Do Not Make This Mistake When Developing an SPI

Most of your code is private, internal, proprietary, and will never be exposed to public. If that’s the case, you can relax – you can refactor all of your mistakes, including those that incur breaking API changes.

If you’re maintining public API, however, that’s not the case. If you’re maintaining public SPI (Service Provider Interfaces), then things get even worse.

The H2 Trigger SPI

In a recent Stack Overflow question about how to implement an H2 database trigger with jOOQ, I have encountered the org.h2.api.Trigger SPI again – a simple and easy-to-implement SPI that implements trigger semantics. Here’s how triggers work in the H2 database:

Use the trigger

ON my_table
CALL "com.example.MyTrigger"

Implement the trigger

public class MyTrigger implements Trigger {

    public void init(
        Connection conn, 
        String schemaName,
        String triggerName, 
        String tableName, 
        boolean before, 
        int type
    throws SQLException {}

    public void fire(
        Connection conn, 
        Object[] oldRow, 
        Object[] newRow
    throws SQLException {
        // Using jOOQ inside of the trigger, of course
           .insertInto(LOG, LOG.FIELD1, LOG.FIELD2, ..)
           .values(newRow[0], newRow[1], ..)

    public void close() throws SQLException {}

    public void remove() throws SQLException {}

The whole H2 Trigger SPI is actually rather elegant, and usually you only need to implement the fire() method.

So, how is this SPI wrong?

It is wrong very subtly. Consider the init() method. It has a boolean flag to indicate whether the trigger should fire before or after the triggering event, i.e. the UPDATE. What if suddenly, H2 were to also support INSTEAD OF triggers? Ideally, this flag would then be replaced by an enum:

public enum TriggerTiming {

But we can’t simply introduce this new enum type because the init() method shouldn’t be changed incompatibly, breaking all implementing code! With Java 8, we could at least declare an overload like this:

    default void init(
        Connection conn, 
        String schemaName,
        String triggerName, 
        String tableName, 
        TriggerTiming timing, 
        int type
    throws SQLException {
        // New feature isn't supported by default
        if (timing == INSTEAD_OF)
            throw new SQLFeatureNotSupportedException();

        // Call through to old feature by default
        init(conn, schemaName, triggerName,
             tableName, timing == BEFORE, type);

This would allow new implementations to handle INSTEAD_OF triggers while old implementations would still work. But it feels hairy, doesn’t it?

Now, imagine, we’d also support ENABLE / DISABLE clauses and we want to pass those values to the init() method. Or maybe, we want to handle FOR EACH ROW. There’s currently no way to do that with this SPI. So we’re going to get more and more of these overloads, which are very hard to implement. And effectively, this has happened already, as there is also, which is redundant with (but subtly different from) Trigger.

What would be a better approach, then?

The ideal approach for an SPI provider is to provide “argument objects”, like these:

public interface Trigger {
    default void init(InitArguments args)
        throws SQLException {}
    default void fire(FireArguments args)
        throws SQLException {}
    default void close(CloseArguments args)
        throws SQLException {}
    default void remove(RemoveArguments args)
        throws SQLException {}

    final class InitArguments {
        public Connection connection() { ... }
        public String schemaName() { ... }
        public String triggerName() { ... }
        public String tableName() { ... }
        /** use #timing() instead */
        public boolean before() { ... }
        public TriggerTiming timing() { ... }
        public int type() { ... }

    final class FireArguments {
        public Connection connection() { ... }
        public Object[] oldRow() { ... }
        public Object[] newRow() { ... }

    // These currently don't have any properties
    final class CloseArguments {}
    final class RemoveArguments {}

As you can see in the above example, Trigger.InitArguments has been successfully evolved with appropriate deprecation warnings. No client code was broken, and the new functionality is ready to be used, if needed. Also, close() and remove() are ready for future evolutions, even if we don’t need any arguments yet.

The overhead of this solution is at most one object allocation per method call, which shouldn’t hurt too much.

Another example: Hibernate’s UserType

Unfortunately, this mistake happens way too often. Another prominent example is Hibernate’s hard-to-implement org.hibernate.usertype.UserType SPI:

public interface UserType {
    int[] sqlTypes();
    Class returnedClass();
    boolean equals(Object x, Object y);
    int hashCode(Object x);

    Object nullSafeGet(
        ResultSet rs, 
        String[] names, 
        SessionImplementor session, 
        Object owner
    ) throws SQLException;

    void nullSafeSet(
        PreparedStatement st, 
        Object value, 
        int index, 
        SessionImplementor session
    ) throws SQLException;

    Object deepCopy(Object value);
    boolean isMutable();
    Serializable disassemble(Object value);
    Object assemble(
        Serializable cached, 
        Object owner
    Object replace(
        Object original, 
        Object target, 
        Object owner

The SPI looks rather difficult to implement. Probably, you can get something working rather quickly, but will you feel at ease? Will you think that you got it right? Some examples:

  • Is there never a case where you need the owner reference also in nullSafeSet()?
  • What if your JDBC driver doesn’t support fetching values by name from ResultSet?
  • What if you need to use your user type in a CallableStatement for a stored procedure?

