Scala traits implementation and interoperability. Part II: Traits linearization

This is a continuation of Scala traits implementation and interoperability. Part I: Basics. Dreadful diamond problem can be mitigated using Scala traits and a process called linearization. Take the following example:

trait Base {
    def msg = "Base"
trait Foo extends Base {
    abstract override def msg = "Foo -> " + super.msg
trait Bar extends Base {
    abstract override def msg = "Bar -> " + super.msg
trait Buzz extends Base {
    abstract override def msg = "Buzz -> " + super.msg
class Riddle extends Base with Foo with Bar with Buzz {
    override def msg = "Riddle -> " + super.msg

Now let me ask you a little question: what is the output of (new Riddle).msg?

  1. Riddle -> Base
  2. Riddle -> Buzz -> Base
  3. Riddle -> Foo -> Base
  4. Riddle -> Buzz -> Bar -> Foo -> Base

It’s not (1) because Base.msg is overriden by all traits we extend, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. But it’s also not (2) and (3). One might expect that either Buzz or Foo is printed, remembering that you can stack traits and either first or last (actually: last) wins. So why Riddle -> Buzz -> Base is incorrect? Isn’t Buzz.msg calling super.msg and Buzz explicitly states Base being it’s parent? There is a bit of magic here. When you stack multiple traits as we did (extends Base with Foo with Bar with Buzz) Scala compiler orders them (linearizes) so that there is always one path from every class to the parent (Base). The order is determined by the reversed order of traits mixed in (last one wins and becomes first). Why would you ever…? Turns out stackable traits are great for implementing several layers of decoration around real object. You can easily add decorators and move them around. We have a simple calculator abstraction and one implementation:

trait Calculator {
    def increment(x: Int): Int
class RealCalculator extends Calculator {
    override def increment(x: Int) = {
        x + 1

We came up with three aspect we would like to selectively apply depending on some circumstances: logging all increment() invocations, caching and validation. First let’s define all of them:

trait Logging extends Calculator {
    abstract override def increment(x: Int) = {
        println(s"Logging: $x")
trait Caching extends Calculator {
    abstract override def increment(x: Int) =
        if(x < 10) {    //silly caching...
            println(s"Cache hit: $x")
            x + 1
        } else {
            println(s"Cache miss: $x")
trait Validating extends Calculator {
    abstract override def increment(x: Int) =
        if(x >= 0) {
            println(s"Validation OK: $x")
        } else
            throw new IllegalArgumentException(x.toString)

Creating "raw" calculator is of course possible:

val calc = new RealCalculator
calc: RealCalculator = RealCalculator@bbd9e6
scala> calc increment 17
res: Int = 18

But we are free to mix-in as many trait mixins as we want, in any order:

scala> val calc = new RealCalculator with Logging with Caching with Validating
calc: RealCalculator with Logging with Caching with Validating = $anon$1@1aea543
scala> calc increment 17
Validation OK: 17
Cache miss: 17
Logging: 17
res: Int = 18
scala> calc increment 9
Validation OK: 9
Cache hit: 9
res: Int = 10

See how subsequent mixins kick in? Of course each mixin can skip super call, e.g. on cache hit or validation failure. Just to be clear here - it doesn't matter that each of decorating mixins have Calculator defined as a base trait. super.increment() is always routed to next trait in stack (previous one in the class declaration). That means super is more dynamic and dependant on target usage rather than declaration. We will explain this later but first another example: let's put logging before caching so no matter whether there was cache hit or miss, we always get logging. Moreover we "disable" validation by simply skipping it:

scala> class VerboseCalculator extends RealCalculator with Caching with Logging
defined class VerboseCalculator
scala> val calc = new VerboseCalculator
calc: VerboseCalculator = VerboseCalculator@f64dcd
scala> calc increment 42
Logging: 42
Cache miss: 42
res: Int = 43
scala> calc increment 4
Logging: 4
Cache hit: 4
res: Int = 5

I promised to explain how stacking works underneath. You should be really curious how this "funky" super is implemented as it cannot simply rely on invokespecial bytecode instruction, used with normal super. Unfortunately it's complex, but worth to know and understand, especially when stacking doesn't work as expected. Calculator and RealCalculator compile pretty much exactly to what you might have expected:

public interface Calculator {
    int increment(int i);
public class RealCalculator implements Calculator {
    public int increment(int x) {
        return x + 1;

But how would the following class be implemented?

class FullBlownCalculator
    extends RealCalculator
       with Logging
       with Caching
       with Validating

Let's start from the class itself:

public class FullBlownCalculator extends RealCalculator implements Logging, Caching, Validating {
    public int increment(int x) {
        return Validating$class.increment(this, x);
    public int Validating$$super$increment(int x) {
        return Caching$class.increment(this, x);
    public int Caching$$super$increment(int x) {
        return Logging$class.increment(this, x);
    public int Logging$$super$increment(int x) {
        return super.increment(x);

Can you see what's going on here? Before I show the implementations of all these *$class classes, spend a little bit of time confronting class declaration (trait order in particular) and these awkward *$$super$* methods. Here is the missing piece that will allow us to connect all the dots:

public abstract class Logging$class {
    public static int increment(Logging that, int x) {
        return that.Logging$$super$increment(x);
public abstract class Caching$class {
    public static int increment(Caching that, int x) {
        return that.Caching$$super$increment(x);
public abstract class Validating$class {
    public static int increment(Validating that, int x) {
        return that.Validating$$super$increment(x);

Not helpful? Let's go slowly through the first step. When you call FullBlownCalculator, according to trait stacking rules, RealBlownCalculator.increment() should call Validating.increment(). As you can see, Validating.increment() forwards this (itself) to static Validating$class.increment() hidden class. This class expects an instance of Validating, but since FullBlownCalculator also extends that trait, passing this is fine.

Now look at the Validating$class.increment(). It barely forwards FullBlownCalculator.Validating$$super$increment(x). And when we, again, go back to FullBlownCalculator we will notice that this method delegates to static Caching$class.increment(). From here the process is similar. Why the extra delegation through static method? Mixins don't know which class is going to be next in the stack ("next super"). Thus they simply delegate to appropriate virtual $$super$ family of methods. Each class using these mixins is obligated to implement them, providing correct "super".

To put that into perspective: compiler cannot simply delegate straight from Validating$class.increment() to Caching$class.increment(), even though that's the FullBlowCalculator workflow. However if we create another class that reverses these mixins (RealCalculator with Validating with Caching) hardcoded dependency between mixins is no longer valid. This it's the responsibility of the class, not mixin, to declare the order. If you still don't follow, here is the complete call stack for FullBlownCalculator.increment():

val calc = new FullBlownCalculator
calc increment 42
`- Validating$class.increment(calc, 42)
   `- Validating.Validating$$super$increment(42) (on calc)
      `- Caching$class.increment(calc, 42)
         `- Caching.Caching$$super$increment(42) (on calc)
            `- Logging$class.increment(calc, 42)
               `- Logging.Logging$$super$increment(42) (on calc)
                  `- super.increment(42)
                     `- RealCalculator.increment(42) (on calc)

Now you see why it's called "linearization"!

Tomasz Nurkiewicz

Java EE developer, Scala enthusiast. Enjoying data analysis and visualization. Strongly believes in the power of testing and automation.
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