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Data and Behaviour

22nd September 2013 by Luke Morton

This is my take on data and behaviour. The two intertwinning components that make our programs.

In OOP madland behaviour and data are combined into a single entity. Yes that's right, an object. To an OOP magician this is a self contained unit that can be passed around a program but ideally doesn't leak implementation details.

The above example for instance doesn't leak how it formulates the full name of a User or how it works out their age. It simply provides two methods #full_name and #age that can be used by related logic to find these values.

Personally I see that example as leaky still. Before I go into the whys I first want to explain the difference between data and behaviour.

Data is data. It is information that never changes. 23 is an integer. It's value is always 23. It never changes. It is data.

20+3 will also always equal 23 as long as + always behaves the same but it isn't data. It's behaviour. It does something. It calculates a result which in most normal places will produce the integer 23 that as explained above is data. Let's work on some definitions.

Data is a value that doesn't change

This works. 'Luke' is always 'Luke'. It doesn't suddenly change to 'Bob'.

Behaviour takes data and produces more data

Based on the example of + when given two integers produces a third integer this definition fits.

Objects are a mess

So bringing this back to OOP madland some wizards choose to mix data and behaviour into one magical object. The User class defined above is given data on construction and produces an object which then can be used to work out some data that didn't exist on construction.

The values 'Luke Morton' and 23 were never passed to the #new method of User. They were produced by behaviour contained within the object.

How is this a mess? Put simply it's because data is tied to behaviour. And behaviour happens at a later stage to the data being passed into it. The setbacks include:

  • Dependencies on multiple method names per object. Bigger exposure means more potential breaking points when methods are renamed or behaviour altered but not updated in implementation. Not to mention the added code bloat of multiple call sites which also leads to debugging complexity.
  • Delayed behaviour means side effects can happen at anytime when called throughout your application. Database calls might error in the view part of your application when triggered by a method call to a model.
  • Data is tied within the implementation of the model rather than being a more common data type like a hash.

Let's solve each of these bug bears.

Separating data and behaviour

We can use the same solution found in a previous post on the single resposibility principle.

This object only has one public method, #to_hash. Only one implementation to leak. It takes a hash of data and produces another. And it produces it all at the first call time.

This also solves the issue of potential side effects. One call site means you can trap potential issues all in one place like a controller with a try..catch (begin..rescue).

Guess what? The third problem is solved too. Since data is passed around as a hash. No object with potential contraints on data access (think no direct access to initial values) can hold us back. We can do much more with a hash as it's a common data type. External libraries can consume hashes far easier than bespoke objects common to fewer libraries.

I'll talk more in the future about the versatilities of using hashes to store data.

Edit: I've now talked more about using hashes for data.

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