A Single Responsibility

Over the years I quite often find myself pondering software development patterns and practices. It’s the kind of thing I think about in my downtime, when I’m driving to and from work, or sitting at home… pondering. I always seem to come back to one question, is the common interpretation of the pattern, that is how the majority of the world sees and implements it, what the author had intended? Is that inventor okay with it? It’s not like I’m going to solve this mystery today. One day I might have the opportunity to meet one of these greats and ask them. Is the outcome of their idea what they intended? I often times find myself reading coding, or working on past code where the implementation, doesn’t line up with my current interpretation of the pattern / practice. Though, upon talking about the code, or reading comments, or blind guessing. It can be clear that the intent was to implement towards a given pattern. In my last post, I talked about Separation of Concerns, which in my opinion can be closely related to, and often confused with the “Single Responsibility Principle“.

The intent of my last post, on Separation of Concerns, was to show that it in itself is not a pattern. It’s merely a practice that can be applied to thought, at any level. This can apply to your application at a macro level (application architecture), all the way down to the micro level (lines of code). Where I see things start to get fuzzy for people, is around the application into class level. The Single Responsibility Principle, is an embodiment of Separation of Concerns, but this embodiment is at a specific level. Unlike Separation of Concerns, Single Responsibility Principle applies only at the class level. I mean, that’s in the definition.

Classes should have a single responsibility and thus only a single reason to change.

But it’s like everything in software, open for interpretation. Patterns, Practices, and Principles fall victim to the subjective nature of application development. The real world of development rarely sees foo and bar, outside of whiteboard sessions. This means that you have to deal with real world objects, and real world problems. Then as developers we have to translate the canonical and sometimes naive FooBar examples, into our real world problems. Sometimes, more often than not, especially with less experienced developers, this leads to incorrect or harmful application of these principles.

Sometimes strict adherence to an interpretation of SRP and “Separation of Concerns”, can be deleterious to an application. The unfortunate nature of this, is that it’s a problem that doesn’t manifest until much later, when it’s too late. Now, I’m not trying to sit on my high-horse and say I don’t misapply these things. In fact, it would be foolish to think that anyone is perfect when it comes to this. I would be willing to bet that Martin Fowler himself doesn’t get it right 100% of the time. The difference is that with experience, you’re able to spot the blunder before it’s too late. Before you’ve gone to far, and you’re on the cliff being faced with a re-write. In the real world, this often times ends in a manager wishing he would’ve reviewed the code a little earlier, or a little more often. Hopefully, this post will help to clarify and add some litmus tests to the application of this principle.

First off, Separation of Concerns, isn’t SRP. If you think that, just forget it. Right now.

Separation of Concerns is the organization of thoughts, the ability to separate components, that are not overlapping, or mutually exclusive. Single Responsibility Principle, is an application of this practice, of grouping things that have the same concern, or reason for change into a single class. So it has a real world, level of application. It’s at the class level, that’s where you apply it…. And this is where the problem stems.

Say you have an application, you’ve got a Web Service that deals with incoming client web requests, and you’ve got an Auxiliary Service that is moving data to and from a database, and servicing long running system requests. This is an example of Separation of Concerns. This is not an example of Single Responsibility Principle. It’s too macro, we’re talking at our application level. Not at the class level. The problem that will stem from this form of thinking, is macro level class development. God classes. Sure — you have a class that represents your service that “Fulfills web service requests”. That’s his single responsibility… But is it? Is it really? If we imagine this mock class, he would have to

  1. Receive a message from the Web Server Service
  2. Parse said message
  3. Understand what to do
  4. Fulfill the request
  5. Build the response

Now, that’s definitely more than one responsibility! But from a macro level, it’s easy to see your class as having a single responsibility. You’re Separating your Concerns, remember?

In this case, it would probably make sense to have 1 class for building and parsing messages, 1 class that can switch on those messages to dispatch what to do, and 1 class for each of the actions to fulfill the requests. Woah. Woah. Woah. Wait just a minute. You just said 1 class for building and parsing… Isn’t that violating the SRP? Well, the answer as so many are in Software Development, is ‘it depends’. That statement, was intentional. It was meant to bring light to the fact, that the definition says “a single reason for change”. When you’re dealing with protocols, building and parsing can often be symmetrical. Therefor, if the protocol changes, that could be our single reason for change of this class. So it could be said to have a single responsibility of dealing with the protocol.

As you can see, where you focus the light of Single Responsibility will really play a factor into the organization and structure of your code. Just wait until you start shining that light too close.

When you start focusing the light at a micro level into your code. You’ll start to actually factor out responsibility.

