Sunday, April 03, 2016

Three more principles

Here are some more principles which can help us design better programs. These principles aren't part of an organized theory, and they're aren't particularly related to any programming paradigm. But each is part of the canon, and each is about the relationship between a program's interface and its implementation.

The Principle Of Least Astonishment

Also known as the Principle of Least Surprise, the rule is simple: programs should do what we expect them to do. This is more than simply honouring the contract of the interface. It means complying with accepted conventions of our programming. In PL/SQL programming there is a convention that functions are read-only, or at least do not change database state. Another such convention is that low-level routines do not execute COMMIT statements; transaction management is the prerogative of the program at the top of the call stack, which may be interacting directly with a user or may be an autonomous batch process.

Perhaps the most common flouting of the Principle Of Least Astonishment is this:

      when others then

It is reasonable to expect that a program will hurl an exception if something as gone awry. Unfortunately, we are not as astonished as we should be when we find a procedure with an exception handle which swallows any and every exception.

Information Hiding Principle 

Another venerable principle, this one was expounded by David Parnas in 1972. It requires that a calling program should not need to know anything about the implementation of a called program. The definition of the interface should be sufficient. It is the cornerstone of black-box programming. The virtue of Information Hiding is that knowledge of internal details inevitably leads to coupling between the called and calling routines: when we change the called program we need to change the caller too. We honour this principle any time we call a procedure in a package owned by another schema, because the EXECUTE privilege grants visibility of the package specification (the interface) but not the body (the implementation).

The Law Of Leaky Abstractions

Joel Spolsky coined this one: "All non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky." No matter how hard we try, some details of the implementation of a called program will be exposed to the calling programming, and will need to be acknowledged. Let's consider this interface again:

    function get_employee_recs
        ( p_deptno in number ) 
        return emp_refcursor;

We know it returns a result set of employee records. But in what order? Sorting by EMPNO would be pretty useless, given that it is a surrogate key (and hence without meaning). Other candidates - HIREDATE, SAL - will be helpful for some cases and irrelevant for others. One approach is to always return an unsorted set and leave it to the caller to sort the results; but it is usually more efficient to sort records in a query rather than a collection. Another approach would be to write several functions - get_employee_recs_sorted_hiredate(), get_employee_recs_sorted_sal() - but that leads to a bloated interface which is hard to understand. Tricky.


Principles are guidelines. There are tensions between them. Good design is a matter of trade-offs. We cannot blindly follow Information Hiding and ignore the Leaky Abstractions. We need to exercise our professional judgement (which is a good thing).

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

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