Decoraptor

Sunday, 24 August 2014 13:04:00 UTC

A Dependency Injection design pattern

This article describes a Dependency Injection design pattern called Decoraptor. It can be used as a solution to the problem:

How can you address lifetime mismatches without introducing a Leaky Abstraction?

By adding a combination of a Decorator and Adapter between the Client and its Service.

Decoraptor

Sometimes, when a Client wishes to talk to a Service (Component in the figure; in practice often an interface), the Client may have a long lifetime, whereas, because of technical constraints in the implementation, the Service must only have a short lifetime. If not addressed, this may lead to a Captive Dependency: the long-lived Client holds onto the Service for too long.

One solution to this is a Decoraptor - a combination of a Decorator and an Adapter. A Decoraptor is a long-lived object that adapts an Abstract Factory, and uses the factory to create a short-lived instance of the interface that it, itself, implements.

How it works

A Decoraptor is an Adapter that looks almost like a Decorator. It implements an interface (Component in the above figure) by adapting an Abstract Factory. The factory creates other instances of the implemented interface, so the Decoraptor implements each operation defined by the interface by

  1. Invoking the factory to create a new instance of the same interface
  2. Delegating the operation to the new instance
This enables the Decoraptor to resolve the lifetime mismatch between a long-lived Client and a short-lived Service. The Decoraptor itself is as long-lived as its Client, but ensures that each Service instance is as short-lived as a single operation.

While not strictly a Decorator, a Decoraptor is closely related because it ultimately delegates all implementation to another implementation of the interface it, itself, implements. The only purpose of a Decoraptor is to match two otherwise incompatible lifetimes.

When to use it

While a Decoraptor is a fairly simple piece of infrastructure code, it still adds complexity to a code base, so it should only be used if necessary. The simplest solution to the Captive Dependency problem is to align the Client's lifetime to the Service's lifetime; in other words, make the Client's lifetime as short as the Service's lifetime. This doesn't require a Decoraptor: it only requires you to compose the Client/Service object graph every time you want to create a new instance of the Service.

Another alternative to a Decoraptor is to consider whether it's possible to refactor the Service so that it can have a longer lifetime. Often, the reason why a Service should have a short life span is because it isn't thread-safe. Sometimes, making a Service thread-safe isn't that difficult; in such cases, this may be a better solution (but sometimes, making something thread-safe is extremely difficult, in which case Decoraptor may be a much simpler solution).

Still, there may be cases where creating a new Client every time you want to use it isn't desirable, or even possible. The most common concern is often performance, although in my experience, that's rarely a real problem. More substantial is a concern that sometimes, due to technical constraints, it isn't possible to make the Client shorter-lived. In these cases, a Decoraptor is a good solution.

A Decoraptor is a better alternative to injecting an Abstract Factory directly into the Client, because doing that is a Leaky Abstraction. The Client is programming against an interface, and, according to the Dependency Inversion Principle,

"clients [...] own the abstract interfaces"

- Agile Principles, Patterns, and Practices, chapter 11

Therefore, it would be a Leaky Abstraction if the Client were to define the interface based on the requirements of a particular implementation of that interface. A Decoraptor is a better alternative, because it enables the Client to define the interface it needs, and the Service to implement the interface as it can, and the Decoraptor's single responsibility is to make those two ends meet.

Implementation details

Let the Client define the interface it needs, without taking lifetime issues into consideration. Implement the interface in a separate class, again disregarding specific lifetime issues.

Define an Abstract Factory that creates new instances of the interface required by the Client. Create a new class that implements the interface, but takes the factory as a dependency. This is the Decoraptor. In the Decoraptor, implement each method by invoking the factory to create the short-lived instance of the interface, and delegate the method implementation to that instance.

Create a class that implements the Abstract Factory by creating new instances of the short-lived Service.

Inject the factory into the Decoraptor, and inject the Decoraptor into the long-lived Client. The Decoraptor has the same lifetime as the Client, but each Service instance only exists for the duration of a single method call.

Motivating example

When using Passive Attributes with ASP.NET Web API, the Filter containing all the behaviour must be added to the overall collection of Filters:

var filter = new MeteringFilter(observer);
config.Filters.Add(filter);

Due to the way ASP.NET Web API works, this configuration happens during Application_Start, so there's only going to be a single instance of MeteringFilter around. In other work, the MeteringFilter is a long-lived Client; it effectively has Singleton lifetime scope.

MeteringFilter depends on IObserver<MeterRecord> (See the article about Passive Attributes for the full code of MeteringFilter). The observer injected into the MeteringFilter object will have the same lifetime as the MeteringFilter object. The Filter will be used from concurrent threads, and while MeteringFilter itself is thread-safe (it has immutable state), the injected observer may not be.

To be more concrete, this question was recently posted on Stack Overflow:

"The filter I'm implementing has a dependency on a repository, which itself has a dependency on a custom DbContext. [...] I'm not sure how to implement this, while taking advantage of the DI container's lifetime management capabilities (so that a new DbContext will be used per request)."
It sounds like the DbContext in question is probably an Entity Framework DbContext, which makes sense: last time I looked, DbContext wasn't thread-safe. Imagine that the IObserver<MeterRecord> implementation looks like this:

public class SqlMeter : IObserver<MeterRecord>
{
    private readonly MeteringContext ctx;
 
    public SqlMeter(MeteringContext ctx)
    {
        this.ctx = ctx;
    }
 
    public void OnNext(MeterRecord value)
    {
        this.ctx.Records.Add(value);
        this.ctx.SaveChanges();
    }
 
    public void OnCompleted() { }
 
    public void OnError(Exception error) { }
}

The SqlMeter class here takes the place of the Service in the more abstract language used above. In the Stack Overflow question, it sounds like there's a Repository between the Client and the DbContext, but I think this example captures the essence of the problem.

This is exactly the issue outlined above. Due to technical constraints, the MeteringFilter must be a Singleton, while (again due to technical constraints) each Observer must be either Transient or scoped to each request.

Refactoring notes

In order to resolve a problem like the example above, you can introduce a Decoraptor, which sits between the Client (MeteringFilter) and the Service (SqlMeter). The Decoraptor relies on an Abstract Factory to create new instances of SqlMeter:

public interface IFactory<T>
{
    T Create();
}

In this case, the Abstract Factory is a generic interface, but it could also be a non-generic interface that only creates instances of IObserver<MeterRecord>. Some people prefer delegates instead, so would use e.g. Func<IObserver<MeterRecord>>. You could also define an Abstract Base Class instead of an interface, if that's more to your liking.

This particular example also disregards decommissioning concerns. Effectively, the Abstract Factory will create instances of SqlMeter, but since these instances simply go out of scope, the contained MeteringContext isn't being disposed of in a deterministic manner. In a future article, I will remedy this situation.

Example: generic Decoraptor for Observers

In order to resolve the lifetime mismatch between MeteringFilter and SqlMeter you can introduce a generic Decoraptor:

public class Observeraptor<T> : IObserver<T>
{
    private readonly IFactory<IObserver<T>> factory;
 
    public Observeraptor(IFactory<IObserver<T>> factory)
    {
        this.factory = factory;
    }
 
    public void OnCompleted()
    {
        this.factory.Create().OnCompleted();
    }
 
    public void OnError(Exception error)
    {
        this.factory.Create().OnError(error);
    }
 
    public void OnNext(T value)
    {
        this.factory.Create().OnNext(value);
    }
}

Notice that Observeraptor<T> can adapt any IObserver<T> because it depends on the generic IFactory<IObserver<T>> interface. In each method defined by IObserver<T>, it first uses the factory to create an instance of a short-lived IObserver<T>, and then delegates the implementation to that object.

Since MeteringFilter depends on IObserver<MeterRecord>, you also need an implementation of IFactory<IObserver<MeterRecord>> in order to compose the MeteringFilter object graph:

public class SqlMeterFactory : IFactory<IObserver<MeterRecord>>
{
    public IObserver<MeterRecord> Create()
    {
        return new SqlMeter(new MeteringContext());
    }
}

This implementation simply creates a new instance of SqlMeter and MeteringContext every time the Create method is invoked; hardly surprising, I should hope.

You now have all building blocks to correctly compose MeteringFilter in Application_Start:

var factory = new SqlMeterFactory();
var observer = new Observeraptor<MeterRecord>(factory);
var filter = new MeteringFilter(observer);
config.Filters.Add(filter);

Because SqlMeterFactory creates new instances of SqlMeter every time MeteringFilter invokes IObserver<MeterRecord>.OnNext, the lifetime requirements of the DbContext are satisfied. Moreover, MeteringFilter only depends on IObserver<MeterRecord>, so is perfectly shielded from that implementation detail, so no Leaky Abstraction was introduced.

