The untold art of Composite-friendly interfaces

The Composite pattern is a very powerful design pattern that you use regularly to manipulate a group of things through the very same interface than a single thing. By doing so you don’t have to discriminate between the singular and plural cases, which often simplifies your design.

Yet there are cases where you are tempted to use the Composite pattern but the interface of your objects does not fit quite well. Fear not, some simple refactorings on the methods signatures can make your interfaces Composite-friendly, because it’s worth it.

Always start with examples

Imagine an interface for a financial instrument with a getter on its currency:

public interface Instrument {
  Currency getCurrency();

This interface is alright for a single instrument, however it does not scale for a group of instruments (Composite pattern), because the corresponding getter in the composite class would look like (notice that return type is now a collection):

public class CompositeInstrument {
  // list of instruments...

  public Set getCurrencies() {...}

We must admit that each instrument in a composite instrument may have a different currency, hence the composite may be multi-currency, hence the collection return type. This breaks the goal of the Composite pattern which is to unify the interfaces for single and multiple elements. If we stop there, we now have to discriminate between a single Instrument and a CompositeInstrument, and we have to discriminate that on every call site. I’m not happy with that.

The composite pattern applied to a lamp: same plug for one or several lamps

The brutal approach

The brutal approach is to generalize the initial interface so that it works for the composite case:

public interface Instrument {
  Set getCurrencies() ;

This interface now works for both the single case and the composite case, but at the cost of always having to deal with a collection as return value. In fact I’m not that sure that we’ve simplified our design with this approach: if the composite case is not used that often, we even have complicated the design for little benefit, because the returned collection type always goes on our way, requiring a loop every time it is called.

The trick to improve that is just to investigate what our interface is really used for. The getter on the initial interface only reveals that we did not think about the actual use before, in other words it shows a design decision “by default”, or lack of.

Turn it into a boolean method

Very often this kind of getter is mostly used to test whether the instrument (single or composite) has something to do with a given currency, for example to check if an instrument is acceptable for a screen in USD or tradable by a trader who is only granted the right to trade in EUR.

In this case, you can revamp the method into another intention-revealing method that accepts a parameter and returns a boolean:

public interface Instrument {
  boolean isInCurrency(Currency currency);

This interface remains simple, is closer to our needs, and in addition it now scales for use with a Composite, because the result for a Composite instrument can be derived from each result on each single instrument and the AND operator:

public class CompositeInstrument {
  // list of instruments...

  public boolean isInCurrency(Currency currency) {
     boolean result;
     // for each instrument, result &= isInCurrency(currency);
     return result;

Something to do with Fold

As shown above the problem is all about the return value. Generalizing on boolean and their boolean logic from the previous example (‘&=’), the overall trick for a Composite-friendly interface is to define methods that return a type that is easy to fold over successive executions. For example the trick is to merge (“fold”) the boolean result of several calls into one single boolean result. You typically do that with AND or OR on boolean types.

If the return type is a collection, then you could perhaps merge the results using addAll(…) if it makes sense for the operation.

Technically, this is easily done when the return type is closed under an operation (magma), i.e. when the result of some operation is of the same type than the operand, just like ‘boolean1 AND boolean2‘ is also a boolean.

This is obviously the case for boolean and their boolean logic, but also for numbers and their arithmetic, collections and their sets operations, strings and their concatenation, and many other types including your own classes, as Eric Evans suggests you favour “Closure of Operations” in his book Domain-Driven Design.

Fire hydrants: from one pipe to multiple pipes (composite)

Turn it into a void method

Though not possible in our previous example, void methods work very well with the Composite pattern: with nothing to return, there is no need to unify or fold anything:

public class CompositeFunction {
  List functions = ...;

  public void apply(...) {
     // for each function, function.apply(...);

Continuation-passing style

The last trick to help with the Composite pattern is to adopt the continuation passing style by passing a continuation object as a parameter to the method. The method then sets its result into it instead of using its return value.