Another important aspect of such SPIs is the way implementors can provide values back to the framework. It is generally a bad idea to have non-void methods in SPIs as you will never be able to change the return type of a method again. Ideally, you should have argument types that accept “outcomes”. A lot of the above methods could be replaced by a single configuration() method like this:

public interface UserType {
    default void configure(ConfigureArgs args) {}

    final class ConfigureArgs {
        public void sqlTypes(int[] types) { ... }
        public void returnedClass(Class<?> clazz) { ... }
        public void mutable(boolean mutable) { ... }

    // ...

Another example, a SAX ContentHandler

Have a look at this example here:

public interface ContentHandler {
    void setDocumentLocator (Locator locator);
    void startDocument ();
    void endDocument();
    void startPrefixMapping (String prefix, String uri);
    void endPrefixMapping (String prefix);
    void startElement (String uri, String localName,
                       String qName, Attributes atts);
    void endElement (String uri, String localName,
                     String qName);
    void characters (char ch[], int start, int length);
    void ignorableWhitespace (char ch[], int start, int length);
    void processingInstruction (String target, String data);
    void skippedEntity (String name);

Some examples for drawbacks of this SPI:

  • What if you need the attributes of an element at the endElement() event? You’ll have to remember them yourself.
  • What if you’d like to know the prefix mapping uri at the endPrefixMapping() event? Or at any other event?

Clearly, SAX was optimised for speed, and it was optimised for speed at a time when the JIT and the GC were still weak. Nonetheless, implementing a SAX handler is not trivial. Parts of this is due to the SPI being hard to implement.

We don’t know the future

As API or SPI providers, we simply do not know the future. Right now, we may think that a given SPI is sufficient, but we’ll break it already in the next minor release. Or we don’t break it and tell our users that we cannot implement these new features.

With the above tricks, we can continue evolving our SPI without incurring any breaking changes:

  • Always pass exactly one argument object to the methods.
  • Always return void. Let implementors interact with SPI state via the argument object.
  • Use Java 8’s default methods, or provide an “empty” default implementation.

Did you enjoy this read? You might also enjoy:

10 Subtle Best Practices when Coding Java

This is a list of 10 best practices that are more subtle than your average Josh Bloch Effective Java rule. While Josh Bloch’s list is very easy to learn and concerns everyday situations, this list here contains less common situations involving API / SPI design that may have a big effect nontheless.

I have encountered these things while writing and maintaining jOOQ, an internal DSL modelling SQL in Java. Being an internal DSL, jOOQ challenges Java compilers and generics to the max, combining generics, varargs and overloading in a way that Josh Bloch probably wouldn’t recommend for the “average API”.

jOOQ is the best way to write SQL in Java

Let me share with you 10 Subtle Best Practices When Coding Java:

1. Remember C++ destructors

Remember C++ destructors? No? Then you might be lucky as you never had to debug through any code leaving memory leaks due to allocated memory not having been freed after an object was removed. Thanks Sun/Oracle for implementing garbage collection!

But nonetheless, destructors have an interesting trait to them. It often makes sense to free memory in the inverse order of allocation. Keep this in mind in Java as well, when you’re operating with destructor-like semantics:

  • When using @Before and @After JUnit annotations
  • When allocating, freeing JDBC resources
  • When calling super methods

There are various other use cases. Here’s a concrete example showing how you might implement some event listener SPI:

public void beforeEvent(EventContext e) {
    // Super code before my code

public void afterEvent(EventContext e) {
    // Super code after my code

Another good example showing why this can be important is the infamous Dining Philosophers problem. More info about the dining philosophers can be seen in this awesome post:

The Rule: Whenever you implement logic using before/after, allocate/free, take/return semantics, think about whether the after/free/return operation should perform stuff in the inverse order. tweet this

2. Don’t trust your early SPI evolution judgement

Providing an SPI to your consumers is an easy way to allow them to inject custom behaviour into your library / code. Beware, though, that your SPI evolution judgement may trick you into thinking that you’re (not) going to need that additional parameter. True, no functionality should be added early. But once you’ve published your SPI and once you’ve decided following semantic versioning, you’ll really regret having added a silly, one-argument method to your SPI when you realise that you might need another argument in some cases:

interface EventListener {
    // Bad
    void message(String message);

What if you also need a message ID and a message source? API evolution will prevent you from adding that parameter easily, to the above type. Granted, with Java 8, you could add a defender method, to “defend” you bad early design decision:

interface EventListener {
    // Bad
    default void message(String message) {
        message(message, null, null);
    // Better?
    void message(
        String message,
        Integer id,
        MessageSource source

Note, unfortunately, the defender method cannot be made final.

