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9.1: Redistribute Responsibilities

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    You are responsible for reengineering the information system that manages all employee records for a large public administration. Due to recent political upheavals, you know that there will be many changes required in the system to cope with privatization, new laws, and new regulations, but you do not know exactly what they will be. The existing system consists of a nominally object-oriented reimplementation of an older procedural system. The code contains many pseudo-objects: data containers masquerading as objects, and big, procedural “god classes” that implement most of a the logic of individual subsystems. One class, called TaxRevision2000, has a single method consisting essentially of a case statement that is 3000 lines long.

    As long as the system was relatively stable, this design posed no particular problems, but now you see that even relatively modest changes to system require months of planning, testing and debugging due to weak encapsulation of data. You are convinced that migrating to a more object- oriented design will make the system more robust and easier to adapt to future requirements. But how do you know where the problems lie? Which responsibilities should be redistributed? Which data containers should you redesign, which ones should you wrap, and which ones are better left alone?


    • Data containers (objects that just provide access to data, but no own behavior) are a simple and convenient way to share information between many subsystems. Among others, data containers are the easiest way to provide access to database entities.
    • However, data containers expose the data representation, hence are difficult to change when many application components depend on them. Consequently, a proliferation of data containers leads to fragile navigation code in the implementation of business logic.
    • It is hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Many designers received a training in functional decomposition and will use the same habits when doing an object design.
    • However, functional decomposition tends to generate god classes, i.e., big classes that do all of the work and have a myriad of tiny provider classes around of it. God classes are hard to extend, modify or subclass because such changes affect large numbers of other methods or instance variables.


    This cluster deals with problems of misplaced responsibilities. The two extreme cases are data containers, classes that are nothing but glorified data structures and have almost no identifiable responsibilities, and god classes, procedural monsters that assume too many responsibilities.

    Although there are sometimes borderlines cases where data containers and god classes may be tolerated, particularly if they are buried in a stable part of the system which will not change, generally they are a sign of a fragile design.

    Data containers lead to violations of the Law of Demeter (LOD) [LHR88]. In a nutshell, the Law of Demeter provides a number of design guidelines to reduce coupling between distantly-related classes. Although the Law of Demeter has various forms, depending on whether one focusses on objects or classes, and depending on which programming language is being used, the law essentially states that methods should only send messages to instance variables, method arguments, self, super, and the receiver class.

    Violations of the Law of Demeter typically take the form of navigation code in which an indirect client accesses an indirect provider by accessing either an instance variable or an acquaintance of an intermediate provider. The indirect client and provider are thereby unnecessarily coupled, making future enhancements more difficult to realize (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). The intermediate provider may take the form of a data container or opens its encapsulation by providing accessor methods. Designs with many data containers present often suffer from complex navigation code in which indirect clients may have to navigate through a chain of intermediates to reach the indirect provider.

    An indirect client violates the Law of Demeter.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): An indirect client violates the Law of Demeter by navigating through an intermediate provider to an indirect provider, unnecessarily coupling the two.

    Whereas data containers have too few responsibilities, god classes assume too many. A god class can be a single class that implements an entire subsystem, consisting of thousands of lines of code and hundreds of methods and instance variables. Particularly vicious god classes consist of only static instance variables and methods, i.e., all data and behavior have class scope, and the god class is never instantiated. Such god classes are purely procedural beasts, and are object-oriented in name only.

    Occasionally some procedural classes known as utility classes are convenient. The best known examples are object-oriented interfaces to math libraries, or collections of algorithms. Real god classes, however, are not libraries, but complete applications or subsystems that controls the entire application execution.

    God classes and data containers often occur together, with the god class assuming all the control of the application, and treating other classes as glorified data structures. Since they assume too many responsibilities, god classes are hard to understand and maintain. Incremental modification and extension of a god class through inheritance is next to impossible due to the complexity of its interface and the absence of clear subclassing contract.

    This cluster provides a number of patterns to eliminate data containers and god classes by redistributing responsibilities and thereby improving encapsulation.

    • Move Behavior Close to Data moves behavior defined in indirect clients to an intermediate data container to make it more “object-like”. This pattern not only decouples indirect clients from the contents of the data container, but also typically eliminates duplicated code occurring in multiple clients of the data container.
    • Eliminate Navigation Code is technically very similar to Move Behavior Close to Data in terms of the reengineering steps, but is rather different in its intent. This pattern focusses on redistributing responsibilities down chains of data containers to eliminate navigation code.
    • Split Up God Class refactors a procedural god class into a number of simple, more cohesive classes by moving all data to external data containers, applying Move Behavior Close to Data to promote the data containers to objects, and finally removing or deprecating the facade that remains.
    These three patterns redistribute responsibilities by moving behavior close to data.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Data containers are the clearest sign of misplaced responsibilities. These three patterns redistribute responsibilities by moving behavior close to data.

    This page titled 9.1: Redistribute Responsibilities 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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