As an example, to perform search on every node of a tree, you may use a continuation like this:

public class SearchResults {
   public void addResult(Node node){ // append to list of results...}
   public List getResults() { // return list of results...}

public class Node {
  List children = ...;

  public void search(SarchResults sr) {
     if (found){
     // for each child,;

By passing a continuation as argument to the method, the continuation takes care of the multiplicity, and the method is now well suited for the Composite pattern. You may consider that the continuation indeed encapsulates into one object the process of folding the result of each call, and of course the continuation is mutable.

This style does complicates the interface of the method a little, but also offers the advantage of a single allocation of one instance of the continuation across every call.

That's continuation passing style (CC Some rights reserved by 2011 BUICK REGAL)

One word on exceptions

Methods that can throw exceptions (even unchecked exceptions) can complicate the use in a composite. To deal with exceptions within the loop that calls each child, you can just throw the first exception encountered, at the expense of giving up the loop. An alternative is to collect every caught exception into a Collection, then throw a composite exception around the Collection when you’re done with the loop. On some other cases the composite loop may also be a convenient place to do the actual exception handling, such as full logging, in one central place.

In closing

We’ve seen some tricks to adjust the signature of your methods so that they work well with the Composite pattern, typically by folding the return type in some way. In return, you don’t have to discriminate manually between the single and the multiple, and one single interface can be used much more often; this is with these kinds of details that you can keep your design simple and ready for any new challenge.

Follow me on Twitter! Credits: Pictures from myself, except the assembly line by BUICK REGAL (Flickr)

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A touch of functional style in plain Java with predicates – Part 2

In the first part of this article we introduced predicates, which bring some of the benefits of functional programming to object-oriented languages such as Java, through a simple interface with one single method that returns true or false. In this second and last part, we’ll cover some more advanced notions to get the best out of your predicates.


One obvious case where predicates shine is testing. Whenever you need to test a method that mixes walking a data structure and some conditional logic, by using predicates you can test each half in isolation, walking the data structure first, then the conditional logic.

In a first step, you simply pass either the always-true or always-false predicate to the method to get rid of the conditional logic and to focus just on the correct walking on the data structure:

// check with the always-true predicate
final Iterable<PurchaseOrder> all = orders.selectOrders(Predicates.<PurchaseOrder> alwaysTrue());
assertEquals(2, Iterables.size(all));

// check with the always-false predicate
assertTrue(Iterables.isEmpty(orders.selectOrders(Predicates.<PurchaseOrder> alwaysFalse())));

In a second step, you just test each possible predicate separately.

final CustomerPredicate isForCustomer1 = new CustomerPredicate(CUSTOMER_1);
assertTrue(isForCustomer1.apply(ORDER_1)); // ORDER_1 is for CUSTOMER_1
assertFalse(isForCustomer1.apply(ORDER_2)); // ORDER_2 is for CUSTOMER_2

This example is simple but you get the idea. To test more complex logic, if testing each half of the feature is not enough you may create mock predicates, for example a predicate that returns true once, then always false later on. Forcing the predicate like that may considerably simplify your test set-up, thanks to the strict separation of concerns.

Predicates work so good for testing that if you tend to do some TDD, I mean if the way you can test influences the way you design, then as soon as you know predicates they will surely find their way into your design.

Explaining to the team

In the projects I’ve worked on, the team was not familiar with predicates at first. However this concept is easy and fun enough for everyone to get it quickly. In fact I’ve been surprised by how the idea of predicates spread naturally from the code I had written to the code of my colleagues, without much evangelism from me. I guess that the benefits of predicates speak for themselves. Having mature API’s from big names like Apache or Google also helps convince that it is serious stuff. And now with the functional programming hype, it should be even easier to sell!

Simple optimizations

This engine is so big, no optimization is required (Chicago Auto Show).

The usual optimizations are to make predicates immutable and stateless as much as possible to enable their sharing with no consideration of threading.  This enables using one single instance for the whole process (as a singleton, e.g. as static final constants). Most frequently used predicates that cannot be enumerated at compilation time may be cached at runtime if required. As usual, do it only if your profiler report really calls for it.

When possible a predicate object can pre-compute some of the calculations involved in its evaluation in its constructor (naturally thread-safe) or lazily.

