Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Avoiding Coincidental Cohesion

Given that Coincidental Cohesion is bad for our code base so obviously we want to avoid writing utilities packages. Fortunately it is mostly quite easy to do so. It requires vigilance on our part. Utilities packages are rarely planned. More often we are writing a piece of business functionality when we find ourselves in need of some low level functionality. It doesn't fit in the application package we're working on, perhaps we suspect that it might be more generally useful, so we need somewhere to put it.

The important thing is to recognise and resist the temptation of the Utilities package. The name itself (and similarly vague synonyms like helper or utils) should be a red flag. When we find ourselves about to type create or replace package utilities we need to stop and think: what would be a better name for this package? Consider whether there are related functions we might end up needing? Suppose we're about to write a function to convert a date into Unix epoch string. It doesn't take much imagine to think we might need a similar function to convert a Unix timestamp into a date. We don't need to write that function now but let's start a package dedicated to Time functions instead of a miscellaneous utils package.

Looking closely at the programs which comprise the DBMS_UTILITY package it is obviously unfair to describe them as a random selection. In fact that there seven or eight groups of related procedures.

DB Info

  • DBLINK_ARRAY Table Type
  • DB_VERSION Procedure
  • PORT_STRING Function
Runtime Messages
Object Management
  • COMMA_TO_TABLE Procedures
  • COMPILE_SCHEMA Procedure
  • INVALIDATE Procedure
  • TABLE_TO_COMMA Procedures
  • VALIDATE Procedure
Object Info (Object Management?)
  • LNAME_ARRAY Table Type
  • NAME_ARRAY Table Type
  • NUMBER_ARRAY Table Type
  • UNCL_ARRAY Table Type
  • CANONICALIZE Procedure
  • GET_DEPENDENCY Procedure
  • NAME_RESOLVE Procedure
  • NAME_TOKENIZE Procedure
Session Info
SQL Manipulation
  • EXPAND_SQL_TEXT Procedure
  • GET_SQL_HASH Function
Statistics (deprecated))
  • ANALYZE_SCHEMA Procedure
  • GET_CPU_TIME Function
  • GET_TIME Function
  • GET_HASH_VALUE Function
  • IS_BIT_SET Function

We can see an alternative PL/SQL code suite, with several highly cohesive packages. But there will be some procedures which are genuinely unrelated to anything else. The four procedures in the Unclassified section above are examples. But writing a miscellaneous utils package for these programs is still wrong. There are better options.

  1. Find a home. It's worth considering whether we already have a package which would fit the new function. Perhaps WAIT_ON_PENDING_DML() should have gone in DBMS_TRANSACTION; perhaps IS_BIT_SET() properly belongs in UTL_RAW.
  2. A package of their own. Why not? It may seem extravagant to have a package with a single procedure but consider DBMS_DG with its lone procedure INITIATE_FS_FAILOVER(). The package delivers the usual architectural benefits plus it provides a natural home for related procedures we might discover a need for in the future.
  3. Standalone procedure. Again, why not? We are so conditioned to think of a PL/SQL program as a package that we forget it can be just a Procedure or Function. Some programs are suited to standalone implementation.

So avoiding the Utilities package requires vigilance. Code reviews can help here. Preventing the Utilities package becoming entrenched is crucial: once we have a number of packages dependent on a Utilities package it is pretty hard to get rid of it. And once it becomes a fixture in the code base developers will consider it more acceptable to add procedures to it.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

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Utilities - the Coincidental Cohesion anti-pattern

One way to understand the importance of cohesion is to examine an example of a non-cohesive package, one exhibiting a random level of cohesion. The poster child for Coincidental Cohesion is the utility or helper package. Most applications will have one or more of these, and Oracle's PL/SQL library is no exception. DBMS_UTILITY has 37 distinct procedures and functions (i.e. not counting overloaded signatures) in 11gR2 and 38 in 12cR1 (and R2). Does DBMS_UTILITY deliver any of the benefits the PL/SQL Reference says packages deliver?

