Tuesday, November 27, 2007

JSR 294 SuperPackages

JSR 294 has produced their public draft of superpackages! Somehow the exclamation mark seems necessary with this name ... Anyway, superpackages are a new construct for Java 7 to improve modularity. Originally JSR 277 was going to take care of modularity but Gilead Bracha (formerly Sun) thought that deployers could not be trusted with language elements and spun off JSR 294 after he published a spin about superpackages in his blog.

Superpackages address the ever present need to encapsulate. Types encapsulate fields and methods, packages encapsulate types, and superpackages encapsulate, packages and superpackages. When Java was designed packages were intended to be a set of closely related types, a.k.a. a module. However, systems have become larger and larger and packages turned out to not have the right granularity. It could have worked if packages had been nested, but this would of course have limited the flexibility of the programmer and Sun favors configuration over convention.

For the OSGi specifications we came up with the JAR file as a module of packages. Packages can be exported and imported, allowing the developer to keep classes private or expose them to be used by others. Modularity in OSGi is therefore a deployment concept, the same packages can be members of different modules/bundles. OSGi service platforms enforce these rules with the aid of class loaders.

However, purists want to have the modularity in the language itself, therefore superpackages were born in Sunville. Superpackages group a set of named (super-)packages and export types from these packages. First let me make clear that I have not seen anything in the public review draft that would make it hard for OSGi to support superpackages. The current incarnation of the OSGi framework will be more or less oblivious of superpackages. The accessibility rules are enforced by the VM and the system works with normal class/resource loading rules. Superpackages and its member types (not member superpackages) must come from the same class-loader/bundle, but that does not look like an issue. So from an OSGi point of view there is no reason for concern with JSR 294 as long as a superpackage and its member packages come from the same bundle.*

So the remainder is just a technical review of the technical merits of 294, the OSGi specifications are not affected by it.

The superpackages specification is surprisingly complex. The current model is depicted in the following picture.

When you begin a class you give it a package name with the package keyword:

package com.foo;
class A { ... }

That is, the class defines its membership to a package. This is different from a superpackage that honors its name looking at the complexity it introduces. The following picture shows a similar diagram when superpackages are introduced.

This clearly is supercomplex in comparison with the current model. The major drawback is the redundancy that is introduced by this model. When I went to school ages ago I was thought that redundancy is bad. Over time I learned that redundancy can improve a system but the cost always remains. In the case the redundancy actually seems to create a very brittle structure that makes deployment unnecessary rigid.

First, superpackage links are always bidirectional and can therefore easily be wrong. A class file points to the superpackage file and the superpackage file points to the packages of these class files. That is, if you move a package to another superpackage the superpackage definition file and the sources of the types must be modified. Fortunately wildcards can be used in the superpackage to identify the exported classes, though this means that any change in a type requires recompilation of the superpackage definition.

The same is true for superpackage parenthood and membership. This link is also bidirectional, the parent must list its children and the children must list their parent. A superpackage is restricted to one parent, it is a true hierarchy. By the way, the top of the hierarchy is the unnamed superpackage.

A data structure that is so error prone is not elegant. Though we have good refactoring tools today in Eclipse, IDEA, and Netbeans, I do not think it is a good excuse to design data structures that are so error prone ... but it happens alarmingly often nowadays.

However, the restriction is something that worries me most because it seems to create a system that I have hard time to see how it should work. The restriction is intentional, from section 7.4.5:
If a superpackage did not have to declare which superpackage it is nested in, then the following problem could occur. Consider these superpackages, where Outer.Inner does not declare that it is nested in Outer.

superpackage Outer {
member superpackage Outer.Inner;
superpackage Outer.Inner {
member package foo;
export foo.C;

If a type outside the Outer.Inner superpackage tries to access foo.C, then the access
would succeed because foo.C is exported from Outer.Inner and neither C.class nor the
superpackage file for Outer.Inner mentions the fact that Outer.Inner is a non-exported nested superpackage of Outer. The intent of the Outer superpackage - to restrict access to members of Outer.Inner - is subverted.
Clearly, they have chosen restriction over convenience. However, the consequences of this are quite far reaching. Let us take a look at the access rules. I always need pictures for these things so we need a legend:

* = There is a slight concern with section 5.3.5 of the Classfile and VM changes of the 294classfilevm.html file. In the last paragraph it states that a superpackage and its member types must be loaded from the same class loader. I interpret this as its direct members, however, one could interpret this as an member type of the enclosed super packages. If this unlikely interpretation is true, all superpackages would have to come from the same class loader, which seems silly. However, 7.1.1 defines type membership transitively giving credence to the silly interpretation. Needs work.

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