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How to prevent NullPointerExceptions in Java

As an experienced Java developer, you're likely familiar with the intricacies of Java exceptions. These events signal abnormal conditions during program execution and, when not handled properly, can disrupt the normal flow of your application, leading to crashes or unexpected behavior.

Among the various Java exceptions, you need to pay special attention to NullPointerExceptions. These exceptions are particularly notorious, as they tend to be a common source of runtime errors and can significantly impact your application's stability and reliability.

In this article, you'll learn all about NullPointerExceptions in Java, including their causes, consequences, and most importantly, prevention techniques.

Why you should avoid NullPointerExceptions

A NullPointerException represents a runtime anomaly in Java that occurs when someone tries to access or modify an object reference possessing a null value. This null reference signifies the absence or non-instantiation of the object in question. When the Java virtual machine (JVM) finds a null reference during object manipulation, it generates a NullPointerException. Understanding and addressing the causes of these exceptions can help in developing stronger and more robust applications.

NullPointerExceptions can occur in various situations, including the following:

  • When accessing an instance variable or invoking a method on a null object.
  • When accessing an element in an array or a collection with a null reference.
  • When unboxing a null reference from a wrapper object to its corresponding primitive type.
  • When passing a null reference as an argument to a method that doesn't expect it.

These situations typically result from programming errors, such as failing to initialize an object, mishandling null values, or not properly checking for null values before performing operations on objects.

Unfortunately, NullPointerExceptions can have numerous negative consequences in a development environment, including the following:

  • Application crashes: When a NullPointerException occurs, it often leads to an abrupt termination of the application, causing user dissatisfaction and potential loss of unsaved data.
  • Unpredictable behavior: NullPointerExceptions can lead to unpredictable application behavior, making it difficult to reproduce and diagnose issues.
  • Debugging challenges: Tracking down the root cause of a NullPointerException can be time-consuming and complicated, especially in large and complex codebases.
  • Security vulnerabilities: In some cases, NullPointerExceptions may expose security vulnerabilities, as they can be exploited by malicious users to bypass certain checks or gain unauthorized access to sensitive data.
  • Decreased developer productivity: Frequent NullPointerException may hinder productivity, as developers need to spend additional time fixing and testing these issues.

Fortunately, when you understand the causes, consequences, and prevention techniques for NullPointerExceptions, you can minimize their occurrence and create more stable, more efficient, and more secure Java applications.

How to prevent NullPointerExceptions in Java

To prevent NullPointerExceptions in Java, developers can employ a variety of techniques and best practices, including using the ternary operator and the Apache Commons StringUtils library.

Use the ternary operator

Instead of using an if-else statement, you can use the ternary operator to check for null values and provide a default value, reducing the risk of NullPointerExceptions. The ternary operator is better for concise and readable conditional statements that handle null values and provide default values in Java:

String input = null;
String result = (input != null) ? input : "default";
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This code assigns the value default to the variable result if the variable input is null. If it's not null, it assigns the value of input to result. It uses the ternary operator to check for null values and provide a default value.

Use StringUtils from Apache Commons

The Apache Commons StringUtils library provides utility methods to safely handle null values in strings, reducing the risk of NullPointerException. This prevents unexpected application crashes or security vulnerabilities that can arise from null values:

import org.apache.commons.lang3.StringUtils;
String input = null;
boolean isBlank = StringUtils.isBlank(input); // Returns true if null, empty, or whitespace
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This code uses the StringUtils class from the org.apache.commons.lang3 package to check if a string is null, is empty, or contains only whitespace characters, and assigns the result to the isBlank Boolean variable.

You can minimize potential security risks from third-party libraries like Apache Commons StringUtils by using Snyk to scan for Java vulnerabilities. In addition, using the latest version of third-party libraries is crucial for security and stability. For Apache Commons StringUtils, check the latest version on their official website and update accordingly in your project's pom.xml.

Use primitives over objects

Whenever possible, you should use primitive types instead of their corresponding wrapper classes to avoid potential null values, which cannot be null. Unfortunately, their corresponding wrapper classes can be null, leading to the possibility of a NullPointerException if they are not properly handled:

int primitiveInt = 0; // A primitive int cannot be null
Integer objectInt = null; // An Integer object can be null, leading to a NullPointerException
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This code declares an integer variable primitiveInt with a value of 0, which is primitive (and therefore, cannot be null), as well as an objectInt variable of the Integer class, which can be null and can potentially lead to a NullPointerException if not handled properly.

