JEP 481: Scoped Values (Third Preview)

OwnerAndrew Haley
TypeFeature
ScopeSE
StatusProposed to Target
Release23
Componentcore-libs
Discussionloom dash dev at openjdk dot org
Relates toJEP 464: Scoped Values (Second Preview)
Reviewed byAlan Bateman
Endorsed byPaul Sandoz
Created2024/04/24 14:31
Updated2024/05/22 14:04
Issue8331056

Summary

Introduce scoped values, which enable a method to share immutable data both with its callees within a thread, and with child threads. Scoped values are easier to reason about than thread-local variables. They also have lower space and time costs, especially when used together with virtual threads (JEP 444) and structured concurrency (JEP 480). This is a preview API.

History

The scoped values API incubated in JDK 20 via JEP 429, became a preview API in JDK 21 via JEP 446, and was re-previewed in JDK 22 via JEP 464.

We here propose to re-preview the API in JDK 23 in order to gain additional experience and feedback, with one change:

Goals

Non-Goals

Motivation

Java applications and libraries are structured as collections of classes which contain methods. These methods communicate through method calls.

Most methods allow a caller to pass data to a method by passing the data as parameters. When method A wants method B to do some work for it, it invokes B with the appropriate parameters, and B may pass some of those parameters to C, and so forth. B may have to include in its parameter list not only the things B directly needs but also the things B has to pass to C. For example, if B is going to set up and execute a database call, it might want a Connection passed in, even if B is not going to use the Connection directly.

Most of the time this "pass what your indirect callees need" approach is the most effective and convenient way to share data. However, sometimes it is impractical to pass all the data that every indirect callee might need in the initial call.

An example

It is a common pattern in large Java programs to transfer control from one component (a "framework") to another ("application code") and then back. For example, a web framework could accept incoming HTTP requests and then call an application handler to handle it. The application handler may then call the framework to read data from the database or to call some other HTTP service.

@Override
public void handle(Request request, Response response) { // user code; called by framework
    ...
    var userInfo = readUserInfo();
    ...
}

private UserInfo readUserInfo() {
    return (UserInfo)framework.readKey("userInfo", context);// call framework
}

The framework may maintain a FrameworkContext object, containing the authenticated user ID, the transaction ID, etc., and associate it with the current transaction. All framework operations use the FrameworkContext object, but it's unused by (and irrelevant to) user code.

In effect, the framework must be able to communicate its internal context from its serve method (which calls the user's handle method) to its readKey method:

4. Framework.readKey <--------+ use context
3. Application.readUserInfo   |
2. Application.handle         |
1. Framework.serve  ----------+ create context

The simplest way to do this is by passing the object as an argument to all methods in the call chain:

@Override
void handle(Request request, Response response, FrameworkContext context) {
    ...
    var userInfo = readUserInfo(context);
    ...
}

private UserInfo readUserInfo(FrameworkContext context) {
    return (UserInfo)framework.readKey("userInfo", context);
}

There is no way for the user code to assist in the proper handling of the context object. At worst, it could interfere by mixing up contexts; at best it is burdened with the need to add another parameter to all methods that may end up calling back into the framework. If the need to pass a context emerges during redesign of the framework, adding it requires not only the immediate clients — those user methods that directly call framework methods or those that are directly called by it — to change their signature, but all intermediate methods as well, even though the context is an internal implementation detail of the framework and user code should not interact with it.

Thread-local variables for sharing

Developers have traditionally used thread-local variables, introduced in Java 1.2, to help share data between methods on the call stack without resorting to method parameters. A thread-local variable is a variable of type ThreadLocal. Despite looking like an ordinary variable, a thread-local variable has one current value per thread; the particular value that is used depends on which thread calls its get or set methods to read or write its value. Typically, a thread-local variable is declared as a final static field and its accessibility is set to private, allowing sharing to be restricted to instances of a single class or group of classes from a single code base.