Known examples

Questions related to the issue of lifetime mismatches are regularly being asked on Stack Overflow, and I've had a bit of success recommending Decoraptor as a solution, although at that time, I had yet to come up with the name:

In addition, I've also previously touched upon the subject in relation to using a Virtual Proxy for lazy dependencies.


CQS versus server generated IDs

Monday, 11 August 2014 19:40:00 UTC

How can you both follow Command Query Separation and assign unique IDs to Entities when you save them? This post examines some options.

In my Encapsulation and SOLID Pluralsight course, I explain why Command Query Separation (CQS) is an important component of Encapsulation. When first exposed to CQS, many people start to look for edge cases, so a common question is something like this:

What would you do if you had a service that saves to a database and returns the ID (which is set by the database)? The Save operation is a Command, but if it returns void, how do I get the ID?
This is actually an exercise I've given participants when I've given the course as a workshop, so before you read my proposed solutions, consider taking a moment to see if you can come up with a solution yourself.

Typical, CQS-violating design

The problem is that in many code bases, you occasionally need to save a brand-new Entity to persistent storage. Since the object is an Entity (as defined in Domain-Driven Design), it must have a unique ID. If your system is a concurrent system, you can't just pick a number and expect it to be unique... or can you?

Instead, many programmers rely on their underlying database to add a unique ID to the Entity when it save it, and then return the ID to client. Accordingly, they introduce designs like this:

public interface IRepository<T>
{
    int Create(T item);
 
    // other members
}

The problem with this design, obviously, is that it violates CQS. The Create method ought to be a Command, but it returns a value. From the perspective of Encapsulation, this is problematic, because if we look only at the method signature, we could be tricked into believing that since it returns a value, the Create method is a Query, and therefore has no side-effects - which it clearly has. That makes it difficult to reason about the code.

It's also a leaky abstraction, because most developers or architects implicitly rely on a database implementation to provide the ID. What if an implementation doesn't have the ability to come up with a unique ID? This sounds like a Liskov Substitution Principle violation just waiting to happen!

The easiest solution

When I wrote "you can't just pick a number and expect it to be unique", I almost gave away the easiest solution to this problem:

public interface IRepository<T>
{
    void Create(Guid id, T item);
 
    // other members
}

Just change the ID from an integer to a GUID (or UUID, if you prefer). This does enable clients to come up with a unique ID for the Entity - after all, that's the whole point of GUIDs.

Notice how, in this alternative design, the Create method returns void, making it a proper Command. From an encapsulation perspective, this is important because it enables you to immediately identify that this is a method with side-effects - just by looking at the method signature.

But wait: what if you do need the ID to be an integer? That's not a problem; there's also a solution for that.

A solution with integer IDs

You may not like the easy solution above, but it is a good solution that fits in a wide variety in situations. Still, there can be valid reasons that using a GUID isn't an acceptable solution:

  • Some databases (e.g. SQL Server) don't particularly like if you use GUIDs as table keys. You can, but integer keys often perform better, and they are also shorter.
  • Sometimes, the Entity ID isn't only for internal use. Once, I worked on a customer support ticket system, and my suggestion of using a GUID as an ID wasn't met with enthusiasm. When a customer calls in about an existing support case, it isn't reasonable to ask him or her to read an entire GUID; it's simply too error-prone.
In some cases, you just need some human-readable integers as IDs. What can you do?

Here's my modified solution:

public interface IRepository<T>
{
    void Create(Guid id, T item);
 
    int GetHumanReadableId(Guid id);
 
    // other members
}

Notice that the Create method is the same as before. The client must still supply a GUID for the Entity, and that GUID may or may not be the 'real' ID of the Entity. However, in addition to the GUID, the system also associates a (human-readable) integer ID with the Entity. Which one is the 'real' ID isn't particularly important; the important part is that there's another method you can use to get the integer ID associated with the GUID: the GetHumanReadableId method.

The Create method is a Command, which is only proper, because creating (or saving) the Entity mutates the state of the system. The GetHumanReadableId method, on the other hand, is a Query: you can call it as many times as you like: it doesn't change the state of the system.

If you want to store your Entities in a database, you can still do that. When you save the Entity, you save it with the GUID, but you can also let the database engine assign an integer ID; it might even be a monotonically increasing ID (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.). At the same time, you could have a secondary index on the GUID.

When a client invokes the GetHumanReadableId method, the database can use the secondary index on the GUID to quickly find the Entity and return its integer ID.

Performance

"But," you're likely to say, "I don't like that! It's bad for performance!"

Perhaps. My first impulse is to quote Donald Knuth at you, but in the end, I may have to yield that my proposed design may result in two out-of-process calls instead of one. Still, I never promised that my solution wouldn't involve a trade-off. Most software design decisions involve trade-offs, and so does this one. You gain better encapsulation for potentially worse performance.

Still, the performance drawback may not involve problems as such. First, while having to make two round trips to the database may perform worse than a single one, it may still be fast enough. Second, even if you need to know the (human-readable) integer ID, you may not need to know it when you create it. Sometimes you can get away with saving the Entity in one action, and then you may only need to know what the ID is seconds or minutes later. In this case, separating reads and writes may actually turn out to be an advantage.

Must all code be designed like this?

Even if you disregard your concerns about performance, you may find this design overly complex, and more difficult to use. Do I really recommend that all code should be designed like that?

No, I don't recommend that all code should be designed according to the CQS principle. As Martin Fowler points out, in Object-Oriented Software Construction, Bertrand Meyer explains how to design an API for a Stack with CQS. It involves a Pop Command, and a Top Query: in order to use it, you would first have to invoke the Top Query to get the item on the top of the stack, and then subsequently invoke the Pop Command to modify the state of the stack.

One of the problems with such a design is that it isn't thread-safe. It's also more unwieldy to use than e.g. the standard Stack<T>.Pop method.

My point with all of this isn't to dictate to you that you should always follow CQS. The point is that you can always come up with a design that does.

In my career, I've met many programmers who write a poorly designed class or interface, and then put a little apology on top of it:

public interface IRepository<T>
{
    // CQS is impossible here, because we need the ID
    int Create(T item);
 
    // other members
}

Many times, we don't know of a better way to do things, but it doesn't mean that such a way doesn't exist; we just haven't learned about it yet. In this article, I've shown you how to solve a seemingly impossible design challenge with CQS.

Knowing that even a design problem such as this can be solved with CQS should put you in a better position to make an informed decision. You may still decide to violate CQS and define a Create method that returns an integer, but if you've done that, it's because you've weighed the alternatives; not because you thought it impossible.

Summary

It's possible to apply CQS to most problems. As always, there are trade-offs involved, but knowing how to apply CQS, even if, at first glance, it seems impossible, is an important design skill.

Personally, I tend to adhere closely to CQS when I do Object-Oriented Design, but I also, occasionally, decide to break that principle. When I do, I do so realising that I'm making a trade-off, and I don't do it lightly.


Comments

How would you model a REST End Point, for example:

POST /api/users

This should return the Location of the created url. Would you suggest, the location be the status of the create user command.

GET /api/users/createtoken/abc123

UI Developers do not like this pattern. It creates extra work for them.
2014-08-12 4:24 UTC
Steve Byrne
Would raising an event of some kind from the Repository be a valid solution in this case?

(Bear in mind I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to CQRS but I figured that it would get around not being able to return anything directly from a command)

But then again I suppose you'd still need the GetHumanReadableId method for later on...
2014-08-14 00:18 UTC

Tony, thank you for writing. What you suggest is one way to model it. Essentially, if a client starts with:

POST /api/users

One option for a response is, as you suggest, something like:

HTTP/1.1 202 Accepted
Location: /api/status/1234

A client can poll on that URL to get the status of the task. When the resource is ready, it will include a link to the user resource that was finally created. This is essentially a workflow just like the RESTbucks example in REST in Practice. You'll also see an example of this approach in my Pluralsight course on Functional Architecture, and yes, this makes it more complicated to implement the client. One example is the publicly available sample client code for that course.

While it puts an extra burden on the client developer, it's a very robust implementation because it's based on asynchronous workflows, which not only makes it horizontally scalable, but also makes it much easier to implement robust occasionally connected clients.

