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Non isomorphic C++ refactoring

Posted on 8 mins read Tags: C++

Introduction

Let me tell you a story about a C++ refactoring, based on real events.

The example is a little bit contrived, but the code is actually quite close to what it really looked like.

The problem

Let’s say you are writing a C++ program to safely store important documents.

You have one of these fancy safes that open with a combination and a key. You have to enter the combination before inserting the key , but the safe automatically locks itself as soon as you close the door. (that may be not exactly how safes work, but it’s convenient for our example).

You already have the main() function written, like so:

int main() {
  Safe safe;
  Document passport("passport");
  Document idCard("ID card");
  std::vector<Document> documents{passport, idCard};

  safelyStoreDocuments(safe, documents);
  return 0;
}

Your job is to write the safelyStoreDocuments function.

Using RAII for the door

You just read about RAII (resource acquisition is initialization) pattern so you decide to use it.

Quick reminder about what RAII is: In C++, the destructor of a class is guaranteed to be called when the scope where the instance was created is exited. It can be used to implement a lock, like so:

class Lock {
  public:
  Lock(Mutex mutex): _mutex(mutex) {
    _mutex.acquire();
  }
  ~Lock() {
    _mutex.release();
  }

  private:
  Mutex _mutex;
}:

void doSomething() {
  {
    Lock lock(mutex);
    updateCounter();
  }
};

Here you know that the lock will be acquired right before updateCounter() is called, and then released right after.

So you decide to implement the same pattern for the safe’s door:

class Door {
  public:
  void close() {
    // ...
  }

  ~Door() {
    close();
  }
};

Thus you can start implementing the safelyStoreDocuments function:

void safelyStoreDocuments(Safe& safe, std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
  Door door;

  // TODO: open the door and store documents
}

Note how we use a safe reference, to make sure no copy of the safe is done, and to make sure the safe is initialized.

Remembering the combination

Finding the combination is not difficult, you just have to think really hard first:

void safelyStoreDocuments(Safe& safe, std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
  Door door;

  // Find and enter combination:
  Brain brain;
  brain.thinkReallyHard();
  auto combination = brain.getCombination();
  door.enterCombination(combination);

  // TODO: unlock the door
  // TODO: store documents
}

Looking for the key

Find the key is a bit tricky. You have to iterate through all the pockets to find the one that contains the key.

Once the key is found, all you have to do is to unlock the door with the key and open it:

Your code now looks like:

Pocket findCorrectPocket() {
  for(auto pocket: pockets) {
    // ...
  }
}

void safelyStoreDocuments(Safe& safe, std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
  Door door;

  // Find and enter combination:
  Brain brain;
  brain.thinkReallyHard();
  auto combination = brain.getCombination();
  door.enterCombination(combination);

  // Find the key and unlock the door
  auto correctPocket = findCorrectPocket();
  auto key = correctPocket.key();
  door.unlock(key);

  door.open();

  // TODO: store documents
}

Storing documents

Storing documents is quite easy: you just have to loop, checking that there is enough room in the safe.

There’s already a safe.isFull() method you can call.

So you are finally able to implement the TODO:

void safelyStoreDocuments(Safe& safe, std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
  Door door;

  // Find and enter combination:
  Brain brain;
  brain.thinkReallyHard();
  auto combination = brain.getCombination();
  door.enterCombination(combination);

  // Find the key and unlock the door
  auto correctPocket = findCorrectPocket();
  auto key = correctPocket.key();
  door.unlock(key);

  door.open();

  // Put documents in the safe:
  for(auto const& document: documents) {
    if (!safe.isFull()) {
      safe.putDocument(document);
    }
  }
}

Satisfied with your work, you compile and run the code:

$ g++ -Wall safe.cpp -o safe && ./safe
Thinking really hard about combination ...
Entering combination
Looking for correct pocket ...
Unlock door
Opening door
Putting passport in safe
Putting ID card in safe
Closing door

Looks like the code is working!

Cleaning up

Satisfied, you submit your changes for code review.

One of your colleagues points out a code smell. The function is long with explanatory comments. It would be better to extract some of the functionality into smaller functions.

You agree, and re-write the code:

void openSafeDoor() {
  Door door;
  Brain brain;
  brain.thinkReallyHard();
  auto combination = brain.getCombination();
  door.enterCombination(combination);

  auto correctPocket = findCorrectPocket();
  auto key = correctPocket.key();
  door.unlock(key);

  door.open();
}

void putDocumentsIntoSafe(Safe& safe, std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
  for(auto document: documents) {
    if (!safe.isFull()) {
      safe.putDocument(document);
    }
  }
}

void safelyStoreDocuments(Safe& safe, std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
  openSafeDoor();
  putDocumentsIntoSafe(safe, documents);
}

Spot the mistake yet?

I’ll let you think about it for a few minutes, while enjoying this animated graphical music score:

The mistake

When we split the function in two, we moved the instantiation of the Door class in the openSafeDoor() function, which means the door will be closed by the time we try to put the documents in the safe!

