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The Java I/O packages discussed in Chapter 9: Java provide an extensive set of input/output tools. The stream architecture allows for a powerful and uniform approach to input/output regardless of whether the communications are with a disk file, a network connection, a serial line, or any other source or destination. However, there are some aspects of the basic I/O tools that were found to be lacking, especially for cases where large numbers of streams are handled as, for example, with a busy web server.

The NIO packages were added in the Java 1.4 edition to addresss this scalability problem and other shortcomings. We will give a brief overview here of some of the tools available in the NIO packages, many of which are useful even for routine application programs.

Stream Shortcomings

Some of the practical problems with Java stream classes involve:

  • I/O blocking - Blocking refers to the situation where a read or write operation on a stream does not return until it has finished. This might be a problem if, for example, the data communication from a source is extremely slow or intermittently delayed for long periods. The resources of a thread are then being wasted during periods while it waits for data transmission to resume.

  • Asynchronous I/O - Threads servicing a I/O connection cannot be easily and cleanly stopped or interrupted (see Chapter 8: Java) as you might want to do if the I/O operation is blocked.

  • Scaling - With the above two problems, it is difficult to efficiently serve a large numbers of I/O connections, as in a web server dealing thousands of users, with a finite number, i.e. a pool, of threads. When one I/O connection is blocked, the thread controlling it should be able to move to an active I/O connection.

  • Memory Performance - Data transfers involve copying data into the JVM's own buffers, which can be slow for large data sets as compared to handling the data in native OS memory.

  • Bytes-to/from-Primitives - In Chapter 9: Java we discuss how Java's strong data typing does not normally allow a sequence of bytes to be arbitrarily treated as primitive type data as can be done in, say, C/C++. In that section we show how to use the ByteArrayInputStream and ByteArrayOutputStream classes to access a given section of bytes in an array as a particular type. However, this can be a bit clumsy and faster, more convenient techniques would be useful.

  • Character Encoding/Decoding - As discussed in Chapter 9: Java : Character Codes, Java uses Unicode internally to represent all text characters. For external communications, however, it can encode/decode characters into other code schemes such as UTF-8. Before Java 1.4, though, there were few ways to access and control the Java coding/encoding tools directly.

The tools in the NIO packages address these problems. We survey these tools in the following sections.


The NIO system added the concept of a channel, which represents an open connection to a file, socket, or other I/O source or destination. A channel basically just indicates additional capabilities for a connection beyond what the basic I/O classes allow.

The Channel interface (java.nio.channels.Channel) itself only contains two methods: isOpen(), to indicate whether a channel is opened or closed, and close(), which, not surprisingly, closes a channel. Classes that implement the Channel interface will bring other capabilities specific to their particular I/O job such as allowing for a non-blocking connection.

For Java 1.4 the stream classes FileInputStream, FileOutputStream, and RandomAccessFile and the classes DatagramSocket, ServerSocket, and Socket each had a getChannel() method added. It returns an instance of a class that implements the Channel interface and represents the corresponding connection. There is also the Pipe class, which is abstract. It provides the sink() and source() methods, which return instances of Pipe.SinkChannel and Pipe.SinkChannel, resp. A pipe is a one-way connection between two threads. (See Chapter 9: Supplements: Pipe Streams.)

This code, for example,

FileInputStream file_input = new FileInputStream (fFileInputNameString);
FileChannel file_input_chan = file_input.getChannel ();

FileInputStream file_output = new FileOutputStream (fFileOutputNameString);
FileChannel file_output_chan = file_output.getChannel ();

shows how to obtain an instance of FileChannel (java.nio.channels.FileChannel) for a file via a FileInputStream object and for a FileOutputStream object. Before we discuss what a FileChannel object is good for, we will discuss NIO buffersm, which are used to handle the data in channels.


The java.nio package itself mostly contains a set of buffer classes that are useful for the channel communications. The base class Buffer is abstract and has the following abstract subclasses for the primitive types:

(Concrete subclasses of these will be created according to the JVM implementation.) An instance of one of these buffers contains a linear array of data elements of the particular type. The buffer classes provide a number of useful tools to handle the data.