However, this isn't the only RESTful option. Here's an alternative. The request is the same as before:

POST /api/users

But now, the response is instead:

HTTP/1.1 201 Created
Location: /api/users/8765

{ "name" : "Mark Seemann" }

Notice that this immediately creates the resource, as well as returns a representation of it in the response (consider the JSON in the example a placeholder). This should be easier on the poor UI Developers :)

In any case, this discussion is entirely orthogonal to CQS, because at the boundaries, applications aren't Object-Oriented - thus, CQS doesn't apply to REST API design. Both POST, PUT, and DELETE verbs imply the intention to modify a resource's state, yet the HTTP specification describes how such requests should return proper responses. These verbs violate CQS because they both involve state mutation and returning a response.

2014-08-15 17:57 UTC

Steve, thank you for writing. Yes, raising an event from a Command is definitely valid, since a Command is all about side-effects, and an event is also a side effect. The corollary of this is that you can't raise events from Queries if you want to adhere to CQS. In my Pluralsight course on encapsulation, I briefly touch on this subject in the Encapsulation module (module 2), in the clip called Queries, at 1:52.

(BTW, in this article, and the course as well, I'm discussing CQS (Command Query Separation), not CQRS (Command Query Responsibility Segregation). Although these ideas are related, it's important to realise that they aren't synonymous. CQS dates back to the 1980s, while CQRS is a more recent invention, from the 2000s - the earliest dated publication that's easy to find is from 2010, but it discusses CQRS as though people already know what it is, so the idea must be a bit older than that.)

2014-08-16 7:37 UTC
Kenny Pflug

Mark, thank you for this post and sorry for my late response, but I've got some questions about it.

First of all, I would not have designed the repository the way you showed at the beginning of your post - instead I would have opted for something like this:

public interface IRepository<T>
{
    T CreateEntity();

    void AttachEntity(T entity);
}

The CreateEntity method behaves like a factory in that it creates a new instance of the specified entity without an ID assigned (the entity is also not attached to the repository). The AttachEntity method takes an existing entity and assigns a valid ID to it. After a call to this method, the client can get the new ID by using the corresponding get method on the entity. This way the repository acts like a service facade as it provides creational, querying and persistance services to the client for a single type of entities.

What do you think about this? From my point of view, the AttachEntity method is clearly a command, but what about the CreateEntity method? I would say it is a query because it does not change the state of the underlying repository when it is called - but is this really the case? If not, could we say that factories always violate CQS? What about a CreateEntity implementation that attaches the newly created entity to the repository?

2014-08-25 7:55 UTC

Kenny, thank you for writing. FWIW, I wouldn't have designed a Repository like I show in the beginning of the article either, but I've seen lots of Repositories designed like that.

Your proposed solution looks like it respects CQS as well, so that's another alternative to my suggested solutions. Based on your suggested method signatures, at least, CreateEntity looks like a Query. If a factory only creates a new object and returns it, it doesn't change the observable state of the system (no class fields mutated, no files were written to disk, no bytes were sent over the network, etc.).

If, on the other hand, the CreateEntity method also attaches the newly created entity to the repository, then it would violate CQS, because that would change the observable state of the system.

Your design isn't too far from the one I suggest in this very article - I just don't include the CreateEntity method in my interface definition, because I consider the creation of an Entity (in memory) to be a separate concern from being able to persist it.

Then, if you omit the CreateEntity method, you'll see that your AttachEntity method plays the same role is my Create method; the only difference is that I keep the ID separate from the Entity, while you have the ID as a writable property on the Entity. Instead of invoking a separate Query (GetHumanReadableId) to figure out what the server-generated ID is, you invoke a Query attached to the Entity (its ID property).

The reason I didn't chose this design is because it messes with the invariants of the Entity. If you consider an Entity as defined in Domain-Driven Design, an Entity is an object that has a long-lasting identity. This is most often implemented by giving the Entity an Id property; I do that too, but make sure that the id is mandatory by requiring clients to supply it through the constructor. As I explain in my Pluralsight course about encapsulation, a very important part about encapsulation is to make sure that it's impossible (or at least difficult) to put an object into an invalid state. If you allow an Entity to be put into a state where it has no ID, I would consider that an invalid state.

2014-08-26 15:10 UTC
Kenny Pflug

Thank you for your comprehensive answer, Mark. I also like the idea of injecting the ID of an entity directly into its constructor - but I haven't actually applied this 'pattern' in my projects yet. Although it's a bit off-topic, I have to ask: the ID injection would result in something like this:

public abstract class Entity<T>
{
    private readonly T _id;
    
    protected Entity(T id)
    {
        _id = id;
    }

    public T ID { get { return _id; } }

    public override int GetHashCode()
    {
        return _id.GetHashCode();
    }

    public override bool Equals(object other)
    {
        var otherEntity = other as Entity;
        if (otherEntity == null)
            return false;

        return _id == otherEntity._id;
    }
}

I know it is not perfect, so please think about it as a template.

Anyway, I prefer this design but often this results in unnecessarily complicated code, e.g. when the user is able to create an entity object temporarily in a dialog and he or she can choose whether to add it or discard of it at the end of the dialog. In this case I would use a DTO / View Model etc. that only exists because I cannot assign a valid ID to an entity yet.

Do you have a pattern that circumvents this problem? E.g. clone an existing entity with an temporary / invalid ID and assign a valid one to it (which I would find very reasonable)?

2014-08-26 22:30 UTC

Kenny, thank you for writing. Yes, you could model it like that Entity<T> class, although there are various different concerns mixed here. Whether or not you want to override Equals and GetHashCode is independent of the discussion about protecting invariants. This may already be clear to you, but I just wanted to get that out of the way.

The best answer to your question, then, is to make it simpler, if at all possible. The first question you should ask yourself is: can the ID really be any type? Can you have an Entity<object>? Entity<Random>? Entity<UriBuilder>? That seems strange to me, and probably not what you had in mind.

The simplest solution to the problem you pose is simply to settle on GUIDs as IDs. That would make an Entity look like this:

public class Foo
{
    private readonly Guid id;

    public Foo(Guid id)
    {
        if (id == Guid.Empty)
            throw new ArgumentException("Empty GUIDs not allowed.""id");
        this.id = id;
    }

    public Guid Id
    {
        get { return this.id; }
    }

    // other members go here...
}

Obviously, this makes the simplification that the ID is a GUID, which makes it easy to create a 'temporary' instance if you need to do that. You'll also note that it protects its invariants by guarding against the empty GUID.

(Although not particularly relevant for this discussion, you'll also notice that I made this a concrete class. In general, I favour composition over inheritance, and I see no reason to introduce an abstract base class only in order to take and expose an ID - such code is unlikely to change much. There's no behaviour here because I also don't override Equals or GetHashCode, because I've come to realise that doing so with the implementation you suggest is counter-productive... but that, again, is another discussion.)

Then what if you can't use a GUID. Well, you could still resort to the solution that I outline above, and still use a GUID, and then have another Query that can give you an integer that corresponds to the GUID.

However, ultimately, this isn't how I tend to architect my systems these days. As Greg Young has pointed out in a white paper draft (sadly) no longer available on the internet, you can't really expect to make Distributed Domain-Driven Design work with the 'classic' n-layer architecture. However, once you separate reads and writes (AKA CQRS) you no longer have the sort of problem you ask about, because your write model should be modelling commands and events, instead of Entities. FWIW, in my Functional Architecture with F# Pluralsight course, I also touch on some of those concepts.

2014-08-29 17:37 UTC
Vladimir

It's a great topic. There's another approach used for this problem in some ORMs, particularly in NHibernate: Hi/Lo algorithm.

Is is possible to preload a batch of IDs and distribute them among new objects. I've written a blog post about it: link

2014-11-15 14:52 UTC

Why DRY?

Thursday, 07 August 2014 20:11:00 UTC

Code duplication is often harmful - except when it isn't. Learn how to think about the trade-offs involved.

Good programmers know that code duplication should be avoided. There's a cost associated with duplicated code, so we have catchphrases like Don't Repeat Yourself (DRY) in order to remind ourselves that code duplication is evil.

It seems to me that some programmers see themselves as Terminators: out to eliminate all code duplication with extreme prejudice; sometimes, perhaps, without even considering the trade-offs involved. Every time you remove duplicated code, you add a level of indirection, and as you've probably heard before, all problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection, except for the problem of too many levels of indirection.

Removing code duplication is important, but it tends to add a cognitive overhead. Therefore, it's important to understand why code duplication is harmful - or rather: when it's harmful.

Rates of change

Imagine that you copy a piece of code and paste it into ten other code bases, and then never touch that piece of code again. Is that harmful?

Probably not.

Here's one of my favourite examples. When protecting the invariants of objects, I always add Guard Clauses against nulls:

if (subject == null)
    throw new ArgumentNullException("subject");

In fact, I have a Visual Studio code snippet for this; I've been using this code snippet for years, which means that I have code like this Guard Clause duplicated all over my code bases. Most likely, there are thousands of examples of such Guard Clauses on my hard drive, with the only variation being the name of the parameter. I don't mind, because, in my experience, these two lines of code never change.

