If you take the SOLID principles to their extremes, you arrive at something that makes Functional Programming look quite attractive.

You may have seen this one before, but bear with me :)

The venerable master Qc Na was walking with his student, Anton. Hoping to prompt the master into a discussion, Anton said "Master, I have heard that objects are a very good thing - is this true?" Qc Na looked pityingly at his student and replied, "Foolish pupil - objects are merely a poor man's closures."

Chastised, Anton took his leave from his master and returned to his cell, intent on studying closures. He carefully read the entire "Lambda: The Ultimate..." series of papers and its cousins, and implemented a small Scheme interpreter with a closure-based object system. He learned much, and looked forward to informing his master of his progress.

On his next walk with Qc Na, Anton attempted to impress his master by saying "Master, I have diligently studied the matter, and now understand that objects are truly a poor man's closures." Qc Na responded by hitting Anton with his stick, saying "When will you learn? Closures are a poor man's object." At that moment, Anton became enlightened.

- Anton van Straaten

While this is a lovely parable, it's not a new observation that objects and closures seem closely related, and there has been much discussion back and forth about this already. Still, in light of a recent question and answer about how to move from Object-Oriented Composition to Functional Composition, I'd still like to explain how, in my experience, the SOLID principles lead to a style of design that makes Functional Programming quite attractive.

A SOLID road map #

In a previous article, I've described how application of the Single Responsibility Principle (SRP) leads to many small classes. Furthermore, if you rigorously apply the Interface Segregation Principle (ISP), you'll understand that you should favour Role Interfaces over Header Interfaces.

If you keep driving your design towards smaller and smaller interfaces, you'll eventually arrive at the ultimate Role Interface: an interface with a single method. This happens to me a lot. Here's an example:

public interface IMessageQuery
    string Read(int id);

If you apply the SRP and ISP like that, you're likely to evolve a code base with many fine-grained classes that each have a single method. That has happened to me more than once; AutoFixture is an example of a big and complex code base that looks like that, but my other publicly available code bases tend to have the same tendency. In general, this works well; the most consistent problem is that it tends to be a bit verbose.

Objects as data with behaviour #

One way to characterise objects is that they are data with behaviour; that's a good description. In practice, when you have many fine-grained classes with a single method, you may have classes like this:

public class FileStore : IMessageQuery
    private readonly DirectoryInfo workingDirectory;

    public FileStore(DirectoryInfo workingDirectory)
        this.workingDirectory = workingDirectory;

    public string Read(int id)
        var path = Path.Combine(
            id + ".txt");            
        return File.ReadAllText(path);

This FileStore class is a simple example of data with behaviour.

  • The behaviour is the Read method, which figures out a file path for a given ID and returns the contents of the file.
  • The data (also sometimes known as the state) is the workingDirectory field.
In this example, the data is immutable and passed in via the constructor, but it could also have been a public, writeable property, or even a public field.

The workingDirectory field is a Concrete Dependency, but it could also have been a primitive value or an interface or abstract base class. In the last case, we would often call the pattern Constructor Injection.

Obviously, the data could be multiple values, instead of a single value.

The FileStore example class implements the IMessageQuery interface, so it's a very representative example of what happens when you take the SRP and ISP to their logical conclusions. It's a fine class, although a little verbose.

When designing like this, not only do you have to come up with a name for the interface itself, but also for the method, and for each concrete class you create to implement the interface. Naming is difficult, and in such cases, you have to name the same concept twice or more. This often leads to interfaces named IFooer with a method called Foo, IBarer with a method called Bar, etc. You get the picture. This is a smell (that also seems vaguely reminiscent of the Reused Abstractions Principle). There must be a better way.

Hold that thought.

Functions as pure behaviour #

As the introductory parable suggests, perhaps Functional Programming offers an alternative. Before you learn about Closures, though, you'll need to understand Functions. In Functional Programming, a Function is often defined as a Pure Function - that is: a deterministic operation without side-effects.

