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Java in a Nutshell

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9.2 Custom Serialization

Not every piece of program state can, or should be, serialized. Some things, like FileDescriptor objects, are inherently platform-specific or virtual-machine-dependent. If a FileDescriptor were serialized, it would have no meaning when deserialized in a different virtual machine. For this reason, and also for important security reasons, not all objects can be serialized.

Only classes that implement the Serializable or Externalizable interface can be written to or read from an object stream. Serializable is a marker interface, like Cloneable: it doesn't define any methods and serves only to specify whether an object is allowed to be serialized. The Externalizable interface does define methods, and is used by objects that want advanced control over the way they are written and read. We'll see more about Externalizable objects later in this chapter. It is worth noting at this point that Component implements Serializable, which means that all AWT components can be serialized.

Even when an object is serializable, it may not make sense for it to serialize all of its state. For example, in the Scribble example shown in Chapter 8, New AWT Features, the last_x and last_y fields store the current position of the mouse and only contain valid data while the user has a mouse button pressed. The values of these fields will never be of interest (or use) when such an object is deserialized, so there is no need to bother saving the values of these fields as part of the Scribble object's state. To tell the serialization mechanism that a field should not be saved, simply declare it transient:

protected transient short last_x, last_y; // Temporary fields for mouse pos.

The transient modifier keyword has always been a legal part of the Java language, but it was not assigned any meaning until Java 1.1.

There are situations where a field is not transient--i.e., it does contain an important part of an object's state--but for some reason it cannot be successfully serialized. One example is a custom AWT component that computes its preferred size based on the size of the text it displays. Because fonts have slight size variations from platform to platform, this pre-computed preferred size will not be valid if the component is serialized on one type of platform and deserialized on another. Since the preferred size fields will not be valid when deserialized, they should be declared transient so that they don't take up space in the serialized object. But in this case, their values should be re-computed when the object is deserialized.

A class can define custom serialization and deserialization behavior for its objects by implementing writeObject() and readObject() methods. Suprisingly, these methods are not defined by any interface. The methods must be declared private, which is also suprising if you think about it, as they are called from outside of the class during serialization and deserialization. If a class defines these methods, the appropriate one is invoked by the ObjectOutputStream or ObjectInputStream when an object is serialized or deserialized.

For example, our custom component might define a readObject() method to give it an opportunity to re-compute its preferred size upon deserialization. The method might look like this:

private void readObject(ObjectInputStream in)
             throws IOException, ClassNotFoundException {
  in.defaultReadObject();      // Deserialize the component in the usual way.
  this.computePreferredSize(); // But then go recompute its size.
}

This method calls the defaultReadObject() method of the ObjectInputStream to deserialize the object as normal, and then takes care of the post-processing it needs to perform.

Example 9.2 is a more complete example of custom serialization. It shows a class that implements a growable array of numbers. This class defines a writeObject() method to do some pre-processing before being serialized and a readObject() method to do post-processing after deserialization.

Example 9.2: Serialization with Pre- and Post-Processing

import java.io.*;
/** A simple class that implements a growable array or ints, and knows
 *  how to serialize itself as efficiently as a non-growable array. */
public class IntList implements Serializable
{
  private int[] nums = new int[8]; // An array to store the numbers.
  private transient int size = 0;  // Index of next unused element of nums[].
  /** Return an element of the array */
  public int elementAt(int index) throws ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException {
    if (index >= size) throw new ArrayIndexOutOfBoundsException(index);
    else return nums[index];
  }
  /** Add an int to the array, growing the array if necessary. */
  public void add(int x) {
    if (nums.length == size) resize(nums.length*2); // Grow array, if needed.
    nums[size++] = x;                               // Store the int in it.
  }
  /** An internal method to change the allocated size of the array. */
  protected void resize(int newsize) {
    int[] oldnums = nums;
    nums = new int[newsize];                     // Create a new array.
    System.arraycopy(oldnums, 0, nums, 0, size); // Copy array elements.
  }
  /** Get rid of unused array elements before serializing the array. */
  private void writeObject(ObjectOutputStream out) throws IOException {
    if (nums.length > size) resize(size);  // Compact the array.
    out.defaultWriteObject();              // Then write it out normally.
  }
  /** Compute the transient size field after deserializing the array. */
  private void readObject(ObjectInputStream in)
          throws IOException, ClassNotFoundException {
    in.defaultReadObject();                // Read the array normally.
    size = nums.length;                    // Restore the transient field.
  }
}


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