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SOLID Design: The Single Responsibility Principle (SRP)

After having covered The Open-Close Principle (OCP) and The Liskov Substitution Principle (LSP) let’s talk about the Single Responsibility Principle (SRP) which is the S in the SOLID acronym. The SRP definition is:

A class should have a single responsibility and this responsibility should be entirely encapsulated by the class.

This leads to what is a responsibility in software design? There is no trivial answer, this is why Robert C. Martin (Uncle Bob) rewrote the SRP principle this way:

A class should have one reason to change.

This leads to what is a reason to change?

SRP is a principle that cannot be easily inferred from its definition. Moreover the SRP lets a lot of room for own opinions and interpretations. So what is SRP about? SRP is about logic partitioning into code: which logic should be declared in which class. Something to keep in mind is that SRP is the only SOLID principle not related to the usage of abstraction and polymorphism.

The goal of this post is to propose objective and concrete guidelines to increase your classes compliance with SRP, and in-fine, increase the maintainability of your code.

SRP and Concerns

Typically the ActiveRecord pattern is used to exhibit a typical SRP violation. An ActiveRecord class has two responsibilities:

  • First an ActiveRecord object stores in-memory data retrieved from a relational database.
  • Second the record is active in the sense that data in-memory and data in the relational database are kept mirrored. For that, the CRUD (Create Read Update Delete) operations are implemented by the ActiveRecord.

To make things concrete an ActiveRecord class can look like that:

If Employee was a POCO class that doesn’t know about persistence and if the persistence was handled in a dedicated persistence layer the API would be improved because:

  • Not all Employee consumer wants to deal with persistence.
  • More importantly an Employee consumer really needs to know when an expensive DB roundtrip is triggered: if the Employee class is responsible for the persistence who knows if the data is persisted as soon as a setter is invoked?

Hence better isolate the persistence layer accesses and make them more explicit. This is why at NDepend we promote rules like UI layer shouldn’t use directly DB types that can be easily adapted to enforce any sort of code isolation.

Persistence is what we call a cross-cutting concerns, an aspect of the implementation that tends to spawn all over the code. We can expect that most domain objects are concerned with persistence. Other cross-cutting-concerns we want to separate domain objects from include: validation, log, authentication, error handling, threading, caching. The need to separate domain entities from those cross-cutting concerns can be handled by some OOP pattern like the pattern decorator for example. Alternatively some Object-Relational Mapping (ORM) frameworks and some Aspect-Oriented-Programming (AOP) frameworks can be used.

SRP and Reason to Change

Let’s consider this version of Employee:

The ComputePay() behavior is under the responsibility of the finance people and the ReportHours() behavior is under the responsibility of the operational people. Hence if a financial person needs a change to be implemented in ComputePay() we can assume this change won’t affect the ReportHours() method. Thus according to the version of SRP that states “a class should have one reason to change”, it is wise to declare these methods in different dedicated modules. As a consequence a change in ComputePay() has no risk to affect the behavior of ReportHours() and vice-versa. In other words we want these two parts of the code to be independent because they will evolve independently.

This is why Robert C. Martin wrote that SRP is about people : make sure that logics controlled by different people are implemented in different modules.

SRP and High-Cohesion

The SRP is about encapsulating logic and data in a class because they fit well together. Fit well means that the class is cohesive in the sense that most methods use most fields. Actually cohesion of a class can be measured with the Lack of Cohesion Of Methods (LCOM) metric. See below an explanations of LCOM (extracted from this great Stuart Celarier placemat) What matters is to understand that if all methods of a class are using all instances fields, the class is considered utterly cohesive and has the best LCOM score, which is 0 or close to 0.

Typically the effect of a SRP violation is to partition a class methods and fields into groups with few connections. The fields needed to compute the pay of an employee are not the same than the fields needed to report pending work. This is why the LCOM metric can be used to measure adherence to SRP and take actions. You can use the rule Avoid types with poor cohesion to track classes with poor cohesion between methods and fields.

SRP and Fat Code Smells

While we can hardly find an easy definition for what is a responsibility we noticed that adhering to SRP usually results in classes with a good LCOM score. On the other hand, not adhering to SRP usually leads to the God class phenomenon: a class that knows too much and does too much. Such god class is usually too large: violations of rules like Avoid types too big, Avoid types with too many methods, Avoid types with too many fields are good candidate to spot god classes and refactor into a finer-grained design.

Guidelines to adhere to SRP

Here are a set of objective and concrete guidelines to adhere to SRP:

  • Domain classes must be isolated from Cross-Cutting Concerns: code responsible for persistence, validation, log, authentication, error handling, threading, caching…
  • When implementing your domain, favor POCO classes that do not have any dependency on an external framework. Note that a POCO class is not necessarily a fields and properties only class, but can implement logic/behavior related to its data.
  • Use your understanding of the Domain to partition code: logics related to different business functions should be kept separated to avoid interference.
  • Regularly check the Lack of Cohesion Of Methods (LCOM) score of your classes.
  • Regularly check for too large and too complex classes.

 

My dad being an early programmer in the 70's, I have been fortunate to switch from playing with Lego, to program my own micro-games, when I was still a kid. Since then I never stop programming.

I graduated in Mathematics and Software engineering. After a decade of C++ programming and consultancy, I got interested in the brand new .NET platform in 2002. I had the chance to write the best-seller book (in French) on .NET and C#, published by O'Reilly (> 15.000 copies) and also did manage some academic and professional courses on the platform and C#.

Over the years, I gained a passion for understanding structure and evolution of large complex real-world applications, and for talking with talented developers behind it. As a consequence, I got interested in static code analysis and started the project NDepend.

Today, with more than 8.000 client companies, including many of the Fortune 500 ones, NDepend offers deeper insight and understanding about their code bases to a wide range of professional users around the world.

I live with my wife and our twin babies Léna and Paul, in the beautiful island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Published by

Patrick Smacchia

My dad being an early programmer in the 70's, I have been fortunate to switch from playing with Lego, to program my own micro-games, when I was still a kid. Since then I never stop programming. I graduated in Mathematics and Software engineering. After a decade of C++ programming and consultancy, I got interested in the brand new .NET platform in 2002. I had the chance to write the best-seller book (in French) on .NET and C#, published by O'Reilly (> 15.000 copies) and also did manage some academic and professional courses on the platform and C#. Over the years, I gained a passion for understanding structure and evolution of large complex real-world applications, and for talking with talented developers behind it. As a consequence, I got interested in static code analysis and started the project NDepend. Today, with more than 8.000 client companies, including many of the Fortune 500 ones, NDepend offers deeper insight and understanding about their code bases to a wide range of professional users around the world. I live with my wife and our twin babies Léna and Paul, in the beautiful island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

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