Yet many programmers see that as a violation of DRY, so instead, they introduce something like this:

Guard.AgainstNull(subject, "subject");

The end result of this is that you've slightly increased the cognitive overhead, but what have you gained? As far as I can tell: nothing. The code still has the same number of Guard Clauses. Instead of idiomatic if statements, they are now method calls, but it's hardly DRY when you have to repeat those calls to Guard.AgainstNull all over the place. You'd still be repeating yourself.

The point here is that DRY is a catchphrase, but shouldn't be an excuse for avoiding thinking explicitly about any given problem.

If the duplicated code is likely to change a lot, the cost of duplication is likely to be high, because you'll have to spend time making the same change in lots of different places - and if you forget one, you'll be introducing bugs in the system. If the duplicated code is unlikely to change, perhaps the cost is low. As with all other risk management, you conceptually multiply the risk of the adverse event happening with the cost of the damage associated with that event. If the product is low, don't bother addressing the risk.

The Rule of Three

It's not a new observation that unconditional elimination of duplicated code can be harmful. The Rule of Three exists for this reason:

  1. Write a piece of code.
  2. Write the same piece of code again. Resist the urge to generalise.
  3. Write the same piece of code again. Now you are allowed to consider generalising it.
There are a couple of reasons why this is a valuable rule of thumb. One is that the fewer examples you have of the duplication, the less evidence you have that the duplication is real, instead of simply a coincidence.

Another reason is that even if the duplication is 'real' (and not coincidental), you may not have enough examples to enable you to make the correct refactoring. Often, even duplicated code comes with small variations:

  • The logic is the same, but a string value differs.
  • The logic is almost the same, but one duplicate performs an extra small step.
  • The logic looks similar, but operates on two different types of object.
  • etc.
How should you refactor? Should you introduce a helper method? Should the helper method take a method argument? Should you extract a class? Should you add an interface? Should you apply the Template Method pattern? Or the Strategy pattern?

If you refactor too prematurely, you may perform the wrong refactoring. Often, people introduce helper methods, and then when they realize that the axis of variability was not what they expected, they add more and more parameters to the helper method, and more and more complexity to its implementation. This leads to ripple effects. Ripple effects lead to thrashing. Thrashing leads to poor maintainability. Poor maintainability leads to low productivity.

This is, in my experience, the most important reason to follow the Rule of Three: wait, until you have more facts available to you. You don't have to take the rule literally either. You can wait until you have four, five, or six examples of the duplication, if the rate of change is low.

The parallel to statistics

If you've ever taken a course in statistics, you would have learned that the less data you have, the less confidence you can have in any sort of analysis. Conversely, the more samples you have, the more confidence can you have if you are trying to find or verify some sort of correlation.

The same holds true for code duplication, I believe. The more samples you have of duplicated code, the better you understand what is truly duplicated, and what varies. The better you understand the axes of variability, the better a refactoring you can perform in order to get rid of the duplication.

Summary

Code duplication is costly - but only if the code changes. The cost of code duplication, thus, is C*p, where C is the cost incurred, when you need to change the code, and p is the probability that you'll need to change the code. In my experience, for example, the Null Guard Clause in this article has a cost of duplication of 0, because the probability that I'll need to change it is 0.

There's a cost associated with removing duplication - particularly if you make the wrong refactoring. Thus, depending on the values of C and p, you may be better off allowing a bit of duplication, instead of trying to eradicate it as soon as you see it.

You may not be able to quantify C and p (I'm not), but you should be able to estimate whether these values are small or large. This should help you decide if you need to eliminate the duplication right away, or if you'd be better off waiting to see what happens.


Comments

Markus Bullmann

I would add one more aspect to this article: Experience.

The more experience you gain the more likely you will perceive parts of your code which could possibly benefit from a generalization; but not yet because it would be premature.

I try to keep these places in mind and try to simplify the potential later refactoring. When your code meets the rule of three, you’re able to adopt your preparations to efficiently refactor your code. This leads to better code even if the code isn't repeated for the third time.

Needless to say that experience is always crucial but I like to show people, who are new to programing, which decisions are based on experience and which are based on easy to follow guidelines like the rule of three.

2014-08-20 22:03 UTC

Markus, thank you for writing. Yes, I agree that experience is always helpful.

2014-08-21 8:48 UTC
Sergey Telshevsky

Wonderful article but I'd like to say that I prefer sticking to the Zero one infinity rule instead of the Rule Of Three

That way I do overcome my laziness of searching for duplicates and extracting them to a procedure. Also it does help to keep code DRY without insanity to use it only on 2 or more lines of code. If it's a non-ternary oneliner I'm ok with that. If it's 2 lines of code I may consider making a procedure out of it and 3 lines and more are extracted every time I need to repeat them.

2014-12-23 14:00 UTC

Encapsulation and SOLID Pluralsight course

Wednesday, 06 August 2014 12:19:00 UTC

My latest Pluralsight course is now available. This time it's about fundamental programming techniques.

Most programmers I meet know about encapsulation and Object-Oriented Design (OOD) - at least, until I start drilling them on specifics. Apparently, the way most people have been taught OOD is at odds with my view on the subject. For a long time, I've wanted to teach OOD the way I think it should be taught. My perspective is chiefly based on Bertrand Meyer's Object-Oriented Software Construction and Robert C. Martin's SOLID principles (presented, among other sources, in Agile Principles, Patterns, and Practices in C#). My focus is on Command Query Separation, protection of invariants, and favouring Composition over Inheritance.

Course screenshot

In my new Pluralsight course, I'm happy to be able to teach OOD the way I think it should be taught. The course is aimed at professional developers with a couple of years of experience, but it's based on decades of experience (mine and others'), so I hope that even seasoned programmers can learn a thing or two from watching it.

What you will learn

How do you make your code easily usable for other people? By following the actionable, measurable rules laid forth by Command/Query Separation as well as Postel’s law.

Learn how to write maintainable software that can easily respond to changing requirements, using object-oriented design principles. First, you'll learn about the fundamental object-oriented design principle of Encapsulation, and then you'll learn about the five SOLID principles - also known as the principles of object-oriented design. There are plenty of code examples along the way; they are in C#, but written in such a way that they should be easily understandable to readers of Java, or other curly-brace-based languages.

Is OOD still relevant?

Functional Programming is becoming increasingly popular, and regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I, myself, write a fair amount of F# code. In light of this, is OOD still relevant?

There's a lot of Object-Oriented code out there, or at least, code written in a nominally Object-Oriented language, and it's not going to go away any time soon. Getting better at maintaining and evolving Object-Oriented code is, in my opinion, still important.

Some of the principles I cover in this course are also relevant in Functional Programming.


Comments

I'm really enjoying your presentation! It is easy to follow and understand your explanations. I have a bit of a tangent question about your TryRead method in the Encapsulation module. You mention that your final implementation has a race condition in it. Can you explain the race condition?
2014-08-06 06:55 UTC

Dan, thank you for writing. You are talking about this implementation, I assume:

public bool TryRead(int id, out string message)
{
    message = null;
    var path = this.GetFileName(id);
    if (!File.Exists(path))
        return false;
    message = File.ReadAllText(path);
    return true;
}

This implementation isn't thread-safe, because File.Exists(path) may return true, and then, before File.ReadAllText(path) is invoked, another thread or process could delete the file, causing an exception to be thrown when File.ReadAllText(path) is invoked.

It's possible to make the the TryRead method thread-safe (I know of at least two alternatives), but I usually leave that as an exercise for the reader :)

2014-08-10 10:51 UTC
Bart van Nierop

The only safe implementation that I am aware of would be something along the lines of:

public bool TryRead(int id, out string message)
{
    
    var path = this.GetFileName(id);
    try
    {
        message = File.ReadAllText(path);
        return true;
    }
    catch
    {
        message = null;
        return false;
    }
}

Am I missing something?

2014-08-13 16:43 UTC

Bart, no, you aren't missing anything; that looks about right :) The other alternative is just a variation on your solution.

2014-08-13 17:56 UTC

Drain

Wednesday, 23 July 2014 14:25:00 UTC

A Drain is a filter abstraction over an Iterator, with the purpose of making out-of-process queries more efficient.

For some years now, the Reused Abstractions Principle has pushed me towards software architectures based upon fewer and fewer abstractions, where each abstraction, on the other hand, is reused over and over again.