A predicate is expected to be side-effect-free, in other words “read-only”: its execution should not cause any observable change to the system state. Some predicates must have some internal state, like a counter-based predicate used for paging, but they still must not change any state in the system they apply on. With internal state, they also cannot be shared, however they may be reused within their thread if they support reset between each successive use.

Fine-grained interfaces: a larger audience for your predicates

In large applications you find yourself writing very similar predicates for types totally different but that share a common property like being related to a Customer. For example in the administration page, you may want to filter logs by customer; in the CRM page you want to filter complaints by customer.

For each such type X you’d need yet another CustomerXPredicate to filter it by customer. But since each X is related to a customer in some way, we can factor that out (Extract Interface in Eclipse) into an interface CustomerSpecific with one method:

public interface CustomerSpecific {
   Customer getCustomer();

This fine-grained interface reminds me of traits in some languages, except it has no reusable implementation. It could also be seen as a way to introduce a touch of dynamic typing within statically typed languages, as it enables calling indifferently any object with a getCustomer() method. Of course our class PurchaseOrder now implements this interface.

Once we have this interface CustomerSpecific, we can define predicates on it rather than on each particular type as we did before. This helps leverage just a few predicates throughout a large project. In this case, the predicate CustomerPredicate is co-located with the interface CustomerSpecific it operates on, and it has a generic type CustomerSpecific:

public final class CustomerPredicate implements Predicate<CustomerSpecific>, CustomerSpecific {
  private final Customer customer;
  // valued constructor omitted for clarity
  public Customer getCustomer() {
    return customer;
  public boolean apply(CustomerSpecific specific) {
    return specific.getCustomer().equals(customer);

Notice that the predicate can itself implement the interface CustomerSpecific, hence could even evaluate itself!

When using trait-like interfaces like that, you must take care of the generics and change a bit the method that expects a Predicate<PurchaseOrder> in the class PurchaseOrders, so that it also accepts any predicate on a supertype of PurchaseOrder:

public Iterable<PurchaseOrder> selectOrders(Predicate<? super PurchaseOrder> condition) {
    return Iterables.filter(orders, condition);

Specification in Domain-Driven Design

Eric Evans and Martin Fowler wrote together the pattern Specification, which is clearly a predicate. Actually the word “predicate” is the word used in logic programming, and the pattern Specification was written to explain how we can borrow some of the power of logic programming into our object-oriented languages.

In the book Domain-Driven Design, Eric Evans details this pattern and gives several examples of Specifications which all express parts of the domain. Just like this book describes a Policy pattern that is nothing but the Strategy pattern when applied to the domain, in some sense the Specification pattern may be considered a version of predicate dedicated to the domain aspects, with the additional intent to clearly mark and identify the business rules.

As a remark, the method name suggested in the Specification pattern is: isSatisfiedBy(T): boolean, which emphasises a focus on the domain constraints. As we’ve seen before with predicates, atoms of business logic encapsulated into Specification objects can be recombined using boolean logic (or, and, not, any, all), as in the Interpreter pattern.

The book also describes some more advanced techniques such as optimization when querying a database or a repository, and subsumption.

Optimisations when querying

The following are optimization tricks, and I’m not sure you will ever need them. But this is true that predicates are quite dumb when it comes to filtering datasets: they must be evaluated on just each element in a set, which may cause performance problems for huge sets. If storing elements in a database and given a predicate, retrieving every element just to filter them one after another through the predicate does not sound exactly a right idea for large sets…

When you hit performance issues, you start the profiler and find the bottlenecks. Now if calling a predicate very often to filter elements out of a data structure is a bottleneck, then how do you fix that?

One way is to get rid of the full predicate thing, and to go back to hard-coded, more error-prone, repetitive and less-testable code. I always resist this approach as long as I can find better alternatives to optimize the predicates, and there are many.

First, have a deeper look at how the code is being used. In the spirit of Domain-Driven Design, looking at the domain for insights should be systematic whenever a question occurs.

Very often there are clear patterns of use in a system. Though statistical, they offer great opportunities for optimisation. For example in our PurchaseOrders class, retrieving every PENDING order may be used much more frequently than every other case, because that’s how it makes sense from a business perspective, in our imaginary example.

