Inheritance is evil. Seal your classes.

This is an article in a small series of articles about personal pendulum swings. Here, I document another recent change of heart that's been a long way coming. In short, I now seal C# classes whenever I remember to do it.

The code shown here is part of the sample code base that accompanies my book Code That Fits in Your Head.

Background #

After I discovered test-driven development (TDD) (circa 2003) I embarked on a quest for proper ways to enable testability. Automated tests should be deterministic, but real software systems rarely are. Software depends on the system clock, random number generators, the file system, the states of databases, web services, and so on. All of these may change independently of the software, making it difficult to express an automated systems test in a deterministic manner.

This is a known problem in TDD. In order to get the system under test (SUT) under control, you have to introduce what Michael Feathers calls seams. In C#, there's traditionally been two ways you could do that: extract and override, and interfaces.

The original Framework Design Guidelines explicitly recommended base classes over interfaces, and I wasn't wise to how unfortunate that recommendation was. For a long time, I'd define abstractions with (abstract) base classes. I was even envious of Java, where instance members are virtual (overridable) by default. In C# you must explicitly declare a method virtual to make it overridable.

Abstract base classes aren't too bad if you leave them completely empty, but I never had much success with non-abstract base classes and virtual members and the whole extract-and-override manoeuvre. I soon concluded that Dependency Injection with interfaces was a better alternative.

Even after I changed to exclusively relying on interfaces (instead of abstract base classes), remnants of the rule stuck with me for years: unsealed good; sealed bad. Even today, the framework design guidelines favour unsealed classes:

"CONSIDER using unsealed classes with no added virtual or protected members as a great way to provide inexpensive yet much appreciated extensibility to a framework."

I can no longer agree with this guidance; I think it's poor advice.

You don't need inheritance #

Base classes imply class inheritance as a reuse and extensibility mechanism. We've known since 1994, though, that inheritance probably isn't the best design principle.

"Favor object composition over class inheritance."

In single-inheritance languages like C# and Java, inheritance is just evil. Once you decide to inherit from a base class, you exclude all other base classes. Inheritance signifies a single 'yes' and an infinity of 'noes'. This is particularly problematic if you rely on inheritance for reuse. You can only 'reuse' a single base class, which again leads to duplication or bloated base classes.

It's been years (probably more than a decade) since I stopped relying on base classes for anything. You don't need inheritance. Haskell doesn't have it at all, and I only use it in C# when a framework forces me to derive from some base class.

There's little you can do with an abstract class that you can't do in some other way. Abstract classes are isomorphic with Dependency Injection up to accessibility.

Seal #

If I already follow a design principle of not relying on inheritance, then why keep classes unsealed? Explicit is better than implicit, so why not make that principle visible? Seal classes.

It doesn't have any immediate impact on the code, but it might make it clearer to other programmers that an explicit decision was made.

You already saw examples in the previous article: Both Month and Seating are sealed classes. They're also immutable records. I seal more than record types, too:

public sealed class HomeController

I seal Controllers, as well as services:

public sealed class SmtpPostOffice : IPostOffice

Another example is an ASP.NET filter named UrlIntegrityFilter.

A common counter-argument is that 'you may need extensibility in the future':

"by using "sealed" and not virtual in libs dev says "I thought of all extension point" which seems arrogant"

I agree that it'd be arrogant to claim that you've thought about all extension points. Trying to predict future need is futile.

I don't agree, however, that making everything virtual is a good idea, but it's because I disagree with the underlying premise. The presupposition is that extensibility should be enabled through inheritance. If it's not already clear, I believe that this has many undesirable consequences. There are better ways to enable extensibility than through inheritance.

Conclusion #

I've begun to routinely seal new classes. I don't always remember to do it, but I think that I ought to. As I also explained in the previous article, this is only my default. If something has to be a base class, that's still an option. Likewise, just because a class starts out sealed doesn't mean that it has to stay sealed forever. While sealing an unsealed class is a breaking change, unsealing a sealed class isn't.

I can't think of any reason why I'd do that, though.

Next: Pendulum swing: pure by default.

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Monday, 08 March 2021 07:28:00 UTC


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Published: Monday, 08 March 2021 07:28:00 UTC