Here is an example of how the two framework methods, both running in the same request-handling thread, can use a thread-local variable to share a FrameworkContext. The framework declares a thread-local variable, CONTEXT (1). When Framework.serve is executed in a request-handling thread, it writes a suitable FrameworkContext to the thread-local variable (2), then calls user code. If and when user code calls Framework.readKey, that method reads the thread-local variable (3) to obtain the FrameworkContext of the request-handling thread.

public class Framework {

    private final Application application;

    public Framework(Application app) { this.application = app; }
    
    private final static ThreadLocal<FrameworkContext> CONTEXT 
                       = new ThreadLocal<>();    // (1)

    void serve(Request request, Response response) {
        var context = createContext(request);
        CONTEXT.set(context);                    // (2)
        Application.handle(request, response);
    }

    public PersistedObject readKey(String key) {
        var context = CONTEXT.get();              // (3)
        var db = getDBConnection(context);
        db.readKey(key);
    }

}

Using a thread-local variable avoids the need to pass a FrameworkContext as a method argument when the framework calls user code, and when user code calls a framework method back. The thread-local variable serves as a hidden method parameter: A thread that calls CONTEXT.set in Framework.serve and then CONTEXT.get in Framework.readKey will automatically see its own local copy of the CONTEXT variable. In effect, the ThreadLocal field serves as a key that is used to look up a FrameworkContext value for the current thread.

While ThreadLocals have a distinct value set in each thread, the value that is currently set in one thread can be automatically inherited by another thread that the current thread creates by using the InheritableThreadLocal class rather than the ThreadLocal class.

Problems with thread-local variables

Unfortunately, thread-local variables have three inherent design flaws.

Toward lightweight sharing

The problems of thread-local variables have become more pressing with the availability of virtual threads (JEP 444). Virtual threads are lightweight threads implemented by the JDK. Many virtual threads share the same operating system thread, allowing for very large numbers of virtual threads. In addition to being plentiful, virtual threads are cheap enough to represent any concurrent unit of behavior. This means that a web framework can dedicate a new virtual thread to the task of handling a request and still be able to process thousands or millions of requests at once. In the ongoing example, the methods Framework.serve, Application.handle, and Framework.readKey would all execute in a new virtual thread for each incoming request.

It would be useful for these methods to be able to share data whether they execute in virtual threads or traditional platform threads. Because virtual threads are instances of Thread, a virtual thread can have thread-local variables; in fact, the short-lived, non-pooled nature of virtual threads makes the problem of long-term memory leaks, mentioned above, less acute. (Calling a thread-local variable's remove method is unnecessary when a thread terminates quickly, since termination automatically removes its thread-local variables.) However, if each of a million virtual threads has its own copy of thread-local variables, the memory footprint may be significant.

In summary, thread-local variables have more complexity than is usually needed for sharing data, and significant costs that cannot be avoided. The Java Platform should provide a way to maintain inheritable per-thread data for thousands or millions of virtual threads. If these per-thread variables were immutable, their data could be shared by child threads efficiently. Further, the lifetime of these per-thread variables should be bounded: Any data shared via a per-thread variable should become unusable once the method that initially shared the data is finished.

Description

A scoped value is a container object that allows a data value to be safely and efficiently shared by a method with its direct and indirect callees within the same thread, and with child threads, without resorting to method parameters. It is a variable of type ScopedValue. It is typically declared as a final static field, and its accessibility is set to private so that it cannot be directly accessed by code in other classes.

Like a thread-local variable, a scoped value has multiple values associated with it, one per thread. The particular value that is used depends on which thread calls its methods. Unlike a thread-local variable, a scoped value is written once, and is available only for a bounded period during execution of the thread.

A scoped value is used as shown below. Some code calls ScopedValue.runWhere, presenting a scoped value and the object to which it is to be bound. The call to runWhere binds the scoped value, providing a copy that is specific to the current thread, and then executes the lambda expression passed as an argument. During the lifetime of the runWhere call, the lambda expression, or any method called directly or indirectly from that expression, can read the scoped value via the value’s get method. After the runWhere method finishes, the binding is destroyed.

final static ScopedValue<...> NAME = ScopedValue.newInstance();

// In some method
ScopedValue.runWhere(NAME, <value>,
    () -> { ... NAME.get() ... call methods ... });

// In a method called directly or indirectly from the lambda expression
... NAME.get() ...

The structure of the code delineates the period of time when a thread can read its copy of a scoped value. This bounded lifetime greatly simplifies reasoning about thread behavior. The one-way transmission of data from caller to callees — both direct and indirect — is obvious at a glance. There is no set method that lets faraway code change the scoped value at any time. This also helps performance: Reading a scoped value with get is often as fast as reading a local variable, regardless of the stack distance between caller and callee.

The meaning of "scoped"

The scope of a thing is the space in which it lives — the extent or range in which it can be used. For example, in the Java programming language, the scope of a variable declaration is the space within the program text where it is legal to refer to the variable with a simple name (JLS §6.3). This kind of scope is more accurately called lexical scope or static scope, since the space where the variable is in scope can be understood statically by looking for { and } characters in the program text.

