The Object Teams Blog

Adding team spirit to your objects.

Null annotations: prototyping without the pain

with 3 comments


So, I’ve been working on annotations @NonNull and @Nullable so that the Eclipse Java compiler can statically detect your NullPointerExceptions already during compile time (see also bug 186342).

By now it’s clear this new feature will not be shipped as part of Eclipse 3.7, but that needn’t stop you from trying it, as I have uploaded the thing as an OT/Equinox plugin.

Behind the scenes: Object Teams


Today’s post shall focus on how I built that plugin using Object Teams, because it greatly shows three advantages of this technology:

  • easier maintenance
  • easier deployment
  • easier development


Before I go into details, let me express a warm invitation to our EclipseCon tutorial on Thursday morning. We’ll be happy to guide your first steps in using OT/J for your most modular, most flexible and best maintainable code.

Maintenance without the pain

It was suggested that I should create a CVS branch for the null annotation support. This is a natural choice, of course. I chose differently, because I’m tired of double maintenance, I don’t want to spend my time applying patches from one branch to the other and mending merge conflicts. So I avoid it wherever possible. You don’t think this kind of compiler enhancement can be developed outside the HEAD stream of the compiler without incurring double maintenance? Yes it can. With OT/J we have the tight integration that is needed for implementing the feature while keeping the sources well separated.

The code for the annotation support even lives in a different source repository, but the runtime effect is the same as if all this already were an integral part of the JDT/Core. Maybe I should say, that for this particular task the integration using OT/J causes a somewhat noticable performance penalty. The compiler does an awful lot of work and hooking into this busy machine comes at a price. So yes, at the end of the day this should be re-integrated into the JDT/Core. But for the time being the OT/J solution well serves its purpose (and in most other situations you won’t even notice any impact on performance plus we already have further performance improvements in the OT/J runtime in our development pipeline).

Independent deployment

Had I created a branch, the only way to get this to you early adopters would have been via a patch feature. I do have some routine in deploying patch features but they have one big drawback: they create a tight dependency to the exact version of the feature which you are patching. That means, if you have the habit of always updating to the latest I-build of Eclipse I would have to provide a new patch feature for each individual I-build released at Eclipse!

Not so for OT/Equinox plug-ins: in this particular case I have a lower bound: the JDT/Core must be from a build ≥ 20110226. Other than that the same OT/J-based plug-in seemlessly integrates with any Eclipse build. You may wonder, how can I be so sure. There could be changes in the JDT/Core that could break the integration. Theoretically: yes. Actually, as a JDT/Core committer I’ll be the first to know about those changes. But most importantly: from many years’ experience of using this technology I know such breakage is very seldom and should a problem occur it can be fixed in the blink of an eye.

As a special treat the OT/J-based plug-in can even be enabled/disabled dynamically at runtime. The OT/Equinox runtime ships with the following introspection view:

Simply unchecking the second item dynamically disables all annotation based null analysis, consistently.

Enjoyable development

The Java compiler is a complex beast. And it’s not exactly small. Over 5 Mbytes of source spread over 323 classes in 13 packages. The central package of these (ast) comprising no less than 109 classes. To add insult to injury: each line of this code could easily get you puzzling for a day or two. It ain’t easy.

If you are a wizard of the patches feel free to look at the latest patch from the bug. Does that look like s.t. you’d like to work on? Not after you’ve seen how nice & clean things can be, I suppose.

First level: overview

Instead of unfolding the package explorer until it shows all relevant classes (at what time the scrollbar will probably be too small to grasp) a quick look into the outline suffices to see everything relevant:

Here we see one top-level class, actually a team class. The class encapsulates a number of role classes containing the actual implementation.

Navigation to the details

Each of those role classes is bound to an existing class of the compiler, like:

   protected class MessageSend playedBy MessageSend { ...
(Don’t worry about identical names, already from the syntax it is clear that the left identifier MessageSend denotes a role class in the current team, whereas the second MessageSend refers to an existing base class imported from some other package).

Ctrl-click on the right-hand class name takes you to that base class (the packages containing those base classes are indicated in the above screenshot). This way the team serves as the single point of reference from which each affected location in the base code can be reached with a single mouse click – no matter how widely scattered those locations are.

When drilling down into details a typical roles looks like this:

The 3 top items are  “callout” method bindings providing access to fields or methods of the base object. The bottom item is a regular method implementing the new analysis for this particular AST node, and the item above it defines a  “callin” binding which causes the new method to be executed after each execution of the corresponding base method.

Locality of new information flows

Since all these roles define almost normal classes and objects, additional state can easily be introduced as fields in role classes. In fact some relevant information flows of the implementation make use of role fields for passing analysis results directly from one role to another, i.e., the new analysis mostly happens by interaction among the roles of this team.

Selective views, e.g., on inheritance structures

As a final example consider the inheritance hierarchy of class Statement: In the original this is a rather large tree:

Way too large actually to be fully unfolded in a single screenshot. But for the implementation at hand most of these
classes are irrelevant. So at the role layer we’re happy to work with this reduced view:


This view is not obtained by any filtering in the IDE, but that’s indeed the real full inheritance tree of the role class Statement. This is just one little example of how OT/J supports the implementation of selective views. As a result, when developing the annotation based null analysis, the code immediately provides a focused view of everything that is relevant, where relevance is directly defined by design intention.

A tale from the real world

I hope I could give an impression of a real world application of OT/J. I couldn’t think of a nicer structure for a feature of this complexity based on an existing code base of this size and complexity. Its actually fun to work with such powerful concepts.

Did I already say? Don’t miss our EclipseCon tutorial 🙂

Hands-on introduction to Object Teams

See you at
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Written by Stephan Herrmann

March 14, 2011 at 00:18

3 Responses

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  1. […] Eclipse Java compiler is one of the most complex pieces of code in Eclipse (“5 Mbytes of source spread over 323 classes in 13 packages“). Unlike other compilers, it can compile broken code. The same technology is used to create […]

  2. […] I wrote before, I’m preparing a comprehensive new feature for the JDT/Core: static analysis for potential […]

  3. […] discussed in this post, OT/J excelled once more in a complex development challenge: it solved the conflict between […]


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