Imagine you have a system, that is used to dispatch sms style messages, but it’s old school, so it takes time. You’ve got a client facing API called a MessageBroker, and a background service called a MessageDispatcher. Clients of your API deal directly with the MessageBroker, they give the MessageBroker in the format of

class Message 
{
public:
   enum RecipientTypes { Specified, Random }; 

public:
   const Address sender_;
   const Address recipient_;
   const RecipientTypes type_;
   const String &message_;
};

The intent, is that we give the MessageBroker the message, and he’ll do something with it for later pick-up by the MessageDispatcher. The MessageDispatcher will ensure delivery of the message to the recipient. Now, the API of the Message class is such that if you set the type, to Specified and set the address, the message will arrive at your intended target. However! If you set the type to Random, it should go to a random target. This randomness, isn’t really random, it could be based on a location heuristic.

You might think it’s best to define an interface for the message broker, and make it look something like this.

interface IMessageBroker 
{
    void Send(const Message &msg);
};

Then you might implement the IMessageBroker, something like this.

class MessageBroker : public IMessageBroker
{
public:
    void Send(const Message &msg)
    {
           // Validate the fields are appropriate for database
           ValidateFields(msg);
           // put it in the db
           Database.Store(msg);
    }

};

There you have it! Our SRP MessageBroker! He has a single responsibility. He accepts a message and stores it in the database. That’s it right? Well, you might be asking “What about sending to a Random recipient?” Yah — that’s not the MessageBroker’s responsibility… His responsibility is to “Accept” a message, and store it in the Database. It’s someone else’s responsibility to determine the recipient. /s

I hope even without the /s, you saw the sarcasm in that. But this is the reality of imposing SRP at a micro level. You’ve just shirked the responsibility of this class. He’s not anything more than a glorified secretary for the database. Worse yet, the real responsibility is now imposed somewhere it doesn’t belong.

Let’s say you require the client of your API to specify it. Well — you’ve just opened up a can of worms… Who’s to say they’ll use the same heuristic? They might have your carrier running all over Hell’s Half acre for the random recipient. Okay — force them to use a Utility class to generate the random. What you’re saying now, is that they have to remember to use your utility class to set the recipient. Or else… That’s not a very good design.

It makes sense, to put the responsibility, where it belongs. If calculation of a random recipient is the behaviour of how this system works. It only makes sense to put that logic into the MessageBroker.

class MessageBroker : public IMessageBroker
{
public:
    void Send(const Message &msg)
    {
        if(msg.type_ == MessageTypes.Random)
           msg.recipient_ = GenerateRandomRecipient(msg.sender_);

        // Validate the fields are appropriate for database
        ValidateFields(msg);
        // put it in the db
        Database.Store(msg);
     }

};

What’s curious about this, is that you can start to see you never needed the IMessageBroker interface in the first place. You see, the point of an interface is to be able to define a boundary of responsibility. Then have any implementation of that interface, provide that contract. Now, in our case, what’s our contract? Well, we get the Message somewhere where it can be dispatched. If it’s specified as a Random type, then we have to know to generate a random recipient, and get that to be dispatched. Would you get this out of the contract the IMessageBroker defines? I wouldn’t. So, for this design, it doesn’t make sense to have an interface. It’s a specific implementation, for a specific Message class. They’re very tightly coupled to each other. The behaviour expectation of your Message client, is very much dependent on the implementation behind that interface, implicitly. As you can see, his responsibility, really came to light once we took that step backwards, and looked at it for what it really was. (If you’re curious how I would do it differently, shoot me an e-mail!)

In summary, when you’re trying to apply the Single Responsibility Principle, it’s really important to focus your view at the right level. Take an objective look, and ask, what is this thing really doing? What would be reasons for me to make edits to this class? If you are honest, and you start to see that your class has many jobs. You can start to refactor some of those into their own classes, and compose that larger class of the smaller classes. Nothing says that Composition cannot occur with SRP. It just means your larger class’ job, becomes orchestration. There’s nothing wrong with that. The trap you don’t want to fall into, is shirking responsibility. You don’t want to start refactoring your code, where you’re pulling out responsibilities, and putting them on other classes. This will lead to a host of skeleton classes that are merely pass-through objects. The refactor in that case, is to look for the responsibility you’ve pushed on your clients. Ask yourself, should the client need to know that? If I was using this, and didn’t write it, would I know to do this? Those are the types of questions that you’ll find start to drive responsibility back into where they belong. That said, it’s a balance, and finding it is tough, it’s just a matter of practice.

I hope you enjoyed the post. As always — Happy Coding!

PL

“The price of greatness is responsibility” — Winston Churchill