Design Patterns

Design Patterns #2 – Observer Pattern

In the last design patterns post we looked at the strategy pattern and how it is a good idea to decouple your constantly changing code from the rest of your application. In this post we will look at another amazing design pattern called the Observer Pattern.

According to sourcemaking.com, the Observer Pattern “Define a one-to-many dependency between objects so that when one object changes state, all its dependents are notified and updated automatically.”. This pattern is can be understood by looking at a real-life analogy.

Consider a newspaper or a magazine subscription. The publisher starts a business and begins to publish the newspapers and magazines. You, your friends and family subscribe to a particular publisher, and every time there is a new edition, it gets delivered to you and all the other subscribers. As long as you are subscribed, you get all the new and exciting news and magazines. You unsubscribe anytime you feel like you don’t want the newspapers anymore and the delivery stops. So while the publisher remains in business, people, businesses, hotels, airlines, etc. constantly subscribe and unsubscribe to the newspapers and magazines. This is in essence the entire Observer Pattern.

This pattern forms an important part of the Model-View-Controller architecture. You can read more about the MVC on wikipedia and here. The main idea is that there is a central model and multiple views, which are separated, and the changes made to the model must be reflected automatically in each of the views.

Now let us look at how we will implement this pattern. Imagine you have an object that is the source of the news or new information. This object is called the Subject in the technical parlance. The listeners or subscribers to the Subject are called the Observers (no surprises here!). Suppose we want to develop an application that uses an external API to read the stock prices and then updates some widgets on our system. The widgets might display the current stock price, the beta value and the volume. We will have a Subject interface which will provide methods for registering observers, removing observers and notifying observers of the changes. Our concrete Subject class will extend these interfaces and implement these methods apart from having some custom methods to get the data from the API. We will have an Observer interface that will specify an update() method and some other methods for displaying the data. Now all our widgets will be a concrete implementation of this Observer interface and implement both the update() and display() methods in their own ways. But the key point is that as soon as the Subject gets an update from the API that there has been a change in the value, it will call the method to notify the observers (notifyObservers()). This method can call the update() method for each observer in its observer list and pass the new data to it. This way all the observers will simultaneously receive the updated data.

The diagram below should make it clearer.

ObserverPattern

Java provides you with an Observable class, which simplifies a lot of it for you. The main difference being that every time there is a change, the concrete subject (StockData class) will first call the setChanged() and then the notifyObservers() method and pass the new value as its argument. The update() method in the observers will get this new value instantly. Be careful though, the Observable in Java is a class and not an interface. This can lead to some issues like you cannot add the observable behavior to an existing class that already extends another superclass. Also you cannot create your own implementation that plays well with the Java’s built in Observer API. You also cannot call the setChanged() method as it is a protected method which means you must first subclass Observable.

Use your best judgment to best determine which way to implement this pattern for your applications. I hope you learned something new and interesting in this post.

Stay tuned for more 🙂

Design Patterns #1 – Strategy Pattern

In the past two years, as I delved deeper into the world of software development and maintenance, I realized that there is a thin line that separates a maintainable code and a messy one. This thin line can save you hundreds of hours in new releases, development and maintenance. This thin line is between those who are familiar with and follow the design patterns and those who don’t. Now honestly speaking, I am ashamed that this is not one of those things that are taught in the undergraduate curriculum for Computer Science. It definitely deserves a mention after students are familiar with the concepts of Object Oriented Programming (OOP). This is because in real world, more time is spent in maintaining and changing software than on initial development. This is why there should be a significant effort towards code reuse and extensibility as well as maintainability.

Design Patterns help developers create functional, elegant, reusable and flexible software[Head First Design Patterns]. Patterns help you in getting to the final product faster by avoiding a lot of common issues that other developers might have faced by providing general solutions to those common problems. Patterns help you in using your basic OOP knowledge and take it one level up to build good systems.

According to sourcemaking.com, “In software engineering, a design pattern is a general repeatable solution to a commonly occurring problem in software design. A design pattern isn’t a finished design that can be transformed directly into code. It is a description or template for how to solve a problem that can be used in many different situations.”

Now let us look at our first design patterns – Strategy Pattern.

According to Head First Design Patterns, “The strategy pattern defines a family of algorithms, encapsulates each one, and makes them interchangeable. Strategy lets the algorithm vary independently from clients that use it.”

Now lets translate this definition into simpler terms. What strategy pattern advises is to separate parts of the code that change from those that stay the same. It advises to put different behaviors in different interfaces and then implement each separate behavior through its own class. Let us look at an example now.

Suppose you are developing a game like Counter Strike. Now each character of the game can make use of one weapon at a time, but can change weapons at any time during the game. There are also multiple types of players with different outfits. One way to implement this could be to simply have a Soldier class and all the characters inherit from this. Now if tomorrow, you want to add a dummy soldier who does not have the capabilities to shoot or run,  then you will have to rewrite a lot of classes. Also if every six months you want to add new characters with different capabilities, then inheritance is not a very good way to go.

One way this problem can be solved is by separating the characters and their behaviors. You can have a Character class and all your soldiers can inherit from this. You can have a WeaponBehavior interface that specifies how to use the weapon with a useWeapon() method. Now your Character class can have an instance variable that is declared as the interface WeaponBehavior type. Each different weapon like a gun, a knife, a grenade, a smoke bomb, a rifle, etc. can implement the useWeapon() method of the WeaponBehavior interface in its own unique way. In this way, if tomorrow you want to add a new weapon like say a rocket launcher, you can simply declare a new RocketLauncher class that implements the useWeapon() method of the WeaponBehavior interface to launch a rocket. If you would like to add a new character say a team of elite jokers who terrorize everyone, you can simply add a class for their weapon and a class for their character and you are all done. You don’t have any need to touch any other piece of existing code. Also, now all your existing characters can use these new weapons and your new jokers can also use the previously existing weapons.

StrategyPattern

So the main aim is to separate the algorithms or varying behaviors from the clients that use it. The image above should make it clearer. You can also refer to this video by Derek Banas for more information.

I hope you understood the need for the knowledge of design patterns and the way the strategy pattern can be utilized. Have a great day developing code and always remember that more time is spent in maintaining and changing software than on initial development. So make it easier for your next incarnation to maintain and extend the code you write in this life.

Stay tuned for more design patterns 🙂