Another kind of scope is called dynamic scope. The dynamic scope of a thing refers to the parts of a program that can use the thing as the program executes. If method a calls method b that, in turn, calls method c, the execution lifetime of c is contained within the execution of b, which is contained in that of a, even though the three methods are distinct code units:

|
  |   +–– a
  |   |
  |   |  +–– b
  |   |  |
TIME  |  |  +–– c
  |   |  |  |
  |   |  |  |__
  |   |  |
  |   |  |__
  |   |
  |   |__
  |
  v

This is the concept to which scoped value appeals, because binding a scoped value V in a runWhere method produces a value that is accessible by certain parts of the program as it executes, namely the methods invoked directly or indirectly by runWhere.

The unfolding execution of those methods defines a dynamic scope; the binding is in scope during the execution of those methods, and nowhere else.

Web framework example with scoped values

The framework code shown earlier can easily be rewritten to use a scoped value instead of a thread-local variable. At (1), the framework declares a scoped value instead of a thread-local variable. At (2), the serve method calls ScopedValue.runWhere instead of a thread-local variable's set method.

class Framework {

    private final static ScopedValue<FrameworkContext> CONTEXT
                        = ScopedValue.newInstance();    // (1)

    void serve(Request request, Response response) {
        var context = createContext(request);
        ScopedValue.runWhere(CONTEXT, context,          // (2)
                   () -> Application.handle(request, response));
    }
    
    public PersistedObject readKey(String key) {
        var context = CONTEXT.get();                    // (3)
        var db = getDBConnection(context);
        db.readKey(key);
    }

}

The runWhere method provides one-way sharing of data from the serve method to the readKey method. The scoped value passed to runWhere is bound to the corresponding object for the lifetime of the runWhere call, so CONTEXT.get() in any method called from runWhere will read that value. Accordingly, when Framework.serve calls user code, and user code calls Framework.readKey, the value read from the scoped value (3) is the value written by Framework.serve earlier in the thread.

The binding established by runWhere is usable only in code called from runWhere. If CONTEXT.get() appeared in Framework.serve after the call to runWhere, an exception would be thrown because CONTEXT is no longer bound in the thread.

As before, the framework relies on Java's access control to restrict access to its internal data: The CONTEXT field has private access, which allows the framework to share information internally between its two methods. That information is inaccessible to, and hidden from, user code. We say that the ScopedValue object is a capability object that gives code with permissions to access it the ability to bind or read the value. Often the ScopedValue will have private access, but sometimes it may have protected or package access to allow multiple cooperating classes to read and bind the value.

Rebinding scoped values

That scoped values have no set method means that a caller can use a scoped value to reliably communicate a value to its callees in the same thread. However, there are occasions when one of its callees might need to use the same scoped value to communicate a different value to its own callees. The ScopedValue API allows a new nested binding to be established for subsequent calls:

private static final ScopedValue<String> X = ScopedValue.newInstance();

void foo() {
    ScopedValue.runWhere(X, "hello", () -> bar());
}

void bar() {
    System.out.println(X.get()); // prints hello
    ScopedValue.runWhere(X, "goodbye", () -> baz());
    System.out.println(X.get()); // prints hello
}

void baz() {
    System.out.println(X.get()); // prints goodbye
}

bar reads the value of X to be "hello", as that is the binding in the scope established in foo. But then bar establishes a nested scope to run baz where X is bound to goodbye.

Notice how the "goodbye" binding is in effect only inside the nested scope. Once baz returns, the value of X inside bar reverts to '"hello"'. The body of bar cannot change the binding seen by that method itself but can change the binding seen by its callees. After foo exits, X reverts to being unbound. This nesting guarantees a bounded lifetime for sharing of the new value.

Inheriting scoped values

The web framework example dedicates a thread to handling each request, so the same thread executes some framework code, then user code from the application developer, then more framework code to access the database. However, user code can exploit the lightweight nature of virtual threads by creating its own virtual threads and running its own code in them. These virtual threads will be child threads of the request-handling thread.

Context data shared by a code running in the request-handling thread needs to be available to code running in child threads. Otherwise, when user code running in a child thread calls a framework method it will be unable to access the FrameworkContext created by the framework code running in the request-handling thread. To enable cross-thread sharing, scoped values can be inherited by child threads.

The preferred mechanism for user code to create virtual threads is the Structured Concurrency API (JEP 480), specifically the class StructuredTaskScope. Scoped values in the parent thread are automatically inherited by child threads created with StructuredTaskScope. Code in a child thread can use bindings established for a scoped value in the parent thread with minimal overhead. Unlike with thread-local variables, there is no copying of a parent thread's scoped value bindings to the child thread.

