Our mission

David Bürgin edited this page Apr 2, 2016 · 19 revisions

Our mission

The goal of this tutorial is to learn how to use the Checker Framework, and specifically the Nullness Checker in a real-world project.

Ideally, once we’re done we can be sure that our code is safe from NullPointerExceptions.

The Nullness Checker

The Nullness Checker’s promise is that once it

issues no warnings for a given program, then running that program will never throw a null pointer exception.

To keep that promise it needs a little help from us, the programmer. We need to make some of our knowledge of nullness in the program explicit by annotating types as either @Nullable (possibly null) or @NonNull (never null).

As an illustration, the signature of makeSlug from the introduction is really

public static @NonNull String makeSlug(@NonNull String s)

and the signature of getTitle, if it might return null, is properly

public @Nullable String getTitle()

In a sense, these annotations are like an additional, refined type system placed on top of the Java one. Something that has a type that includes the null value (the result of getTitle, @Nullable String) is obviously not compatible with a type that cannot hold a null value (the parameter of makeSlug, @NonNull String). We can think of these annotations as constituting a pluggable type system. The Nullness Checker’s job is to make sure our program is type-safe with respect to this nullness type system.

Now, it would be pretty tedious if we had to annotate every reference as either @Nullable or @NonNull. As a convenience, the Nullness Checker makes a reasonable assumption about the types of references: every unannotated reference is assumed to be @NonNull by default.

Just to make sure we’re on the same page, a quick word on why this assumption makes sense: let’s talk about null-safe programming practice.

Null-safe programming

The first rule of null-safe programming is don’t use null.

Simply put, if you don’t use null you won’t get NullPointerExceptions. Code that doesn’t need to deal with null references is not only safer, but also more concise. Others have explained this well. A number of strategies exist to avoid using null, such as using null-objects instead, returning empty collections or Optional instead of null, failing fast when receiving null arguments, and insisting on limiting the scope of nullable references where they cannot be avoided. Check the References for more on this topic.

If avoidance of null is our goal and guiding principle, then we can sensibly assume that all references are not null by default. The case that we want to stand out in code is really the nullable reference. That’s where we must be on our toes and guard against attempts to dereference it.

Helpfully, the Nullness Checker shares this attitude towards nullability. In the eyes of the Nullness Checker, every type use carries an implicit @NonNull annotation. It’s the nullable references that need to be marked up as @Nullable – and that is what we are going to do.

The Pet Clinic

Enough theory, let’s get started.

Our mission is to learn how to use the Nullness Checker, and we’re going to learn this by integrating it into a real-world (work with me) project.

This project is a snapshot of the Spring Framework’s Pet Clinic sample web app.

The Pet Clinic isn’t a project anybody will be passionate about, but it has some characteristics that make it a good choice.

  • The Pet Clinic has some typical enterprisey bits to it which many programmers must (for better or worse) work with every day.
  • The Pet Clinic is a typical legacy software project. There’s bound to be some shoddy code in there and that’s for the Checker Framework to chew into.
  • At 1600 lines of code it is just the right size.

Ok, on to checking out the code and setting up the project on the next page.

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