Since C# has some Functional language support, I'll first show you the FileStore.Read method as a Pure Function in C#:

Func<DirectoryInfointstring> read = (workingDirectory, id) =>
        var path = Path.Combine(workingDirectory.FullName, id + ".txt");
        return File.ReadAllText(path);

This Function does the same as the FileStore.Read method, but it has no data. You must pass in the working directory as a function argument just like the ID. This doesn't seem equivalent to an object.

Closures as behaviour with data #

A Closure is an important concept in Functional Programming. In C# it looks like this:

var workingDirectory = new DirectoryInfo(Environment.CurrentDirectory);
Func<intstring> read = id =>
        var path = Path.Combine(workingDirectory.FullName, id + ".txt");
        return File.ReadAllText(path);

This is called a Closure because the Function closes over the Outer Variable workingDirectory. Effectively, the function captures the value of the Outer Variable.

What does that compile to?

Obviously, the above C# code compiles to IL, but if you reverse-engineer the IL back to C#, this is what it looks like:

private sealed class <>c__DisplayClass3
    public DirectoryInfo workingDirectory;

    public string <UseClosure>b__2(int id)
        return File.ReadAllText(
            Path.Combine(this.workingDirectory.FullName, id + ".txt"));

It's a class with a field and a method! Granted, the names look somewhat strange, and the field is a public, mutable field, but it's essentially identical to the FileStore class!

Closures are behaviour with data, whereas objects are data with behaviour. Hopefully, the opening parable makes sense to you now. This is an example of one of Erik Meijer's favourite design concepts called duality.

Partial Function Application #

Another way to close over data is called Partial Function Application, but the result is more or less the same. Given the original pure function:

Func<DirectoryInfointstring> read = (workingDirectory, id) =>
        var path = Path.Combine(workingDirectory.FullName, id + ".txt");
        return File.ReadAllText(path);

you can create a new Function from the first Function by only invoking it with some of the arguments:

var wd = new DirectoryInfo(Environment.CurrentDirectory);
Func<intstring> r = id => read(wd, id);

The r function also closes over the wd variable, and the compiled IL is very similar to before.

Just use F#, then! #

If SOLID leads you to many fine-grained classes with a single method, C# starts to be in the way. A class like the above FileStore class is proper Object-Oriented Code, but is quite verbose; the Closures and Partially Applied Functions compile, but are hardly idiomatic C# code.

On the other hand, in F#, the above Closure is simply written as:

let workingDirectory = DirectoryInfo(Environment.CurrentDirectory)
let read id = 
    let path = Path.Combine(workingDirectory.FullName, id.ToString() + ".txt")

The read value is a Function with the signature 'a -> string, which means that it takes a value of the generic type 'a (in C#, it would typically have been named T) and returns a string. This is just a more general version of the IMessageQuery.Read method. When 'a is int, it's the same signature, but in F#, I only had to bother naming the Function itself. Functions are anonymous interfaces, so these are also equivalent.

Likewise, if you have a Pure Function like this:

let read (workingDirectory : DirectoryInfo) id =
    let path = Path.Combine(workingDirectory.FullName, id.ToString() + ".txt")

the Partially Applied Function is written like this:

let wd = DirectoryInfo(Environment.CurrentDirectory)
let r = read wd

The r Function is another Function that takes an ID as input, and returns a string, but notice how much less ceremony is involved.

Summary #

SOLID, particularly the SRP and ISP, leads you towards code bases with many fine-grained classes with a single method. Such objects represent data with behaviour, but can also be modelled as behaviour with data: Closures. When that happens repeatedly, it's time to make the switch to a Functional Programming Language like F#.