Friend Complicity

Weird complicity (Maeght foundation)

Based on the usage pattern you may code alternate implementations that are specifically optimised for it. In our example of pending orders being frequently queried, we would code an alternate implementation FastPurchaseOrder, that makes use of some pre-computed data structure to keep the pending orders ready for quick access.

Now, in order to benefit from this alternate implementation, you may be tempted to change its interface to add a dedicated method, e.g. selectPendingOrders(). Remember that before you only had a generic selectOrders(Predicate) method. Adding the extra method may be alright in some cases, but may raise several concerns: you must implement this extra method in every other implementation too, and the extra method may be too specific for a particular use-case hence may not fit well on the interface.

A trick for using the internal optimization through the exact same method that only expects predicates is just to make the implementation recognize the predicate it is related to. I call that “Friend Complicity“, in reference to the friend keyword in C++.

/** Optimization method: pre-computed list of pending orders */
private Iterable<PurchaseOrder> selectPendingOrders() {
  // ... optimized stuff...

public Iterable<PurchaseOrder> selectOrders(Predicate<? super PurchaseOrder> condition) {
  // internal complicity here: recognize friend class to enable optimization
  if (condition instanceof PendingOrderPredicate) {
     return selectPendingOrders();// faster way
  // otherwise, back to the usual case
  return Iterables.filter(orders, condition);

It’s clear that it increases the coupling between two implementation classes that should otherwise ignore each other. Also it only helps with performance if given the “friend” predicate directly, with no decorator or composite around.

What’s really important with Friend Complicity is to make sure that the behaviour of the method is never compromised, the contract of the interface must be met at all times, with or without the optimisation, it’s just that the performance improvement may happen, or not. Also keep in mind that you may want to switch back to the unoptimized implementation one day.


If the orders are actually stored in a database, then SQL can be used to query them quickly. By the way, you’ve probably noticed that the very concept of predicate is exactly what you put after the WHERE clause in a SQL query.

Ron Arad designed a chair that encompasses another chair: this is subsumption

A first and simple way to still use predicate yet improve performance is for some predicates to implement an additional interface SqlAware, with a method asSQL(): String that returns the exact SQL query corresponding for the evaluation of the predicate itself. When the predicate is used against a database-backed repository, the repository would call this method instead of the usual evaluate(Predicate) or apply(Predicate) method, and would then query the database with the returned query.

I call that approach SQL-compromised as the predicate is now polluted with database-specific details it should ignore more often than not.

Alternatives to using SQL directly include the use of stored procedures or named queries: the predicate has to provide the name of the query and all its parameters. Double-dispatch between the repository and the predicate passed to it is also an alternative: the repository calls the predicate on its additional method selectElements(this) that itself calls back the right pre-selection method findByState(state): Collection on the repository; the predicate then applies its own filtering on the returned set and returns the final filtered set.


Subsumption is a logic concept to express a relation of one concept that encompasses another, such as “red, green, and yellow are subsumed under the term color” (Merriam-Webster). Subsumption between predicates can be a very powerful concept to implement in your code.

Let’s take the example of an application that broadcasts stock quotes. When registering we must declare which quotes we are interested in observing. We can do that by simply passing a predicate on stocks that only evaluates true for the stocks we’re interested in:

public final class StockPredicate implements Predicate<String> {
   private final Set<String> tickers;
   // Constructors omitted for clarity

   public boolean apply(String ticker) {
     return tickers.contains(ticker);

Now we assume that the application already broadcasts standard sets of popular tickers on messaging topics, and each topic has its own predicates; if it could detect that the predicate we want to use is “included”, or subsumed in one of the standard predicates, we could just subscribe to it and save computation. In our case this subsumption is rather easy, by just adding an additional method on our predicates:

 public boolean encompasses(StockPredicate predicate) {
   return tickers.containsAll(predicate.tickers);
 }Subsumption is all about evaluating another predicate for "containment". This is easy when your predicates are based on sets, as in the example, or when they are based on intervals of numbers or dates. Otherwise You may have to resort to tricks similar to Friend Complicity, i.e. recognizing the other predicate to decide if it is subsumed or not, in a case-by-case fashion.