In my Pluralsight course about A Functional Architecture with F#, I describe how to build an entire mainstream application based on only two abstractions:

More specifically, I use Reactive Extensions for Commands, and the Seq module for Queries (but if you're on C#, you can use LINQ instead).

The problem

It turns out that these two abstractions are enough to build an entire, mainstream system, but in practice, there's a performance problem. If you have only Iterators, you'll have to read all your data into memory, and then filter in memory. If you have lots of data on storage, this is obviously going to be prohibitively slow, so you'll need a way to select only a subset out of your persistent store.

This problem should be familiar to every student of software development. Pure abstractions tend not to survive contact with reality (there are examples in both Object-Oriented, Functional, and Logical or Relational programming), but we should still strive towards keeping abstractions as pure as possible.

One proposed solution to the Query Problem is to use something like IQueryable, but unfortunately, IQueryable is an extremely poor abstraction (and so are F# query expressions, too).

In my experience, the most important feature of IQueryable is the ability to filter before loading data; normally, you can perform projections in memory, but when you read from persistent storage, you need to select your desired subset before loading it into memory.

Inspired by talks by Bart De Smet, in my Pluralsight course, I define custom filter interfaces like:

type IReservations =
    inherit seq<Envelope<Reservation>>
    abstract Between : DateTime -> DateTime -> seq<Envelope<Reservation>>

or

type INotifications =
    inherit seq<Envelope<Notification>>
    abstract About : Guid -> seq<Envelope<Notification>>

Both of these interfaces derive from IEnumerable<T> and add a single extra method that defines a custom filter. Storage-aware implementations can implement this method by returning a new sequence of only those items on storage that match the filter. Such a method may

  • make a SQL query against a database
  • make a query against a document database
  • read only some files from the file system
  • etc.
For more details, examples, and full source code, see my Pluralsight course.

Generalized interface

The custom interfaces shown above follow a common template: the interface derives from IEnumerable<T> and adds a single 'filter' method, which filters the sequence based on the input argument(s). In the above examples, IReservations define a Between method with two arguments, while INotifications defines an About method with a single argument.

In order to generalize, it's necessary to find a common name for the interface and its single method, as well as deal with variations in method arguments.

All the really obvious names like Filter, Query, etc. are already 'taken', so I hit a thesaurus and settled on the name Drain. A Drain can potentially drain a sequence of elements to a smaller sequence.

When it comes to variations in input arguments, the solution is to use generics. The Between method that takes two arguments could also be modelled as a method taking a single tuple argument. Eventually, I've arrived at this general definition:

module Drain =
    type IDrainable<'a, 'b> =
        inherit seq<'a>
        abstract On : 'b -> seq<'a>
 
    let on x (d : IDrainable<'a, 'b>) = d.On x

As you can see, I decided to name the extra method On, as well as add an on function, which enables clients to use a Drain like this:

match tasks |> Drain.on id |> Seq.toList with

In the above example, tasks is defined as IDrainable<TaskRendition, string>, and id is a string, so the result of draining on the ID is a sequence of TaskRendition records.

Here's another example:

match statuses |> Drain.on(id, conversationId) |> Seq.toList with

Here, statuses is defined as IDrainable<string * Guid, string * string> - not the most well-designed instance, I admit: I should really introduce some well-named records instead of those tuples, but the point is that you can also drain on multiple values by using a tuple (or a record type) as the value on which to drain.

In-memory implementation

One of the great features of Drains is that an in-memory implementation is easy, so you can add this function to the Drain module:

let ofSeq areEqual s =
    { new IDrainable<'a, 'b> with
        member this.On x = s |> Seq.filter (fun y -> areEqual y x)
        member this.GetEnumerator() = s.GetEnumerator()
        member this.GetEnumerator() = 
            (this :> 'a seq).GetEnumerator() :> System.Collections.IEnumerator }

This enables you to take any IEnumerable<T> (seq<'a>) and turn it into an in-memory Drain by supplying an equality function. Here's an example:

let private toDrainableTasks (tasks : TaskRendition seq) =
    tasks
    |> Drain.ofSeq (fun x y -> x.Id = y)

This little helper function takes a sequence of TaskRendition records and defines the equality function as a comparison on each TaskRendition record's Id property. The result is a drain that you can use to select one or more TaskRendition records based on their IDs.

I use this a lot for unit testing.

Empty Drains

It's also easy to define an empty drain, by adding this value to the Drain module:

let empty<'a, 'b> = Seq.empty<'a> |> ofSeq (fun x (y : 'b) -> false)

Here's a usage example:

let mappedUsers = Drain.empty<UserMappedstring>

Again, this can be handy when unit testing.

Other implementations

While the in-memory implementation is useful when unit testing, the entire purpose of the Drain abstraction is to enable various implementations to implement the On method to perform a custom selection against a well-known data source. As an example, you could imagine an implementation that translates the input arguments of the On method into a SQL query.

If you want to see examples of this, my Pluralsight course demonstrates how to implement IReservations and INotifications with various data stores - I trust you can extrapolate from those examples.

Summary

You can base an entire mainstream application on the two abstractions of Iterator and Observer. However, the problem when it comes to Iterators is that conceptually, you'll need to iterate over all potentially relevant elements in your system - and that may be millions of records!

However impure it is to introduce a third interface into the mix, I still prefer to introduce a single generic interface, instead of multiple custom interfaces, because once you and your co-workers understand the Drain abstraction, the cognitive load is still quite low. A Drain is an Iterator with a twist, so in the end, you'll have a system built on 2½ abstractions.


Comments

A diff-output from the A Functional Architecture with F# master branch, after applying the Drain abstraction, is available here. Notice how Drain cuts the maintenance of multiple homogenous abstractions, and makes the code cleaner and easier to reason about.
2014-07-28 09:00 UTC

Hire me

Tuesday, 22 July 2014 08:30:00 UTC

July-October 2014 I have some time available, if you'd like to hire me.

Since I became self-employed in 2011, I've been as busy as always, but it looks like I have some time available in the next months. If you'd like to hire me for small or big tasks, please contact me. See here for details.


Passive Attributes

Friday, 13 June 2014 09:59:00 UTC

Passive Attributes are Dependency Injection-friendly.

In my article about Dependency Injection-friendly frameworks, towards the end I touched on the importance of defining attributes without behaviour, but I didn't provide a constructive example of how to do this. In this article, I'll outline how to write a Dependency Injection-friendly attribute for use with ASP.NET Web API, but as far as I recall, you can do something similar with ASP.NET MVC.

Problem statement

In ASP.NET Web API, you can adorn your Controllers and their methods with various Filter attributes, which is a way to implement cross-cutting concerns, such as authorization or error handling. The problem with this approach is that attribute instances are created by the run-time, so you can't use proper Dependency Injection (DI) patterns such as Constructor Injection. If an attribute defines behaviour (which many of the Web API attributes do), the most common attempt at writing loosely coupled code is to resort to a static Service Locator (an anti-pattern).

This again seems to lead framework designers towards attempting to make their frameworks 'DI-friendly' by introducing a Conforming Container (another anti-pattern).

The solution is simple: define attributes without behaviour.

Metering example

Common examples of cross-cutting concerns are authentication, authorization, error handling, logging, and caching. In these days of multi-tenant on-line services, another example would be metering, so that you can bill each user based on consumption.

Imagine that you're writing an HTTP API where some actions must be metered, whereas others shouldn't. It might be nice to adorn the metered actions with an attribute to indicate this:

[Meter]
public IHttpActionResult Get(int id)

Metering is a good example of a cross-cutting concern with behaviour, because, in order to be useful, you'd need to store the metering records somewhere, so that you can bill your users based on these records.

A passive Meter attribute would simply look like this:

[AttributeUsage(AttributeTargets.Method, AllowMultiple = false)]
public class MeterAttribute : Attribute
{
}

In order to keep the example simple, this attribute defines no data, and can only be used on methods, but nothing prevents you from adding (primitive) values to it, or extend its usage to classes as well as methods.

As you can tell from the example, the MeterAttribute has no behaviour.

