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1. Overview

Generally, null variables, references, and collections are tricky to handle in Java code. Not only are they hard to identify, but they're also complex to deal with.

As a matter of fact, any miss in dealing with null cannot be identified at compile time and results in a NullPointerException at runtime.

In this tutorial, we'll take a look at the need to check for null in Java and various alternatives that help us to avoid null checks in our code.

2. What Is NullPointerException?

According to the Javadoc for NullPointerException, it's thrown when an application attempts to use null in a case where an object is required, such as:

  • Calling an instance method of a null object
  • Accessing or modifying a field of a null object
  • Taking the length of null as if it were an array
  • Accessing or modifying the slots of null as if it were an array
  • Throwing null as if it were a Throwable value

Let's quickly see a few examples of the Java code that cause this exception:

public void doSomething() {
    String result = doSomethingElse();
    if (result.equalsIgnoreCase("Success")) 
        // success
    }
}

private String doSomethingElse() {
    return null;
}

Here, we tried to invoke a method call for a null reference. This would result in a NullPointerException.

Another common example is if we try to access a null array:

public static void main(String[] args) {
    findMax(null);
}

private static void findMax(int[] arr) {
    int max = arr[0];
    //check other elements in loop
}

This causes a NullPointerException at line 6.

Thus, accessing any field, method, or index of a null object causes a NullPointerException, as can be seen from the examples above.

A common way of avoiding the NullPointerException is to check for null:

public void doSomething() {
    String result = doSomethingElse();
    if (result != null && result.equalsIgnoreCase("Success")) {
        // success
    }
    else
        // failure
}

private String doSomethingElse() {
    return null;
}

In the real world, programmers find it hard to identify which objects can be null. An aggressively safe strategy could be to check null for every object. This, however, causes a lot of redundant null checks and makes our code less readable.

In the next few sections, we'll go through some of the alternatives in Java that avoid such redundancy.

3. Handling null Through the API Contract

As discussed in the last section, accessing methods or variables of null objects causes a NullPointerException. We also discussed that putting a null check on an object before accessing it eliminates the possibility of NullPointerException.

However, often there are APIs that can handle null values. For example:

public void print(Object param) {
    System.out.println("Printing " + param);
}

public Object process() throws Exception {
    Object result = doSomething();
    if (result == null) {
        throw new Exception("Processing fail. Got a null response");
    } else {
        return result;
    }
}

The print() method call would just print “null” but won't throw an exception. Similarly, process() would never return null in its response. It rather throws an Exception.

So for a client code accessing the above APIs, there is no need for a null check.

However, such APIs must make it explicit in their contract. A common place for APIs to publish such a contract is the JavaDoc.

This, however, gives no clear indication of the API contract and thus relies on the client code developers to ensure its compliance.

In the next section, we'll see how a few IDEs and other development tools help developers with this.

4. Automating API Contracts

4.1. Using Static Code Analysis

Static code analysis tools help improve the code quality to a great deal. And a few such tools also allow the developers to maintain the null contract. One example is FindBugs.

FindBugs helps manage the null contract through the @Nullable and @NonNull annotations. We can use these annotations over any method, field, local variable, or parameter. This makes it explicit to the client code whether the annotated type can be null or not. Let's see an example:

public void accept(@Nonnull Object param) {
    System.out.println(param.toString());
}

Here, @NonNull makes it clear that the argument cannot be null. If the client code calls this method without checking the argument for null, FindBugs would generate a warning at compile time. 

4.2. Using IDE Support

Developers generally rely on IDEs for writing Java code. And features such as smart code completion and useful warnings, like when a variable may not have been assigned, certainly help to a great extent.

Some IDEs also allow developers to manage API contracts and thereby eliminate the need for a static code analysis tool. IntelliJ IDEA provides the @NonNull and @Nullable annotations. To add the support for these annotations in IntelliJ, we must add the following Maven dependency:

<dependency>
    <groupId>org.jetbrains</groupId>
    <artifactId>annotations</artifactId>
    <version>16.0.2</version>
</dependency>

Now, IntelliJ will generate a warning if the null check is missing, like in our last example.

IntelliJ also provides a Contract annotation for handling complex API contracts.

5. Assertions

Until now, we've only talked about removing the need for null checks from the client code. But, that is rarely applicable in real-world applications.

Now, let's suppose that we're working with an API that cannot accept null parameters or can return a null response that must be handled by the client. This presents the need for us to check the parameters or the response for a null value.

Here, we can use Java Assertions instead of the traditional null check conditional statement:

public void accept(Object param){
    assert param != null;
    doSomething(param);
}

In line 2, we check for a null parameter. If the assertions are enabled, this would result in an AssertionError.

Although it is a good way of asserting pre-conditions like non-null parameters, this approach has two major problems:

  1. Assertions are usually disabled in a JVM
  2. false assertion results in an unchecked error that is irrecoverable

Hence, it is not recommended for programmers to use Assertions for checking conditions. In the following sections, we'll discuss other ways of handling null validations.

6. Avoiding Null Checks Through Coding Practices

6.1. Preconditions

It's usually a good practice to write code that fails early. Therefore, if an API accepts multiple parameters that aren't allowed to be null, it's better to check for every non-null parameter as a precondition of the API.

