Keeping things DRY: Method overloading


A good clean application design requires discipline in keeping things DRY:

Everything has to be done once.
Having to do it twice is a coincidence.
Having to do it three times is a pattern.

— An unknown wise man

Now, if you’re following the Xtreme Programming rules, you know what needs to be done, when you encounter a pattern:

refactor mercilessly

Because we all know what happens when you don’t:

Not DRY: Method overloading

One of the least DRY things you can do that is still acceptable is method overloading – in those languages that allow it (unlike Ceylon, JavaScript). Being an internal domain-specific language, the jOOQ API makes heavy use of overloading. Consider the type Field (modelling a database column):

public interface Field<T> {

    // [...]

    Condition eq(T value);
    Condition eq(Field<T> field);
    Condition eq(Select<? extends Record1<T>> query);
    Condition eq(QuantifiedSelect<? extends Record1<T>> query);

    Condition in(Collection<?> values);
    Condition in(T... values);
    Condition in(Field<?>... values);
    Condition in(Select<? extends Record1<T>> query);

    // [...]

}

So, in certain cases, non-DRY-ness is inevitable, also to a given extent in the implementation of the above API. The key rule of thumb here, however, is to always have as few implementations as possible also for overloaded methods. Try calling one method from another. For instance these two methods are very similar:

Condition eq(T value);
Condition eq(Field<T> field);

The first method is a special case of the second one, where jOOQ users do not want to explicitly declare a bind variable. It is literally implemented as such:

@Override
public final Condition eq(T value) {
    return equal(value);
}

@Override
public final Condition equal(T value) {
    return equal(Utils.field(value, this));
}

@Override
public final Condition equal(Field<T> field) {
    return compare(EQUALS, nullSafe(field));
}

@Override
public final Condition compare(Comparator comparator, Field<T> field) {
    switch (comparator) {
        case IS_DISTINCT_FROM:
        case IS_NOT_DISTINCT_FROM:
            return new IsDistinctFrom<T>(this, nullSafe(field), comparator);

        default:
            return new CompareCondition(this, nullSafe(field), comparator);
    }
}

As you can see:

  • eq() is just a synonym for the legacy equal() method
  • equal(T) is a more specialised, convenience form of equal(Field<T>)
  • equal(Field<T>) is a more specialised, convenience form of compare(Comparator, Field<T>)
  • compare() finally provides access to the implementation of this API

All of these methods are also part of the public API and can be called by the API consumer, directly, which is why the nullSafe() check is repeated in each method.

Why all the trouble?

The answer is simple.

  • There is only very little possibility of a copy-paste error throughout all the API.
  • … because the same API has to be offered for ne, gt, ge, lt, le
  • No matter what part of the API happens to be integration-tested, the implementation itself is certainly covered by some test.
  • This way, it is extremely easy to provide users with a very rich API with lots of convenience methods, as users do not want to remember how these more general-purpose methods (like compare()) really work.

The last point is particularly important, and because of risks related to backwards-compatibility, not always followed by the JDK, for instance. In order to create a Java 8 Stream from an Iterator, you have to go through all this hassle, for instance:

// Aagh, my fingers hurt...
   StreamSupport.stream(iterator.spliterator(), false);
// ^^^^^^^^^^^^^                 ^^^^^^^^^^^    ^^^^^
//       |                            |           |
// Not Stream!                        |           |
//                                    |           |
// Hmm, Spliterator. Sounds like      |           |
// Iterator. But what is it? ---------+           |
//                                                |
// What's this true and false?                    |
// And do I need to care? ------------------------+

When, intuitively, you’d like to have:

// Not Enterprise enough
iterator.stream();

In other words, subtle Java 8 Streams implementation details will soon leak into a lot of client code, and many new utility functions will wrap these things again and again.

See Brian Goetz’s explanation on Stack Overflow for details.

On the flip side of delegating overload implementations, it is of course harder (i.e. more work) to implement such an API. This is particularly cumbersome if an API vendor also allows users to implement the API themselves (e.g. JDBC). Another issue is the length of stack traces generated by such implementations. But we’ve shown before on this blog that deep stack traces can be a sign of good quality.

Now you know why.

Takeaway

The takeaway is simple. Whenever you encounter a pattern, refactor. Find the most common denominator, factor it out into an implementation, and see that this implementation is hardly ever used by delegating single responsibility steps from method to method.

By following these rules, you will:

  • Have less bugs
  • Have a more convenient API

Happy refactoring!

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