In order to implement a metering cross-cutting concern, you'll need to define an IActionFilter implementation, but that's a 'normal' class that can take dependencies:

public class MeteringFilter : IActionFilter
{
    private readonly IObserver<MeterRecord> observer;
 
    public MeteringFilter(IObserver<MeterRecord> observer)
    {
        if (observer == null)
            throw new ArgumentNullException("observer");
 
        this.observer = observer;
    }
 
    public Task<HttpResponseMessage> ExecuteActionFilterAsync(
        HttpActionContext actionContext,
        CancellationToken cancellationToken,
        Func<Task<HttpResponseMessage>> continuation)
    {
        var meterAttribute = actionContext
            .ActionDescriptor
            .GetCustomAttributes<MeterAttribute>()
            .SingleOrDefault();
 
        if (meterAttribute == null)
            return continuation();
 
        var operation = actionContext.ActionDescriptor.ActionName;
        var user = actionContext.RequestContext.Principal.Identity.Name;
        var started = DateTimeOffset.Now;
        return continuation().ContinueWith(t =>
            {
                var completed = DateTimeOffset.Now;
                var duration = completed - started;
                var record = new MeterRecord
                {
                    Operation = operation,
                    User = user,
                    Started = started,
                    Duration = duration
                };
                this.observer.OnNext(record);
                return t.Result;
            });
 
    }
 
    public bool AllowMultiple
    {
        get { return true; }
    }
}

This MeteringFilter class implements IActionFilter. It looks for the [Meter] attribute. If it doesn't find the attribute on the method, it immediately returns; otherwise, it starts collecting data about the invoked action:

  1. From actionContext.ActionDescriptor it retrieves the name of the operation. If you try this out for yourself, you may find that ActionName alone doesn't provide enough information to uniquely identify the method - it basically just contains the value "Get". However, the actionContext contains enough information about the action that you can easily build up a better string; I just chose to skip doing that in order to keep the example simple.
  2. From actionContext.RequestContext.Principal you can get information about the current user. In order to be useful, the user must be authenticated, but if you need to meter the usage of your service, you'll probably not allow anonymous access.
  3. Before invoking the continuation, the MeteringFilter records the current time.
  4. After the continuation has completed, the MeteringFilter again records the current time and calculates the duration.
  5. Finally, it publishes a MeterRecord to an injected dependency.
Notice that MeteringFilter uses normal Constructor Injection, which means that it can protect its invariants. In this example, I'm using IObserver<T> as a dependency, but obviously, you could use any dependency you'd like.

Configuring the service

MeteringFilter is a normal class with behaviour, which you can register as a cross-cutting concern in your Web API service as easily as this:

var filter = new MeteringFilter(observer);
config.Filters.Add(filter);

where observer is your preferred implementation of IObserver<MeterRecord>. This example illustrates the Pure DI approach, but if you rather prefer to resolve MeteringFilter with your DI Container of choice, you can obviously do this as well.

The above code typically goes into your Global.asax file, or at least a class directly or indirectly invoked from Application_Start. This constitutes (part of) the Composition Root of your service.

Summary

Both ASP.NET Web API and ASP.NET MVC supports cross-cutting concerns in the shape of filters that you can add to the service. Such filters can look for passive attributes in order to decide whether or not to trigger. The advantage of this approach is that you can use normal Constructor Injection with these filters, which completely eliminates the need for a Service Locator or Conforming Container.

The programming model remains the same as with active attributes: if you want a particular cross-cutting concern to apply to a particular method or class, you adorn it with the appropriate attribute. Passive attributes have all the advantages of active attributes, but none of the disadvantages.


Comments

Jonathan Ayoub
Thanks for the article. I have a simple filter that I need to add, and I was just going to use service locator to get my dependency, but realized that would force me to do things I don't want to when writing a test for the filter.

What if the dependency I'm injecting needs to be a transient dependency? Injecting a transient service into a singleton (the filter), would cause issues. My initial idea is to create an abstract factory as a dependency, then when the filter action executes, create the transient dependency, use it, and dispose. Do you have any better ideas?
2016-01-21 18:34 UTC

Jonathan, thank you for writing. Does this article on the Decoraptor pattern (and this Stack Overflow answer) answer your question?

2016-01-21 19:51 UTC
Jonathan Ayoub

Yes, that's a good solution for this situation. Thanks!

2016-01-26 14:32 UTC

Reading through Asp.Net Core Type and Service Filters, do you think it's sufficient to go that way (I know that TypeFilter is a bit clumsy), but let's assume that I need simple injection in my filter - ServiceFilterAttribute looks promising. Or you still would recomment to implement logic via traditional filter pipeline: `services.AddMvc(o => o.Filters.Add(...));`?

2016-08-21 17:20 UTC

Valdis, thank you for writing. I haven't looked into the details of ASP.NET Core recently, but even so: on a more basic level, I don't understand the impulse to put behaviour into attributes. An attribute is an annotation. It's a declaration that a method, or type, is somehow special. Why not keep the annotation decoupled from the behaviour it 'triggers'? This would enable you to reuse the behaviour in other scenarios than by putting an attribute on a method.

2016-08-22 16:21 UTC

I got actually very similar feelings, just wanted to get your opinion. And by the way - there is a catch, you can mismatch type and will notice that only during runtime. For instance: `[ServiceFilter(typeof(HomeController))]` will generate exception, because given type is not derived from `IFilterMetadata`

2016-08-22 20:46 UTC

Indeed, one of the most problematic aspects of container-based DI (as opposed to Pure DI) is the loss of compile-time safety - to little advantage, I might add.

2016-08-23 05:49 UTC

I'm concerned with using attributes for AOP at all in these cases. Obviously using attributes that define behaviors that rely on external depedencies is a bad idea as you and others have already previously covered. But is using attributes that define metadata for custom behaviors all that much better? For example, if one provides a framework with libraries containing common controllers, and another pulls those controllers into their composition root in order to host them, there is no indication at compile time that these custom attributes may be present. Would it not be better to require that behavior be injected into the constructor and simply consume the behavior at the relevant points within the controller? Or if attributes must be used, would it not be better for the component that implements the behavior to somehow be injected into the controller and given the opportunity to intercept requests to the controller earlier in the execution pipeline so that it can check for the attributes? Due to the nature of the Web API and .Net MVC engines, attributes defined with behavior can enforce their behaviors to be executed by default. And while attributes without behavior do indicate the need for a behavior to be executed for the class they are decorating, it does not appear that they can enforce said behavior to be executed by default. They are too easy to miss or ignore. There has got to be a better way. I have encountered this problem while refactoring some code that I'm working on right now (retro fitting said code with more modern, DI based code). I'm hoping to come up with a solution that informs the consuming developer in the composition root that this behavior is required, and still be able enforce the behavior with something closer to a decoration rather than a function call.

2016-11-16 23:10 UTC

Tyree, thank you for writing. That's a valid concern, but I don't think it's isolated to passive attributes. The problem you outline is also present if you attempt to address cross-cutting concerns with the Decorator design pattern, or with dynamic interception as I describe in chapter 9 of my book. You also have this problem with the Composite pattern, because you can't have any compile-time guarantee that you've remembered to compose all required elements into the Composite, or that they're defined in the appropriate order (if that matters).

In fact, you can extend this argument to any use of polymorphism: how can you guarantee, at compile-time, that a particular polymorphic object contains the behaviour that you desire, instead of, say, being a Null Object? You can't. That's the entire point of polymorphism.

Even with attributes, how can you guarantee that the attributes stay there? What if another developer comes by and removes an attribute? The code is still going to compile.

Ultimately, code exists in order to implement some desired behaviour. There are guarantees you can get from the type system, but static typing can't provide all guarantees. If it could, you be in the situation where, 'if it compiles, it works'. No programming language I've heard of provides that guarantee, although there's a spectrum of languages with stronger or weaker type systems. Instead, we'll have to get feedback from multiple sources. Attributes often define cross-cutting concerns, and I find that these are often best verified with a set of integration tests.

As always in software development, you have to find the balance that's right for a particular scenario. In some cases, it's catastrophic if something is incorrectly configured; in other cases, it's merely unfortunate. More rigorous verification is required in the first case.

2016-11-19 9:39 UTC

Thanks for the post, I tried to do the same for a class attribute (AttributeTargets.Class) and I am getting a null object every time I get the custom attributes. Does this only work for Methods? Or how can I make it work with classes? Thanks.

2017-04-05 13:03 UTC

Cristian, thank you for writing. The example code shown in this article only looks in the action context's ActionDescriptor, which is an object that describes the action method. If you want to look for the attribute on the class, you should look in the action context's ControllerDescriptor instead, like this:

var meterAttribute = actionContext
    .ControllerContext
    .ControllerDescriptor
    .GetCustomAttributes<MeterAttribute>()
    .SingleOrDefault();

Obviously, if you want to support putting the attribute both on the class and the method, you'd need to look in both places, and decide which one to use if you find more than one.

2017-04-25 6:12 UTC

Web API Raygun error handler

Thursday, 12 June 2014 06:38:00 UTC

Adding a Raygun error handler to ASP.NET Web API is easy.

In my Pluralsight course on a Functional Architecture with F#, I show you how to add a global error handler to an ASP.NET Web API site. The error handler you see in the course just saves the error as a text file in Azure BLOB storage, which is fine for a demo. For production software, though, you may want something a bit more sophisticated, like Raygun.

