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JDT Core/Null Analysis/Null Contracts

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Revision as of 14:26, 9 August 2011 by Stephan.cs.tu-berlin.de (Talk | contribs) (place into the JDT category)

Null Contracts

Using null annotations in method signatures can be explained as contracts between the method implementation and its clients. Each part of a null contract implies an obligation for one side and a guarantee for the other side.

More general use of null annotations
Note, that eventually null annotations shall be applicable more generally than just to method signatures, but still the concept of contracts might help some people to better understand how to use null annotations.

Method Parameters

When a method parameter is specified as nullable this defines the obligation for the method implementation to cope with null values without throwing NPE. Clients of such a method enjoy the guarantee that it is safe to call the method with a null value for the given parameter.

When a method parameter is specified as nonnull all clients are obliged to ensure that null will never be passed as the value for this parameter. Thus the method implementation may rely on the guarantee that null will never occur as the value for this parameter.

Method Returns

The situation is reversed for method returns. All four cases are summarized by the following table:

caller method implementation
nullabel parameter may safely pass null without checking must check before dereference
nonnull parameter must not pass null may use without checks
nullable return must check before dereference can safely pass null
nonnull return may use without check must not return null

Local Variables

Null contracts can also be defined for local variables although this doesn't improve the analysis by the compiler, because local variables can be fully analyzed without annotations, too. Here the main advantage of null annotations is in documenting intentions.

The following is an example of a program where all sides adhere to their respective part of the contract:

public class Supplier {
    // this method requires much but delivers little
    @Nullable String weakService (@NonNull String input, boolean selector) {
        if (selector)
            return input;
            return null;
    // this method requires nothing and delivers value
    @NonNull String strongService (@Nullable String input) {
        if (input == null)
           return "";
           return input.toUpperCase();
public class Client {
    void main(boolean selector) {
        Supplier supplier = new Supplier();
        @Nullable String value = supplier.weakService("OK", selector);
        @NonNull String result = supplier.strongService(value);


  • Although we know that toUpperCase() will never return null, the compiler does not know as long as java.lang.String does not specify null contracts. Therefor the compiler has to raise a warning that nullness of the return value is unknown and thus contract adherence cannot be guaranteed statically.
  • Null annotations for the local variables are redundant here, as the nullness information can be fully derived from the variable's initialization (and no further assignments exist).

Null Contract Inheritance

A method that overrides or implements a corresponding method of a super type (class or interface) inherits the full obligations put forward by the super method's null contract. For clarity of the code the overriding method must repeat the inherited signature including any null annotations.

However, the rules for safe polymorphic calls still allow the following ways of redefining the inherited null annotations:

  • A nonnull method parameter may be relaxed to a nullable parameter. The additional checks have to be performed in the body of the overriding method. Callers of the super type must still pass nonnull, while callers which are aware of the sub type may pass null.
  • A nullable method return (or a return with no null annotation) may be tightened to a nonnull return. The additional checks must again be performed in the body of the overriding methods. Callers of the super type still have to check for null, whereas callers which are aware of the sub type may safely assume nonnull return values.

Any overrides that attempt to change a null contract in the opposite directions will raise a compile time error.

This explicitly implies that callers only need to inspect the null contract of the statically declared type of a call target to safely assume that all runtime call targets will adhere (at least) to the contract as specified in the statically declared type, even if the runtime type of the call target is any sub type of the declared type.