Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Shallow Copy and Deep Copy

The java.lang.Object root superclass defines a clone() method that will, assuming the subclass implements the java.lang.Cloneable interface, return a copy of the object. While Java classes are free to override this method to do more complex kinds of cloning, the default behavior of clone() is to return a shallow copy of the object. This means that the values of all of the origical object’s fields are copied to the fields of the new object.

A property of shallow copies is that fields that refer to other objects will point to the same objects in both the original and the clone. For fields that contain primitive or immutable values (int, String, float, etc…), there is little chance of this causing problems. For mutable objects, however, cloning can lead to unexpected results. Figure 1 shows an example.


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import java.util.Vector;
public class Example1 {
public static void main(String[] args) {
// Make a Vector
Vector original = new Vector();
// Make a StringBuffer and add it to the Vector
StringBuffer text = new StringBuffer(”The quick brown fox”);
original.addElement(text);
// Clone the vector and print out the contents
Vector clone = (Vector) original.clone();
System.out.println(”A. After cloning”);
printVectorContents(original, “original”);
printVectorContents(clone, “clone”);
System.out.println(“——————————————————–”);
System.out.println();
// Add another object (an Integer) to the clone and
// print out the contents
clone.addElement(new Integer(5));
System.out.println(”B. After adding an Integer to the clone”);
printVectorContents(original, “original”);
printVectorContents(clone, “clone”);
System.out.println(“——————————————————–”);
System.out.println();
// Change the StringBuffer contents
text.append(” jumps over the lazy dog.”);
System.out.println(”C. After modifying one of original’s elements”);
printVectorContents(original, “original”);
printVectorContents(clone, “clone”);
System.out.println(“——————————————————–”);
System.out.println();
}

public static void printVectorContents(Vector v, String name) {
System.out.println(” Contents of \”" + name + “\”:”);
// For each element in the vector, print out the index, the
// class of the element, and the element itself
 for (int i = 0; i < v.size(); i++) {
  Object element = v.elementAt(i);
  System.out.println(” ” + i + ”(” +element.getClass().getName()+ “):” +element);
 }
System.out.println();
}
}
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Figure 1. Modifying Vector contents after cloning
In this example we create a Vector and add a StringBuffer to it. Note that StringBuffer (unlike, for example, String is mutable — it’s contents can be changed after creation. Figure 2 shows the output of the example in Figure 1.


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> java Example1
A. After cloning

Contents of “original”:

0 (java.lang.StringBuffer): The quick brown fox
Contents of “clone”:

0 (java.lang.StringBuffer): The quick brown fox
——————————————————–


B. After adding an Integer to the clone

Contents of “original”:

0 (java.lang.StringBuffer): The quick brown fox
Contents of “clone”:

0 (java.lang.StringBuffer): The quick brown fox

1 (java.lang.Integer): 5
——————————————————–


C. After modifying one of original’s elements

Contents of “original”:

0 (java.lang.StringBuffer): The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
Contents of “clone”:

0 (java.lang.StringBuffer): The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

1 (java.lang.Integer): 5
——————————————————–

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Figure 2. Output from the example code in Figure 1
In the first block of output (”A”), we see that the clone operation was successful: The original vector and the clone have the same size (1), content types, and values. The second block of output (”B”) shows that the original vector and its clone are distinct objects. If we add another element to the clone, it only appears in the clone, and not in the original. The third block of output (”C”) is, however, a little trickier. Modifying the StringBuffer that was added to the original vector has changed the value of the first element of both the original vector and its clone. The explanation for this lies in the fact that clone made a shallow copy of the vector, so both vectors now point to the exact same StringBuffer instance.

This is, of course, sometimes exactly the behavior that you need. In other cases, however, it can lead to frustrating and inexplicable errors, as the state of an object seems to change “behind your back”.

The solution to this problem is to make a deep copy of the object. A deep copy makes a distinct copy of each of the object’s fields, recursing through the entire graph of other objects referenced by the object being copied. The Java API provides no deep-copy equivalent to Object.clone(). One solution is to simply implement your own custom method (e.g., deepCopy()) that returns a deep copy of an instance of one of your classes. This may be the best solution if you need a complex mixture of deep and shallow copies for different fields, but has a few significant drawbacks:





A common solution to the deep copy problem is to use Java Object Serialization (JOS). The idea is simple: Write the object to an array using JOS’s ObjectOutputStream and then use ObjectInputStream to reconsistute a copy of the object. The result will be a completely distinct object, with completely distinct referenced objects. JOS takes care of all of the details: superclass fields, following object graphs, and handling repeated references to the same object within the graph. Figure 3 shows a first draft of a utility class that uses JOS for making deep copies.


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import java.io.IOException;
import java.io.ByteArrayInputStream;
import java.io.ByteArrayOutputStream;
import java.io.ObjectOutputStream;
import java.io.ObjectInputStream;


public class MyDeepCopy {
/**
* Returns a copy of the object, or null if the object cannot
* be serialized.
*/

public static Object copy(Object orig) {
Object obj = null;
try {
// Write the object out to a byte array
ByteArrayOutputStream bos = new ByteArrayOutputStream();
ObjectOutputStream out = new ObjectOutputStream(bos);
out.writeObject(orig);
out.flush();
out.close();
// Make an input stream from the byte array and read
// a copy of the object back in.
ObjectInputStream in = new ObjectInputStream(
new ByteArrayInputStream(bos.toByteArray()));
obj = in.readObject();
}
catch(IOException e) {
e.printStackTrace();
}
catch(ClassNotFoundException cnfe) {
cnfe.printStackTrace();
}
return obj;
}
}




Figure 3. Using Java Object Serialization to make a deep copy
Unfortunately, this approach has some problems, too:
It will only work when the object being copied, as well as all of the other objects references directly or indirectly by the object, are serializable. (In other words, they must implement java.io.Serializable.)

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