The Joyful Utility of Optionals in Java

Apr 23, 2021, 11:11 AM

Tags: java
  1. The Cleansing Flame of Null Analysis
  2. Quick Tip: JDK Null Annotations for Eclipse
  3. The Joyful Utility of Optionals in Java

A while back, I talked about how I had embraced nullness annotations in several of my projects. However, that post predated Domino's laggardly move to Java 8 and so didn't discuss one of the tools that came to Java core in that version: java.util.Optional.

The Concept

Java's Optional is a passable implementation of the Option type concept that's been floating around programming circles for a good long time. It's really come to the fore with the proliferation of large-platform languages like Swift and Kotlin that have the concept built in to the syntax.

Java's implementation doesn't go that far - there's no special syntax for them, at least not yet - but the concept remains the same. The idea is that, when you embrace Optional use, your code will no longer return null, with the goal of cutting down on the pernicious NullPointerException. While you may still return an empty value, you will be doing so in a way that allows (and forces) the downstream programmer to check for that case more cleanly and adapt it into their code.

In Practice

For an example of where this sort of thing is well-suited, take a look at this snippet of code, which is likely to be pretty universal in Domino code:

View users = db.getView("Users");
Document user = users.getDocumentByKey(userName, true);
if(user != null) {
	// ...

Most of the time, this will run fine. However, if, say, the "Users" view is unavailable (if it was replaced in a design refresh, or another developer removed it, or it's reader-inaccessible to the current user), you'll end up with a NullPointerException in the second line. When you have the code in front of you, the problem is obvious quickly, but that will require you to crack open the app and look into what's going on before you can even start actually fixing the trouble. That's also the "good" version of the case - if you're using code that separates the #getView from the call to #getDocumentByKey with a bunch of other code, it'll be harder to track down.

Imagine instead if the Domino API used Optional, and returned an Optional<View> in #getView and similar for #getDocumentByKey. That could look more like this:

View users = db.getView("Users")
	.orElseThrow(() -> new IllegalStateException("Unable to open view \"Users\""));
users.getDocumentByKey(userName, true).ifPresent(user -> {
	// ...

The idea is the same, and you'll still get an exception if "Users" is unavailable, but it will be immediately obvious in the error message what it is that you need to fix.

This also forces the programmer to conceptualize that case in a way that they wouldn't necessarily have without the need to "unwrap" the Optional. Maybe it's actually okay if "Users" doesn't exist - in that case, you could just return early and not even run the risk of an exception at all. Or maybe there's a way to recover from that - maybe look up the user another way, or create the view on the fly.

Implementing It

When spreading Optional across an existing codebase or writing a new one around it, I've found that there are some important things to keep in mind.

First, since Optional is implemented as just a class and not special syntax, I've found that the best way to implement it in your code is to go all or nothing: if you decide you want to use Optional, do it everywhere. The trouble if you mix-and-match is that you'll run into some cases where you still do if(foo != null) { ... }; since an empty Optional is non-null, that habit will bite you.

Usually, though, that's not too much trouble: when you start to change your code, you'll run into tons of type-related problems around code like that, so you'll be cued in to change it while you're working anyway. Just make sure to not leave yourself null-returning method traps elsewhere.

Another fun gotcha you'll hit early is that Optional.of(foo) will throw a NullPointerException if foo is null. That's the JDK being (reasonably) pedantic: if you want to wrap a potentially-null value, you have to instead do Optional.ofNullable(foo). While irksome at first, it drives home the point that one of the virtues of Optional is that it forces you, the programmer, to consider the null case much more than you did previously.


Optional also provides a number of ways to "unwrap" the value or deal with it, and it's useful to know about them for different situations.

The first one is just someOptional.get(), which will return the contained value or immediately throw a NullPointerException if it's null. I've found that this is best for when you're very confident that the value is non-null, either because you already checked with isPresent or if it being null is a sign that the system is so fubar already that there's no virtue in even customizing the exception.

Somewhat safer than that, though, is what I had above: someOptional.orElseThrow(() -> ...), which will either return the wrapped value or throw a customized exception if it's null. This is ideal for either halting execution with a message for how the developer/admin can fix it or for throwing a useful exception declared in your documentation for a downstream programmer to catch.

There's also someOptional.orElse(someOtherValue). For example, take this case where you have a configuration API that returns an Optional<String> for a given lookup key:

String emailTarget = getConfig("EmailTarget").orElse("");

That's essentially the "get-or-default" idiom. Now, you can actually do .orElse(null) if you want, though that's often not the best idea. Still, that can be handy if you're adapting existing code that does a null check immediately already, or if you're writing to another existing API that does use null.

Optional also has a #map method, which may seem a bit weird at first, but can be useful on its own, and is particularly well-suited to use with results from the Stream API like #findFirst. It lets you transform a non-null value into something else and thereby change your Optional to then be an Optional of whatever the transformed value type is. For example:

String userName = findLoggedInUser()

In this case, findLoggedInUser returns a Optional<UserObj>. Then, the #map call gets the username if present and returns an Optional<String>, which is thereby either unwrapped or turned into "Anonymous".

Optional As A Parameter

Up until this point, I've been talking about Optional as a method return value, but what about using it as a parameter? Well, you can, but the consensus is that you probably shouldn't.

At first, I chafed against this advice - after all, Optional is finally an in-JDK way to express an optional or nullable parameter, so why not use it? The arguments about how it's less efficient for the compiler, while true, didn't sway me much - after all, compilers improve, and it's generally better to do something correct than something microscopically faster.

However, the real thing that convinced me was realizing that, if you have Optional as a method parameter, you're still going to have to null-check it anyway, since you don't control who might be calling your code. So, not only will you have to check and unwrap the Optional, you'll still have to have a null guard for the Optional itself, defeating much of the point.

I do think that there's some utility in Optional parameters in your own in-implementation code, not exposed to the outside. It can be useful to indicate that a parameter value is intended to be ignored outright, for example. As one comment on that SO thread mentions, an Optional parameter allows for three states: null, an empty value, or a present value. You could use null to indicate that you don't want that value checked at all, and then have an empty value mean something particular in the code. But that kind of fiddly hair-splitting is exactly why it should be of limited use and even then very-clearly documented for yourself.

If Java ever gets syntax sugar for Optional (say, declaring the parameter as Object? and having calls passing null auto-wrap them into Optional or something), then this could change.

Interaction With Null Analysis

Finally, I'll mention how using Optional interacts with null annotation analysis.

To begin with, if you're using Eclipse, the immediate answer will be "poorly". Because Eclipse doesn't ship with nullness hints for the core JDK, it won't know that Optional.of returns a non-null value, defeating the entire point. For that, you'll want the nullness annotations, which will provide such hints. I've found that they're still not perfect here, causing Eclipse to frequently complain about someOptional.orElse(null), but the experience becomes good enough.

IntelliJ, for the record, has such hints built-in, so you don't need to worry there.

Once you have that sorted out, though, they go together really well. For example, pairing the two can help you find cases where, in your Optional translation journey, you're checking whether the Optional itself is null: with null-annotated code, the compiler can see that it will never be null as such and will tell you to change it.

So I advise pairing the two: use Optional for return values everywhere, especially if you're making an API for downstream consumption, and then pair them with null annotations to make sure your own implementation code is correct and to provide hints for opting-in users.

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