Strong typing–you either love it or hate it! Elaborate type systems catch a lot of programming errors at compile time. On the other hand they impose the burden of type annotation on the programmer, and they sometimes disallow valid programs or force type casting.

In Java there’s been a never-ending discussion about the lack of support for const types. People coming from the C++ background see it as a major flaw. Others would defend Java from constness with their own bodies.

I’m always on the lookout for solutions that let programmers have a cake and eat it too. Pluggable types are just the thing. You want const enforcement? Add a constness plug to your compiler. You want compile time null reference checks? Add another plug.

How is it possible?

Java annotations as type modifiers

Did you know that Java had a system of user-defined annotations (C# has a similar thing)? Annotations start with the @ sign and can be used, for instance, to annotate classes or variables. The Java compiler doesn’t do much with them other then embed them as metadata in class files. They can be retrieved at runtime as part of the reflection mechanism.

I never thought of annotations as more than an ad hoc curiosity until I read Matthew Papi’s Ph.D. thesis, Practical pluggable types for Java. The paper proposes the use annotations to extend the Java type system. This work contributed to the JSR 308 proposal, which allows annotations to appear anywhere types are used. For instance, you could annotate a declaration of an object with the @NonNull qualifier:

@NonNull Object nnObj;

or declare a read-only list of read-only elements:

class UnmodifiableList<T>
  implements @ReadOnly List<@ReadOnly T>
{ ... }

What distinguishes such annotations from bona fide comments is that they can be type checked by user-defined checkers. These checkers can be plugged into the compiler and run during compilation. They get access to abstract syntax trees (ASTs) produced by the language parser, so they can also do semantic checks (e.g., detect method calls through a potentially null pointer).

Examples of type system extensions

A simple NonNull checker detects assignments of potentially null objects to non-null objects, as in:

Object obj;
@NonNull Object nnObj = obj; // warning!

The checker must know that the default qualifier is @Nullable (potentially null) and @NonNull is a “subtype” of @Nullable (strinctly speaking, @NonNull T is a subtype of @Nullable T). In fact, simple type annotations of the @Nullable variety may be defined within the program and type-checked by the generic Basic Type Checker provided as part of the type checker framework. For instance, the subtyping relationship may expressed declaratively as:

    @SubtypeOf( { Nullable.class } )
    public @interface NonNull { }

However, a specialized checker can do more than just check type correctness. The NonNull checker, for instance, issues a warning every time the program tries to dereference a @Nullable object (remember that @Nullable is the default implicit annotation).

An even more useful checker enforces immutability constraints (the generalization of const types). The IGJ checker (Immutability Generic Java) introduces, among others, the following annotations:

  • @Mutable: The default. Allows the object to be modified.
  • @ReadOnly: An object cannot be modified through this reference. This is analogous to C++ const reference.
  • @Immutable: An object may not be modified through any reference (not only the current one). Java Strings are immutable.

Incidentally, similar immutability constraints are built into the type system of the D programming language, except that D’s const and immutable (formerly known as invariant) are transitive.

Try it!

Suppose you are a fan of immutability constraints and you want to try them right now. First, download the JSR 308 compiler and checkers from the pluggable types web site. To compile your annotated program, use the command line:

javac -processor checkers.IGJ.IGJChecker <source-files>

If your program doesn’t obey immutability constraints specified in your source code, you’ll see a bunch of warnings and errors.

Now for the annotations. You might want to do them bottom up:

  • Annotate methods that don’t modify this:
    void foo() @ReadOnly;

    These methods may only call other @ReadOnly methods of the same object (the checker will tell you if you break this rule).

  • Annotate arguments that are not modified by a method, e.g.,
    void foo(@ReadOnly Bar bar);
  • Annotate objects that never change after creation:
    @Immutable Bar bar = new @Immutable Bar();

And so on…

You can pass @Immutable as well as @Mutable objects to methods that take @ReadOnly arguments, but not the other way around.

Of course, any attempt to modify a @ReadOnly or @Immutable object will be flagged as error by the checker.

Nullness checker

The nullness checker protects your program from dereferencing uninitialized objects. For instance, you can only call a method or access a property of an object that is typed as @NonNull.

Since the implicit default annotation is @Nullable, the following code will be flagged as an error:

Bar bar;

There are some interesting issues related to nullness. For instance, during object construction, this cannot be considered @NonNull. Consequently you cannot call regular methods from an object’s constructor. To remedy this situation without compromising the type system, a special annotation @Raw was added. Inside the constructor, this (and all @NonNull subobjects under construction) are considered @Raw. So if you want to call an object’s method from inside its constructor, such method must be annotated @Raw.


It’s possible to overload functions based on their nullness annotation. For instance, if you know that a function’s argument is @NonNull, you might want to skip a null test:

String stringize(Bar bar)
   if (bar != null)
      return bar.toString();
      return "";

// Specialized version
String stringize(@NonNull Bar bar)
   return bar.toString();

Interestingly, since the compiler does flow analysis, it knows that inside the if statement bar is not null, even though it’s (implicitly) declared as @Nullable, so it won’t flag it as an error. (This is called flow-dependent typing–I implemented something like that in my Dr. Dobb’s article using local variable shadowing.)

Let’s try something more challenging–declaring the identity function, a function that simply returns its argument. The naive declaration

T identity(T x);

has a problem when nullability annotations are in force. Since the default annotation is @Nullable, the above is equivalent to

@Nullable T identity(@Nullable T x);

When called with a @NonNull argument, this function will return a @Nullable result. That’s not good! You can ameliorate this situation by declaring a separate overload:

@NonNull T identity(@NonNull T x);

The problem is that, when you keep adding new kinds of type annotations to your system, the number of overloads of identity starts growing exponentially.

Enter polymorphic annotation @PolyNull. The identity function can pass the nullness annotation through, if you declare it as follows:

@PolyNull T identity(@PolyNull T x);

Amazingly enough, @PolyNull will also work with multiple arguments. Consider the max function:

@PolyNull T max(@PolyNull T x, @PolyNull T y);

Through the magic of type unification, this declaration does the right thing. The nullability annotations of both arguments are unified to the lowest common denominator–the most derived annotation in the subtyping hierarchy to which both types can be implicitly converted. So, if both arguments are @NonNull, their unification is @NonNull, and the result is @NonNull. But if even one of the arguments is @Nullable, then the result is @Nullable. Notice that this declaration covers four possible overloads:

@NonNull T max(@NonNull T x, @NonNull T y);
@NullableT max(@NonNull T x, @NullableT y);
@NullableT max(@NullableT x, @NonNull T y);
@Nullable T max(@NullableT x, @NullableT y);

For non-static methods, the annotation of this may also take part in the unification:

@PolyNull T foo(@PolyNull T x) @PolyNull;


One of the limitation of user-defined type annotations is that they can’t take part in program optimization. That’s because the type checker is not allowed to modify the AST. (See Walter Bright’s blog in Dr. Dobbs about optimization opportunities based on immutability in the D programming language.)


Michael Ernst, who was Matthew Papi’s doctoral adviser, clarified some of the issues for me. Since I’m attending his seminar, I’ll be blogging more about his work.