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A place to keep my thoughts on programming

February 16, 2009 geek , ,

How I became a SOLID advocate and didn’t even know it

There’s been a lot of chatter of late about SOLID. It started with Uncle Bob talking on a couple of podcasts about the SOLID principles, but it really got the chatter going when Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood started talking smack about Uncle Bob on the Stackoverflow podcast. Since then battle lines seem to have been drawn between the TDD/SOLID folks and those who finally found a champion fighting to get them out from under the pattern yoke. Ok, that’s a bunch of hyperbole, but it seems that the main objection to SOLID seems to be that having a list of Principles like that just feels bureaucratic and dogmatic, which rubs free thinking developers the wrong way. Since I’ve been practicing SOLID longer than I’ve been aware of, I wanted to walk through how I got here and to illustrate that the principles espoused by Uncle Bob are not a yoke, but rather helpful guidelines that will save you a lot of grief down the line.

The overall goal of development should be delivering software that solves the stated problem. Beyond that I do have some personal guiding principles for programming, i.e. what I personally want to get out of it once the raison d’être is accomplished:

  1. I want to learn new things rather than maintain old things
  2. I never want to have to fix the same bug twice
  3. I don’t want to be prevented from doing something better by legacy decisions

To me, 1) means writing code that’s easy to maintain, so that maintenance does not become a time suck interfering with new things, 2) means that i protect myself from regressions and 3) means that my code should allow me to refactor it without screwing up 1) or 2). So far that seems pretty non-controversial.

As I go on, the common theme will be testing, not because testing is some higher goal and end in itself, but because testing, in my experience, let’s me prove that code does what it claims and I didn’t break anything else by the addition/change. For those who think that writing tests is a lot of tedium that only leads to test maintenance rather than code maintenance, I can only respond “you’re probably doing it wrong” and address that statement under Pain points of TDD below.

Doesn’t QA test code?

In the early days of the web, testing was what the programmer did to make sure things didn’t break and then you relied on the customer telling you if it didn’t work correctly — the wild west days of CGI scripts. Once I started at, testing became more refined via QA. Sure, everybody tested their web apps before handing them off to QA (or at least they should), but there wasn’t really any formalized testing on the development side. It was all manual functional testing of firing up the app, trying out the things that should work and looking at logs. QA was responsible for test plans, regression tests, etc.

Early on I switched from web apps to running the databases and with that came dealing with the pain of maintaining schemas when everyone had raw SQL in strings throughout their code. So I set out to write a DB API. Being an OO geek, it quickly morphed from an API into an ORM instead, which abstracted the DB and built the SQL on demand. This gave the DB group more freedom to refactor the database as needed without having to have every developer track down their SQL.

Developing the ORM did mean that I was now out of the QA loop, since my deliverables went to developers and had to work long before QA ever got involved. So I developed test suites that I could run from the shell whenever i changed something. These tests gave me confidence that I didn’t just break live apps with code for a new app.

Part of having these type of tests, however, was a giant WTF in itself. Why was I constantly risking the codebase by futzing around in the guts? Yes, the ORM suffered horribly from fragile baseclass problems and I had designed myself into a number of corners that could only be addressed by modifying the base. Learning this lesson, I spent a lot more time trying to build object hierarchies to provide the proper hooks to let subclasses extend the functionality without affecting or overriding the base functionality. Little did I know that I had started practicing SOLID’s O, or the Open/Closed Principle (OCP).

Unit tests, but not really

When I started at Printable Technologies a number years later, I became part of an effort to migrate the existing application from ASP to ASP.NET. Like most legacy ASP applications it was the usual single code file per page mixing data access, business logic and html rendering. It was something we did not want to repeat. We set out to separate our logical layers carefully so that we would get greater re-use and transparency of what was going on in the application. I wanted to start off on the right foot and played around with NUnit to try out unit testing our new code base. This was before TestDriven.Net or similar tools for integration into the IDE. But at least it gave me an automated test suite, rather than a series of console apps. I thought, “Now I’m doing unit testing!“.

Except, like many test adoptees, I really wasn’t. I was doing functional tests with a test running harness. I was hitting test databases to check my DB Abstraction Layer, and as you moved up the object hierarchy, the graphs of dependent code supporting the code to be tested got deeper and deeper. Testing something that was at the front end, really tested all pieces beneath it. It certainly gave us good test coverage, but the tests were fragile, took a lot time to write, and it was often difficult to dig out what actually failed. That didn’t seem right and made me wonder if this unit testing thing was really so great. But the test coverage did help to achieve my personal guiding principles, so I wasn’t ready to give up on it just yet. I just need to work through the pain points.

Towards actual unit testing

The two major problems we had in our tests were that each test really tested many things at once and that the setup to get to test running was tedious and pulled in too many dependencies.

