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Thinking in Java
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Object serialization

Java’s object serialization allows you to take any object that implements the Serializable interface and turn it into a sequence of bytes that can later be fully restored to regenerate the original object. This is even true across a network, which means that the serialization mechanism automatically compensates for differences in operating systems. That is, you can create an object on a Windows machine, serialize it, and send it across the network to a Unix machine, where it will be correctly reconstructed. You don’t have to worry about the data representations on the different machines, the byte ordering, or any other details.

By itself, object serialization is interesting because it allows you to implement lightweight persistence. Remember that persistence means that an object’s lifetime is not determined by whether a program is executing; the object lives in between invocations of the program. By taking a serializable object and writing it to disk, then restoring that object when the program is reinvoked, you’re able to produce the effect of persistence. The reason it’s called “lightweight” is that you can’t simply define an object using some kind of “persistent” keyword and let the system take care of the details (although this might happen in the future). Instead, you must explicitly serialize and deserialize the objects in your program. If you need a more serious persistence mechanism, consider Java Data Objects (JDO) or a tool like Hibernate ( For details, see Thinking in Enterprise Java, downloadable from

Object serialization was added to the language to support two major features. Java’s Remote Method Invocation (RMI) allows objects that live on other machines to behave as if they live on your machine. When sending messages to remote objects, object serialization is necessary to transport the arguments and return values. RMI is discussed in Thinking in Enterprise Java.

Object serialization is also necessary for JavaBeans, described in Chapter 14. When a Bean is used, its state information is generally configured at design time. This state information must be stored and later recovered when the program is started; object serialization performs this task.

Serializing an object is quite simple as long as the object implements the Serializable interface (this is a tagging interface and has no methods). When serialization was added to the language, many standard library classes were changed to make them serializable, including all of the wrappers for the primitive types, all of the container classes, and many others. Even Class objects can be serialized.

To serialize an object, you create some sort of OutputStream object and then wrap it inside an ObjectOutputStream object. At this point you need only call writeObject( ), and your object is serialized and sent to the OutputStream. To reverse the process, you wrap an InputStream inside an ObjectInputStream and call readObject( ). What comes back is, as usual, a reference to an upcast Object, so you must downcast to set things straight.

A particularly clever aspect of object serialization is that it not only saves an image of your object, but it also follows all the references contained in your object and saves those objects, and follows all the references in each of those objects, etc. This is sometimes referred to as the “web of objects” that a single object can be connected to, and it includes arrays of references to objects as well as member objects. If you had to maintain your own object serialization scheme, maintaining the code to follow all these links would be a bit mind-boggling. However, Java object serialization seems to pull it off flawlessly, no doubt using an optimized algorithm that traverses the web of objects. The following example tests the serialization mechanism by making a “worm” of linked objects, each of which has a link to the next segment in the worm as well as an array of references to objects of a different class, Data:

// Demonstrates object serialization.
// {Clean: worm.out}
import java.util.*;

class Data implements Serializable {
  private int n;
  public Data(int n) { this.n = n; }
  public String toString() { return Integer.toString(n); }

public class Worm implements Serializable {
  private static Random rand = new Random();
  private Data[] d = {
    new Data(rand.nextInt(10)),
    new Data(rand.nextInt(10)),
    new Data(rand.nextInt(10))
  private Worm next;
  private char c;
  // Value of i == number of segments
  public Worm(int i, char x) {
    System.out.println("Worm constructor: " + i);
    c = x;
    if(--i > 0)
      next = new Worm(i, (char)(x + 1));
  public Worm() {
    System.out.println("Default constructor");
  public String toString() {
    String s = ":" + c + "(";
    for(int i = 0; i < d.length; i++)
      s += d[i];
    s += ")";
    if(next != null)
      s += next;
    return s;
  // Throw exceptions to console:
  public static void main(String[] args)
  throws ClassNotFoundException, IOException {
    Worm w = new Worm(6, 'a');
    System.out.println("w = " + w);
    ObjectOutputStream out = new ObjectOutputStream(
      new FileOutputStream("worm.out"));
    out.writeObject("Worm storage\n");
    out.close(); // Also flushes output
    ObjectInputStream in = new ObjectInputStream(
      new FileInputStream("worm.out"));
    String s = (String)in.readObject();
    Worm w2 = (Worm)in.readObject();
    System.out.println(s + "w2 = " + w2);
    ByteArrayOutputStream bout =
      new ByteArrayOutputStream();
    ObjectOutputStream out2 = new ObjectOutputStream(bout);
    out2.writeObject("Worm storage\n");
    ObjectInputStream in2 = new ObjectInputStream(
      new ByteArrayInputStream(bout.toByteArray()));
    s = (String)in2.readObject();
    Worm w3 = (Worm)in2.readObject();
    System.out.println(s + "w3 = " + w3);
} ///:~

To make things interesting, the array of Data objects inside Worm are initialized with random numbers. (This way you don’t suspect the compiler of keeping some kind of meta-information.) Each Worm segment is labeled with a char that’s automatically generated in the process of recursively generating the linked list of Worms. When you create a Worm, you tell the constructor how long you want it to be. To make the next reference, it calls the Worm constructor with a length of one less, etc. The final next reference is left as null, indicating the end of the Worm.

The point of all this was to make something reasonably complex that couldn’t easily be serialized. The act of serializing, however, is quite simple. Once the ObjectOutputStream is created from some other stream, writeObject( ) serializes the object. Notice the call to writeObject( ) for a String, as well. You can also write all the primitive data types using the same methods as DataOutputStream (they share the same interface).

There are two separate code sections that look similar. The first writes and reads a file and the second, for variety, writes and reads a ByteArray. You can read and write an object using serialization to any DataInputStream or DataOutputStream including, as you can see in Thinking in Enterprise Java, a network. The output from one run was:

Worm constructor: 6
Worm constructor: 5
Worm constructor: 4
Worm constructor: 3
Worm constructor: 2
Worm constructor: 1
w = :a(414):b(276):c(773):d(870):e(210):f(279)
Worm storage
w2 = :a(414):b(276):c(773):d(870):e(210):f(279)
Worm storage
w3 = :a(414):b(276):c(773):d(870):e(210):f(279)

You can see that the deserialized object really does contain all of the links that were in the original object.

Note that no constructor, not even the default constructor, is called in the process of deserializing a Serializable object. The entire object is restored by recovering data from the InputStream.

Object serialization is byte-oriented, and thus uses the InputStream and OutputStream hierarchies.
Thinking in Java
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   Reproduced courtesy of Bruce Eckel, MindView, Inc. Design by Interspire