A buffer is described by the following settings:

  • capacity is the number of elements in the buffer.
  • limit is the index of the first element that should not be read or written. This can be set to be less than the capacity.
  • position is the index of the next element to be read or written and it can be set directly.
  • mark is the index to which a buffer's position will be set to by an invocation of the reset() method.
  • readonly - the buffer can be set prevent write or get operations. The isReadOnly() method will indicate that state.

The values of these must obey the following:

0 <= mark <= position <= limit <= capacity

Some of the tools to handle a buffer include the following:

  • get() and put() methods obtain and write data, respectively, at specific locations in the array. The locations can be specified for these operations absolute, i.e. at a specified element index, or relative to the current location.
  • position(int newposition) methods set the index for the next element to be read or written, while position() returns the current position.
  • mark() sets the current mark in the buffer and subsequent reset() invocations will move the position to the mark.
  • flip() sets the limit to the current position and then sets the position to zero. This is convenient, for example, after one has read or put a set of data into the buffer. You invoke flip and are all set up to get or write that data.
  • rewind() sets the position to zero and discards the mark setting.
  • clear() sets the limit and position of the buffer to zero. Data can be added via put or read methods.
  • remaining() returns the number of elements between the current position and the limit, while hasRemaing() indicates whether this value is nonzero.

Instances of these buffer classes can be created from an existing array (of the corresponding type) using a wrap() method or via an allocate method. For example, to create a buffer for 2000 double type values,

DoubleBuffer double_buff = DoubleBuffer.allocate (2000);

The ByteBuffer also offers an alternative called direct allocation in which the buffer is actually located in a native OS memory buffer rather than in the JVM. This provides for faster performance, though the allocation operation itself is somewhat slower than the allocate() method.

ByteBuffer byte_buff = ByteBuffer.allocateDirect (2000);

There is no allocateDirect() method for the other buffers but note that view buffers (see next page) of the other primitive types can be made of a directly allocated ByteBuffer.

In Chapter 9: Java: Converting Primitive Type Data to Bytes and Back, we discussed how to use the byte array input and output streams to treat different sections of a byte array as different primitive type data. In a Chapter 9: Tech: Histogram I/O example, we show how to use this technique in a program. An alternative is provided by the NIO buffers. A section of a ByteBuffer can be viewed as one of the primitive type buffers. We will illustrate this in an example on the next page.


OK, now that we have introduced channels and buffers, we can discuss a particular type of channel class called FileChannel. An instance of FileChannel can be obtained via the getChannel() method for the FileInputStream, FileOutputStream, and RandomAccessFile classes as shown in the above example code.

As an example application of FileChannel, we can copy data from the input file to the output file in several ways. First we create a buffer with the allocate method

ByteBuffer buffer = ByteBuffer.allocate (32000);

and then we read from the input file and write to the output file:

file_input_chan.read (buffer);  // read 32000 bytes into the buffer
buffer.flip ();                 // set limit to 32000 and position to 0
file_output_chan.write (buffer);// write 32000 bytes to the output file.

In both the read and write operations, the methods attempt to go to the limit of the buffer. So the FileChannel works like a random access file but operations are carried with a BufferByte rather than a byte array.

To read another 32000 bytes from the input file and copy them to the output file:

buffer.clear ();                  // reset limit and position to 0
file_input_chan.position (32000); // set position for start of read
.read (buffer);    // read 32000 bytes into the buffer
buffer.flip ();                   // set limit to 32000 and position to 0
file_output_chan.position (32000);// set position for start of write
file_output_chan.write (buffer);  // write 32000 bytes to the output file.

Another approach is to loop over the read operation and test if the end of the input file has been reached:

while (file_input_chan.read (buffer) > 0) { // read returns number of elements read
   buffer.flip ();
   file_output_chan.write (buffer);
   buffer.clear ();

There are several other FileChannel read/write methods, include those that allow transfers to/from more than one buffer. In a gathering type of operation, data is written to the channel with data gathered from several buffers. Conversely, a scattering operation reads data from the channel into several buffers.

Finally, the transferTo() method does the work of copying a data from one file to another without having to bother at all with buffers.

file_input_chan.transferTo( 0, (int)file_input_chan.size(), file_output_chan);

After read/write operations are finished, you should close the channels


See Programming with Buffers - JDC Tech Tips - June.4.2002 for more examples of using buffers.