Avoid returning null in methods

Instead of returning null values from methods, return an empty object:

public List getStrings() {
 return Collections.emptyList(); // Return an empty list instead of null
}
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This code defines a method getStrings() that returns an empty list of strings using the Collections.emptyList() method instead of returning a null value. This approach is preferred because it avoids potential NullPointerExceptions and promotes consistency in the handling of return values, making the code easier to read and maintain. A valuable approach to prevent returning null from Java methods involves the use of Optional. We will delve deeper into this concept later in our discussion.

Use .equals() safely

Use .equals() on a known non-null object, or use Objects.equals() to avoid NullPointerExceptions when comparing objects:

String str1 = "hello";
String str2 = null;
// Safe usage of .equals()
boolean isEqual = str1.equals(str2); // Returns false, no NullPointerException
// Using Objects.equals()
boolean isEqualObjects = Objects.equals(str1, str2); // Returns false, no NullPointerException
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This code declares two string variables: str1 and str2. It uses the .equals() method on the non-null str1 object and Objects.equals() to compare str1 and str2 safely by checking for null values to avoid potential NullPointerExceptions when comparing objects.

Prevent passing null as a method argument

Use annotations like @NotNull to indicate that a method should not accept null arguments, enabling compile-time checks:

public void doSomething(@NotNull String input) {
    // Method implementation
}
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Use the @NonNull annotation from Lombok

Lombok is a widely used library that simplifies Java code. The @NonNull annotation helps enforce non-null parameters, generating appropriate null checks:

import lombok.NonNull;
public void doSomething(@NonNull String input) {
    // Method implementation
}
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This code imports the @NonNull annotation from the Lombok library and uses it to specify that the input parameter of the doSomething method must not be null. This helps prevent potential NullPointerExceptions by checking for null values at compile time.

Use null object pattern

The null object pattern is a design pattern that provides a default object in place of null values, reducing the risk of NullPointerExceptions:

public interface Animal {
    void makeSound();
}
public class Dog implements Animal {
    @Override
    public void makeSound() {
        System.out.println("Woof!");
    }
}
public class NullAnimal implements Animal {
    @Override
    public void makeSound() {
        // Do nothing
    }
}
public class AnimalFactory {
    public Animal getAnimal(String type) {
        if ("Dog".equalsIgnoreCase(type)) {
            return new Dog();
        }
        return new NullAnimal();
    }
}
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This code defines an Animal interface and two classes that implement the interface: Dog and NullAnimal. The AnimalFactory class contains a method, getAnimal(), that takes a String argument and returns an instance of Dog or NullAnimal depending on the argument.

This approach is useful for handling null values because it allows for the creation of a default NullAnimal object in case an invalid or null argument is passed to getAnimal(). This can prevent potential NullPointerExceptions and ensure consistent behavior in the program.

Use the Java Stream API to handle null values in collections

The Java Stream API provides methods to handle null values in collections safely:

List strings = Arrays.asList("Hello", null, "World");
strings = strings.stream().filter(Objects::nonNull).collect(Collectors.toList());
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This code uses a stream to filter out null elements from a list of strings, preventing potential NullPointerExceptions that may occur when trying to access null values in the list.

This approach simplifies null checking and helps to prevent unexpected application crashes or security vulnerabilities that may arise from null values in collections.

Validate method arguments with a dedicated utility method

Create a utility method to validate arguments and throw a custom exception when null values are encountered. This can be helpful in enforcing non-null requirements in method parameters:

public static  T checkNotNull(T reference, String errorMessage) {
 if (reference == null) {
 throw new IllegalArgumentException(errorMessage);
 }
 return reference;
}
public void doSomething(String input) {
 input = checkNotNull(input, "Input should not be null");
 // Method implementation
}
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This code defines a checkNotNull method that throws an IllegalArgumentException if the reference parameter is null and a doSomething method that uses the checkNotNull method to ensure that the input parameter is not null before proceeding with the method implementation.

This approach is important for preventing potential NullPointerExceptions by checking for null values at runtime and throwing an exception if null values are encountered.