But much better than polluting your SPI with dozens of methods, use a context object (or argument object) just for this purpose.

interface MessageContext {
    String message();
    Integer id();
    MessageSource source();

interface EventListener {
    // Awesome!
    void message(MessageContext context);

You can evolve the MessageContext API much more easily than the EventListener SPI as fewer users will have implemented it.

The Rule: Whenever you specify an SPI, consider using context / parameter objects instead of writing methods with a fixed amount of parameters. tweet this

Remark: It is often a good idea to also communicate results through a dedicated MessageResult type, which can be constructed through a builder API. This will add even more SPI evolution flexibility to your SPI.

3. Avoid returning anonymous, local, or inner classes

Swing programmers probably have a couple of keyboard shortcuts to generate the code for their hundreds of anonymous classes. In many cases, creating them is nice as you can locally adhere to an interface, without going through the “hassle” of thinking about a full SPI subtype lifecycle.

But you should not use anonymous, local, or inner classes too often for a simple reason: They keep a reference to the outer instance. And they will drag that outer instance to wherevery they go, e.g. to some scope outside of your local class if you’re not careful. This can be a major source for memory leaks, as your whole object graph will suddenly entangle in subtle ways.

The Rule: Whenever you write an anonymous, local or inner class, check if you can make it static or even a regular top-level class. Avoid returning anonymous, local or inner class instances from methods to the outside scope. tweet this

Remark: There has been some clever practice around double-curly braces for simple object instantiation:

new HashMap<String, String>() {{
    put("1", "a");
    put("2", "b");

This leverages Java’s instance initializer as specified by the JLS §8.6. Looks nice (maybe a bit weird), but is really a bad idea. What would otherwise be a completely independent HashMap instance now keeps a reference to the outer instance, whatever that just happens to be. Besides, you’ll create an additional class for the class loader to manage.

4. Start writing SAMs now!

Java 8 is knocking on the door. And with Java 8 come lambdas, whether you like them or not. Your API consumers may like them, though, and you better make sure that they can make use of them as often as possible. Hence, unless your API accepts simple “scalar” types such as int, long, String, Date, let your API accept SAMs as often as possible.

What’s a SAM? A SAM is a Single Abstract Method [Type]. Also known as a functional interface, soon to be annotated with the @FunctionalInterface annotation. This goes well with rule number 2, where EventListener is in fact a SAM. The best SAMs are those with single arguments, as they will further simplify writing of a lambda. Imagine writing

listeners.add(c -> System.out.println(c.message()));

Instead of

listeners.add(new EventListener() {
    public void message(MessageContext c) {

Imagine XML processing through jOOX, which features a couple of SAMs:

    // Find elements with an ID
    .find(c -> $(c).id() != null)
    // Find their  child elements
    .children(c -> $(c).tag().equals("order"))
    // Print all matches
    .each(c -> System.out.println($(c)))

The Rule: Be nice with your API consumers and write SAMs / Functional interfaces already now. tweet this

Remarks: A couple of interesting blog posts about Java 8 Lambdas and improved Collections API can be seen here:

5. Avoid returning null from API methods

I’ve blogged about Java’s NULLs once or twice. I’ve also blogged about Java 8’s introduction of Optional. These are interesting topics both from an academic and from a practical point of view.

While NULLs and NullPointerExceptions will probably stay a major pain in Java for a while, you can still design your API in a way that users will not run into any issues. Try to avoid returning null from API methods whenever possible. Your API consumers should be able to chain methods whenever applicable:


In the above snippet, none of the methods should ever return null. In fact, using null’s semantics (the absence of a value) should be rather exceptional in general. In libraries like jQuery (or jOOX, a Java port thereof), nulls are completely avoided as you’re always operating on iterable objects. Whether you match something or not is irrelevant to the next method call.

Nulls often arise also because of lazy initialisation. In many cases, lazy initialisation can be avoided too, without any significant performance impact. In fact, lazy initialisation should be used carefully, only. If large data structures are involved.

The Rule: Avoid returning nulls from methods whenever possible. Use null only for the “uninitialised” or “absent” semantics. tweet this

6. Never return null arrays or lists from API methods

While there are some cases when returning nulls from methods is OK, there is absolutely no use case of returning null arrays or null collections! Let’s consider the hideous method. It returns:

An array of strings naming the files and directories in the directory denoted by this abstract pathname. The array will be empty if the directory is empty. Returns null if this abstract pathname does not denote a directory, or if an I/O error occurs.