Overall, remember that subsumption is hard to implement in the general case, but even partial subsumption can be very valuable, so it is an important tool in your toolbox.


Predicates are fun, and can enhance both your code and the way you think about it!


The single source file for this part is available for download (fixed broken link)

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A touch of functional style in plain Java with predicates – Part 1

You keep hearing about functional programming that is going to take over the world, and you are still stuck to plain Java? Fear not, since you can already add a touch of functional style into your daily Java. In addition, it’s fun, saves you many lines of code and leads to fewer bugs.

What is a predicate?

I actually fell in love with predicates when I first discovered Apache Commons Collections, long ago when I was coding in Java 1.4. A predicate in this API is nothing but a Java interface with only one method:

evaluate(Object object): boolean

That’s it, it just takes some object and returns true or false. A more recent equivalent of Apache Commons Collections is Google Guava, with an Apache License 2.0. It defines a Predicate interface with one single method using a generic parameter:

apply(T input): boolean

It is that simple. To use predicates in your application you just have to implement this interface with your own logic in its single method apply(something).

A simple example

As an early example, imagine you have a list orders of PurchaseOrder objects, each with a date, a Customer and a state. The various use-cases will probably require that you find out every order for this customer, or every pending, shipped or delivered order, or every order done since last hour.  Of course you can do that with foreach loops and a if inside, in that fashion:

//List<PurchaseOrder> orders...

public List<PurchaseOrder> listOrdersByCustomer(Customer customer) {
  final List<PurchaseOrder> selection = new ArrayList<PurchaseOrder>();
  for (PurchaseOrder order : orders) {
    if (order.getCustomer().equals(customer)) {
  return selection;

And again for each case:

public List<PurchaseOrder> listRecentOrders(Date fromDate) {
  final List<PurchaseOrder> selection = new ArrayList<PurchaseOrder>();
  for (PurchaseOrder order : orders) {
    if (order.getDate().after(fromDate)) {
  return selection;

The repetition is quite obvious: each method is the same except for the condition inside the if clause, emphasized in bold here. The idea of using predicates is simply to replace the hard-coded condition inside the if clause by a call to a predicate, which then becomes a parameter. This means you can write only one method, taking a predicate as a parameter, and you can still cover all your use-cases, and even already support use-cases you do not know yet:

public List<PurchaseOrder> listOrders(Predicate<PurchaseOrder> condition) {
  final List<PurchaseOrder> selection = new ArrayList<PurchaseOrder>();
  for (PurchaseOrder order : orders) {
    if (condition.apply(order)) {
  return selection;

Each particular predicate can be defined as a standalone class, if used at several places, or as an anonymous class:

final Customer customer = new Customer("BruceWaineCorp");
final Predicate<PurchaseOrder> condition = new Predicate<PurchaseOrder>() {
  public boolean apply(PurchaseOrder order) {
    return order.getCustomer().equals(customer);

Your friends that use real functional programming languages (Scala, Clojure, Haskell etc.) will comment that the code above is awfully verbose to do something very common, and I have to agree. However we are used to that verbosity in the Java syntax and we have powerful tools (auto-completion, refactoring) to accommodate it. And our projects probably cannot switch to another syntax overnight anyway.

Predicates are collections best friends

Didn't find any related picture, so here's an unrelated picture from my library

Coming back to our example, we wrote a foreach loop only once to cover every use-case, and we were happy with that factoring out. However your friends doing functional programming “for real” can still laugh at this loop you had to write yourself. Luckily, both API from Apache or Google also provide all the goodies you may expect, in particular a class similar to java.util.Collections, hence named Collections2 (not a very original name).

This class provides a method filter() that does something similar to what we had written before, so we can now rewrite our method with no loop at all:

public Collection<PurchaseOrder> selectOrders(Predicate<PurchaseOrder> condition) {
  return Collections2.filter(orders, condition);

In fact, this method returns a filtered view:

The returned collection is a live view of unfiltered (the input collection); changes to one affect the other.

