Sunday, April 03, 2016

It's all about the interface

When we talk about program design we're mainly talking about interface design. The interface is the part of our program that the users interact with. Normally discussion of UI focuses on GUI or UX, that is, the interface with the end user of our application.

But developers are users too.

Another developer writing a program which calls a routine in my program is a user of my code (and, I must remember, six months after I last touched the program, I am that other developer). A well-designed interface is frictionless: it can be slotted into a calling program without too much effort. A poor interface breaks the flow: it takes time and thought to figure it out. In the worst case we have to scramble around in the documentation or the source code.

Formally, an interface is the mechanism which allows the environment (the user or agent) to interact with the system (the program). What the system actually does is the implementation: the interface provides access to the implementation without the environment needing to understand the details. In PL/SQL programs the implementation will usually contain a hefty chunk of SQL. The interface mediates access to data.

An interface is a contract. It specifies what the caller must do and what the called program will do in return. Take this example:

function get_employee_recs
     ( p_deptno in number )
     return emp_refcursor;

The contract says, if the calling program passes a valid DEPTNO the function will return records for all the employees in that department, as a strongly-typed ref cursor. Unfortunately the contract doesn't say what will happen if the calling program passes an invalid DEPTNO. Does the function return an empty set or throw an exception? The short answer is we can't tell. We must rely on convention or the document, which is an unfortunate gap in the PL/SQL language; the Java keyword throws is quite neat in this respect.

The interface is here to help

The interface presents an implementation of business logic. The interface is a curated interpretation, and doesn't enable unfettered access. Rather, a well-designed interface helps a developer use the business logic in a sensible fashion. Dan Lockton calls this Design With Intent: Good design expresses how a product should be used. It doesn't have to be complicated. We can use simple control mechanisms which to help other developers use our code properly.

Restriction of access

Simply, the interface restricts access to certain functions or denies it altogether. Only certain users are allowed to view salaries, and even fewer to modify them. The interface to Employee records should separate salary functions from more widely-available functions. Access restriction can be implemented in a hard fashion, using architectural constructs (views, packages, schemas) or in a soft fashion (using VPD or Data Vault). The hard approach benefits from clarity, the soft approach offers flexibility.

Forcing functions

If certain things must be done in a specific order then the interface should only offer a method which enforces the correct order. For instance, if we need to insert records into a parent table and a child table in the same transaction (perhaps a super-type/sub-type implementation of a foreign key arc) a helpful interface will only expose a procedure which inserts both records in the correct order.


A well-design interface prevents its users from making obvious mistakes. The signature of a procedure should be clear and unambiguous. Naming is important. If a parameter presents a table attribute the parameter name should echo the column name: p_empno is better than p_id. Default values for parameters should lead developers to sensible and safe choices. If several parameters have default values they must play nicely together: accepting all the defaults should not generate an error condition.


Abstraction is just another word for interface. It allows us to focus on the details of our own code without need to understand the concrete details of the other code we depend upon. That's why good interfaces are the key to managing large codebases.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

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