Here's how to add a Raygun exception filter to an ASP.NET Web API site:

let raygunHandler = { new System.Web.Http.Filters.IExceptionFilter with 
    member this.AllowMultiple = true
    member this.ExecuteExceptionFilterAsync(actionExecutedContext, cancellationToken) =
        let raygunKey = CloudConfigurationManager.GetSetting "raygunKey"
        let raygunClient = Mindscape.Raygun4Net.RaygunClient raygunKey
 
        System.Threading.Tasks.Task.Factory.StartNew(
            fun () -> raygunClient.Send actionExecutedContext.Exception) }

This creates an Adapter from the ASP.NET Web API IExceptionFilter interface to a RaygunClient instance. As you can see, I use CloudConfigurationManager.GetSetting to get the Raygun API key from the configuration store.

The only remaining step is to add the error handler to an HttpConfiguration instance:

config.Filters.Add raygunHandler

That's it. Now you can use the Raygun service to manage your errors.


Pure DI

Tuesday, 10 June 2014 06:10:00 UTC

Pure DI is Dependency Injection without a DI Container.

TL;DR: the term Pure DI replaces the term Poor Man's DI.

This post essentially proposes a change of terminology. In my book about Dependency Injection (DI), I was careful to explain the principles and patterns of DI in the pure form, without involving DI Containers. Only in Part 4 do you get extensive coverage of various DI Containers, and even here, what you learn is how the DI principles and patterns map to the various containers.

DI is a set of principles and patterns; DI Containers are optional helper libraries.

However, when I wrote the book, I made a mistake (I probably made many, but here, I'll address a single, specific mistake): in the book, DI without DI Containers is called Poor Man's DI. There are reasons for that, but eventually, I've learned that Poor Man's DI is poor terminology (pun intended). The problem is that it sounds slightly derogatory, or at least unattractive; it also doesn't communicate the message that DI without a DI Container is, in many cases, better than DI with a DI Container - on the contrary, it sounds like it's not as good.

Apart from my book, I've attempted to describe the trade-off involved in going from Poor Man's DI to using a DI Container in various articles:

Based on the reactions I've received, it seems like my readers really like their DI Containers. Perhaps they're just afraid of the alternative, because it's called Poor Man's DI.

For these reasons, from now on, I'll retire the term Poor Man's DI, and instead start using the term Pure DI. Pure DI is when you use the DI principles and patterns, but not a DI Container; it's what I've been doing for the last 1½ years, as well as many years before I wrote my book.


Compile Time Lifetime Matching

Tuesday, 03 June 2014 10:06:00 UTC

When using hand-coded object composition, the compiler can help you match service lifetimes.

In my previous post, you learned how easy it is to accidentally misconfigure a DI Container to produce Captive Dependencies, which are dependencies that are being kept around after they should have been released. This can lead to subtle or catastrophic bugs.

This problem is associated with DI Containers, because Container registration APIs let you register services out of order, and with any particular lifestyle you'd like:

var builder = new ContainerBuilder();
builder.RegisterType<ProductService>().SingleInstance();
builder.RegisterType<CommerceContext>().InstancePerDependency();
builder.RegisterType<SqlProductRepository>().As<IProductRepository>()
    .InstancePerDependency();
var container = builder.Build();

In this Autofac example, CommerceContext is registered before SqlProductRepository, even though SqlProductRepository is a 'higher-level' service, but ProductService is registered first, and it's even 'higher-level' than SqlProductRepository. A DI Container doesn't care; it'll figure it out.

The compiler doesn't care if the various lifetime configurations make sense. As you learned in my previous article, this particular configuration combination doesn't make sense, but the compiler can't help you.

Compiler assistance

The overall message in my Poka-yoke Design article series is that you can often design your types in such a way that they are less forgiving of programming mistakes; this enables the compiler to give you feedback faster than you could otherwise have gotten feedback.

If, instead of using a DI Container, you'd simply hand-code the required object composition (also called Poor Man's DI in my book), the compiler will make it much harder for you to mismatch object lifetimes. Not impossible, but more difficult.

As an example, consider a web-based Composition Root. Here, the particular IHttpControllerActivator interface belongs to ASP.NET Web API, but it could be any Composition Root:

public class SomeCompositionRoot : IHttpControllerActivator
{
    // Singleton-scoped services are declared here...
    private readonly SomeThreadSafeService singleton;
 
    public SomeCompositionRoot()
    {
        // ... and (Singleton-scoped services) are initialised here.
        this.singleton = new SomeThreadSafeService();
    }
 
    public IHttpController Create(
        HttpRequestMessage request,
        HttpControllerDescriptor controllerDescriptor,
        Type controllerType)
    {
        // Per-Request-scoped services are declared and initialized here
        var perRequestService = new SomeThreadUnsafeService();
 
        if(controllerType == typeof(FooController))
        {
            // Transient services are created and directly injected into
            // FooController here:
            return new FooController(
                new SomeServiceThatMustBeTransient(),
                new SomeServiceThatMustBeTransient());
        }
 
        if(controllerType == typeof(BarController))
        {
            // Transient service is created and directly injected into
            // BarController here, but Per-Request-scoped services or
            // Singleton-scoped services can be used too.
            return new BarController(
                this.singleton,
                perRequestService,
                perRequestService,
                new SomeServiceThatMustBeTransient());
        }
 
        throw new ArgumentException("Unexpected type!""controllerType");
    }
}

Notice the following:

  • There's only going to be a single instance of the SomeCompositionRoot class around, so any object you assign to a readonly field is effectively going to be a Singleton.
  • The Create method is invoked for each request, so if you create objects at the beginning of the Create method, you can reuse them as much as you'd like, but only within that single request. This means that even if you have a service that isn't thread-safe, it's safe to create it at this time. In the example, the BarController depends on two arguments where the Per-Request Service fits, and the instance can be reused. This may seem contrived, but isn't at all if SomeThreadUnsafeService implements more that one (Role) interface.
  • If you need to make a service truly Transient (i.e. it must not be reused at all), you can create it within the constructor of its client. You see an example of this when returning the FooController instance: this example is contrived, but it makes the point: for some unfathomable reason, FooController needs two instances of the same type, but the SomeServiceThatMustBeTransient class must never be shared. It's actually quite rare to have this requirement, but it's easy enough to meet it, if you encounter it.
It's easy to give each service the correct lifetime. Singleton services share the lifetime of the Composition Root, Per-Request services are created each time the Create method is called, and Transient services are created Just-In-Time. All services go out of scope at the correct time, too.

Commerce example

In the previous article, you saw how easy it is to misconfigure a ProductService, because you'd like it to be a Singleton. When you hand-code the composition, it becomes much easier to spot the mistake. You may start like this:

public class CommerceCompositionRoot : IHttpControllerActivator
{
    private readonly ProductService productService;
 
    public CommerceCompositionRoot()
    {
        this.productService = new ProductService();
    }
 
    public IHttpController Create(
        HttpRequestMessage request,
        HttpControllerDescriptor controllerDescriptor,
        Type controllerType)
    {
        // Implementation follows here...
    }
}

Fortunately, that doesn't even compile, because ProductService doesn't have a parameterless constructor. With a DI Container, you could define ProductService as a Singleton without a compilation error:

var container = new StandardKernel();
container.Bind<ProductService>().ToSelf().InSingletonScope();

If you attempt to do the same with hand-coded composition, it doesn't compile. This is an excellent example of Poka-Yoke Design: design your system in such a way that the compiler can give you as much feedback as possible.

Intellisense will tell you that ProductService has dependencies, so your next step may be this:

public CommerceCompositionRoot()
{
    this.productService = 
        new ProductService(
            new SqlProductRepository(
                new CommerceContext())); // Alarm bell!
}

This will compile, but at this point, an alarm bell should go off. You know that you mustn't share CommerceContext across threads, but you're currently creating a single instance. Now it's much clearer that you're on your way to doing something wrong. In the end, you realise, simply by trial and error, that you can't make any part of the ProductService sub-graph a class field, because the leaf node (CommerceContext) isn't thread-safe.

Armed with that knowledge, the next step is to create the entire object graph in the Create method, because that's the only safe implementation left:

public IHttpController Create(
    HttpRequestMessage request,
    HttpControllerDescriptor controllerDescriptor,
    Type controllerType)
{
    if(controllerType == typeof(HomeController))
    {
        return new HomeController(
            new ProductService(
                new SqlProductRepository(
                    new CommerceContext())));
    }
 
    // Handle other controller types here...
 
    throw new ArgumentException("Unexpected type!""controllerType");
}

In this example, you create the object graph in a single statement, theoretically giving all services the Transient lifestyle. In practice, there's no difference between the Per Request and the Transient lifestyle as long as there's only a single instance of each service for each object graph.

