Data-centric libraries often need to access private state of classes provided by the library user.

An example is Hibernate ORM. When the @Id annotation is given on a field of an entity, Hibernate will by default directly access fields - as opposed to calling property getters and setters - to read and write the entity’s state.

Usually, such fields are private. Accessing them from outside code has never been a problem, though. The Java reflection API allows to make private members accessible and access them subsequently from other classes. With the advent of the module system in Java 9, rules for this will change a bit, though.

In the following we’ll explore the options authors of a library provided as a Java 9 module have to access private state of classes defined in other modules.

An example

As an example, let’s consider a simple method which takes an object - e.g. an instance of an entity type defined by the user - and a field name and returns the value of the object’s field of that name. Using reflection, this method could be implemented like this (for the sake of simplicity, we are ignoring the fact that a security manager could be present):

package com.example.library;

public class FieldValueAccessor {

    public Object getFieldValue(Object object, String fieldName) {
        try {
            Class<?> clazz = object.getClass();
            Field field = clazz.getDeclaredField( fieldName );
            field.setAccessible( true );
            return field.get( object );
        }
        catch (NoSuchFieldException | SecurityException | IllegalArgumentException | IllegalAccessException e) {
            throw new RuntimeException( e );
        }
    }
}

By calling Field#setAccessible() we can obtain the field’s value in the following, even if it had been declared private. The module descriptor for the library module is trivial, it just exports the package of the accessor class:

module com.example.library {
    exports com.example.library;
}

In a second module, representing our application, let’s define a simple "entity":

package com.example.entities;

public class MyEntity {

    private String name;

    public MyEntity(String name) {
        this.name = name;
    }

    // ...
}

And also a simple main method which makes use of the accessor to read a field from the entity:

package com.example.entities;

public class Main {
    public static void main(String... args) {
        FieldValueAccessor accessor = new FieldValueAccessor();
        Object fieldValue = accessor.getFieldValue( new MyEntity( "hey there" ), "name" );
        assert "hey there".equals( fieldValue );
    }
}

As this module uses the library module, we need to declare that dependency in the entity module’s descriptor:

module com.example.myapp {
    requires com.example.library;
}

With the example classes in place, let’s run the code and see what happens. It would have been fine on Java 8, but as of Java 9 we’ll see this exception instead:

java.lang.reflect.InaccessibleObjectException:
Unable to make field private final java.lang.String com.example.entities.MyEntity.name accessible:
module com.example.myapp does not "opens com.example.entities" to module com.example.library

The call to setAccessible() fails, as by default code in one module isn’t allowed to perform so-called "deep reflection" on code in another (named) module.

Open this module!

Now what can be done to overcome this issue? The error message is giving us the right hint already: the package with the type to reflect on must be opened to the module containing the code invoking setAccessible().

If a package has been opened to another module, that module can access the package’s types reflectively at runtime. Note that opening a package will not make it accessible to other modules at compile time; this would require the package to be exported instead (as in the case of the library module above).

There are several options for opening a package. The first is to make the module an open module:

open module com.example.myapp {
    requires com.example.library;
}

This opens up all packages in this module for reflection by all other modules (i.e. this would be the behavior as known from other module systems such as OSGi). In case you’d like some more fine-grained control, you can opt to open specific packages only:

module com.example.myapp {
    opens com.example.entities;
    requires com.example.library;
}

This will allow for deep reflection on the entities package, but not on other packages within the application module. Finally, there is the possibility to limit an opens clause to one or more specific target modules:

module com.example.myapp {
    opens com.example.entities to com.example.library;
    requires com.example.library;
}

That way the library module is allowed to perform deep reflection, but not any other module.

No matter which of these options we use, the library module can now make private fields of types in the entities package of the entities module accessible and subsequently read or write their value.

Opening up packages in one way or another lets library code written prior to Java 9 continue to function as before. It requires some implicit knowledge, though. I.e. application developers need to know which libraries need reflective access to which types so they can open up the right packages. This can become tough to manage in more complex applications with multiple libraries performing reflection.

Luckily, there’s a more explicit approach in the form of variable handles.

Can you handle the var?

Variable handles - defined by JEP 193 - are a very powerful addition to the Java 9 API, providing "read and write access to [variables] under a variety of access modes". Describing them in detail would go far beyond the scope of this post (refer to the JEP and this article if you would like to learn more). For our purposes let’s focus on their capability for accessing fields, representing an alternative to the traditional reflection-based approach.

So how could our FieldValueAccessor class be implemented using variable handles?

Var handles are obtained via the MethodHandles.Lookup class. If such lookup has "private access" to the entities module, it will let us access private fields of that module’s types. To get hold of such lookup, we let the client code pass in a lookup when bootstrapping the library code:

Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();
FieldValueAccessor accessor = new FieldValueAccessor( lookup );

In FieldValueAccessor#getFieldValue() we can now use the method MethodHandles#privateLookupIn() which will return a new lookup granting private access to the given entity instance. From that lookup we can eventually obtain a VarHandle which allows us to get the object’s field value:

public class FieldValueAccessor {

    private final Lookup lookup;

    public FieldValueAccessor(Lookup lookup) {
        this.lookup = lookup;
    }

    public Object getFieldValue(Object object, String fieldName) {
        try {
            Class<?> clazz = object.getClass();
            Field field = clazz.getDeclaredField( fieldName );

            MethodHandles.Lookup privateLookup = MethodHandles.privateLookupIn​( clazz, lookup );
            VarHandle handle = privateLookup.unreflectVarHandle( field );

            return handle.get( object );
        }
        catch (NoSuchFieldException | IllegalAccessException e) {
            throw new RuntimeException( e );
        }
    }
}

Note that this only works if the original lookup has been created by code in the entities module.

This is because MethodHandles#lookup() is a caller sensitive method, i.e. the returned value will depend on the direct caller of that method. privateLookupIn() checks whether the given lookup is allowed to perform deep reflection on the given class. Thus a lookup obtained in the entities module will do the trick, whereas a lookup retrieved in the library module wouldn’t be of any use.

Which route to take?

Both discussed approaches let libraries access private state from Java 9 modules.

The var handle approach makes the requirements of the library module more explicit, which I like. Expecting a lookup instance during bootstrap should be less error-prone than the rather implicit requirement for opening up packages or modules.

Mails by the OpenJDK team also seem to suggest that - together with their siblings, method handles - var handles are the way to go in the long term. Of course it requires the application module to be cooperative and pass the required lookup. It remains to be seen how this could look like in container / app server scenarios, where libraries typically aren’t bootstrapped by the application code but by the server runtime. Injecting some helper code for obtaining the lookup object upon deployment may be one possible solution.

As var handles only are introduced in Java 9 you might want to refrain from using them if your library is supposed to run with older Java versions, too (actually, you can do both by building multi-release JARs). A very similar approach can be implemented in earlier Java versions using method handles (see MethodHandles.Lookup#findGetter()). Unfortunately, though, there’s no official way to obtain method handles with private access prior to Java 9 and the introduction of privateLookupIn​(). Ironically, the only way to get such handles is employing some reflection.

The final thing to note is that there may be a performance advantage to using var and method handles, as access checking is done only once when getting them (as opposed to every invocation). Some proper benchmarking would be in order, though, to see what’s the difference in a given use case.

As always, your feedback is very welcome. Which approach do you prefer? Or perhaps you’ve found yet other solution we’ve missed so far? Let us know in the comments below.


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