This also means that less memory is used, since there is no actual copy from the initial collection unfiltered to the actual returned collection filtered.

On a similar approach, given an iterator, you could ask for a filtered iterator on top of it (Decorator pattern) that only gives you the elements selected by your predicate:

Iterator filteredIterator = Iterators.filter(unfilteredIterator, condition);

Since Java 5 the Iterable interface comes very handy for use with the foreach loop, so we’d prefer indeed use the following expression:

public Iterable<PurchaseOrder> selectOrders(Predicate<PurchaseOrder> condition) {
  return Iterables.filter(orders, condition);

// you can directly use it in a foreach loop, and it reads well:
for (PurchaseOrder order : orders.selectOrders(condition)) {

Ready-made predicates

To use predicates, you could simply define your own interface Predicate, or one for each type parameter you need in your application. This is possible, however the good thing in using a standard Predicate interface from an API such as Guava or Commons Collections is that the API brings plenty of excellent building blocks to combine with your own predicate implementations.

First you may not even have to implement your own predicate at all. If all you need is a condition on whether an object is equal to another, or is not-null, then you can simply ask for the predicate:

// gives you a predicate that checks if an integer is zero
Predicate<Integer> isZero = Predicates.equalTo(0);
// gives a predicate that checks for non null objects
Predicate<String> isNotNull = Predicates.notNull();
// gives a predicate that checks for objects that are instanceof the given Class
Predicate<Object> isString = Predicates.instanceOf(String.class);

Given a predicate, you can inverse it (true becomes false and the other way round):


Combine several predicates using boolean operators AND, OR:

Predicates.and(predicate1, predicate2);
Predicates.or(predicate1, predicate2);
// gives you a predicate that checks for either zero or null
Predicate<Integer> isNullOrZero = Predicates.or(isZero, Predicates.isNull());

Of course you also have the special predicates that always return true or false, which are really, really useful, as we’ll see later for testing:


Where to locate your predicates

I often used to make anonymous predicates at first, however they always ended up being used more often so were often promoted to actual classes, nested or not.

By the way, where to locate these predicates? Following Robert C. Martin and his Common Closure Principle (CCP) :

Classes that change together, belong together

Because predicates manipulates objects of a certain type, I like to co-locate them close to the type they take as parameter. For example, the classes CustomerOrderPredicate, PendingOrderPredicate and RecentOrderPredicate should reside in the same package than the class PurchaseOrder that they evaluate, or in a sub-package if you have a lot of them. Another option would be to define them nested within the type itself. Obviously, the predicates are quite coupled to the objects they operate on.


Here are the source files for the examples in this article: cyriux_predicates_part1 (zip)

In the next part, we’ll have a look at how predicates simplify testing, how they relate to Specifications in Domain-Driven Design, and some additional stuff to get the best out of your predicates.

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Patterns for using custom annotations

If you happen to create your own annotations, for instance to use with Java 6 Pluggable Annotation Processors, here are some patterns that I collected over time. Nothing new, nothing fancy, just putting everything into one place, with some proposed names.


Local-name annotation

Have your tools accept any annotation as long as its single name (without the fully-qualified prefix) is the expected one. For example com.acme.NotNull and net.companyname.NotNull would be considered the same. This enables to use your own annotations rather than the one packaged with the tools, in order not to depend on them.

Example in the Guice documentation:

Guice recognizes any @Nullable annotation, like edu.umd.cs.findbugs.annotations.Nullable or javax.annotation.Nullable.

Composed annotations

Annotations can have annotations as values. This allows for some complex and tree-like configurations, such as mappings from one format to another (from/to XML, JSon, RDBM).

Here is a rather simple example from the Hibernate annotations documentation:

   joinColumns = @JoinColumn(name="fld_propulsion_fk") 

Multiplicity Wrapper

Java does not allow to use several times the same annotation on a given target.

To workaround that limitation, you can create a special annotation that expects a collection of values of the desired annotation type. For example, you’d like to apply several times the annotation @Advantage, so you create the Multiplicity Wrapper annotation: @Advantages (advantages = {@Advantage}).

