Monday, March 14, 2016

Introducing the SOLID design principles

PL/SQL programming standards tend to focus on layout (case of keywords, indentation, etc), naming conventions, and implementation details (such as use of cursors).  These are all important things, but they don't address questions of design. How easy is it to use the written code?  How easy is it to test? How easy will it be to maintain? Is it robust? Is it secure?

Simply put, there are no agreed design principles for PL/SQL. So it's hard to define what makes a well-designed PL/SQL program.

The SOLID principles

It's different for object-oriented programming. OOP has more design principles and paradigms and patterns than you can shake a stick at. Perhaps the most well-known are the SOLID principles, which were first mooted by Robert C. Martin, AKA Uncle Bob, back in 1995 (although it was Michael Feathers who coined the acronym).

Although Martin put these principles together for Object-Oriented code, they draw on a broader spectrum of programming practice. So they are transferable, or at least translatable, to the other forms of modular programming. For instance, PL/SQL.

Single Responsibility Principle

This is the foundation stone of modular programming: a program unit should do only one thing. Modules which do only one thing are easier to understand, easier to test and generally more versatile. Higher level procedures can be composed of lower level ones. Sometimes it can be hard to define what "one thing" means in a given context, but some of the other principles provide clarity. Martin's formulation is that there should be just one axis of change: there's just one set of requirements which, if modified or added to, would lead to a change in the package.

Open/closed Principle

The slightly obscure name conceals a straightforward proposal. It means program units are closed to modification but open to extension. If we need to add new functionality to a package, we create a new procedure rather than modifying an existing one. (Betrand Meyer, the father of Design By Contract programming, originally proposed it; in OO programming this principle is implemented through inheritance or polymorphism.) Clearly we must fix bugs in existing code. Also it doesn't rule out refactoring: we can tune the implementation providing we don't change the behaviour. This principle mainly applies to published program units, ones referenced by other programs in Production. Also the principle can be looser when the code is being used within the same project, because we can negotiate changes with our colleagues.

Liskov Substitution Principle

This is a real Computer Science-y one, good for dropping in code reviews. Named for Barbara Liskov it defines rules for behavioural sub-typing. If a procedure has a parameter defined as a base type it must be able to take an instance of any sub-type without changing the behaviour of the program. So a procedure which uses
IS OF
to test the type of a passed parameter and do something different is violating Liskov Substitution. Obviously we don't make much use of Inheritance in PL/SQL programming, so this Principle is less relevant than in other programming paradigms.

Interface Segregation Principle

This principle is about designing fine-grained interfaces. It is a extension of the Single Responsibility Principle. Instead of build one huge package which contains all the functions relating to a domain build several smaller, more cohesive packages. For example Oracle's Advanced Queuing subsystem comprises five packages, to manage different aspects of AQ. Users who write to or read from queues have
DBMS_AQ
; users who manage queues and subscribers have
DBMS_AQADM
.

Dependency Inversion Principle

Interactions between programs should be through abstract interfaces rather than concrete ones. Abstraction means the implementation of one side of the interface can change without changing the other side. PL/SQL doesn't support Abstract objects in the way that say Java does. To a certain extent Package Specifications provide a layer of abstraction but there can only be one concrete implementation. Using Types to pass data between Procedures is an interesting idea, which we can use to decouple data providers and data consumers in a useful fashion.

Applicability of SOLID principles in PL/SQL

So it seems like we can apply SOLID practices to PL/SQL.  True, some Principles fit better than others. But we have something which we might use to distinguish good design from bad when it comes to PL/SQL interfaces.

The SOLID principles apply mainly to individual modules. Is there something similar we can use for designing module groups? Why, yes there is. I'm glad you asked.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

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