Use default methods in interfaces

When using interfaces, provide default methods to handle potential null objects, thus avoiding NullPointerExceptions:

public interface Processor {
    default void process(String input) {
        if (input == null) {
            handleNullInput();
        } else {
            doProcess(input);
        }
    }

    void doProcess(String input);

    default void handleNullInput() {
        // Handle null input or throw a custom exception
    }
}
public class MyProcessor implements Processor {
    @Override
    public void doProcess(String input) {
        System.out.println("Processing input: " + input);
    }
    // optionally override the handleNullInput method
    @Override
    public void handleNullInput() {
        System.out.println("Null input encountered.");
    }
}
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This code defines an interface Processor with a default process() method that checks for null input values and calls either doProcess() or handleNullInput(). The PMyProcessor class implements the Processor interface and overrides the doProcess() and handleNullInput() methods to define custom behavior.

This approach helps to prevent potential NullPointerExceptions by providing a consistent way to handle null input values, allowing for the implementation of custom behavior or exception handling when null values are encountered.

Use the Builder pattern

The Builder pattern can help you create complex objects with optional parameters (including things like color, size, shape, or other customizable features of an object), ensuring that required parameters are always set and non-null:

public class Person {
    private final String firstName;
    private final String lastName;

    private Person(Builder builder) {
        this.firstName = builder.firstName;
        this.lastName = builder.lastName;
    }

    public static class Builder {
        private final String firstName;
        private String lastName = "";

        public Builder(String firstName) {
            this.firstName = Objects.requireNonNull(firstName, "First name must not be null");
        }

        public Builder lastName(String lastName) {
            this.lastName = Objects.requireNonNull(lastName, "Last name must not be null");
            return this;
        }

        public Person build() {
            return new Person(this);
        }
    }
}
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This code defines a Person class with a private constructor that only accepts a Builder object, which contains two fields: firstName and lastName. The Builder class ensures that the firstName field is not null by using Objects.requireNonNull() to check it at construction time, while the lastName field is allowed to be null but must be checked and set using the lastName() method.

This approach helps to prevent potential NullPointerExceptions by ensuring that all required fields are initialized and checked for null values at construction time. This promotes both consistency and reliability in the program.

Use the double-checked locking pattern with the singleton pattern

When creating singletons, the double-checked locking pattern can help ensure that the singleton instance is never null:

public class Singleton {
    private static volatile Singleton instance;

    private Singleton() {
    }

    public static Singleton getInstance() {
        if (instance == null) {
            synchronized (Singleton.class) {
                if (instance == null) {
                    instance = new Singleton();
                }
            }
        }
        return instance;
    }
}
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This code defines a Singleton class that ensures only one instance of the class is created at runtime and uses double-checked locking to prevent potential race conditions and NullPointerExceptions.

This approach is important for preventing NullPointerExceptions because it ensures that the instance of the Singleton class is only created once and that subsequent calls to the getInstance() method return the same instance. This helps to prevent null values from being accidentally assigned to the instance variable and causing potential NullPointerExceptions.

Use the Optional class

The Optional class is a powerful tool to avoid NullPointerExceptions by explicitly handling potential null values:

import java.util.Optional;
public class OptionalExample {
    private String someString;
    public OptionalExample(String someString) {
        this.someString = someString;
    }
    public Optional getString() {
 return Optional.ofNullable(someString);
 }
}
//Usage
OptionalExample example1 = new OptionalExample("Hello, World!");
Optional optString1 = example1.getString();
String value1 = optString1.orElse("default");
System.out.println(value1); // Output: Hello, World!
OptionalExample example2 = new OptionalExample(null);
Optional optString2 = example2.getString();
String value2 = optString2.orElse("default");
System.out.println(value2); // Output: default
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This code uses the Optional class to handle null values, explicitly indicating that a value may be absent and using orElse() to provide a default value, thus, preventing potential NullPointerExceptions. It's important not to call get() directly on Optional. Instead, methods like orElse() are used to provide a default value when the Optional is empty, thus preventing NoSuchElementException.ย 

This approach not only makes it clear that a value may or may not be present, but also enforces the correct handling of these cases, helping to avoid potential errors like NullPointerException or NoSuchElementException.

Test often and test early

Make sure you write comprehensive unit tests to catch NullPointerExceptions during development before they cause issues in production:

@Test
public void testGetStrings() {
    MyClass obj = new MyClass();
    List result = obj.getStrings();
 assertNotNull(result); // Ensure the result is not null
}
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This code defines a JUnit test case for the getStrings() method of the MyClass class. Then it creates an instance of MyClass, calls the getStrings() method, and asserts that the result is not null using the assertNotNull() method.