Typically the multiplicity wrapper is named after the plural form of its enclosed elements.

Example in Hibernate annotations documentation:

@AttributeOverrides( {
   @AttributeOverride(name="iso2", column = @Column(name="bornIso2") ),
   @AttributeOverride(name="name", column = @Column(name="bornCountryName") )
} )



It is not possible in Java for annotations to derive from each other. To workaround that, the idea is simply to annotate your new annotation with the “super” annotation, which becomes a meta annotation.

Whenever you use your own annotation with a meta-annotation, the tools will actually consider it as if it was the meta-annotation.

This kind of meta-inheritance helps centralize the coupling to the external annotation in one place, while making the semantics of your own annotation more precise and meaningful.

Example in Spring annotations, with the annotation @Component, but also works with annotation @Qualifier:

Create your own custom stereotype annotation that is itself annotated with @Component:

public @interface MyComponent {
String value() default "";
public class MyClass...

Another example in Guice, with the Binding Annotation:

public @interface PayPal {}

// Then use it
public class RealBillingService implements BillingService {
  public RealBillingService(@PayPal CreditCardProcessor processor,
      TransactionLog transactionLog) {

Refactoring-proof values

Prefer values that are robust to refactorings rather than String litterals. MyClass.class is better than “com.acme.MyClass”, and enums are also encouraged.

Example in Hibernate annotations documentation:

@ManyToOne( cascade = {CascadeType.PERSIST, CascadeType.MERGE}, targetEntity=CompanyImpl.class )

And another example in the Guice documentation:


Configuration Precedence rule

Convention over Configuration and Sensible Defaults are two existing patterns that make a lot of sense with respect to using annotations as part of a configuration strategy. Having no need to annotate is way better than having to annotate for little value.

Annotations are by nature embedded in the code, hence they are not well-suited for every case of configuration, in particular when it comes to deployment-specific configuration. The solution is of course to mix annotations with other mechanisms and use each of them where they are more appropriate.

The following approach, based on precedence rule, and where each mechanism overrides the previous one, appears to work well:

Default value < Annotation < XML < programmatic configuration

For example, the default values could be suited for unit testing, while the annotation define all the stable configuration, leaving the other options to  configure for deployments at the various stages, like production or QA environments.

This principle is common (Spring, Java 6 EE among others), for example in JPA:

The concept of configuration by exception is central to the JPA specification.


This post is mostly a notepad of various patterns on how to use annotations, for instance when creating tools that process annotations, such as the Annotation Processing Tools in Java 5 and the Pluggable Annotations Processors in Java 6.

Don’t hesitate to contribute better patterns names, additional patterns and other examples of use.

EDIT: A related previous post, with a focus on how annotations can lead to coupling hence dependencies.

Pictures Creative Commons from Flicker, by ninaksimon and Iwan Gabovitch.

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Big battles are won on small details

Small details matter because you deal with them often. Any enhancement you make thus yields a benefit often, hence a bigger overall benefit. In other words: invest small care, get big return. This is an irresistible proposal!

Every single step matters

Examples of small design-level details that I care about because I have experienced great payback from them:

  1. Using Value Objects rather than naked primitives
  2. One argument instead of two in a method,
  3. Well-thought names for every programming element
  4. Favour side-effect free methods and immutability as much as possible
  5. Keeping the behaviour close to the related data
  6. Investing enough time to deeply distillate each concept of the domain, even the most simple ones

Ivan Moore has an excellent series of blog entries on this approach: programming in the small.

All these details emphasize that code is written once then used many times. The extra care at time of writing pays back at time of using, each time, again and again. Each enhancement that minimises brain effort at time of use is welcome, because software design is a matter of economy.

Other kinds of “details” that I care about involve the human aspects of crafting software: being on site, face-to-face communication rather than electronic media, respect and consideration at all times, always celebrate achievements, etc. Because ultimately, it also boils down to people that feel like building something together.

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Group together things that go together

Information hiding is one of the very essential principles of object orientation. If you dont know it well, I suggest you take a look at it on the Web, e-g at UncleBob.