Concluding remarks

Some time ago, I wrote an article on when to use a DI Container. In that article, I attempted to explain how going from Poor Man's DI (hand-coded composition) to a DI Container meant loss of compile-time safety, but I may have made an insufficient job of providing enough examples of this effect. The Captive Dependency configuration error, and this article together, describe one such effect: with Poor Man's DI, lifetime matching is compiler-assisted, but if you refactor to use a DI Container, you lose the compiler's help.

Since I wrote the article on when to use a DI Container, I've only strengthened my preference for Poor Man's DI. Unless I'm writing a very complex code base that could benefit from Convention over Configuration, I don't use a DI Container, but since I explicitly architect my systems to be non-complex these days, I haven't used a DI Container in production code for more than 1½ years.


Comments

I don't think it's a problem with the container, but a problem with the registrations. I use a Autofac as my DI Container registration, and I always have a root application lifetime scope, and a separate scope for each request. If the product service is registered in the root scope as single instance, it will throw a DependencyResolutionException

In this case, I would have the ProductService registered in the root scope as single instance, and the other types in the request scope.

If ProductService is resolved, a DependencyResolutionException is thrown, and the app is unusable - "fail fast" is followed. To fix the issue, the registration needs to be moved to to the request scope.

Here's an example of a safe MVC Controller Factory using Autofac.

public class AutofacControllerFactory : DefaultControllerFactory
{
    private readonly IContainer container;
    private Dictionary<IController, ILifetimeScope> scopes = new Dictionary<IController, ILifetimeScope>();

    public AutofacControllerFactory()
    {
        var builder = new ContainerBuilder();
        RegisterRootTypes(builder);

        this.container = builder.Build();
    }

    private void RegisterRootTypes(ContainerBuilder builder)
    {
        builder.RegisterType<ProductService>().SingleInstance();

        builder.RegisterAssemblyTypes(GetType().Assembly)
            .Where(t => t.Name.Contains("Controller"))
            .InstancePerLifetimeScope();
    }
                
    protected internal override IController GetControllerInstance(RequestContext requestContext, Type controllerType)
    {
        var requestScope = container.BeginLifetimeScope(RegisterRequestTypes);
        var controller = (IController)requestScope.Resolve(controllerType);
        scopes[controller] = requestScope;
        return controller;
    }

    private void RegisterRequestTypes(ContainerBuilder builder)
    {
        builder.RegisterType<CommerceContext>().InstancePerDependency();
        builder.RegisterType<SqlProductRepository>().As<IProductRepository>()
            .InstancePerDependency();
    }

    public override void ReleaseController(IController controller)
    {
        scopes[controller].Dispose();
        scopes.Remove(controller);
    }
}
          

Sorry for the lack of code formatting - I'm not sure what you use to format code

2014-06-04 13:20 UTC

Steve, thank you for writing. Indeed, you can make a DI Container detect the Captive Dependency error at run-time. I pointed that out in the defining article about the Captive Dependency problem, and as qujck points out in the comments, Simple Injector has this feature, too.

The point with the present article is that, instead of waiting until run-time, you get a chance to learn about potential lifetime mismatches already at design-time. In C#, F#, and other compiled languages, you can't perform a run-time test until you've compiled. While I'm all for fail fast, I don't think it'd be failing fast enough, if you can catch the problem at compile time, but then deliberately wait until run-time.

Another concern is to go for the simplest thing that could possibly work. Why use a complex piece of code like your AutofacControllerFactory above, instead of just writing the code directly? It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of the Lifetime Scope idiom, and your code provides an excellent example of how complicated it is. You may have omitted this for the sake of the example, but that code isn't thread-safe; in order to make it thread-safe, you'd need to make it even more complicated.

You probably know how to make it thread-safe, as do I, so this isn't an attempt at pointing fingers. The point I'm attempting to make is that, by using a DI Container, you

  • Add complexity
  • Get slower feedback
There are costs associated with using a DI Container; what are the benefits?

2014-06-04 16:45 UTC

Thanks for the speedy response, Mark - I can't keep up. I think an issue I have with poor-man's DI is that I'm yet to see it in anything more than a trivial example. Indeed, the only time I have seen it used in a professional context is a 300 line file, 280 lines of which have the 'new' keyword in it, with plenty of repetition.

Do you know of any medium sized code bases around that use it to good effect? I'm thinking an application with at least 100 types, I'd like to see how the complexity of the graph is managed.

To answer your question, here's the advantages I see of using a container and lifetime scopes.

  • Clearer lifetimes: Your statement that the compiler is detecting the captive dependency isn't quite correct - it's still the developer doing that at design time. They have to see that new CommerceContext() is not a smart thing to do at application start, and move it accordingly. The compiler has nothing to do with that - either way, the check is happening at coding time. Whether that's while typing new CommerceContext() or when typing builder.Register<CommerceContext>(), it's the same thing.

    I'd argue that the code that registers CommerceContext in an application scope is a much clearer alarm bell. After fixing the issue, you'll end up with the registration appearing in a RegisterRequestScopedStuff() method, which is a much better way to tell future developers to be careful about this guy in the future.

  • Simplicity: I would argue that the Autofac controller factory is simpler than the poor mans one. Using poor man style, you have a switch (or bunch of if statements) on the controller type, and need keep track of correct lifetimes in a deeply-nested object graph. I think a (thread safe) dictionary and disposal is significantly simpler that those things - at the very least, has fewer branches - and provides great access points to define expected lifetimes of objects. It probably seems more complicated because there's only a few types, mine has no syntax highlighting (very important for readability!) and I've documented which bits are app-wide and which are request-wide lifetimes, via method names and registration types.

  • Speed of development: I find the overall development speed is faster using a container, as you don't have to micromanage the dependencies. While you do get slower feedback times on dependency failures, you have far fewer failures overall. It's been several months since I've seen a DependencyResolutionException. On the flip side, the javascript development I've done (which doesn't use a container) often has a missing a dependency or 2 - which would be equivalent to a compile error in a strongly typed language.

    What's more, I can write my classes and tests without having to worry about composition until it's time to run the application. To be fair, this is also achieved with good domain/application separation - since the app failing to compile does not prevent the tests from running - but I still like to write tests for my application project.

  • Disposables: As you mentioned, my simple example was not thread safe, due to having to store the lifetime scope for disposal when the controller is released. The only reason I need to store that is so Autofac can clean up any IDisposable dependencies I may have, and trivially at that - how do you do this with poor man's DI, while keeping it simple?

If I can wire up Autofac in my application in 10 minutes, have the computer do all the heavy lifting, while making it clearer to myself and future people what I want the lifetimes of things to be, why would I want to manage a dependency graph myself?

2014-06-05 13:30 UTC

Before we continue this discussion, I think it's important to establish how you use a DI Container. If you refer to my article on the benefits of using a DI Container, which approach are you using?

2014-06-05 14:22 UTC

I'd say I sit somewhere between convention and explicit register, but I guess I disagree about the "pointless" value for it, and place less importance on the value of strong/weak typing. As I said, I very rarely have the dependency exceptions be thrown anyway. In practice, I have a class of services that are wired up by convention (type name ends in "Factory" or "Controller", for example), and explicitly register others. No hard and fast rules about it.

2014-06-06 14:00 UTC

That makes the discussion a little less clear-cut, because you are getting some of the benefits out of Convention over Configuration, but perhaps not as much as you could... Depending on how you put the balance between these two, I would agree with you that using a DI Container is beneficial.

My point isn't that there are no benefits from using a DI Container, but that there are also serious disadvantages. The benefits should outweigh the disadvantages, and that is, in my experience, far from given that they do. YMMV.

Do I know of any medium-sized code bases that use Pure DI to good effect? Perhaps... I don't know what a 'medium-sized' code base is to you. In any case, while I may know of such code bases, I know of none where the source code is public.

300-odd lines of code for composition sounds like a lot, but as I have previously demonstrated, using Explicit Register will only increase the line count.

Another criticism of manual composition is that every time you change something, you'll need to edit the composition code. That's true, but this is equally as true for Explicit Register. The difference is that with manual composition, you learn about this at compile-time, while with Explicit Register, you don't learn about changes until run-time. This, in isolation, is a clear win for manual composition.

Now, if you move to Convention over Configuration, this particular criticism of using a DI Container disappears again, but I never claimed anything else.

2014-06-07 7:15 UTC

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