Implementing Dynamic Variables

There does not seem to be an efficient way to implement a dynamic variable on the JVM. What do I mean by this? There is no efficient way to do the following:

val dv = new DynamicVariable[String]("initial value")

def call() {

call() // prints `initial value`
dv := "new value"
call() // prints `new value`

where efficient means that the read dv() is as efficient as reading an object instance field.

You could use a global variable, but if your application is multithreaded, it won’t work correctly. The best thing people have come up with is using a ThreadLocal to simulate a dynamically scoped variable. Indeed, this is how Scala does it. Unfortunately, while a lot of effort was invested to make these efficient in mainstream JVMs, they are not as performant as one would like them to be. Alternatively, you could pass a ThreadContext as an additional argument to every method as is done in JRuby. Or you could try to enforce that every thread is an instance of a special class and cast currentThread to that class. Neither are appealing.

Why are they important in the first place? There are many reasons, customizing the execution environment being one of the important applications – think of software transactional memory APIs, functional reactive programming APIs, customizing the GUI code context. They allow looser coupling between parts of the code and induce less boilerplate in situations where procedures would otherwise be heavy on parameters. Other use case examples are outlined in the paper by Hanson and Proebsting. Their paper describes a nice mechanism to implement dynamic variables in a language such as C or C++. Alas, the approach is totally inapplicable to the JVM, where there is no concept of pointers, and particularly of local stack variable addressing. The more troubling issue is that the use statement they describe has linear complexity in the number of currently used dynamic variables, and the only proposed mechanism to address this is maintaining a hash table, bringing us back to square one and ThreadLocals. And ironically, their implementation uses a thread-local current variable, thus relying on the very mechanism they are trying to implement.

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