This approach is useful in preventing potential NullPointerExceptions by verifying that the result of the getStrings() method is not null before performing any subsequent operations on it. By ensuring that the result is not null, the test case can help to identify any potential issues with nullvalues and prevent unexpected application crashes or security vulnerabilities.

NullPointConclusion

Preventing NullPointerExceptions in Java applications is crucial for creating robust, reliable, and secure software. From Java 14 onwards, there have been enhancements for better NullPointerException handling, making it easier to prevent and troubleshoot these exceptions. This means that updating to newer Java versions can be beneficial for debugging purposes.

By employing a combination of techniques, such as using the ternary operator, validating method arguments, and adopting design patterns, like the Builder and null object patterns, you can effectively mitigate the risk of encountering NullPointerExceptions. Incorporating these practices not only helps improve the application's stability but enhances the overall development experience.

Snyk is an essential tool for developers looking to create secure and reliable applications. With Snyk, you have access to a range of tools and services designed to detect and fix security vulnerabilities in your code. Snyk also offers integration with popular development environments and platforms, making it easy to incorporate security into your development process.

To take your Java development experience to the next level and contribute to the security and stability of the software ecosystem, you should consider using some of Snyk's powerful tools, including Snyk's IDE plugins, CLI, and free, hands-on Java security lessons. These tools can help you detect and report security vulnerabilities, including NullPointerExceptions, ensuring your applications are secure and reliable.

Top comments (6)

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ant_kuranov profile image
Anton Kuranov

Well, from my side I can mention these tecniques:

  • Explicitly mark with @Nullable (of any preferred library) a method return value if it might be null. Check your IDE's hints: most of them can infer nullability and highlight potential problems. That may be enough in most cases.
  • If you prefer, wrap nullable return values with Optional. But in Java unwrapping Optional mostly requires noisy and ugly code.
  • But, never use Optional for fields or method parameters! This is a bad antipattern.
  • Also, never return nulls in collections!
  • A method that returns collection should never return null. Use empty collection instead. Consider also initializing bean fields with empty collections.
  • Also, a good option for strings is to use empty strings instead of null wherever possible.
  • Nullable object is rather polemic. While it might have sence for classes like complex numbers, but the NullAnimal is a complete fiction and does not model any real object.
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siy profile image
Sergiy Yevtushenko
  • Annotations are useless
  • Use of Optional requires switching to functional style. Then there will be no need to unwrap it and code gets clean and concise.
  • Optionals in fields and parameters are perfectly fine. Moreover, they help preserve important information - that value can be missing.
  • Empty strings are not so much better than null. They don't trigger NPE, but keep intact all relevant mental overhead.

Also, you might find interesting this article: dev.to/siy/introduction-to-pragmat...

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ant_kuranov profile image
Anton Kuranov
  • Not agree for annotations: in most cases IDE warnings are enough to find potential nullability problems. Just don't leave your code yellow-highlited.
  • Just switchng to empty strings makes 99% of your code working right without adding special checks for "empty" cases.
  • The usage of Optional in Java is very polemic itself. While it is totally valid in pure functional languages like Scala or Haskell, in Java it was introduced in relation with streams to indicate that an operation may not have a result. And there are plenty of critics saying that you should never use Optional to access stateful data like bean properties. Also, unwrapping Optional is noisy and always requires additional variables.
Thread Thread
 
siy profile image
Sergiy Yevtushenko
  • Annotations are managed manually, so, like comments, they can be outdated or misleading.
  • Empty string covers only one case - string (i.e. other types are not covered). Also, it's introduces inconsistency in data model, if businesses logic assumes possibility of missing value. Missing values should be modelled as such, to preserve context.
  • Use of FP-style approaches in Java is extremely useful and Option is just one of them . I don't like built-in Optional but for completely different reason - it makes too many reverence to imperative style.

About unwrapping: it is necessary not so often, but even in these cases I don't see why .orElse() or .orElseGet() is noisy or requires additional variable.

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arturobatistute profile image
Arturo Batistute

Great post!!
Just to add, you can use the SonarQube extension as well! With that you can follow best practices in your code and also he's going to tell you in some cases where you might face a null pointer.

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foolcats profile image
fool-cats

Thanks ๐Ÿ‘