Why String is Immutable and Final in Java

While coding in any programming language we always require some predefined types which we can use to write the code and every programming language provides these types in its way e.g. Java provides primitive types (int, long, char float etc) and reference types (custom types like Object, String, Thread).

For string manipulation, Java provides a class java.lang.String which gives us a way to create string objects and provides different behaviors to operate on those objects e.g. replace(), length()


String name = "Naresh";
System.out.print(name.length());
System.out.print(name.isEmpty());

Whenever we talk about String class in Java we say it is immutable in nature and all string literals are stored in String Constant Pool (SCP).

Prior to Java 7 String Constant Pool belongs to Permanent Generation area of heap which means Garbage Collector will not touch it in normal scenarios. But from Java 7 onwards string constant pool is not part of Perm Gen but live with out in heap which means now unused String objects will get garbage collected.

And in order to become a good developer, we should always know why these kinds of design decisions were taken. I mean, we should know why String is immutable or why string objects stored in SCP.

In Why String is Stored in String Constant Pool article, I have discussed why string objects are stored in a separate memory area called constant pool and in this article, I will discuss why String class was made immutable.

String is Effective Immutable not Completely Immutable

In normal scenarios, String objects are immutable and can't be modified but we can modify them by using Java reflection API. Every string object holds a char[] array as a private variable which actually holds every character from our string.

why-string-is-immutable-and-final-in-java

Due to the private nature of the char[] array, we cannot access it from outside of string object and none of the string methods modifies it.

But we can access this char[] array via reflection and then modify it, And that's why instead of calling String immutable we can call it Effective Immutable.

String string = "Naresh";

Class<String> type = String.class;
Field field = type.getDeclaredField("value");
field.setAccessible(true);

char[] value = (char[]) field.get(string);
value[0] = 'M'; // No `string` variable becomes `Maresh`


Why String is Final

As discussed in How to Create an Immutable Class in Java, in order to make a class immutable we need to make sure no one extends our class and destroy its immutability.

So String is made final to not allow others to extend it and destroy its immutability.

Why String is Immutable

However we can not be sure of what was Java designers actually thinking while designing String but we can only conclude these reasons based on the advantages we get out of string immutability, Some of which are as follows.

1. Existence of String Constant Pool

As discussed in Why String is Stored in String Constant Pool, In order provide a business functionality every application creates too many string objects and in order to save JVM from first creating lots of string objects and then garbage collecting them. JVM stores all string objects in a separate memory area called String constant pool and reuses objects from that cached pool.

Whenever we create a string literal JVM first sees if that literal is already present in constant pool or not and if it is there, the new variable will start pointing to the same object in SCP this process is called String Interning.

String a = "Naresh";
String b = "Naresh";
String c = "Naresh";

In above example string object with value Naresh will get created in SCP only once and all variables a, b, c will point to the same object but what if we try to make change in a e.g. a.replace("a", "").

Ideally a should have value Nresh but b, c should remain unchanged because as the end user we are making change in a only. And as a developer we know a, b, c all are pointing the same object so if we make a change in a, others should also reflect the change.

string-constant-pool-in-java

But String's immutability saves us from this scenario and due to which object Naresh will never change. So when we make any change in a, JVM will create a new object assign it to a, and then make the change to that object instead of changing object Naresh.

So having a string pool is only possible because of String's immutability and if String would not have been immutable, then caching string objects and reusing them would not have been a possibility because any variable would have changed the value and corrupted others.

2. Thread Safety

An object is called thread-safe when multiple threads are operating on it but none of them is able to corrupt its state and object holds the same state for every thread at any point in time.

As we know an immutable object cannot be modified by anyone after its creation which makes every immutable object thread safe by default. We do not need to apply any thread safety measures to it such as creating synchronized methods.

So due to its immutable nature string object can be shared by multiple threads and even if it is getting manipulated by many threads it will not change its value.

3. Security

In every application, we need to pass several secrets e.g. user's user-name\passwords, connection URLs and in general, all of this information is passed as string objects.

Now suppose if String would not have been immutable in nature then it could cause serious security threats to the application because these values will be allowed to get changed and if it is allowed then these might get changed due to wrongly written code or by any other person who has access to our variable references.

4. Class Loading

As discussed in Creating objects through Reflection in Java with Example, we can use Class.forName("class_name") method to load a class in memory which again calls other methods to do so and even JVM uses these methods to load classes.

But if you see clearly all of these methods accepts the class name as a string object so Strings are used in java class loading and String's immutability makes sure that correct class is getting loaded by ClassLoader.

Suppose if String would not have been immutable and we are trying to load java.lang.Object which get changed to org.theft.OurObject in between and now all of our objects have a behavior which someone can use to do unwanted things.

5. HashCode Caching

If we are going to perform any hashing related operations on our object we must override the hashCode() method and try to generate an accurate hashcode by using the state of the object. If object's state is getting changed which means its hashcode should also change.

Because String is immutable so the value one string object is holding will never get changed which means its hashcode will also not change which gives String class an opportunity to cache its hashcode during object creation.

Yes, String object caches its hashcode at the time of object creation which makes it a great candidate for hashing related operations because hashcode doesn't need to be calculated again and again which save us some time and this is why String is the most suitable candidate to be used as HashMap keys.

Disadvantages of String Immutability


There are always two sides to a coin, whenever something is providing us some benefits it will also a have some drawbacks and String's immutability also falls into it.

1. PermGen Space Error

Due to the immutability of String, string object can't be changed and whenever we make a change on it, JVM creates a new string object. So if there are 10000 string object in an application and every string object is getting manipulated 10 times then we are left with 110000 string objects.

And as we know strings are stored in a separate constant pool which is part of Permanent Generation, which usually occupies very limited memory as compared to young and old generations. Having too many String literals will quickly fill this space, resulting in java.lang.OutOfMemoryError: PermGen Space error.

2. Keeping passwords in memory for a long time

In general, passwords are stored as strings and strings are stored in the constant pool which is exempted from normal garbage collection cycles. So our password might remain in memory for very long time and someone can take advantage of it.

This is the reason standards suggest to hold password in an char[] array instead of the string object.

3. String is not extensible

Making String final is part of making it immutable but it also becomes a disadvantage because it limits its extensibility and we cannot extend String to provide more functionality.

For some developers, it becomes a problem when they require some extra behavior for their string objects but it's not a disadvantage and it can be tacked by creating a utility method which accepts the string as a parameter.

You can find complete code on this Github Repository and please feel free to provide your valuable feedback.


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