Easier Application Design?

One of the characteristics of utilities packages is that they aren't designed in advance. They are the place where functionality ends up because there is no apparently better place for it. Utilities occur when we are working on some other piece of application code; we discover a gap in the available functionality such as hashing a string. When this happens we generally need the functionality now: there's little benefit to deferring the implementation until later. So we write a GET_HASH_VALUE() function,x stick it in our utilities package and proceed with the task at hand.

The benefit of this approach is we keep our focus on the main job, delivering business functionality. The problem is, we never go back and re-evaluate the utilities. Indeed, now there is business functionality which depends on them: refactoring utilities introduces risk. Thus the size of the utilities package slowing increases, one tactical implementation at a time.

Hidden Implementation Details?

Another characteristic of utility functions is that they tend not to share concrete implementations. Often a utilities package beyond a certain size will have groups of procedures with related functionality. It seems probable that DBMS_UTILITY.ANALYZE_DATABASE(), DBMS_UTILITY.ANALYZE_PART_OBJECT() and DBMS_UTILITY.ANALYZE_SCHEMA() share some code. So there are benefits to co-locating them in the same package. But it is unlikely that CANONICALIZE() , CREATE_ALTER_TYPE_ERROR_TABLE() and GET_CPU_TIME() have much code in common.

Added Functionality?

Utility functions are rarely part of a specific business process. They are usually called on a one-off basis rather than being chained together. So there is no state to be maintained across different function calls.

Better Performance?

For the same reason there is no performance benefit from a utilities package. Quite the opposite. When there is no relationship between the functions we cannot make predictions about usage. We are not likely to call EXPAND_SQL_TEXT() right after calling PORT_STRING(). So there is no benefit in loading the former into memory when we call the latter. In fact the performance of EXPAND_SQL_TEXT() is impaired because we have to load the whole DBMS_UTILITY package into the shared pool, plus it uses up a larger chunk of memory until it gets aged out. Although to be fair, in these days of abundant RAM, some unused code in the library cache need not be our greatest concern. But whichever way we bounce it, it's not a boon.


Privileges on utility packages is a neutral concern. Often utilities won't be used outside the owning schema. In cases where we do need to make them more widely available we're probably granting access on some procedures that the grantee will never use.


From an architectural perspective, modularity is the prime benefit of cohesion. A well-designed library should be frictionless and painless to navigate. The problem with random assemblages like DBMS_UTILITY is that it's not obvious what functions it may contain. Sometimes we write a piece of code we didn't need to.

The costs of utility packages

Perhaps your PL/SQL code base has a procedure like this:
create or replace procedure run_ddl
  ( p_stmt in varchar2)
  pragma autonomous_transaction;
  v_cursor number := dbms_sql.open_cursor;
  n pls_integer;
  dbms_sql.parse(v_cursor, p_stmt, dbms_sql.native);
  n := dbms_sql.execute(v_cursor);
  when others then
    if dbms_sql.is_open(v_cursor) then
    end if;
end run_ddl;

It is a nice piece of code for executing DDL statements. The autonomous_transaction pragma prevents the execution of arbitrary DML statements (by throwing ORA-06519), so it's quite safe. The only problem is, it re-implements DBMS_UTILITY.EXEC_DDL_STATEMENT().

Code duplication like this is a common side effect of utility packages. Discovery is hard because their program units are clumped together accidentally. Nobody sets out to deliberately re-write DBMS_UTILITY.EXEC_DDL_STATEMENT(), it happens because not enough people know to look in that package before they start coding a helper function. Redundant code is a nasty cost of Coincidental Cohesion. Besides the initial wasted effort of writing an unnecessary program there are the incurred costs of maintaining it, testing it, the risk of introducing bugs or security holes. Plus each additional duplicated program makes our code base a little harder to navigate.

Fortunately there are tactics for avoiding or dealing with this. Find out more.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

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