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Leading-Edge Java
Design Principles from Design Patterns
A Conversation with Erich Gamma, Part III
by Bill Venners
June 6, 2005

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When to think about interfaces

Bill Venners: On the subject of interfaces, the GoF book includes some UML class diagrams. UML diagrams seem to mix interface and implementation. When you look at it, you often see the design of the code. It isn't necessarily obvious what's API and what's implementation. If you look at JavaDoc, by contrast, you see the interfaces. Another place I see the lack of differentiation between interface and implementation is XP. XP talks about the code. You're changing this amorphous body of code with test- driven development. When should the designer think about interfaces versus the whole mass of code?

Erich Gamma: You might think differently when you design an application than when you design a platform. When you design a platform, you have to care at every moment about what to expose as part of your API, and what to keep internal. Today's refactoring support makes it trivial to change names so you have to be careful not to change published APIs by accident. This goes beyond just defining which types are published. You also have to answer questions like: do you allow clients to subclass from this type? If you do, it imposes big obligations. If you look at the Eclipse API, we try to make it very explicit whether we intend that clients subclass from a type. Also with Jim des Rivières [5] we have an API advocate in our team. He helps us not only to comply with our rules but even more importantly Jim helps us to tell a consistent story with our APIs.

When it comes to applications, even there you have abstractions that have multiple variations. For your design you want to come up with key abstractions, and then you want to have your other code just interact with those abstractions, not with the specific implementations. Then you have flexibility. When a new variation of an abstraction comes up, your code still works. Regarding XP, as I mentioned earlier, the modern refactoring tools allow you to introduce interfaces into existing code easily and therefore is consistent with XP.

Bill Venners: So for an application it's the same thought process as for a platform, but on a smaller scale. Another difference is that it is easy for me if I have control of all the clients to this interface I can update them if I need to change the interface.

Erich Gamma: Yes, for an application it is the same thought process as for a platform. You also want to build an application so that it lasts. Reacting to a changing requirement shouldn't ripple through the entire app. The fact that you have control over all the clients helps. Once you have given out your code and you no longer have access to all the clients, then you're in the API business.

Bill Venners: Even if those clients are written by a different group in the same company.

Erich Gamma: Even there, absolutely.

Bill Venners: So it sounds like thinking about interfaces becomes more important as the project scales up. If the project is just two or three people, it is not quite as important to think about the interfaces, because if you need to change them you change them. The refactoring support tools...

Erich Gamma: ... will do it all for you.

Bill Venners: But if it is a 100-person team, that means people will be partitioned into groups. Different groups will have different areas of responsibility.

Erich Gamma: A practice that we follow is to assign a component to a group. The group is responsible for the component and publishes its API. Dependencies are then defined through API. We also resist the temptation to define friend relationships, that is, where some components are more equal than others and are allowed to use internals. In Eclipse all components are equal. For example, the Java development tool plug-ins have no special privileges and use the same APIs as all other plug-ins.

Once you have published an API then it is your responsibility to keep them stable. Otherwise you will break the other components and nobody is able to make progress. Having stable APIs is a key to making progress in a project of this size.

In a closed environment as you have described it you have more flexibility when it comes to making changes. For example, you can use the Java deprecation support to allow other teams to gradually catch-up with your changes. In such an environment you can remove deprecated methods after some agreed on time-interval. This might not be possible in a fully exposed platform. There deprecated methods cannot be removed since you may still break a client somewhere.

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