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Listing the currently defined environment variables and system properties in Java

On the previous page, we introduced the concept of environment variables and system properties. Conceptually, the two are very similar: the essential difference is that environment variables are defined and managed by the operating system, whereas system properties effectively "belong" to Java and in some cases are "translations" of environment variables in order to bring more consistency across platforms.

We also listed some commonly defined environment variables and system properties on the previous page. However, it is sometimes useful to interrogate the full list of variables/properties defined on a given system from within Java. We will look at how to accomplish that task here.

How to refer to all variables/properties in memory: map data structure

First of all, we need a data structure in which to store all variables and properties. An environment variable or system property is essentially a mapping or association of one String (the variable/property name) to another String. So, we will assume that the type of object used is some form of Map of String to String, such as a HashMap. If you're not familiar with the concept of a map or hash map, then I recommend that you take a brief detour to the Java collections section of this web site, and in particular to the section on Java maps and the HashMap class.

So, given some object implementing Map, we can write a method to dump out the "list" (list of mappings) of variables or properties as follows. As a bonus, we'll order the variables/properties.

private static void dumpVars(Map<String, ?> m) {
  List<String> keys = new ArrayList<String>(m.keySet());
  Collections.sort(keys);
  for (String k : keys) {
    System.out.println(k + " : " + m.get(k));
  }
}

We actually allow specify the map as being a mapping of Strings to any object type, as this is sufficient for our purposes: the toString() method, which is what will actually get called on each value when printing it out, is defined on Object and is not specific to String. On the other hand, we requrie the keys to be comparable for sorting, and since in reality we are expecting Strings, it makes sense to specify String as the key class.

Listing environment variables vs properties

Now, conceptually we've said that environment variables and system properties are essentially variations on a theme, and assumed in our dumpVars() method that in either case, we have a map of strings to variables. It turns out that:

  • environment variables are enumerated using the method System.getenv(), and that method does indeed return a Map of Strings to Strings;
  • system properties are enumerated with the method System.getProperties which, for historical reasons, returns a Properties object.

For dumping environment variables, we can therefore pass the output of System.getenv() directly into our method:

System.out.println("===== ENV VARIABLES =====");
dumpVars(System.getenv());

In the case of the Properties object output by System.getProperties(), this is not strictly speaking a map of String to String (or other object), but actually a map (the older Hashtable class) of Object to Object. A quick-and-dirty solution is to pass the Properties object into the constructor of a HashMap:

System.out.println("===== PROPERTIES =====");
dumpVars(new HashMap(System.getProperties()));

Technically, this creates a "raw" (i.e. not generically typed) HashMap object. The compiler will then—albeit with a warning— allow us to pass this raw HashMap into our dump method, even though strictly speaking that method is defined as taking a typed HashMap, and will "trust" that the objects inside the map can be cast to the correct type at runtime. This behaviour is really supported for backwards compatibility but it avoids us some long-winded code.


Written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2010. All rights reserved.