Determinism, Presence and Absence

Determinism, Presence and Absence

In this ongoing series related to Java configuration I’ve most recently covered what qualifiers are. They are strongly related to what paths are. A path picks out some possible objects in objectspace. Those objects may or may not exist. Whether they are known to exist, and for how long, is the subject of this post.


Determinism is, very loosely speaking: if you put the same stuff in twice, you’ll get the same result twice.

What does “same” mean? For most purposes, “same” can simply mean “indistinguishable”.

If I have a sane implementation of public final int add(final int a, final int b), then if you call this method 47 times, supplying it with 1 and 1 respectively each time, you’ll get 2, each time.

Why does this matter in configuration land? It’s kind of a Schrödinger’s cat situation.

Let’s say you have a Supplier<? extends String> in your hand and you’re about to call its get() method. Will it return a value?

Will it throw an exception?

You don’t know until you try it. So OK, let’s say you call it. Boom: it throws an exception.

If you call it again, will it throw an exception again? Will it be an exception that is indistinguishable from the prior one? Or will you get a value this time?

You don’t know; you have to try it. So OK, let’s say you call it again. This time it returns “Hello, world!”.

This supplier is non-deterministic. There’s no way to know what it is going to do. To learn what it’s going to do, you could read the documentation, which might or might not be correct. Perhaps the documentation mentions that it could throw a NoSuchElementException at any point for any reason. Now you know it’s non-deterministic. It would be kind of nice if this information were actually available programmatically.

Suppose this time you have a different Supplier<? extends String> in your hand. Suppose you call it 347 times and it returns “Hello, world!” each of those times. Is it deterministic? Maybe; you still don’t know.

Determinism is critical in configuration land because it helps you understand when a piece of configuration might change (and I haven’t even begun to dive into the fetid swamp that is mutable configuration) and when it is guaranteed (to the extent possible) to be constant.

Presence and Absence

Some values in configuration land are present. If I ask a loading system for a type of qualified object, the loading system might return me a suitable value. That value is present: I asked for it, and I got it. (If I ask a loading system for it again, will I get the same object back? That’s determinism, an orthoganal concept.)

Some values in configuration land are absent. If I ask a loading system for a type of qualified object, the loading system might not return me a suitable value. That value is absent: I asked for it, and I didn’t get anything. Again, determinism and absence are orthogonal.

Additionally: presence and absence have nothing to do with null. Some present values can be null and it’s entirely possible to represent absence with an object.

Let’s go back to the Supplier example. If you were able to query the Supplier to see what sorts of machinery it hides, you could see whether you might have to call get() one time or many times, and you could tell whether, if it returns null, that represents the presence of a value explicitly set to null or the absence of a value altogether.

If you could also query the supplier to find out whether the presence or absence it reports is permanent or transient, then you would also know whether it was deterministic.

In practice, these orthogonal concepts can be folded together into, say, an enum whose values might be:

  • ABSENT: describes permanent (and hence deterministic) absence. In the Supplier example, there really isn’t any point to calling the get() method. If we say that absence is indicated by the throwing of an exception, for example, then any time you call get() you are guaranteed it will throw an exception.

  • PRESENT: describes permanent (and hence deterministic) presence. In the Supplier example, you can call the get() method once and be confident that you’ll receive the one value it will forever return. That value, of course, might be null.

  • DETERMINISTIC: describes permanent absence or presence, but you don’t know which until you try. In the Supplier example, maybe get() will return a value (which may be null) and maybe it will throw an exception. Whatever it does, it will do for every subsequent invocation. That’s useful.

  • NON_DETERMINISTIC: who knows what will happen. This is the default mode of Suppliers everywhere.

Some configuration systems clumsily stumble around these concepts, some with better results than others:

  • MicroProfile Config and good old System properties are the worst here, since they conflate the concept of null and, in some cases, empty strings, with value absence. Oops. At least you can test if the System properties contain a key to discover absence vs. presence of a given value.

  • Lightbend’s Typesafe Config tries very hard to do this but still falls down a little bit. You can dig into the hasPathOrNull(String) javadoc to see the gymnastics, and don’t forget to consider that although it calls itself an immutable configuration system there’s also invalidateCaches() to pay attention to. So much for determinism!

  • JNDI at least knows that null is a valid value, so defines the NameNotFoundException type, so you can distinguish between absence and presence. In theory, a Context’s environment could contain this information, but it is not standardized.

  • Jakarta RESTful Web Services is obviously an HTTP-centric specification and so can take advantage of the various HTTP caching directives.

Introducing OptionalSupplier

To solve this problem, let’s introduce OptionalSupplier.

Wait, you say, how come we can’t just use java.util.Optional? Because Optional is designed for Stream operations that cannot or should not return null, and so deliberately equates null with “emptiness”, a concept similar to, but not equal to, absence.

Nevertheless, some of the fluent methods on Optional are quite useful. So what if we took the spirit of java.util.Optional and applied it to a Supplier, with explicit rules on how get() behaves, allowing for the possibility of null as a valid value?

Then you could do things like this:

switch (optionalSupplier.determinism()) {
case ABSENT:
  // You're never going to get a value; use a default
  // value instead maybe. Or you could throw an exception.
  // Or you could go ahead and call get() and let *it*
  // throw an exception to indicate absence. Here we
  // use a default value.
  greeting = "Hello, world!";
  // You only have to call get() once, and it won't throw.
  // It will always return the same value.  You could use
  // this information later to decide what to do about
  // caching and such.  Note the lack of the try/catch block.
  greeting = optionalSupplier.get();
  // Whatever get() does, it will always do, but we don't
  // know what it will do.  Guard appropriately.  With this
  // information you might be able to decide caching semantics
  // or abort early.
  try {
    greeting = optionalSupplier.get();
  } catch (final NoSuchElementException permanentlyAbsent) {
    // forever absent; use a default value, maybe?
    greeting = "Hello, world!";
  // We don't know what get() is going to do when it is called.
  // Guard appropriately, and now you know that greeting shouldn't
  // be cached, or, if you want to cache it, that a new value for
  // it might be returned by a get() invocation at any time.
  try {
    greeting = optionalSupplier.get();
  } catch (final NoSuchElementException absentForNow) {
    // Absent, but optionalSupplier.get() might return a
    // present value later.  For this example we just use a
    // default value.
    greeting = "Hello, world!";
  throw new AssertionError("Impossible enum constant: " + optionalSupplier.determinism());

Or you could do some fluentish stuff like this:

// This looks just like Optional.orElse(), but of course at the
// end of all this greeting may very well be null.  Absence is
// not java.util.Optional emptiness.
String greeting = optionalSupplier.orElse("Hello, World!");
// This assertion, in other words, might fail:
// assert greeting != null

So now we have notions of what a path is, what qualifiers are, and whether any given value in configuration land is permanently or transiently present or absent. There’s just one last foundational piece to this whole thing, and that’s subtyping and Java type assignability semantics—coming up next.