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OpenDSA Data Structures and Algorithms Modules Collection

Chapter 5 Introduction to Pointers in Java

Show Source |    | About   «  5.3. Basic References Part 2   ::   Contents   ::   5.5. Local Memory  »

5.4. Pointers Syntax

5.4.1. Syntax

The previously mentioned basic features of references, pointees, dereferencing, and assigning are the only concepts you need to build reference code. However, in order to talk about reference code, we need to use a known syntax which is about as interesting as... a syntax. We will use the Java language syntax which has the advantage that it has influenced the syntaxes of several languages.

5.4.1.1. Declaring a Reference Variable

A reference to a non-primitive data type (that is, a reference to any object) is defined by declaring a variable of that object's type. In other words, reference variables are declared just like any other variable. The declaration gives the type and identifier of the new variable, and reserves memory to hold its value. But—and here is the most important thing—declaring the reference variable does not assign a pointee for the reference. The reference starts out with a "bad" value until you assign it to something.

    Employee empPtr1; // Declare a reference to an Employee
    // This allocates space for the reference, but not the pointee.
    // The reference starts out as "null"
    Employee empPtr1; // Declare a reference to an Employee
    // This allocates space for the reference, but not the pointee.
    // The reference starts out as "null"

5.4.1.2. Assigning a pointee to a reference

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5.4.1.3. Dereference the reference

Anytime a reference variable appears anywhere other than the left side of an assignment statement, it is dereferenced. This is really no different than how a primitive variable like an int is used. Consider the following code:

int a = 5;
int b = a;

In this case, the value of a in the second line is just 5. In exactly the same way, in this code:

Employee empPtr = johnRef;

the value of johnRef is simply the location of the object that it is referencing. This is why empPtr ends up pointing to that same object. Of course, whenever you dereference any reference variable, it had better have a pointee. Otherwise, you get a runtime error of type NullPointerException.

5.4.1.4. Example Reference Code

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5.4.2. changeHeadPointer1

5.4.2.1. Reference Rules Summary

No matter how complex a reference structure gets, the list of rules remains short.

  • A reference variable stores a reference to its pointee. The pointee, in turn, stores something useful.
  • The dereference operation on a reference accesses its pointee. A reference may only be dereferenced after it has been assigned to refer to a pointee. Most reference bugs involve violating this one rule.
  • Allocating a reference does not automatically assign it to refer to a pointee. Assigning the reference to refer to a specific pointee is a separate operation. This is easy to forget.
  • Assignment between two references makes them refer to the same pointee, which allows object sharing.

5.4.3. Java References vs Pointers

Java references have two main features that distinguishes them from the less restrictive pointers in a language like C or C++.

  1. Fewer bugs. Because the language implements the reference manipulation accurately and automatically, the most common reference bug are no longer possible. Yay! Also, the Java runtime system checks each reference value every time it is used, so dereferencing a null reference is caught immediately on the line where it occurs. This is in contrast to a language like C++, where dereferencing a value of null might not make the program crash until later. This can make a programmer much more productive to know exactly where the problem occurred.
  2. Slower. Because the language takes responsibility for implementing so much reference machinery at runtime, and does so much extra runtime checking, Java code runs slower than other languages like C and C++. But the appeal of increased programmer efficiency and fewer bugs makes the slowness worthwhile for many applications.

5.4.4. How Are References Implemented In The Machine?

How are references implemented? The short explanation is that every area of memory in the machine has a numeric address like 1000 or 20452. You can think of memory as a big array, and each position in memory has an index which is its memory address. A reference to an area of memory is really just an integer which is storing the address of that area of memory.

In the picture above, we assume that Java decides to place the new Employee object starting at memory location 2000. So the reference variable just stores a value of 2000. If we looked closely at the computer's memory then we could see exactly how the Employee object is layed out in the bytes in memory (beginning at 2000). But we don't show it in this picture because the internal details for how the Employee object is implemented are more complicated than we need to care about right now. (But you should go ahead and look this up if you really want to know. You will learn a lot.)

A dereference operation looks at the address of the reference variable, and goes to that position in memory to retrieve the pointee stored there. An assignment of one reference variable to another just copies the numeric memory location. This is exactly like what happens when making an assignment between two int variables: The value is simply copied from one to the other. The value of null is always a special value that Java will never use as the location of any legal pointee. A bad reference is really just a reference which contains a null value. Java's runtime environment is constantly watching for a dereference of a reference variable with a null value, so it can catch it right away if that happens.

   «  5.3. Basic References Part 2   ::   Contents   ::   5.5. Local Memory  »

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