[TOC] [Prev] [Next]
When Java objects use serialization to save state in files, or as blobs in
databases, the potential arises that the version of a class reading the data is
different than the version that wrote the data.
Versioning raises some fundamental questions about the identity of a class,
including what constitutes a compatible change. A compatible change is a change
that does not affect the contract between the class and its callers.
This section describes the goals, assumptions, and a solution that attempts to
address this problem by restricting the kinds of changes allowed and by
carefully choosing the mechanisms.
The proposed solution provides a mechanism for "automatic" handling of
classes that evolve by adding fields and adding classes. Serialization will
handle versioning without class-specific methods to be implemented for each
version. The stream format can be traversed without invoking class-specific
The goals are to:
The assumptions are that:
- Support bidirectional communication between different versions of a class
operating in different virtual machines by:
- Defining a mechanism that allows Java classes to read streams written by
older versions of the same class.
- Defining a mechanism that allows Java classes to write streams intended
to be read by older versions of the same class.
- Provide default serialization for persistence and for RMI.
- Perform well and produce compact streams in simple cases, so that RMI can
- Be able to identify and load classes that match the exact class used to write
- Keep the overhead low for nonversioned classes.
- Use a stream format that allows the traversal of the stream without having
to invoke methods specific to the objects saved in the stream.
In the evolution of classes, it is the responsibility of the evolved (later version)
class to maintain the contract established by the nonevolved class. This takes
two forms. First, the evolved class must not break the existing assumptions
about the interface provided by the original version, so that the evolved class
can be used in place of the original. Secondly, when communicating with the
original (or previous) versions, the evolved class must provide sufficient and
equivalent information to allow the earlier version to continue to satisfy the
- Versioning will only apply to serializable classes since it must control the
stream format to achieve it goals. Externalizable classes will be responsible
for their own versioning which is tied to the external format.
- All data and objects must be read from, or skipped in, the stream in the
same order as they were written.
- Classes evolve individually as well as in concert with supertypes and
- Classes are identified by name. Two classes with the same name may be
different versions or completely different classes that can be distinguished
only by comparing their interfaces or by comparing hashes of the interfaces.
- Default serialization will not perform any type conversions.
- The stream format only needs to support a linear sequence of type changes,
not arbitrary branching of a type.
For the purposes of the discussion here, each class implements and extends the
interface or contract defined by its supertype. New versions of a class, for
example foo', must continue to satisfy the contract for foo and may extend the
interface or modify its implementation.
Communication between objects via serialization is not part of the contract
defined by these interfaces. Serialization is a private protocol between the
implementations. It is the responsibility of the implementations to
communicate sufficiently to allow each implementation to continue to satisfy
the contract expected by its clients.
In the Java Language Specification, Chapter 13 discusses binary compatibility of
Java classes as those classes evolve. Most of the flexibility of binary
compatibility comes from the use of late binding of symbolic references for the
names of classes, interfaces, fields, methods, and so on.
The following are the principle aspects of the design for versioning of
serialized object streams.
With these concepts, we can now describe how the design will cope with the
different cases of an evolving class. The cases are described in terms of a
stream written by some version of a class. When the stream is read back by the
same version of the class, there is no loss of information or functionality. The
stream is the only source of information about the original class. Its class
descriptions, while a subset of the original class description, are sufficient to
match up the data in the stream with the version of the class being
- The default serialization mechanism will use a symbolic model for binding
the fields in the stream to the fields in the corresponding class in the virtual
- Each class referenced in the stream will uniquely identify itself, its
supertype, and the types and names of each nonstatic and nontransient field
written to the stream. The fields are ordered with the primitive types first
sorted by field name, followed by the object fields sorted by field name.
- Two types of data may occur in the stream for each class: required data
(corresponding directly to the nonstatic and nontransient fields of the
object); and optional data (consisting of an arbitrary sequence of primitives
and objects). The stream format defines how the required and optional data
occur in the stream so that the whole class, the required, or the optional
parts can be skipped if necessary.
- The required data consists of the fields of the object in the order defined
by the class descriptor.
- The optional data is written to the stream and does not correspond
directly to fields of the class. The class itself is responsible for the length,
types, and versioning of this optional information.