For example, let's look at two methods – one that fails early, and one that doesn't:

public void goodAccept(String one, String two, String three) {
    if (one == null || two == null || three == null) {
        throw new IllegalArgumentException();
    }

    process(one);
    process(two);
    process(three);
}

public void badAccept(String one, String two, String three) {
    if (one == null) {
        throw new IllegalArgumentException();
    } else {
        process(one);
    }

    if (two == null) {
        throw new IllegalArgumentException();
    } else {
        process(two);
    }

    if (three == null) {
        throw new IllegalArgumentException();
    } else {
        process(three);
    }
}

Clearly, we should prefer goodAccept() over badAccept().

As an alternative, we can also use Guava's Preconditions for validating API parameters.

6.2. Using Primitives Instead of Wrapper Classes

Since null is not an acceptable value for primitives like int, we should prefer them over their wrapper counterparts like Integer wherever possible.

Consider two implementations of a method that sums two integers:

public static int primitiveSum(int a, int b) {
    return a + b;
}

public static Integer wrapperSum(Integer a, Integer b) {
    return a + b;
}

Now, let's call these APIs in our client code:

int sum = primitiveSum(null, 2);

This would result in a compile-time error since null is not a valid value for an int.

And when using the API with wrapper classes, we get a NullPointerException:

assertThrows(NullPointerException.class, () -> wrapperSum(null, 2));

There are also other factors for using primitives over wrappers, as we covered in another tutorial, Java Primitives versus Objects.

6.3. Empty Collections

Occasionally, we need to return a collection as a response from a method. For such methods, we should always try to return an empty collection instead of null:

public List<String> names() {
    if (userExists()) {
        return Stream.of(readName()).collect(Collectors.toList());
    } else {
        return Collections.emptyList();
    }
}

Hence, we've avoided the need for our client to perform a null check when calling this method.

7. Using Objects 

Java 7 introduced the new Objects API. This API has several static utility methods that take away a lot of redundant code. Let's look at one such method, requireNonNull():

public void accept(Object param) {
    Objects.requireNonNull(param);
    // doSomething()
}

Now, let's test the accept() method:

assertThrows(NullPointerException.class, () -> accept(null));

So, if null is passed as an argument, accept() throws a NullPointerException.

This class also has isNull() and nonNull() methods that can be used as predicates to check an object for null.

8. Using Optional

Java 8 introduced a new Optional API in the language. This offers a better contract for handling optional values as compared to null. Let's see how Optional takes away the need for null checks:

public Optional<Object> process(boolean processed) {
    String response = doSomething(processed);

    if (response == null) {
        return Optional.empty();
    }

    return Optional.of(response);
}

private String doSomething(boolean processed) {
    if (processed) {
        return "passed";
    } else {
        return null;
    }
}

By returning an Optional, as shown above, the process() method makes it clear to the caller that the response can be empty and must be handled at compile time.

This notably takes away the need for any null checks in the client code. An empty response can be handled differently using the declarative style of the Optional API:

assertThrows(Exception.class, () -> process(false).orElseThrow(() -> new Exception()));

Furthermore, it also provides a better contract to API developers to signify to the clients that an API can return an empty response.

Although we eliminated the need for a null check on the caller of this API, we used it to return an empty response. To avoid this, Optional provides an ofNullable method that returns an Optional with the specified value, or empty, if the value is null:

public Optional<Object> process(boolean processed) {
    String response = doSomething(processed);
    return Optional.ofNullable(response);
}

9. Libraries

9.1. Using Lombok

Lombok is a great library that reduces the amount of boilerplate code in our projects. It comes with a set of annotations that take the place of common parts of code we often write ourselves in Java applications, such as getters, setters, and toString(), to name a few.

Another of its annotations is @NonNull. So, if a project already uses Lombok to eliminate boilerplate code, @NonNull can replace the need for null checks.

Before we move on to see some examples, let's add a Maven dependency for Lombok:

<dependency>
    <groupId>org.projectlombok</groupId>
    <artifactId>lombok</artifactId>
    <version>1.18.6</version>
</dependency>

Now, we can use @NonNull wherever a null check is needed:

public void accept(@NonNull Object param){
    System.out.println(param);
}

So, we simply annotated the object for which the null check would've been required, and Lombok generates the compiled class:

public void accept(@NonNull Object param) {
    if (param == null) {
        throw new NullPointerException("param");
    } else {
        System.out.println(param);
    }
}

If param is null, this method throws a NullPointerException. The method must make this explicit in its contract, and the client code must handle the exception.

9.2. Using StringUtils

Generally, String validation includes a check for an empty value in addition to null value. Therefore, a common validation statement would be:

public void accept(String param){
    if (null != param && !param.isEmpty())
        System.out.println(param);
}

This quickly becomes redundant if we have to deal with a lot of String types. This is where StringUtils comes handy. Before we see this in action, let's add a Maven dependency for commons-lang3:

<dependency>
    <groupId>org.apache.commons</groupId>
    <artifactId>commons-lang3</artifactId>
    <version>3.8.1</version>
</dependency>

Let's now refactor the above code with StringUtils:

public void accept(String param) {
    if (StringUtils.isNotEmpty(param))
        System.out.println(param);
}

So, we replaced our null or empty check with a static utility method isNotEmpty(). This API offers other powerful utility methods for handling common String functions.

10. Conclusion

In this article, we looked at the various reasons for NullPointerException and why it is hard to identify. Then, we saw various ways to avoid the redundancy in code around checking for null with parameters, return types, and other variables.

All the examples are available on GitHub.

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