable to properly reconstruct something or detects an inconsistency of some sort, it should throw an ObjectInvalidException. Note that the order in which the validateObject() methods are called is not documented.

It is also possible for a class to take complete control over its serialized representation, using the Externalizable interface. The Externalizable interface extends the Serializable interface and defines two methods: writeExternal() and readExternal(). During serialization, if an object implements Externalizable, its writeExternal() method is called. The writeExternal() method is responsible for writing all of the information in the object. Similarly, during deserialization, if an object implements Externalizable, its readExternal() method is called. The readExternal() method is responsible for reading all of the information in the object. Note that the Externalizable mechanism is used instead of, not in addition to, the mechanism for handling Serializable objects.


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