Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Single Responsibility principle

The Single Responsibility principle is the foundation of modular programming, and is probably the most important principle in the SOLID set. Many of the other principles flow from it.

It is quite simple: a program unit should do only one thing. A procedure should implement a single task; a package should gather together procedures which solve a set of related tasks. Consider the Oracle library package UTL_FILE. Its responsibility is quite clear: it is for working with external files. It implements all the operations necessary to work with OS files: opening them, closing them, reading and writing, etc. It defines a bespoke suite of exceptions too.

Each procedure in the package has a clear responsibility too. For instance, fclose() closes a single referenced file whereas fclose_all() closes all open files. Now, the package designers could have implemented that functionality as a single procedure, with different behaviours depending on whether the file parameter was populated or unpopulated. This might seem a simpler implementation, because it would be one fewer procedure. But the interface has actually become more complicated: essentially we have a flag parameter, which means we need to know a little bit more about the internal processing of fclose(). It would have made the package just a little bit harder to work with without saving any actual code.

Of course, it's pretty easy to define the Single Responsibility of a low level feature like file handling. We might think there are some superficially similarities with displaying information to the screen but it's fairly obvious that these are unrelated and so we need tow packages, UTL_FILE and DBMS_OUTPUT. When it comes to our own code, especially higher level packages, it can be harder to define the boundaries. At the broadest level we can define domains - SALES, HR, etc. But we need more than one package per domain: how do we decide the responsibilities of indvidual pacakages?

Robert C Martin defines the Single Responsibility principle as: "A class should have only one reason to change." Reasons for change can be many and various. In database applications dependence on tables is a primary one. So procedures which work a common set of table may well belong together. But there are at least two sets of privileges for data: reading and manipulating. So it's likely we will need a package which gathers together reporting type queries which can be granted to read-only users and a package which executes DML statements which can be granted to more privileged users. Maybe our domain requires special processing, such as handling sensitive data; procedures for implementing that business logic will belong in separate packages.

Single responsibility becomes a matrix, with dependencies along one access and audience of users along another.

The advantages of Singel Responsibility should be obvious. It allows us to define a cohesive package, collecting together all the related functionality which makes it easy for others reuse it. It also allows us to define private routines in a package body, which reduces the amount of code we have to maintain while giving us a mechanism for preventing other developers from using it. Restricting the features to a single responsibility means unrelated functions are not coupled together. This gives a better granularity for granting the least privileges necessary to users of our code.

Part of the Designing PL/SQL Programs series

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