Here is an example of scoped value inheritance occurring behind the scenes in user code. The Server.serve method binds CONTEXT and calls Application.handle just as before. However, the user code in Application.handle calls run the readUserInfo and fetchOffers methods concurrently, each in its own virtual threads, using StructuredTaskScope.fork (1, 2). Each method may use Framework.readKey which, as before, consults the scoped value CONTEXT (4). Further details of the user code are not discussed here; see JEP 480 for further information.

@Override
public Response handle(Request request, Response response) {
      try (var scope = new StructuredTaskScope.ShutdownOnFailure()) {
          Supplier<UserInfo>    user   = scope.fork(() -> readUserInfo());  // (1)
          Supplier<List<Offer>> offers = scope.fork(() -> fetchOffers());   // (2)
          scope.join().throwIfFailed();  // Wait for both forks
          return new Response(user.get(), order.get());
      } catch (Exception ex) {
          reportError(response, ex);
      }
}

StructuredTaskScope.fork ensures that the binding of the scoped value CONTEXT made in the request-handling thread — in Framework.serve — is read by CONTEXT.get in the child thread. The following diagram shows how the dynamic scope of the binding is extended to all methods executed in the child thread:

Thread 1                        Thread 2
--------                        --------   
                                5. Framework.readKey <----------+
                                                                |
                                                              CONTEXT
                                4. Application.readUserInfo     |
3. StructuredTaskScope.fork                                     |
2. Application.handle                                           |
1. Server.serve     --------------------------------------------+

The fork/join model offered by StructuredTaskScope means that the dynamic scope of the binding is still bounded by the lifetime of the call to ScopedValue.runWhere. The Principal will remain in scope while the child thread is running, and scope.join ensures that child threads terminate before runWhere can return, destroying the binding. This avoids the problem of unbounded lifetimes seen when using thread-local variables. Legacy thread management classes such as ForkJoinPool do not support inheritance of scoped values because they cannot guarantee that a child thread forked from some parent thread scope will exit before the parent leaves that scope.

Migrating to scoped values

Scoped values are likely to be useful and preferable in many scenarios where thread-local variables are used today. Beyond serving as hidden method parameters, scoped values may assist with:

In general, we advise migration to scoped values when the purpose of a thread-local variable aligns with the goal of a scoped value: one-way transmission of unchanging data. If a codebase uses thread-local variables in a two-way fashion — where a callee deep in the call stack transmits data to a faraway caller via ThreadLocal.set — or in a completely unstructured fashion, then migration is not an option.

There are a few scenarios that favor thread-local variables. An example is caching objects that are expensive to create and use. java.text.SimpleDateFormat objects, for example, are expensive to create and, notoriously, also mutable, so they cannot be shared between threads without synchronization. Thus giving each thread its own SimpleDateFormat object, via a thread-local variable that persists for the lifetime of the thread, has often been a practical approach. (Today, though, any code caching a SimpleDateFormat object could move to using the newer java.util.time.DateTimeFormatter, which can be stored in a static final field and shared between threads.)

The ScopedValue API

The full ScopedValue API is richer than the small subset described above. While here we only present examples that use ScopedValue<V>.runWhere(V, <value>, aRunnable), there are more ways to bind a scoped value. For example, the API also provides a version which returns a value and may also throw an Exception:

try {
        var result = ScopedValue.callWhere(X, "hello", () -> bar());
        catch (Exception e) {
            handleFailure(e);
        }
        ...

Additionally, there are versions of the binding methods that can bind multiple scoped values at a call site.

The following example runs an operation with k1 bound (or rebound) to v1, and k2 bound (or rebound) to v2:

ScopedValue.where(k1, v1).where(k2, v2).run(
        () -> ... );

This is both more efficient and much easier to read than nested invocations of ScopedValue.runWhere.

The full scoped value API can be found here.

Alternatives

It is possible to emulate many of the features of scoped values with thread-local variables, albeit at some cost in memory footprint, security, and performance.

We experimented with a modified version of ThreadLocal that supports some of the characteristics of scoped values. However, carrying the additional baggage of thread-local variables results in an implementation that is unduly burdensome, or an API that returns UnsupportedOperationException for much of its core functionality, or both. It is better, therefore, not to modify ThreadLocal but to introduce scoped values as an entirely separate concept.

Scoped values were inspired by the way that many Lisp dialects provide support for dynamically scoped free variables; in particular, how such variables behave in a deep-bound, multi-threaded runtime such as Interlisp-D. Scoped values improve on Lisp's free variables by adding type safety, immutability, encapsulation, and efficient access within and across threads.