Marshalling / Unmarshalling Java Objects: Serialization vs Externalization
We all know the Java platform allows us to create reusable objects in memory. However, all of those objects exist only as long as the Java virtual machine remains running. It would be nice if the objects we create could exist beyond the lifetime of the virtual machine. Well, with object serialization, you can flatten your objects and reuse them in powerful ways.
Object serialization is the process of saving an object’s state to a sequence of bytes, as well as the process of rebuilding those bytes into a live object at some future time. The Java Serialization API provides a standard mechanism for developers to handle object serialization. The API is small and easy to use, provided the classes and methods are understood.
By implementating java.io.Serializable, you get “automatic” serialization capability for objects of your class. No need to implement any other logic, it’ll just work. The Java runtime will use reflection to figure out how to marshal and unmarshal your objects.
In earlier version of Java, reflection was very slow, and so serializaing large object graphs (e.g. in client-server RMI applications) was a bit of a performance problem. To handle this situation, the java.io.Externalizable interface was provided, which is like java.io.Serializable but with custom-written mechanisms to perform the marshalling and unmarshalling functions (you need to implement readExternal and writeExternal methods on your class). This gives you the means to get around the reflection performance bottleneck.
In recent versions of Java (1.3 onwards, certainly) the performance of reflection is vastly better than it used to be, and so this is much less of a problem. I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to get a meaningful benefit from Externalizable with a modern JVM.
Also, the built-in Java serialization mechanism isn’t the only one, you can get third-party replacements, such as JBoss Serialization, which is considerably quicker, and is a drop-in replacement for the default.
A big downside of Externalizable is that you have to maintain this logic yourself – if you add, remove or change a field in your class, you have to change your writeExternal/readExternal methods to account for it.
In summary, Externalizable is a relic of the Java 1.1 days. There’s really no need for it any more.