Hence, the correct way to deal with this method is

File directory = // ...

if (directory.isDirectory()) {
    String[] list = directory.list();

    if (list != null) {
        for (String file : list) {
            // ...

Was that null check really necessary? Most I/O operations produce IOExceptions, but this one returns null. Null cannot hold any error message indicating why the I/O error occurred. So this is wrong in three ways:

  • Null does not help in finding the error
  • Null does not allow to distinguish I/O errors from the File instance not being a directory
  • Everyone will keep forgetting about null, here

In collection contexts, the notion of “absence” is best implemented by empty arrays or collections. Having an “absent” array or collection is hardly ever useful, except again, for lazy initialisation.

The Rule: Arrays or Collections should never be null. tweet this

7. Avoid state, be functional

What’s nice about HTTP is the fact that it is stateless. All relevant state is transferred in each request and in each response. This is essential to the naming of REST: Representational State Transfer. This is awesome when done in Java as well. Think of it in terms of rule number 2 when methods receive stateful parameter objects. Things can be so much simpler if state is transferred in such objects, rather than manipulated from the outside. Take JDBC, for instance. The following example fetches a cursor from a stored procedure:

CallableStatement s =
  connection.prepareCall("{ ? = ... }");

// Verbose manipulation of statement state:
s.registerOutParameter(1, cursor);
s.setString(2, "abc");
ResultSet rs = s.getObject(1);

// Verbose manipulation of result set state:;;

These are the things that make JDBC such an awkward API to deal with. Each object is incredibly stateful and hard to manipulate. Concretely, there are two major issues:

  • It is very hard to correctly deal with stateful APIs in multi-threaded environments
  • It is very hard to make stateful resources globally available, as the state is not documented
State is like a box of chocolates
Theatrical poster for Forrest Gump, Copyright © 1994 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. It is believed that the above usage fulfils what is known as Fair Use

The Rule: Implement more of a functional style. Pass state through method arguments. Manipulate less object state. tweet this

8. Short-circuit equals()

This is a low-hanging fruit. In large object graphs, you can gain significantly in terms of performance, if all your objects’ equals() methods dirt-cheaply compare for identity first:

public boolean equals(Object other) {
    if (this == other) return true;

    // Rest of equality logic...

Note, other short-circuit checks may involve null checks, which should be there as well:

public boolean equals(Object other) {
    if (this == other) return true;
    if (other == null) return false;

    // Rest of equality logic...

The Rule: Short-circuit all your equals() methods to gain performance. tweet this

9. Try to make methods final by default

Some will disagree on this, as making things final by default is quite the opposite of what Java developers are used to. But if you’re in full control of all source code, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making methods final by default, because:

  • If you do need to override a method (do you really?), you can still remove the final keyword
  • You will never accidentally override any method anymore

This specifically applies for static methods, where “overriding” (actually, shadowing) hardly ever makes sense. I’ve come across a very bad example of shadowing static methods in Apache Tika, recently. Consider:

TikaInputStream extends TaggedInputStream and shadows its static get() method with quite a different implementation.

Unlike regular methods, static methods don’t override each other, as the call-site binds a static method invocation at compile-time. If you’re unlucky, you might just get the wrong method accidentally.

The Rule: If you’re in full control of your API, try making as many methods as possible final by default. tweet this

10. Avoid the method(T…) signature

There’s nothing wrong with the occasional “accept-all” varargs method that accepts an Object... argument:

void acceptAll(Object... all);

Writing such a method brings a little JavaScript feeling to the Java ecosystem. Of course, you probably want to restrict the actual type to something more confined in a real-world situation, e.g. String.... And because you don’t want to confine too much, you might think it is a good idea to replace Object by a generic T:

void acceptAll(T... all);

But it’s not. T can always be inferred to Object. In fact, you might as well just not use generics with the above methods. More importantly, you may think that you can overload the above method, but you cannot:

void acceptAll(T... all);
void acceptAll(String message, T... all);

This looks as though you could optionally pass a String message to the method. But what happens to this call here?

acceptAll("Message", 123, "abc");

The compiler will infer <? extends Serializable & Comparable<?>> for T, which makes the call ambiguous!

So, whenever you have an “accept-all” signature (even if it is generic), you will never again be able to typesafely overload it. API consumers may just be lucky enough to “accidentally” have the compiler chose the “right” most specific method. But they may as well be tricked into using the “accept-all” method or they may not be able to call any method at all.

The Rule: Avoid “accept-all” signatures if you can. And if you cannot, never overload such a method. tweet this


Java is a beast. Unlike other, fancier languages, it has evolved slowly to what it is today. And that’s probably a good thing, because already at the speed of development of Java, there are hundreds of caveats, which can only be mastered through years of experience.

jOOQ is the best way to write SQL in Java

Stay tuned for more top 10 lists on the subject!