Introduction to Java NIO

This article provides an overview of Java NIO and NIO.2, and will be the foundation for later articles that will explore Java networking programming using NIO.

A brief history of Java NIO

The capability to work with files and byte streams has been available since JDK 1.0. This first version of the java.io package, however, did not fully support character streams. This was added to JDK 1.1 with the reader and writer classes, and the introduction of character encodings. This stream API, however, was blocking and did not scale well. A web server handling thousands of simultaneous requests, for example, needed a separate thread for each connection.

The next milestone in streaming processing was introduced in Java 4 with the new Java NIO API (JSR 51). This API promised to provide fast and scalable I/O operations by taking advantage of non-blocking I/O advancements to operating systems. Buffers, Channels and Selectors in the java.nio package made the core of this API. Additionally, it also provided regular expressions for efficient parsing, printf-style formatting, and Charset encoders and decoders

Java 7 enhanced the Java NIO APIs further (JSR-203) by adding efficient file handling, a new file system interface, asynchronous I/O, support for socket binding and multicasting. The makeover of this API was so substantial that was rebranded as Java NIO.2.

Java 8 enhanced the NIO.2 API further by adding support for the new java.util.stream API.

Buffers

Buffers are the workhorse of Java NIO. At its heart, NIO processing is about moving data in and out of buffers. The java.nio.Buffer class is the main abstraction, while java.nio.ByteBuffer is the main implementation class, representing a buffer containing bytes.

There are two types of buffers, direct and non-direct buffers.

A non-direct buffer uses an intermediate buffer managed by the operating system.  This intermediate buffer is needed because the operating system cannot efficiently access buffers in the Java heap.  All objects in the Java Heap are managed by the VM and might change memory location or not be optimally page aligned.

As an example, imagine an application that needs to read data from a file in local disk. It will request to read this data from the operating system, which in turn will instruct the disk controller to copy bytes from storage to the intermediate buffer.  The data from this buffer will then be copied to the Java heap buffer. The application can then access data from this buffer via a java.nio.ByteBuffer instance.

Java NIO Non-Direct Buffer
Java NIO Non-Direct Buffer

A direct buffer is one that removes this intermediate buffer by moving the underlying buffer memory outside of the Java heap.  As the memory address is fixed for the lifetime of the buffer, and outside of the reach of the Garbage Collector, the operating system can safely access it. While these buffers are more efficient when reading and writing, they are also more expensive to create and destroy.

Channels

A channel represents a connection to a resource that supports I/O operations such as reading and writing from files, network sockets, hardware devices or other applications.  Channels are used in conjunction with buffers to achieve efficient streaming of data. While channels coordinate with the operating system to access the resource, buffers are used to transfer and hold the data.

Channels are defined in the java.nio.channel package, and abstracted by the java.nio.channel.Channel interface.

These are the three main channel implementations:

Selectors

Selectors enable the efficient monitoring of many Java NIO channels and recognise when they are ready to transmit or receive data.  This allows a single thread to manage large number of channels, thus reducing the system load by reducing thread context overhead and thread memory utilisation.

Selectors make use of a modern operating system feature called non-blocking mode access. Non-blocking access allows the operating system to check the readiness of a stream without blocking. The selector can then instruct the operating system to monitor a group of channels and get notified once one or more are ready for processing.

The main Selector class in the java.nio.channel.Selector, and are used mainly for network servers to listen from multiple socket connections.

NIO Selector
NIO Selector

Summary

This article has presented a brief history of Java NIO and introduced the main concepts of the Java NIO API that enable efficient I/O streaming: Buffers, Channels and Selectors.  Later articles will dive into these concepts and explain how to use the Java NIO for networking programming.

Bibliography

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Eduard Manas

Eduard is a senior IT consultant with over 15 years in the financial sector. He is an experienced developer in Java, C#, Python, Wordpress, Tibco EMS/RV, Oracle, Sybase and MySQL.Outside of work, he likes spending time with family, friends, and watching football.

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