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5.5: Look for the Contracts

  • Page ID
    32390
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    Intent Infer the proper use of a class interface by studying the way clients currently use it.

    Problem

    How do you determine which contracts a class supports? That is, how do you know what a class expects from its client classes in order to function as intended.

    This problem is difficult because:

    • Client/supplier relationships and contracts are only implicit in the code. Although interfaces are easy to extract from the code, they do not necessarily tell you how to use them properly. If not explicitly documented, it can be hard to guess (a) the proper sequence in which methods should be invoked, (b) the valid parameters that should be supplied, (c) which methods should be invoked by which clients, (d) which methods should be overridden by subclasses.

    • Typing and scoping rules often force programmers to compromise the provider’s interface. Moreover, encapsulation constructs (e.g., public/private declarations) are frequently misused to cope with implementation issues. For instance, database and user-interface toolkits often require the presence of public accessor methods.

    Yet, solving this problem is feasible because:

    • You have a good understanding of the system’s structure (for example obtained via Initial Understanding), so you can distinguish key classes from less important ones.

    • You trust that the class is being used properly by its clients and its subclasses.

    Solution

    Look for common programming idioms that expose the way clients make use of the class interface. Generalize your observations in the form of contracts, i.e., explicit declarations of what a class expects from its clients.

    Hints

    Your goal here is to understand how classes collaborate by exposing the way in which the interface to a class is used by its different clients. Since an exhaustive analysis of the code will probably exhaust you, you need some way to expose the contracts without stepping through every single line of code.

    Although contracts are only implicit in the code, most frequently there will be hints in the code that a particular relationship exists between various classes. These hints may manifest themselves as idioms particular to the programming language in use, conventions in use by the development team, or even common design patterns.

    What precisely you should look for will depend on the context, but here are a few examples that are generally useful:

    Use Your Tools. To get an overview of the relationships between classes, make the best use you can of the available tools. Although you could analyze the code by hand to infer relationships between classes, the process is tedious when applied to more than a couple of classes.

    Many organizations use design extraction or round-trip engineering tools to document their systems. You can easily generate a draft view of the system you are analyzing without investing too much time. However, be prepared to be flooded with “boxes and arrows” diagrams containing irrelevant detail. Nevertheless, design extraction tools let you specify filters and ways to interpret code, so once your mappings are defined you can reuse them over multiple extractions.

    The design overview can help you to identify key classes in the hierarchy (i.e., abstract classes that many other classes inherit from), part-whole relationships, and so on.

    Look for Key Methods. Focus on the most important methods. With your knowledge of the system you will recognize key methods based on their signature.

    • Method Names. Key methods are likely to bear intention revealing names [Bec97].

    • Parameter types. Methods taking parameters with types corresponding to key classes in the system are likely to be important.

    • Recurring parameter types. Parameters represent temporary associations between objects. When the same parameter types often recur in method signatures, they are likely to represent important associations.

    Look For Constructor Calls. To understand how and when to instantiate objects of a particular class, look for methods in other classes invoking the constructors.

    Pay particular attention to which parameters are passed to the constructor, and whether the parameters are shared or not. This will help you determine which instance variables are parts of the constructed object, and which are merely references to shared objects.

    Invocations of constructor methods may reveal a part-whole relationship. When a client stores the result of a constructor method in an attribute then this client will probably serve as the whole. On the other hand, when a client passes itself as an argument to a constructor method it is likely to act as a part.

    Invocations of a constructor method may also expose a Factory Method or even an Abstract Factory. If they do, then you know that you will be able extend the system by subclassing the class under study.

    Look for Template/Hook Methods. To understand how to specialize a class, look for (protected) methods that are overridden by subclasses, and identify the public methods that call them. The public, calling method is almost certainly a Template Method. Check the class hierarchy to determine whether the overridden method is abstract, in which case subclasses must implement it, or whether a default implementation is provided. In the latter case, it is a hook method, and subclasses may choose to override it or be happy with the default.

    For each template method check all other methods it invokes as these are likely to represent other hook methods.

    Look for Super Calls. To understand what assumptions a class makes about its subclasses, look for super calls. Super calls may be used by subclasses to extend an inherited method in an ad hoc way. But very often super calls express the fact that a particular method must not be overridden by subclasses unless the overridden method is explicitly invoked by a super call.

    This idiom is heavily used in Java by classes that define multiple constructors. Any subclass of java.lang.Exception, for example, is expected to define both a default constructor and a constructor that takes a String argument. Those constructors should do nothing in particular except invoke the super constructor so that the exception subclass will be correctly initialized.

    Tradeoffs

    Pros

    • Reliable. You can trust the source code more than the documentation.

    Cons

    • Bad habits linger. Just because certain practices appear in the code doesn’t mean that’s the right way to do things. The contracts that clients and subclasses adhere to are not necessarily the ones that the class actually supports.

    • Noise. Browsing the source code is like mining — once in a while you will find a gem but you will have to dig through a lot of dirt first. By focusing your attention on idiomatic usages, you should be able to reduce the noise factor to a large degree.

    Known Uses

    Many researchers have investigated ways to analyze how clients use a class interface. For instance, Brown [Bro96], Florijn [FMvW97] and Wuyts [Wuy98] have all shown that it is possible to find symptoms of design patterns in code. Also, Schauer et al. [SRMK99] report about a technique to semi-automatically detect hook methods based on analysis of overridden methods. The latter technique scales quite well, due to their particular way of visualizing class hierarchies and emphasizing classes where many methods are overridden, hence are likely to define hook methods. Additionally, Steyaert et al. [SLMD96] have shown that it is possible to capture how subclasses depend on their superclasses (they have named these dependencies reuse contracts) and afterwards detect potential conflicts when the superclasses gets changed.

    What Next

    One way to validate the contracts you have identified is to Step Through the Execution. Conversely, as you Step Through the Execution you will uncover collaborations between various objects. At that point you may Look for the Contracts that govern those collaborations.

    If the code is hard to read, you may wish to Refactor to Understand before you Look for the Contracts. To understand how the contracts evolved to their current state, you might Learn from the Past.


    This page titled 5.5: Look for the Contracts is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Serge Demeyer, Stéphane Ducasse, Oscar Nierstrasz.

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