The first was a problem with our class design. We needed to break classes up into smaller functional pieces that each could be tested before testing the whole. While testability was the driving force for this change, it requiring this change was really a symptom of how badly coupled things were, i.e. that the design was flawed. This is a pattern in testing that has since repeated itself many times: If your test is fragile or difficult, it’s generally the fault of the design of the code to be tested not the testing process.

There were a bunch of monolithic classes that did lots of things at once, which meant a test failure could be one of a hundred things. I started to break up classes into smaller pieces, each dedicated to one functional area. Now I could take those helper classes that the main class was composed of and test them independently. When the composite broke but none of the components did, I knew where to look for failure. This compartmentalization just happens to be Single Responsibility Principle (SRP).

So far so good, but our second problem still dogged us. Tests were still annoying to write the further you got into business logic, since everything built on the supporting infrastructure. I had heard about mocking and started looking into it hoping for some magic bullet that could just create me fakes (which had been easy back in the perl days). This was before TypeMock hit the scene, so I couldn’t create a fake version of my concrete type. It was either making everything virtual (yuck) or using interfaces instead of concrete classes. Interfaces won out, but because I had yet to discover the D in SOLID, introducing a lot of interfaces also led us to a pattern that itself became a major pain point. This pattern was the use of singletons and the static factory methods, both well meaning static accessors to get around the inability of new‘ing up an interface. But before realizing this separate morrass, using interfaces had lead to using the L, Liskov Substitution and I, Interface Segregation principles.

Mocking out classes with interfaces exposed a couple of places where we had an abstract baseclass and code accepting the base class using typeof() to determine what class was actually provided. Well, with an interface being passed in instead of the abstract baseclass, the typeof() logic still worked, until the first test with a mock object was run. That failure illustrated what a bad idea that bit of code was. If we say we require an object implementing an interface, any object implementing that interface should work, and that right there is the Liskov Substitution Principle (LSP). Making sure that our interfaces really represented the required functionality enabled mocking and cleaned out some inappropriate knowledge embedded in code.

Another aspect of mocking (rolling mocks by hand rather than using a mocking framework) was that lazyness dictated that you didn’t want to implement a lot of things just to get a test working. So large interfaces got widdled down to just the methods required by the object taking in that interface. And that happens to be the Interface Segregation Principle (ISP).

A brand new pain: wiring up lots of SRP objects

Many of the above principles were only partially applied because they imposed a new pain and a whole new set of plumbing code that was tedious to write and maintain. The issue with separation of concerns and abstracting those concerns with interfaces was two-fold:

  1. You can’t new up an interface, so you needed factories everywhere
  2. Suddenly half the code seemed to be plumbing to wire up increasingly complex object graphs.

As I said, a lot of this was dealt with via Singleton’s and static factory methods. Both are really just degenerate implementations of the Service Locator Pattern, but we weren’t even aware of that. Since this plumbing had it’s own set of pain points, we often skipped the abstractions unless we really needed them to keep life simpler. Generally that meant we paid for that convenience in maintenance debt.

When I started writing code for Full Motion Racing, like every new project, I wanted to take the lessons learned from Printable and avoid the pains I had come across. I once again had need for object graphs that required access to singleton type service objects, but wanted to avoid statics as much as I could because of previous experience. I built a repository of objects that I could stuff instances into, providing me a Service Locator. Looking more into how other people were doing this, I came across talk about service locator still being an inappropriate coupling, since it itself is a dependency that had nothing to do with the responsibility of the consuming objects. Instead, services should be passed in at construction time whenever possible. Wow, really? That just seemed to take the pain of wiring up object graphs to unprecedented heights. That just couldn’t be how people were writing their code.

Wanting to understand how this way of building decoupled systems could actually work in the real world, I learned about the D of SOLID, or the Dependency Inversion Principle (DIP) also (and maybe more accurately) known as Inversion of Control. In my opinion, DIP may be the last principle mentioned, but in many ways it is the enabling plumbing without which the remaining principles are all well in theory but often feel worse than the disease they aim to cure.

Agile in action

Early use of IoC for Full Motion Racing still relied on a singleton container that factory classes could use to create their dependencies for creating transient objects. Only over time did I learn to trust the container to build up all my objects for me, and learned how to register factories to support lifestyles other than singleton via the container.

It wasn’t until I started at Bunkspeed, that I really saw IoC used properly and was able to reap the true benefits of this design pattern. If you’ve ever seen Bunkspeed’s HyperShot or HyperDrive in action you know that the visualizations they create are mind blowing, especially once you realize it’s real-time. Needless to say, sitting down with this codebase was initially intimidating. It still is the largest single codebase i’ve worked on. Maybe some of the distributed web apps I’ve worked on had more code in total, but they were disparate systems that largely had no interdependence. The main Visual Studio Solution I worked on at Bunkspeed was one application with hundreds of projects all loaded at once.

I assumed this meant lots of branching, lots of areas of expertise where certain people would be responsible for a subset of the code. This was not the case. Everyone was trusted and had authority to modify, extend and refactor everything as they required it. Making a change that required a change much lower down in the system could be made by anyone. Tests ran with every build in addition to a full set of CI servers building various configurations on each check-in. And it all ran smoother than any other shop I’d been in and was easier to ramp up on then other, far simpler projects.

