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1. Introduction

In this tutorial, we’ll have a quick look at java’s java.io.Externalizable interface. The main goal of this interface is to facilitate custom serialization and deserialization.

Before we go ahead, make sure you check out the serialization in Java article. The next chapter is about how to serialize a Java object with this interface.

After that, we’re going to discuss the key differences compared to the java.io.Serializable interface.

2. The Externalizable Interface

Externalizable extends from the java.io.Serializable marker interface. Any class that implements Externalizable interface should override the writeExternal(), readExternal() methods. That way we can change the JVM’s default serialization behavior.

2.1. Serialization

Let’s have a look at this simple example:

public class Country implements Externalizable {
  
    private static final long serialVersionUID = 1L;
  
    private String name;
    private int code;
  
    // getters, setters
  
    @Override
    public void writeExternal(ObjectOutput out) throws IOException {
        out.writeUTF(name);
        out.writeInt(code);
    }
  
    @Override
    public void readExternal(ObjectInput in) 
      throws IOException, ClassNotFoundException {
        this.name = in.readUTF();
        this.code = in.readInt();
    }
}

Here, we’ve defined a class Country that implements the Externalizable interface and implements the two methods mentioned above.

In the writeExternal() method, we’re adding the object’s properties to the ObjectOutput stream. This has standard methods like writeUTF() for String and writeInt() for the int values.

Next, for deserializing the object, we’re reading from the ObjectInput stream using the readUTF(), readInt() methods to read the properties in the same exact order in which they were written.

It’s a good practice to add the serialVersionUID manually. If this is absent, the JVM will automatically add one.

The automatically generated number is compiler dependent. This means it may cause an unlikely InvalidClassException.

Let’s test the behavior we implemented above:

@Test
public void whenSerializing_thenUseExternalizable() 
  throws IOException, ClassNotFoundException {
       
    Country c = new Country();
    c.setCode(374);
    c.setName("Armenia");
   
    FileOutputStream fileOutputStream
     = new FileOutputStream(OUTPUT_FILE);
    ObjectOutputStream objectOutputStream
     = new ObjectOutputStream(fileOutputStream);
    c.writeExternal(objectOutputStream);
   
    objectOutputStream.flush();
    objectOutputStream.close();
    fileOutputStream.close();
   
    FileInputStream fileInputStream
     = new FileInputStream(OUTPUT_FILE);
    ObjectInputStream objectInputStream
     = new ObjectInputStream(fileInputStream);
   
    Country c2 = new Country();
    c2.readExternal(objectInputStream);
   
    objectInputStream.close();
    fileInputStream.close();
   
    assertTrue(c2.getCode() == c.getCode());
    assertTrue(c2.getName().equals(c.getName()));
}

In this example, we’re first creating a Country object and writing it to a file. Then, we’re deserializing the object from the file and verifying the values are correct.

The output of the printed c2 object:

Country{name='Armenia', code=374}

This shows we’ve successfully deserialized the object.

2.2. Inheritance

When a class inherits from the Serializable interface, the JVM automatically collects all the fields from sub-classes as well and makes them serializable.

Keep in mind that we can apply this to Externalizable as well. We just need to implement the read/write methods for every sub-class of the inheritance hierarchy.

Let’s look at the Region class below which extends our Country class from the previous section:

public class Region extends Country implements Externalizable {
 
    private static final long serialVersionUID = 1L;
 
    private String climate;
    private Double population;
 
    // getters, setters
 
    @Override
    public void writeExternal(ObjectOutput out) throws IOException {
        super.writeExternal(out);
        out.writeUTF(climate);
    }
 
    @Override
    public void readExternal(ObjectInput in) 
      throws IOException, ClassNotFoundException {
 
        super.readExternal(in);
        this.climate = in.readUTF();
    }
}

Here, we added two additional properties and serialized the first one.

Note that we also called super.writeExternal(out), super.readExternal(in) within serializer methods to save/restore the parent class fields as well.

Let’s run the unit test with the following data:

Region r = new Region();
r.setCode(374);
r.setName("Armenia");
r.setClimate("Mediterranean");
r.setPopulation(120.000);

Here’s the deserialized object:

Region{
  country='Country{
    name='Armenia',
    code=374}'
  climate='Mediterranean', 
  population=null
}

Notice that since we didn’t serialize the population field in Region class, the value of that property is null.

3. Externalizable vs Serializable

Let’s go through the key differences between the two interfaces:

  • Serialization Responsibility

The key difference here is how we handle the serialization process. When a class implements the java.io.Serializable interface, the JVM takes full responsibility for serializing the class instance. In case of Externalizable, it’s the programmer who should take care of the whole serialization and also deserialization process.

  • Use Case

If we need to serialize the entire object, the Serializable interface is a better fit. On the other hand, for custom serialization, we can control the process using Externalizable.

  • Performance

The java.io.Serializable interface uses reflection and metadata which causes relatively slow performance. By comparison, the Externalizable interface gives you full control over the serialization process.

  • Reading Order

While using Externalizable, it’s mandatory to read all the field states in the exact order as they were written. Otherwise, we’ll get an exception.

For example, if we change the reading order of the code and name properties in the Country class, a java.io.EOFException will be thrown.

Meanwhile, the Serializable interface doesn’t have that requirement.

  • Custom Serialization

We can achieve custom serialization with the Serializable interface by marking the field with transient keyword. The JVM won’t serialize the particular field but it’ll add up the field to file storage with the default value. That’s why it’s a good practice to use Externalizable in case of custom serialization.

4. Conclusion

In this short guide to the Externalizable interface, we discussed the key features, advantages and demonstrated examples of simple use. We also made a comparison with the Serializable interface.

As usual, the full source code of the tutorial is available over on GitHub.

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