The Chain of Responsibility Intro

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What do you do when a long list of conditionals know too much about the objects they’re trying to access? Introduce them to the Chain of Responsibility and clean up that code!


Your code is out to get you.

It’s not paranoia on your part. Your code lurks in the dark places that ghosts, demons and sprites infest and it conspires against you. It exploits weakness whenever it can. And while it doesn’t take much, its preferred source of dark powers are the conditionals that we all instinctively create.

There are talismans that can aid us in our struggle. One such charm is named the CHAIN OF RESPONSIBILITY.


We start with some ugly conditionals...

The chain of responsibility is most useful when related objects are all trying to handle the same request. It’s a little hard to see here due to a blight of conditionals, but we have a series of image objects (Jpeg, Gif, PNG) that are all trying to import an image. Each will extract and store meta data from the image and maybe create a standard-use thumbnail, but how depends on which kind of image. And so we have if statements to use the Jpeg image to import jpeg images, the Gif image to import Gif images, and so on.

Now, this is working code. To a point. The conditionals properly send a file ending with .jpg to JpegImage. A file ending with .gif goes through GifImage. The unknown image doesn’t get picked up by anything so it gets handled byUnknownImage (likely storing the raw date without meta info or thumbnail). But the .jpeg image and the JPEG image with the wrong extension are both mishandled.

Already, dark code forces thrill over mischief making possibilities. It’s hard to discern the true intent of this code. If we want to support .jpeg extensions, are we to add more to the conditional? If we want to inspect contents of files, do we make the conditional more dense still? If we want to support more image types, do we make this conditional chain longer?

While code gremlins are giddy for us to do just that, level-headed minds already cast about for better ways.

All can agree that the image classes are better at deciding if they can import a particular file. So let’s start with a canImportgetter — false by default, but true for the appropriate cases in the concrete classes.

Those cases are true if the extension matches. The handler of last-resort, UnknownImage will always return true. Great, but how do apply canImport in practice?

The nifty idea of the chain of responsibility comes from the recognition that the different handlers (JpegImage, GifImage, PngImage, etc.) are a… chain. A chain of request handlers. If one link in the chain cannot handle the request — if one image handler cannot handle the import request — then the next handler in the chain gets a chance.

Phrased like that, we can push the requests down into the handler method — import(). If the current handler cannot handle the request, then ask the next handler to do so. If it cannot, then it asks the next handler to try. And so on until the request is handled.

For that, we need the chain a little more explicit. The nextImporter property informs each concrete handler class what the next handler will be. Following the same order from the original code, JpegImage‘s nextImporter will be GifImage.GifImage‘s will be PngImage. PngImage‘s will be UnknownImage.

What’s really cool about this is that all of this original application is now extraneous. The conditionals and the structure of the chain are all contained in the handler classes. So we can simply create the first item in the chain, tell it to import, and… everything still works! The .gif image is still handled by GifImage. The .jpg file is still handled by JpegImage. The unknown image still falls to UnknownImage.

In addition to brilliantly clear application code, it’s obvious where we support .jpeg extensions — in JpegImage‘scanImport getter method. Which is also where we can inspect the initial contents of the file as well.

One minor bit of cleanup that we’ll undertake here is the class used by the application. It’s a little weird that the application needs to know that the chain’s entry point is JpegImage so we create ImageImporter to serve that function.

Beautiful conditional code?


Look, our code is still out to get us, but this is a nice tool to make the job harder. Application code is unaware of conditionals — it’s just importing images. The conditionals and chains are much more comfortable in the classes that should hold them.

Code demons will have to look elsewhere as this code is readable today and should be just as readable in 6 months by us or co-workers. Plus, it’s familiar to any web programmer that ever wrote an event handler — if one handler can’t handle an event, it bubbles on over to the next handler.

That covers chain on responsibility basics, but there are nifty ways to tweak the approach. The full series will look at a more robut successor chain, handling more than one request, automatic request forwarding and, of course, clean code approaches.

You’d better believe it’s gonna get thunky!


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