Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

In the last few years, I've noticed that the majority of the projects that I've participated roughly followed the same design. Speaking to colleagues and friends, the great majority said that they were also following the same design. It's what I call "ASD" design (Action-Service-DAO).

by Action we mean a Struts Action, Spring Controller, JSF backing bean, etc. Any class that handles an action triggered by the user interface.

We can argue that there is nothing really wrong about this approach since if we map that to a three-tier architecture, that is followed by the majority of the applications, the ASD classes would be in the right places, keeping a good isolation between the tiers.

One of the problems of this approach is when services are created randomly, with different granularities, low cohesion and with a weak representation of the business domains. Services end up being function libraries, almost like an utility class where all "functions" related to a specified "module" are grouped. When it comes to DAOs, the situation is not very different. DAOs are developed in a way that they become utility classes where sometimes we find a single DAO with all queries, inserts, delete, updates for an entire module or sometimes you find one DAO per entity. Either way, regardless what the query returns (or what it is its intention), or any rules related to updates or deletes, the methods will go to the same class. As the application grows, the code becomes something like this:

Looking at the picture above, can we really say that it is object-oriented programming? As services and DAOs don't strongly represent business concepts, the code becomes procedural. I don't want to bang on about the advantages of OOP over Procedural code. I believe that too many people have already discussed that over the past 30 years. My point here is to discuss what a "design" like that can do to an application.

Following bad examples

Unfortunately, in software development, bad examples are easier to be followed than good examples. With a non-expressive business model like that, the services get overloaded with methods. When adding new features to the application, developers need to go through all the methods of a service to see if there is already a method that does what they need. Due to the lack of cohesion and method explosion in the services, many developers will just add a new method in there, that can be very similar to existing ones, instead of re-factor the existing ones. This leads to services with confusingly similar methods and a lot of duplication. As a chain of "bad" events, the more methods a service has, the more classes depending on it the application will have. Many dependencies means that re-factoring the class would be harder, discouraging any one willing to improve the quality of the code.

Duplication does not happen just inside a single service. It's also very common to find different services with very similar methods, if not the same. In general, this is due for the lack of clarity on the responsibility of each service. According to the feature that developers are working on, they will choose a service to add (or reuse) the methods they need. If the responsibility and granularity of each service is not clear, business rules related to a certain area of the business will be spread all over the place since different developers will think that the method will belong to different classes.  

Exposing DAOs to the presentation tier

Another side effect of this approach is that since the DAOs are also "utility classes" with no business meaning (it just has an architectural meaning), some developers can easily expose the DAOs to the actions, without going through the services. Let's give more meaningful names and more details about the Action 4 and DAO 4 shown above. Let's call them ClientAction and ClientDAO.

Here the user interface needs to display a list of clients. ClientDAO has a method that returns a list of clients. In theory this may make sense. The most used argument in favour of this approach instead of adding a "ClientService" in between the ClientAction and the ClientDAO is that the service would have a method that just delegates the call to the DAO. The service layer, in this case, would be considered redundant and just pointless extra work. 

Looking at this isolated scenario, having a service in the middle really looks a bit overkill and unnecessary. However, we will probably want to do more things with a client. We will probably want to create a new client, delete or update an existing client.

Here is where the problems begin. Very rarely, we have a pure CRUD application. In general, many business rules have to be performed before or after any changes are made in the persistence tier (generally a database). For example, before inserting a new client, a credit check needs to be performed. When deleting a new client, we need to make sure that there is no outstanding balance for that client and close his or her account. We also need to archive all the orders for this client.  Whatever the application's business rules dictate. Multiple entities (or database operations) may be involved in a operation like that. We need to be able to define transaction boundaries. Besides CRUD operations, we will also have all business methods like check if client has credit, add orders to a client, etc. This is too much for a single DAO to handle. DAOs should not perform any business logic and should be hidden from the presentation tier. It should be hidden (encapsulated) even from different services. DAOs should just deal with the persistence. Business logic and transaction boundaries should be controlled by a class with business responsibilities, that in the case of this "poor" design, it would be a service.   

So even having a few methods in the service that just delegate the responsibility to a DAO, it is still a price worth paying. The service should hide (encapsulate) the details of it's implementation. A client code does not need to know how and where the data is persisted.

OK, enough of this. Exposing DAOs to the presentation tier is WRONG. Let's move on.

Moving away from the procedural code (baby steps)

The first thing to do to move away from the procedural code is to make your code more expressive and aligned to the business. We need to narrow the gap between developers and domain experts (business analysts, users, product owner or whoever knows the business rules) so we all start speaking the same language. The code must be written in a way that it expresses the business and not just architectural concepts that means nothing to the business. Actions, Services and DAOs are technical terms with no connection to any business term.

There are a few techniques that can be applied (or even combined) in order to make it possible. In future posts, I'll be talking about some of these techniques in more details. I know, it's frustrating that I will not tell you right now how to do it after have spending all this time criticising the ASD procedural design. The important thing for now is to know that what looks a good solution, since it is used by many different people and in many different projects, may not be as good as it seems.

In the meantime, there is something that we can start doing to our code in order to reduce the mess and make the necessary refactorings easier in the future.

Preparing your code for an easier transition

The following advices will help us to get our code to a point where it can be easily refactored into a more domain (business) focused approach in the future. It will still be a bit procedural but will be much more well organised and a notion of components (business components) will start to emerge.

1. Identify key concepts (domains) in your application. (e.g. Client, Order, Invoice, Trip, Itinerary, etc)
2. You can create / refactor services for each one of the key domains.
3. Try to keep a well balanced granularity for all services.
4. Avoid services for small parts of the domain. For example, do not create a service for line items. Line items should be handled by the OrderService.
5. Services are not allowed to manipulate multiple domains (with exceptions of whole-part relations - compositions)
6. DAOs are encapsulated by the services and never accessed by any other class.
7. Not every service must access a DAO, but any DAO must be accessed by one and only one service.
8. Services must delegate operations to other services if the operation is related to a different domain from the one the service is handling.
9. Services talk to each other. DAOs never talk to each other.
10. Parts (like a line item) are never exposed by a service. Service always exposes the whole (like Order). Parts are accessed via the whole. (e.g. order.getLineItems();)

With the following rules, our procedural code starts looking more like meaningful objects, with a reasonably well defined interface and some significance in terms of business.

As mentioned before, this is still a bit procedural but this design already solve a some of the problems discussed earlier like having more meaningful and specific services. The responsibility and boundaries of each service are more defined, making it easier for developers to look for implemented methods and re-use what it is in there, reducing duplication. 

In future posts I'll be talking about the next steps towards a more expressive and business focused code, less procedural and more object-oriented.  

If you are curious about the next steps and can't wait for my posts, have a look at:


blog said...

Good post, Sandro!

I must admit, I find myself writing a lot of these "services as utility classes". Its a really easy pattern to fall into (personally I blame spring for making it so easy to wire together this stuff and lull you into thinking what you're doing is "proper")

Its a great challenge to compose classes at the "right" level of granularity, and often very personal. Looking forward to your future posts!


Sandro Mancuso said...

If any one asks who at some point created designs like that, I would be the first to hold my both hands up.

As we discussed briefly, it really sounds right and good, making us think that there is no reason to move away from it.

The good news is that there are alternatives and the main one is Domain-Driven Design (DDD). The bad news is DDD by itself has limitations and we need to make many concessions in order to implement it. Finding the right balance is where the real challenge is. Not an easy task, to say the least, and there is no simple answer or solution either.

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