Home > Concurrent programming, Java > Networking in Java: non-blocking NIO, blocking NIO and IO

Networking in Java: non-blocking NIO, blocking NIO and IO

Standard run-time library in Java provides two interfaces for networking. One, which exists in Java since the beginning, is called “basic IO”, because it is based on generic framework of  “input streams” and “output streams” defined in package “java.io”. Sun did a good thing by providing uniform way for accessing files and sockets, following a Unix philosophy. However, there are some drawbacks in stream-based access, so Sun created another set of interfaces located in “java.nio” package. This package also provides uniform access to files and sockets, and is much more flexible than basic IO.

Main problem with basic IO was scalability to number of connections. Operation read() will block until some data will become available. It is not a problem if your program accesses files, because file operations never block for a long time. You are just reading the data until you’ll reach the end of file. Reading after the end of file will immediatelly return with “-1” bytes read. Another good thing is most programs usually access quite small amount of files. In other words, when working with files it is data who is waiting for program to process it, while program can decide what size of internal buffer to use for processing.

But with networking a model of basic IO is not so convenient. First, read() operation may block an execution thread for a long time. This means that to handle several connections simultaneously you’ll need as many threads as the amount of incoming connections you have. There is a small thing which can help you not to block forewer: you can specify a timeout for socket operations. But it will not solve a scalability problem.

Another problem is related to “message”-based structure of most protocols. Often you don’t know how much data you’ll receive. So, you have to organize your code in a special way:

  • Always read data by one byte, then assemble data array from those bytes. Code is simple, but slow.
  • Read one byte first, then use available() method to determine if there are more data to read. If there are, then read remaining data using bulk operation. Code is more complex, but faster then previous way.

NIO helps you to deal with both these problems. I’ll explain them in a way which seems to me most logical.

First, NIO introduces “Buffers” which are used to combine data and information used to process it. There are also “Channels” which can read into buffers and write from buffers.

To simplify your “basic IO” code you can just call Channels.newChannel() method for your input stream. The resulting channel will implement read() operation which will either block fill provided ByteBuffer with data and moving position to a place right after last byte. This makes code much more simple.

You can avoid wrapping by creating SocketChannel directly. This will get you almost the same result. It is called “blocking NIO”, and I strongly advise using it in simple cases, when thread blocking is not a problem for you.

The only difference between “blocking NIO” and “NIO wrapped around IO” is that you can’t use socket timeout with SocketChannels. Why ? Read a javadoc for setSocketTimeout(). It says that this timeout is used only by streams. However, you can use a trick to make it working:

SocketChannel socketChannel;


InputStream inStream = socketChannel.socket().getInputStream();

ReadableByteChannel wrappedChannel = Channels.newChannel(inStream);

In this example, reading from socketChannel directly will not be interrupted by timeout, but reading from wrappedChannel will be. To find out why it is so, you can take a look inside Java RT library. Socket timeout is used by OS-specific implementation of SocketInputStream, but is is not used by OS-specific implementation of SocketChannel.

However, NIO has much better things to solve a scalability problem. First, you can put a channel into non-blocking mode. This means that read() operation will return immediatelly if there are no data to read. Thus, you can create a single thread which will check all SocketChannels in cycle and read a data if it is available.

Having a single thread is nice, but if it will spin around read() operation it will waste lots of CPU cycles. To help with the performance NIO has a class called “Selector” which WILL block on non-blocking channels. The difference is that it can monitor any amount of channels, resuming execution when at least one of those channels has some readable data. This idea was copied from Unix, but with one big flaw: Selector can use only non-blocking channels.

I don’t know why Sun has introduced this limitation. This article focuses on reading, but both basic IO and NIO also support writing. Since a blocing/non-blocking mode applies both to read and write directions simultaneously, then usage of Selector makes connect() and write() operations more complex. Anyway, it is the only way to have only one thread reading from several network connections.

Let’s finish for today. It’s quite easy to understand what to use. If scalability is an issue, then use “non-blocking NIO”. Otherwise, use “blocking NIO” with thread per connection. You can make those threads as daemons so they will not prevent application from termination when all other threads will stop. Another way to stop those threads is to close channels they are reading from. This will cause a read operation to interrupt with exception.

I hope I’ve shown that NIO is simple. So, don’t use NIO frameworks. They are bad.

  1. Scott
    September 9, 2009 at 4:34 am

    thanks for your post… java nio is not that complicated. i was wondering if it would work without reading a 100 page framework doc, thanks for your encouragement. maybe a lot of programmers are obsessed with creating and consuming 4 letter frameworks to fill up resumes.

    It seems if an application is important enough to use nio one probably can justify spending the time optimizing the number of thread,etc to match the application and server hardware. incredible how many hundred of thousands of servers are wasted in the server farms because of threaded i/o.

  2. g
    January 12, 2011 at 9:01 am

    hmmm… i never thought that the socket class provided by java
    has the Non-blocking version… well thanks…!

    but, it seems have more things to do, rite…?
    i mean not just do connecting, instead doing some other tasks (channel, checking, etc).

  3. Anonymous
    March 1, 2012 at 7:02 am

    hey I want to transfer image file from non blocking socketchannel. what should i do?

  4. Anonymous
    March 10, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Be careful if performance is a concern. Using Channels.newChannel is not the same as using the SocketChannel because data is copied from the input stream, not directly from the file descriptor in native code. This means that the benefit of using direct byte buffers with socket channels is lost.

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