Bunkspeed employs every one of the SOLID principles. Systems were composed of lots of small classes with very limited responsiblity, each being abstracted by an interface. One of the reasons for the many projects rather than fewer, larger projects was that areas of responsiblity were segregated, including their interfaces being in separate DLLs so that low level changes wouldn’t cause rebuilds of the entire system. Deep reaching refactors were not the norm but rather an indication that some inappropriate coupling had been done at some previous time and the refactor served to rectify the situation so that technical debt was accruing at much slower rates than is the norm. This was not some academic application of patterns from a book, but a truly agile development shop able to make significant changes with a small team in record time.

SOLID wasn’t some rule set put before me, but a natural evolution of trying to make development easier. It wasn’t until about 9 months ago that I read Robert C. Martin and Micah Martin’s Agile Principles, Patterns, and Practices in C# because it was sitting on a co-worker’s desk and for the first time I put names to the patterns I’d been applying this entire time.

Pain points of SOLID

There is definitely a different cost occured by applying SOLID to design. Most of this cost is in navigating the granularity of the design and in this tooling is an important aid to make this not only painless but more productive than the alternatives. The issue is that Visual Studio really isn’t all that well suited to navigating large object hierarchies, especially when using interfaces for abstraction. There are those who will point to this pain as evidence of SOLID being a bad practice. “I don’t want to have to get special tools just to do development.” But if tooling really is your enemy then you probably shouldn’t be working with a language like C# in the first place, because it already does rely on the many crutches VS offers up. Try writing C# without an IDE and you’ll quickly understand why people love the simple and terse syntax of Ruby and other dynamic Languages. Saying “well, Visual Studio is as much tooling as I accept, beyond that it’s ridiculous” is not an argument I can relate to, so if that’s the objection to SOLID, I’ll have to admit that I can’t convince you.

The issue just is that VS does not provide efficient ways to navigate from class to class and from interface to implementers and from implementers to usage of the interface. This is where ReSharper entered the picture for me, and after adding more keybindings for some of their extended commands, the number of classes and abstractions really becomes a non-issue. I simply couldn’t do development in C# without ReSharper at this point and that’s more because of Visual Studio’s shortcomings than anything else (eclipse, for example, provides most of the same features I rely on out of the box).

The other pain created by lack of tooling is that the larger surface area of code and the increased abstraction means that refactoring ususally touch more code than before, meaning that refactoring takes more work. However with proper tooling this also happens automatically. In addition, the flexibility of loose coupling introduced by SOLID generally makes code more pliable to refactoring.

Pain points of TDD

Finally there is the whole concept of TDD itself which to many seems like such a “making work” paradigm. Usually the examples of TDD failure pointed to are fragile tests and lost productivity due to writing tests instead of code.

Fragile tests refers to a simple change breaking a lot of tests and thereby incurring extra work instead of saving work. But if a simple change breaks a lot of tests, it’s a clear indication that your design needs another look, because there seems to be coupling that is getting in the way. The only time (ideally at least) that more than one test breaks is when you change the expected behavior of a class, and in that case, refactoring the expected behavior would have included the refactoring of all dependencies, including the tests.

The lost productivity argument only holds water if you are not responsible for extension or maintenance. And all you are doing then is pushing the work that should have been yours in the first place on the poor sucker that’s inheriting your legacy. It has been my experience that any time I find a bug or break something with a new feature, it’s because I didn’t have test coverage on the affected code. Which means I get to lose productivity when I am likely already under time pressue rather than up front.

Another part of the lost productivity argument usually refers to the amount of code required to test a particular object vs. just using that object in production code. Between DIP for wiring things up and the numerous mocking frameworks available to declare your expectations on dependencies, wiring up your test harness should be short. If there is a lot of plumbing required just to set up the test conditions something’s wrong with the design.

Not dogmatic, just providing guidance

Since I arrived at practicing the SOLID principles, without being aware of them, I just can’t see the dogma or beaurecracy in them. The recommendation in those 5 principles when taken as a whole is about making your life easier not forcing some philosophy down your throat.

If someone had put them front of me and told me “this is the way you must code, because good programmers do this“, I’d likely be dismissive as well. Being thrown into implementing some process from a whitepaper without having seen it in practice and understood why it was useful, has a high likelyhood of leading to improper implementation which makes the presumed failure a self-fullfilling prophecy. However if taken as guidance, there is a lot of useful information there that can make projects, especially large projects, a lot less painful.

1 to “How I became a SOLID advocate and didn’t even know it”

  1. Sebastian Kübeck says...

    Nice post!
    You are one of the few people that understand the reason why it is hard to argue against the SOLID principles.
    You are applying it on one way or another, if you want it of not.
    They are not something that someone made up. They came naturally.


    More on fragile tests, see:

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