C++ Destructors Versus Java Finalization

By: Emiley J Viewed: 172 times  Printer Friendly Format    


When you move from C++ to Java, one of the more subtle, yet important issues you will face is the difference between a C++ destructor and a Java finalize() method. Although similar in many respects, their actual operation is distinctively different. Let's begin by reviewing the purpose and effect of a C++ destructor and the Java finalize() method. In C++, when an object goes out of scope, it is destroyed. Just prior to its destruction, its destructor function is called (if it has one). This is a hard-and-fast rule. There are no exceptions. Let's look more closely at each part of this rule:
  1. Every object is destroyed when it goes out of scope. Thus, if you declare a local object inside a function, when that function returns, that local object is automatically destroyed. The same goes for function parameters and for objects returned by functions.
  2. Just before destruction, the object's destructor is called. This happens immediately, and before any other program statements will execute. Thus, a C++ destructor will always execute in a deterministic fashion. You can always know when and where a destructor will be executed.

In Java, the tight linkage of the destruction of an object and the calling of its finalize() method does not exist. In Java, objects are not explicitly destroyed when they go out of scope. Rather, an object is marked as unused when there are no longer any references pointing to it. Even then, the finalize() method will not be called until the garbage collector runs. Thus, you cannot know precisely when or where a call to finalize( ) will occur. Even if you execute a call to gc( ) (the garbage collector), there is no guarantee that finalize( ) will immediately be executed.

While the deterministic behavior of a C++ constructor and the somewhat probabilistic aspect of finalization are of little concern in most cases, they will have an impact on others. For example, consider the following C++ program:

// This C++ program can call f() indefinitely.
#include <iostream>
#include <cstdlib>
using namespace std;
const int MAX = 5;
 

int count = 0;
class X {
public:
// constructor
X() {
if(count<MAX) {
count++;
}
else {
cout << "Error — can't construct";
exit(1);
}
}
// destructor
~X() {
count—;
}
};
void f()
{
X ob; // allocate an object
// destruct on way out
}
int main()
{
int i;
for(i=0; i < (MAX*2); i++) {
f();
cout << "Current count is: " << count << endl;
}
return 0;
}

Here is the output generated by this program:

Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0
Current count is: 0

Look carefully at the constructor and destructor for X. The constructor increments the value of count as long as count is less than MAX. The destructor decrements count. Thus, count is incremented when an X object is created and decremented when an X object is destroyed. But no more than MAX objects can exist at any one time. However, in main( ), f( ) is called MAX*2 times without causing an error! Here is why. Inside f( ), an object of type X is created, causing count to be incremented, and then the function returns. This causes the object to immediately go out of scope and its destructor to be called, which decrements count. Thus, calling f( ) has no net effect on the value of count. This means that it can be called indefinitely. However, this is not the case when this program is converted to Java.
 

Here is the Java version of the preceding program:

// This Java program will fail after 5 calls to f().
class X {
static final int MAX = 5;
static int count = 0;
// constructor
X() {
if(count<MAX) {
count++;
}
else {
System.out.println("Error — can't construct");
System.exit(1);
}
}
// finalization
protected void finalize() {
count—;
}
static void f()
{
X ob = new X(); // allocate an object
// destruct on way out
}
public static void main(String args[]) {
int i;
for(i=0; i < (MAX*2); i++) {
f();
System.out.println("Current count is: " + count);
}
}
}

This program will fail after five calls to f( ), as this output shows:

Current count is: 1
Current count is: 2
Current count is: 3
Current count is: 4
Current count is: 5
Error — can't construct

The reason the program fails is that garbage collection does not occur each time f( ) returns. Thus, finalize( ) is not invoked, and the value of count is not decremented. After five calls to the method, count reaches its maximum value and the program fails. It is important to emphasize that precisely when garbage collection occurs is implementation dependent. It is possible that for some implementation of Java, on some platform, the preceding program will function similarly to its C++ version. However, the point of the example remains: In C++, you know when and where a destructor will be called. In Java, you do not know when or where finalize( ) will be executed. Therefore, when porting code from C++ to Java, you will need to watch for instances in which the precise timing of the execution of a destructor is relied upon.



Most Viewed Articles (in C++ )

Latest Articles (in C++)

Comment on this tutorial