What is a Lookup?

Apache NetBeans Wiki Index

Note: These pages are being reviewed.

Lookup is a mechanism for finding instances of objects. It is pervasively used in NetBeans APIs. The general pattern is that you pass a Class object and get back an instance of that class or null. See the Javadoc for links to articles describing its inspiration and purpose.

The simplest way to think of Lookup is that it is a Map where the keys are Class objects and the value for each key is an instance of the key class.

There is the global lookup which is used to find objects (often, but not always, singletons) that are registered throughout the system. Also, many types of objects have a method getLookup() that enables other code to get things specific to that object. In particular, Node`s and `Project objects have a Lookup.

The primary purpose of Lookup is decoupling - it makes it possible to use generic objects to get very specific information, without having to cast objects to a specific type. Confused yet? It’s simple. Take the example of Openable - it has one method, open() that will open a file in the editor.

Say that I want to write some code that will open the selected file when the user does something. It could be an Action, a button, or maybe my code has just created a file and I want to open it. This is what I will do:

Lookup selectedContext = Utilities.actionsGlobalContext();
Openable o = selectedContext.lookup(Openable.class);
if (o != null) {

The power of all this is in the level of decoupling it provides: My code that wants to open the file does not have to know anything at all about what happens when the file is opened, or what kind of file it is, or what module supports opening it. And the module that supports opening it does not need to know anything about who is going to open it. They both simply share a dependency on the abstract interface Openable. So either one can be replaced without affecting the other at all.

This brings the MVC design pattern into modular loosely coupled world.

A good example of this is in the POV-Ray tutorial. It launches an external process that generates a .png file. When the process ends, it wants to open it, so it does the following:

FileObject fob = FileUtil.toFileObject(new File(pathWePassedToProcess));
if (fob != null) {  //the process succeeded
   DataObject dob = DataObject.find(fob);
   Openable oc = dob.getLookup().lookup(Openable.class);
   if (oc != null) { //the Image module is installed

The fact is that it is the Image module that makes it possible to open .png files in NetBeans. But the POV-Ray tutorial does not need to know or care that the Image module exists, or what it does - it simply says "open this".

The common pattern you’ll see for Lookup usage is one where there are three components:

  • Module A is pure API - it provides some interfaces

  • Module B depends on A and implements those interfaces, providing them from a Node or Project or such

  • Module C wants to display some UI or do something with objects that implement those interfaces. It also depends on A, but does not need to know about B at all; either can be replaced independently, and the other will still function.

For global services, the model is more simple - typically there will be some singleton object, implemented as an abstract class:

public abstract class GlobalService {
   public abstract void doSomething(Something arg);
   public static GlobalService getDefault() {
     GlobalService result = Lookup.getDefault().lookup(GlobalService.class);
     if (result == null) {
        result = new NoOpGlobalService();
     return result;
   private static class NoOpGlobalService extends GlobalService {
      public void doSomething(Something arg) {}

Some other module entirely actually registers an implementation of this interface in the default Lookup. StatusDisplayer is a good example of this pattern.

What if multiple objects of the same type should be available?

A Lookup is not limited to containing one singleton of any type. If there may be more than one of a given type in a Lookup, the syntax is slightly different:

Collection<? extends SomeIface> c = Lookup.getDefault().lookupAll(SomeIface.class);

Note: In NetBeans versions prior to 6.0 you need to use Lookup.Template and Lookup.Result.allInstances(), because the lookupAll() method was not created until 6.0.

The Lookup.Result can be listened on for changes in the result of the query. It is often useful to think of a Lookup as a space in which objects appear and disappear, and your code can respond as that happens (the following code uses the NB 6.0 lookupResult method - just use the pattern above with the Lookup.Template for NetBeans 5):

class ObjectInterestedInFooObjects implements LookupListener {
   final Lookup.Result<Foo> result;  //result object is weakly referenced inside Lookup
   ObjectInterestedInFooObjects() {
        result = someLookup.lookupResult(Foo.class);
    public void resultChanged(LookupEvent evt) {
        Collection<? extends Foo> c = result.allInstances();
        // do something with the result

Another question is, on the side that’s providing the lookup, if you have a collection already, how can you expose that in a Lookup. For that, you can create your own AbstractLookup and use InstanceContent to provide the collection of objects that belong in your Lookup.

If you need to merge together more than one lookup (for example, the lookup provided from Node.getCookieSet().getLookup() and one of your own which you will add and remove objects from), you can simply use ProxyLookup - i.e. new ProxyLookup (lookup1, lookup2, Lookups.singleton(someObject), …​)

Objects in a Lookup often are not instantiated until the first time they are requested; depending on the implementation, they may be weakly referenced, so that if an object is not used for a while, it can be garbage collected to save memory. So Lookup additionally enables lazy instantiation of objects, which is useful for performance reasons.