$ g++ -Wall safe.cpp -o safe && ./safe
Unlock door
Opening door
Closing door
Putting passport in safe
Putting ID card in safe

How did it happen

That’s a question I always asked myself when I write a patch for a bug fix.

Why did the bug appear, and what can we do to not let it happen again?

I found that simply asking the question often leads to interesting discoveries, and sometimes triggers a change in the process, tools or refactoring habits.

In our case, I think the main problem is that we had an implicit dependency between the safe and the door.

A better refactoring

First, let’s move the Door class inside the Safe class, and just forward the calls:

class Safe() {
  public:
  Safe(): _door(Door()) {}

  void enterDoorCombination(std::string const& combination) {
    _door.enterCombination(combination);
  }

  void unlockDoor(Key key) {
    _door.unlock(key);
  }

  void openDoor() {
    _door.open();
  }

  private:
  Door _door;
};

The code now becomes:

void openSafeDoor(Safe& safe) {
  Brain brain;
  brain.thinkReallyHard();
  auto combination = brain.getCombination();
  safe.enterDoorCombination(combination);

  auto correctPocket = findCorrectPocket();
  auto key = correctPocket.key();
  safe.unlockDoor(key);

  safe.openDoor();
}

void safelyStoreDocuments(Safe& safe, std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
  openSafeDoor(safe);

  putDocumentsIntoSafe(safe, documents);
}

and the problem goes away.

But we can do better! Let’s introduce a more generic open method to the safe:

class Safe() {
  // ...
  void open(std::string const& combination, const Key& key) {
    _door.enterCombination(combination);
    _door.unlock(key);
    _door.open();
  }
}

The code now becomes:

void openSafe(Safe& safe) {
  Brain brain;
  brain.thinkReallyHard();
  auto combination = brain.getCombination();

  auto correctPocket = findCorrectPocket();
  auto key = correctPocket.key();

  safe.open(combination, key);
}

Note how it’s now impossible to try to use the key without entering the combination, since the combination and the key are required to call the safe.open() method.

Better boundaries

I think an other issue with the code is that it was split only by considering the sequence of events (enter the combination, find the key, unlock the door …), but without trying to introduce useful abstractions.

Look how we can move code around and get something much more readable:

class Safe() {
  // ...
  void open() {
  // same as before
  }

  void putDocuments(std::vector<Document> const& documents) {
    for(auto const& document: documents) {
      if (!_full) {
        putDocument(document);
      }
    }
  }

  // ...
}

Key getKey() {
  auto correctPocket = findCorrectPocket();
  return correctPocket.key();
}

const std::string getCombination() {
  Brain brain;
  brain.thinkReallyHard();
  return brain.getCombination();
}

int main() {
  Document passport("passport");
  Document idCard("ID card");
  std::vector<Document> documents{passport, idCard};

  auto key = getKey();
  auto combination = getCombination();

  Safe safe;
  safe.open(combination, key);
  safe.putDocuments(documents);
}

What changed ?

First, we got rid of three methods with ‘safe’ in their names (safelyStoreDocuments, openSafe and putDocumentsIntoSafe.

Those names were a clue that those functions actually belonged to the Safe class.

The Safe class itself has grown and is now responsible of maintaining invariants (making sure the door is open and closed, and that there’s enough room for all the documents). Note also how the _full private member no longer needs to be exposed.

Lastly, main() is now only concerned about gathering the various element it needs, and only calls “high level” methods of the safe. It knows nothing about how the safe door works, or where the key and combination are coming from.

I think it’s a much better design.

One last thing

Our refactoring moved the Door inside the Safe class, and now the lifetime of the door is the same as its containing object.

But this is not always the case. For instance, after storing the documents in the safe, you may want remove the dust that’s been accumulated on top of it:

int main() {
  Safe safe;
  safe.open(combination, key);
  safe.putDocuments(documents);
  safe.dust();
}
$ g++ -Wall safe.cpp -o safe && ./safe
Putting passport in safe
Putting ID card in safe
Removing dust from the safe
Closing door

Something is wrong here. The door is closed after the call to dust(). And you don’t want the housekeeper to see the contents of the safe, right?

To fix this, we can remove the ~Door destructor completely, and introduce an explicit close() method in the Safe class:

class Safe {
  // ...
  void close() {
    if (_opened) {
      _door.close();
      _opened = false;
    }
  }

  // ..
  ~Safe() {
    close();
  }

  private:
  bool _opened;
}

We store the state of the safe in a _opened boolean member just so that we don’t try to close the door twice.

Now the main becomes:

int main() {
  Safe safe;
  auto combination = getCombination();
  auto key = getKey();
  safe.open(combination, key);
  safe.putDocuments(documents);
  safe.close();
  safe.dust();
}

And everything is good.

This illustrates an interesting issue. We did not really care about the lifetime of the door (which is just an implementation detail), what we really cared about was the lifetime of the safe, and that’s why closing the door in its own destructor was a bad idea.

Conclusion

Object-oriented programming is hard, C++ is hard, naming things are important, and thinking about boundaries lead to better code.

Hope you enjoyed my story, see you next time!


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