Looks like we had similar thoughts at the same time - mine are here
It's surprising to me that we've not moved more to the functional paradigm as an industry, when so many pieces of evidence point to it working more effectively than OO.
It feels like people can't seem to break away from those curly braces, which is perhaps why Scala is doing so well on the JVM.
2014-03-10 11:51 UTC
I like where you're going with this post, but I just can't get my head round how you would consume the closure you've written. Most of the time you would consume the IMessageQuery by taking it in your class's constructor and letting your DI framework new it up for you:
public class MyService

	public MyService(IMessageQuery messageQuery)
How would you do this with a closure? Your function no longer has a type that we can use (it's just int -> string). Surely your service doesn't look like this?
type MyService (messageQuery: int -> string) = ...
How would you register the types for injection in this example?
2014-03-11 10:05 UTC
Great explanation and justification! I believe the story goes further beyond SOLID into many other patterns. I wrote a post about OOP patterns from Functional Perspective.
2014-03-11 13:18 UTC

Richard, thank you for writing. You ask "Surely your service doesn't look like this? type MyService (messageQuery: int -> string) = ..."

Probably not. Why even have a class? A client consuming the closure would just take it as a function argument:

let myClient f =
    let message = f 42
    // Do something else interesting...
    // Return a result...

Here, f is a function with the int -> string signature, and myClient is another function. Just as you can keep on composing classes using the Composite, Decorator, and Adapter patterns, you can keep on composing functions with other functions by taking functions as function arguments.

At the top level of your application, you may have to implement a class to fit into a framework. For an example of integrating with the ASP.NET Web API, see my A Functional Architecture with F# Pluralsight course.

When it comes to integrating with a DI Container, I tend to not care about that these days. I prefer composing the application with Poor Man's DI, and that works beautifully with F#.

2014-03-11 16:57 UTC

Excellent post!

Under "Partial Function Application", you state "Given the original pure function" - the file I/O would appear to make that impure. Similarly under "Just use F#, then!" with "Likewise, if you have a Pure Function like this".

2014-03-12 17:40 UTC

Bill, you are correct! I may have gotten a little carried away at that point. The method is side-effect-free, and deterministic (unless someone comes by and changes the file), but it does depend on state on disk. Thank you for pointing that out; I stand corrected. Hopefully, that mistake of mine doesn't detract from the overall message.

2014-03-12 19:26 UTC
Leif Battermann #

Hey Mark, obviously switching to F# is not always that easy. I currently have a very similar situation like the one you describe in this post. I refactored the code to using partial application and a functional programming style with C# which works fine. You are saying that the two approaches are actually more or less the same thing which I can see. I am wondering now what the benefit is from refactoring to a functional style with partial application? Does it make sense to do that using C#? The dependencies that I inject are repositories with DB access. So I don't get the true benefits of FP because of the state of the DB. Is it still reasonable to switch to the FP approach? Personally I just like the style and I think it is a littel bit cleaner to have no constructors and private fields. Any thoughts on that? Thanks, Leif.

2014-04-02 11:21 UTC

Leif, thank you for writing. Is there value in adopting a functional style in C#? Yes, I think so, but not (in my opinion) from closures or partial function application. While it's possible to do this in C#, the syntax is awkward compared to F#. It also goes somewhat against the grain of C#.

The main benefit from FP is immutable state, which makes it much easier to reason about the code and the state of the application. Once you understand how to model a problem around immutable data, even C# code becomes much easier to reason about, so I definitely think it makes sense to adopt patterns for working with immutable data in C#.

For years, I've written C# code like that. Not only is it possible, but I strongly prefer it over more 'normal' C# with mutable state. Still, there's a lot of boilerplate code you have to write in C#, such as constructors and read-only property pairs, copy-and-update methods, structural equality, etc. After having done that for a couple of years, I got tired of writing all that boilerplate code, when I get it for free in F#.

Like you, I still have a large body of C# code that I have to maintain, so while I choose F# for most new development, I write 'functional C#' in my C# code bases. Even if there are small pockets of mutable state here and there (like you describe), I still think it makes sense to keep as much as possible immutable.

2014-04-03 17:34 UTC

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Monday, 10 March 2014 08:33:00 UTC


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Published: Monday, 10 March 2014 08:33:00 UTC