But information hiding is much more than just putting data private through accessors to protect them, it is especially a great tool to manage complexity.

Everytime you put together data that go together, you hide these data behind the object that contains them, and as a result, instead of dealing with 2 or 5 pieces of data, you can only deal with one, so you win the complexity battle. If you simply do that several time, you can end up managing hundreds of data with little effort.

This very little principle can really save your life. One extremely common application is the Quantity pattern (Fowler), as value and unit always go together (or they should), they are ideally grouped together as a quantity object, like Money, Percent, Period… Just putting together a value and its unit already yields surprisingly high return, (and of course you become unit-safe).

Let’s illustrate this post with our current project; we replaced some terrible 25-fields legacy data objects by objects with 2 to 5 fields, themselves again made of 2 to 5 fields objects, and so forth. The actual object structure is a tree, but most of the time we only care of one level at a time: we always have a simple object, it is easy to deal with it.

This way, we get many benefits: each object is simple, easy to create; each such object that groups together some fields has a name, it is a unit of concept, we can talk about it, and this very point is really valuable; we can very often reuse the objects as-is (the same instance) from different pieces of the application, no more need to copy fields to fields; they can often be made immutable; and of course we can unit test such small objects (yes we can have bugs even in simple things).

And if you claim that having several such objects instead of just dealing with “flat” primitive fields is costly, then you are victim of the Primitive Obsession syndrom!

Initially published on Jroller on Wednesday October 19, 2005

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Disposable code generation works great !

In a recent project I was asked to parse massive XML document from a third party provider. We had two problems: the xml document definition was very massive, with about 120 groups of different elements, leading to a total of around 1500 different elements to parse into java objects. The other problem was that our only documentation was a massive Word document that described the Xml format using plain English and some rather consistent tables.

Fortunatly the Word document was rather consistent. Each table had a title, and a list of attributes, with their name, type and a comment. Names were ugly UPPERCASENAMEALLTOGETHER. Titles contained a name, with the XML element name within parenthesises: OVERALCREDITSCORE (XYZ78).

We had chosen using Jibx tool to parse Xml (also to generate Xml in other parts of the application) for efficiency reasons, since it is really lightning fast, and very flexible to map any XML structure into Java structures. Jibx requires to write a custom XML mapping file, and obviously we also had to create the Java classes to map to.

The total amount of work was huge: with 120 groups of 12 XML elements to map into 120 Java classes of 12 fields each, wa had to create the 120 corresponding Java classes, and the mapping file with 1500 mapping instruction (from XML element to Java class attribute). I could not imagine doing this by hand, this is horrible work even for a trainee :)

So I copy-pasted the Word document into Excel to convert it into a coma-separated file, fixed the little inconsistencies, then wrote a rustic parser to extract the XML meta model, using some dumb rules such as: “if the cells 3 and 4 are empty then it is a value from the enumeration of possible values”, “if every cell is set then it is an element”… Even the parenthesises were of interest to tell the enclosing element name ! Relying on such stupid criteria seemed frightening, but it worked, and worked quite well !

Then using a simple Java metamodel (class, field, constants as enumerations) and some dedicated Visitors I generated the binding file, the DtD, the java model, a sample XML document to use for testing… in 2 seconds. The complete work including testing took 2 days; I was happy the project manager trusted me on this, he could have decided it would not work and refused me to do it…

I havent told you how I converted the ugly UPPERCASENAMEALLTOGETHER into correct Java naming conventions; using some short business-dedicated dictionary of words, say {UPPER, CASE, NAME, TOGETHER ,ALL…}, a function tries to recognise the words from the dictionary inside the ugly names in order to split them into relevant parts for further camel case naming conversion. It did not work ok 100% of the time, but after a few tries, just add or remove words to solve conflicts, it did the whole job automatically !

Such a disposable, dedicated code generator works great, I dont care I wont reuse it, as long as I get the work done quickly…

Note: the design is actually very common and reusable: an object model (Composite pattern), a parser (Builder pattern) and some code generators (Visitor pattern).

Initially published on Jroller on Tuesday March 29, 2005

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