- If defined for a class, the writeObject/readObject methods supersede the
default mechanism to write/read the state of the class. These methods write
and read the optional data for a class. The required data is written by calling
defaultWriteObject and read by calling
- The stream format of each class is identified by the use of a Stream Unique
Identifier (SUID). By default, this is the hash of the class. All later versions
of the class must declare the Stream Unique Identifier (SUID) that they are
compatible with. This guards against classes with the same name that might
inadvertently be identified as being versions of a single class.
- Subtypes of ObjectOutputStream and ObjectInputStream may include their
own information identifying the class using the annotateClass method; for
example, MarshalOutputStream embeds the URL of the class.
The descriptions are from the perspective of the stream being read in order to
reconstitute either an earlier or later version of the class. In the parlance of RPC
systems, this is a "receiver makes right" system. The writer writes its data in
the most suitable form and the receiver must interpret that information to
extract the parts it needs and to fill in the parts that are not available.
Incompatible changes to classes are those changes for which the guarantee of
interoperability cannot be maintained. The incompatible changes that may
occur while evolving a class are:
The compatible changes to a class are handled as follows:
- Deleting fields - If a field is deleted in a class, the stream written will not
contain its value. When the stream is read by an earlier class, the value of
the field will be set to the default value because no value is available in the
stream. However, this default value may adversely impair the ability of the
earlier version to fulfill its contract.
- Moving classes up or down the hierarchy - This cannot be allowed since the
data in the stream appears in the wrong sequence.
- Changing a nonstatic field to static or a nontransient field to transient - This
is equivalent to deleting a field from the class. This version of the class will
not write that data to the stream, so it will not be available to be read by
earlier versions of the class. As when deleting a field, the field of the earlier
version will be initialized to the default value, which can cause the class to
fail in unexpected ways.
- Changing the declared type of a primitive field - Each version of the class
writes the data with its declared type. Earlier versions of the class
attempting to read the field will fail because the type of the data in the
stream does not match the type of the field.
- Changing the writeObject or readObject method so that it no longer writes
or reads the default field data or changing it so that it attempts to write it or
read it when the previous version did not. The default field data must
consistently either appear or not appear in the stream.
- Changing a class from Serializable to Externalizable or visa-versa is an
incompatible change since the stream will contain data that is incompatible
with the implementation in the available class.
- Removing either Serializable or Externalizable is an incompatible change
since when written it will not longer supply the fields needed by older
versions of the class.
- Adding fields - When the class being reconstituted has a field that does not
occur in the stream, that field in the object will be initialized to the default
value for its type. If class-specific initialization is needed, the class may
provide a readObject method that can initialize the field to nondefault
- Adding classes - The stream will contain the type hierarchy of each object in
the stream. Comparing this hierarchy in the stream with the current class
can detect additional classes. Since there is no information in the stream
from which to initialize the object, the class's fields will be initialized to the
- Removing classes - Comparing the class hierarchy in the stream with that of
the current class can detect that a class has been deleted. In this case, the
fields and objects corresponding to that class are read from the stream.
Primitive fields are discarded, but the objects referenced by the deleted class
are created, since they may be referred to later in the stream. They will be
garbage-collected when the stream is garbage-collected or reset.
- Adding writeObject/readObject methods - If the version reading the stream
has these methods then readObject is expected, as usual, to read the
required data written to the stream by the default serialization. It should call
defaultReadObject first before reading any optional data. The
writeObject method is expected as usual to call
to write the required data and then may write optional data.
- Removing writeObject/readObject methods - If the class reading the stream
does not have these methods, the required data will be read by default
serialization, and the optional data will be discarded.
- Adding java.io.Serializable - This is equivalent to adding types. There will
be no values in the stream for this class so its fields will be initialized to
default values. The support for subclassing nonserializable classes requires
that the class's supertype have a no-arg constructor and the class itself will
be initialized to default values. If the no-arg constructor is not available, the
NotSerializableException is thrown.
- Removing java.io.Serializable so that it is no longer Serializable - This is
equivalent to removing the class, and it can be dealt with by reading and
discarding data for the class.
- Changing the access to a field - The access modifiers public, package,
protected, and private have no effect on the ability of serialization to assign
values to the fields.
- Changing a field from static to nonstatic or transient to nontransient - This is
equivalent to adding a field to the class. The new field will be written to the
stream but earlier classes will ignore the value since serialization will not
assign values to static or transient fields.
[TOC] [Prev] [Next]
Copyright © 1996, 1997 Sun Microsystems, Inc. All rights