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Mapped buffers (file mapping)

The NIO framework provides the facility to map sections of a file to a ByteBuffer. Once the mapping is set up, reading from the buffer automatically reads data from the corresponding section of the file, and writing to the buffer similarly results in the contents of the file being updated accordingly.

This facility to create a mapped byte buffer can be useful in cases where one or more of the following are true:

  • you need random access to sections of the file and are going to read/write data of different types— in other words, where the various get/put methods of ByteBuffer are convenient for accessing the data in the file;
  • at the time of setting up the mapping, there's a chance that only a small portion of the mapped area (or indeed none of it) will be accessed;
  • you don't want file data to reside on the Java heap and prefer to take advantage of the virtual memory system.

Note that there isn't necessarily any benefit in using a mapped byte buffer in terms of "raw" read/write performance. For example, if you are simply reading or writing serially through a file, then in terms of performance, you generally may as well use a plain old FileInputStream or FileOutputStream— with appropriate buffering, of course. Similarly, accessing a file via a mapped buffer— at least under Windows— doesn't appear to have any impact on the performance of file accesses by other means. For example, if you (a) map the contents of a file, (b) read the data via the mapped buffer, then (c) read that same file via a normal FileInputStream, the "normal" read in (c) will generally benefit from the caching that occurs in (b).

Therefore, the decision to use a mapped byte buffer should really be made on the basis of the functionality you require: is accessing the file data via a ByteBuffer the most convenient means for your application? Is it desirable for your application to take advantage of the virtual memory system (mapped buffers, not being part of the Java heap, are eligible to be paged in/out as memory permits), or is more consistent access time beneficial to your application?

How to use a mapped ByteBuffer

If it is, then to set up a mapped buffer, you first need to obtain a FileChannel. Recall that to do so, you first open the file via one of the regular means (RandomAccessFile, FileInputSteam or FileOutputStream), then call the getChannel() method. Finally, you call as follows:

File f = ...
RandomAccessFile raf = new RandomAccessFile(f, "rw");
FileChannel fc = raf.getChannel();
ByteBuffer fileArea =, offset, len);

Now, you can essentially use the get/put methods of fileArea just as you would with any ByteBuffer.

Instead of MapMode.READ_WRITE, two other mapping modes may be provided: MapMode.READ_ONLY and MapMode.PRIVATE. A read only mapping is self-explanatory; a private mapping is writable, but writes are reflected only in that MappedByteBuffer's contents (and not written to the file). If a writable mapping is requested (including a private one!), then the underlying means by which the file was opened must also support this (so e.g. you won't get a writable mapping from a channel opened via a FileInputStream!).

Characteristics of mapped ByteBuffers

Here are some other characteristics of mapped buffers that you should consider (these statements are true under Windows; I welcome feedback about other operating systems):

  • multiple mappings of the same section of a given file will generally by consistent with one another within your Java application (i.e. within your application's process), but not necessarily across processes1;
  • mapped buffers will not necessarily be consistent with modifications made by other means (e.g. via regular stream access)2;
  • mapping a section of a file beyond its length then writing to the buffer will result in the file growing accordingly;
  • mappings continue to exist even when the parent channel is closed;
  • the ByteBuffer returned by the method is actually a MappedByteBuffer, which provides a couple of additional calls (see below);
  • mappings are unmapped when the MappedByteBuffer becomes garbage collectable;
  • after a mapping is set up, the corresponding data isn't necessarily paged into physical memory until it is explicitly accessed— the MappedByteBuffer.load() method touches just enough of the data to ensure that it is all paged in;
  • writes made to a writable buffer are not necessarily written immediately to the file; the MappedByteBuffer.force() flushes any changes (and any corresponding metadata changes) to the file.

1. Windows actually provides a facility for mappings to be made consistent across processes (by using the same handle returned by CreateFileMapping from the different processes), but Java provides no access to this facility. I imagine that the designers judged that this facility is not necessarily available on other OSs and probably rarely needed.
2. Hitchens, R. (2002), Java NIO (O'Reilly) states that: "Calling get() will fetch data from the disk file, and this data reflects the current content of the file, even if the file has been modified by an external process since the mapping was established" (p. 80). However, this seems to contradict both the point made in footnote 1 plus the documentation of the Windows CreateFileMapping API call, which states quite clearly that "A mapped file and a file that is accessed by using the input and output (I/O) functions (ReadFile and WriteFile) are not necessarily coherent."

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Written by Neil Coffey. Copyright © Javamex UK 2012. All rights reserved.