Mapped Files

A convenient option with FileChannel is the ability to treat an entire file as if it has been completely read into a singel ByteBuffer. You can then access any position or section of the file data with the usual ByteBuffer methods. This is done internally by mapping the file into memory. The magic of page swapping in the OS will make it appear as if the whole file is in memory, regardless of the actual size of the file.

A mapped buffer is created with the map() method in FileChannel as shown in this example:

FileInputStream file_input = new FileInputStream (fFileInputNameString);
FileChannel file_input_chan = file_input.getChannel ();

MappedByteBuffer mapped_buffer =
   file_input_chan.map (FileChannel.READ_ONLY, 0, file_input_chan.size ())

Teh mapped_buffer can be used just like a regular ByteBuffer to access the data elements. Here we set the data to be READ_ONLY but this can also be READ_WRITE.

See the program Sum.java at Sun Developer for a short example of using a mapped buffer to speed up a computation of data in a file.

More examples of FileChannel are given in File Channels - JDC Tech Tips - May.7.2002. In particular, one example shows how to read a file that is in little-endian format. Java internally uses big-endian format for the representation of the numbers in the primitives. This means that the most significant byte comes first in a transfer and the byte storage starts from the lowest memory address and goes up. Many hardware platforms, such as Intel's, use little-endian, in which the least significant byte comes first.


As mentioned in the above, NIO provides the programmer with much greater access to character encoding tools. Often communications with external sources and destinations requires conversion between the Unicode that Java uses internally with a different code used by the external agent. The java.nio.charset package contains coder/decoder classes for which you can explicitly specify the particular type of target codes to encode or decode.

For example, we could follow the previous code snippet with this one:

// UTF-8 is the common 8-bit encoding format
Charset charset = Charset.forName ("UTF-8");
CharsetDecoder decoder = charset.newDecoder ();
CharBuffer charBuffer  = decoder.decode (mapped_buffer);

The first two code lines create a decoder for UTF-8 encoded text. The third uses it to decode text from the buffer (i.e. the mapped file) and send the output into a CharBuffer.

See the java.nio.charset.Charset class specification for more about its character decoding and encoding capabilities.

Selectable I/O

We do not discuss ports, sockets and other aspects of network I/O until Chapter 13 in Part II of JavaTech. In chapters 14 and 15 we show how to create a basic web server that connects with client programs (e.g. browsers) to send hypertext files or other types of data. We will leave the details till those chapters and simply give a brief overview of the NIO tools available to build servers more efficiently, especially when dealing with lots of clients.

In Part II we will see that a server obtains a new socket object to connect with each new client. The client also has its own socket object to talk with the server. Typically, the server creates a threaded process to serve the client, i.e. to deal with the communications with the client via the paricular socket assigned to it. While reading from or writing data to the client, the socket will block, i.e. not return until the operation is finished.

If at any given time there are lots of clients, perhaps many thousands for a busy website, there will be many of the server threads that are blocked while waiting for their operations to finish. Assigning a unique thread to each socket can waste resources if many of the sockets are blocked but not actually reading or writing anything and instead just waiting for responses from their clients.

The NIO system provides a way to deal with socket communications much more efficiently. It allows for a program to create a fixed sized pool of threads. A thread from the pool can be taken out and assigned to deal with a client when needed and then returned to the pool after it finishes dealing with the client. This becomes quite effective with NIO since it makes it possible to create non-blocking I/O over sockets and to poll sockets to see if they need to be serviced.

The primary classes for this task are:

The Selector acts like a listener that polls SelectableChannels for their status with regard to opening or accepting a socket connection and with regard to reading or writing to a connection. The Selector, object, which is obtained via the static method Selector.open(), determines the status of a channel not directly from the channel but via a SelectionKey object that indicates the status via a set of ready flags.

We won't go into further details here but you can find several examples in these tutorials: Working with SocketChannels - Core Java Tech Tips - Sept.9.2003. More details are provided in this article:Non-Blocking Socket I/O in JDK 1.4, By Tim Burns, Owl Mountain, Dec.2001. Two example programs with blocking connections and two examples with non-blocking are given here: NIO Examples - Sun Developer. The book Learning Java... discusses an example server program that uses these selectable, non-blocking channel techniques.

References & Web Resources


Most recent update: Nov. 7, 2007

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