Encapsulate Behavior, not Just State

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In systems theory containment is one of the most useful constructs when dealing with large and complex system structures. In the software industry the value of containment or encapsulation is well understood, and its supported by programming language constructs such as subroutine, function, module, package, object (class).

Module and package addresses the larger scale needs for encapsulation, while object, subroutine and function addresses the more fine granular aspects of the matter. Over the years I have discovered that objects seams to be one of the hardest encapsulation constructs for developers to get right. It's not seldom you find a class with one single 3000 line main method, or a class with only set and get methods for its primitive attributes. These examples illustrates basically that the developers involved has never understood object oriented thinking, and the power of objects as modeling constructs.

An object encapsulates both state and behavior, where the behavior is defined by the actual state. Think of the object door, it has four states: closed, open, closing, opening. It provide two operations: open and close. Dependent of state the open and close operations will behave differently. This inherent property of an object makes the design process conceptual simple. It boils down to two simple tasks: allocation and delegation of responsibility to the different objects including the inter-object interaction protocols.

How this works in practice is best illustrated by an example. Lets say we have three objects, customer, order and item. The customer object is the natural placeholder of the credit limit and credit validation rules. The order object knows about its associated customer, and its addItem(item) operation delegates the actual credit check by calling customer.validateCredit(item.price()). If the post condition for the method fails, an exception is thrown and the purchase is aborted.

Less experienced object oriented developers might decide to wrap all the business rules into an object very often referred to as order-manager or order-service. In these designs order, customer and item are treated as records and all logic is factored out of the objects and tied together in one large method with a lot of internal if-then-else constructs. These methods are easilly flawed and almost impossible to maintain. The main reason: The encapsulation is broken.

So in the end, never break the encapsulation, and use the power of your favorite object oriented language to maintain it.


By Einar Landre


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3

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