Software Development

Anemic Objects Are OK

I thought for a while that object-oriented purism has died off. But it hasn’t – every now and then there’s an article that tries to tell us how evil setters and getters are, how bad (Java) annotations are, and how horrible and anti-object-oriented the anemic data model is (when functionality-only services act upon data-only objects) and eventually how dependency injection is ruining software.

Several years ago I tried to counter these arguments, saying that setters and getters are not evil per se, and that the anemic data model is mostly fine, but I believe I was worse at writing then, so maybe I didn’t get to the core of the problem.

This summer we had a short twitter discussion with Yegor Bugayenko and Vlad Mihalcea on the matter and a few arguments surfaced. I’ll try to summarize them:

  • Our metaphors are often wrong. An actual book doesn’t know how to print itself. Its full contents are given to a printer, which knows how to print a book. Therefore it doesn’t make sense to put logic for printing (to JSON/XML), or persisting to a database in the Book class. It belongs elsewhere.
  • The advice to use (embedded) printers instead of getters is impractical even if a Book should know how to print itself – how do you transform your objects to other formats (JSON, XML, Database rows/etc..)? With an Jackson/JAXB/ORM/.. you simply add a few annotations, if any at all and it works. With “printers” you have to manually implement the serialization logic. Even with Xembly you still have to do a tedious, potentially huge method with add()’s and up()’s. And when you add, or remove a field, or change a field definition, or add a new serialization format, it gets way more tedious to support. Another approach mentioned in the twitter thread is having separate subclasses for each format/database. And an example can be seen here. I really don’t find that easy to read or support. And even if that’s adopted in a project I’m working on, I’d be the first to replace that manual adding with reflection, however impure that may be. (Even Uncle Bob’s Fitnesse project has getters or even public fields where that makes sense in terms of the state space)
  • Having too much logic/behaviour in an objects may be seen as breaking the Single responsibility principle. In fact, this article argues that the anemic approach is actually SOLID, unlike the rich business object approach. The SRP may actually be understood in multiple ways, but I’ll get to that below.
  • Dependency injection containers are fine. The blunt example of how the code looks without them is here. No amount of theoretical object-oriented programming talk can make me write that piece of code. I guess one can get used to it, but (excuse my appeal to emotion fallacy here) – it feels bad. And when you consider the case of dependency injection containers – whether you’ll invoke a constructor from a main method, or your main will invoke automatic cosntructor (or setter) injection context makes no real difference – your objects are still composed of their dependencies, and their dependencies are set externally. Except the former is more practical and after a few weeks of nested instantiation you’ll feel inclined to write your own semi-automated mechanism to do that.

But these are all arguments derived from a common root – encapsulation. Your side in the above arguments depends on how you view and understand encapsulation. I see the purpose of encapsulation as a way to protect the state space of a class – an object of a given class is only valid if it satisfies certain conditions. If you expose the data via getters and setters, then the state space constraints are violated – everyone can invalidate your object. For example, if you were able to set the size of an ArrayList without adding the corresponding element to the backing array, you’d break the behaviour of an ArrayList object – it will report its size inconsistently and the code that depends on the List contract would not always work.

But in practical terms encapsulation still allows for the distinction between “data objects” vs “business objects”. The data object has no constraints on its state – any combination of the values of its fields is permitted. Or in some cases – it isn’t, but it is enforced outside the current running program (e.g. via database constraints when persisting an object with an ORM). In these cases, where the state spaces is not constraint, encapsulation is useless. And forcing it upon your software blindly results in software that, I believe, is harder to maintain and extend. Or at least you gain nothing – testing isn’t easier that way (you can have a perfectly well tested anemic piece of software), deployment is not impacted, tracing problems doesn’t seem much of a difference.

I’m even perfectly fine with getting rid of the getters and exposing the state directly (as the aforementioned LogData class from Fitnesse).

And most often, in business applications, websites, and the general type of software out there, most objects don’t need to enforce any constraints on their state. Because there state is just data, used somewhere else, in whatever ways the business needs it to be used. To get back to the single responsibility principle – these data objects have only one reason to change – their … data has changed. The data itself is irrelevant. It will become relevant at a later stage – when it’s fetched via a web service (after it’s serialized to JSON), or after it’s fetched from the database by another part of the application or a completely different system. And that’s important – encapsulation cannot be enforced across several systems that all work with a piece of data.

In the whole debate I haven’t seen a practical argument against the getter/setter/anemic style. The only thing I see is “it’s not OOP” and “it breaks encapsulation”. Well, I think it should be settled now that encapsulation should not be always there. It should be there only when you need it, to protect the state of your object from interference.

So, don’t feel bad to continue with your ORMs, DI frameworks and automatic JSON and XML serializers.

Reference: Anemic Objects Are OK from our JCG partner Bozhidar Bozhanov at the Bozho’s tech blog blog.

Bozhidar Bozhanov

Senior Java developer, one of the top stackoverflow users, fluent with Java and Java technology stacks - Spring, JPA, JavaEE, as well as Android, Scala and any framework you throw at him. creator of Computoser - an algorithmic music composer. Worked on telecom projects, e-government and large-scale online recruitment and navigation platforms.
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Luis Fernando Planella Gonzalez
Luis Fernando Planella Gonzalez
7 years ago

Completely agree. Normally the OOP purists haven’t ever coded a system with hundreds of thousand lines of code to maintain…

Martin Vanek
Martin Vanek
7 years ago

I think Yegor is most sophisticated troll I’ve ever seen

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