# Separating Process and Data

Writing plain old Java doesn’t present you with many opportunities of higher-order abstraction. Don’t get me wrong - all these heavyweight classes and OO cruft force you to abstract, just not in the way which is essentially reusable. Abstractions are implemented in a more informal and flaky way. You can achieve reuse across a set of functionality, across a package; maybe across a module, in the best case - across an application. But what should we do to get the most of it? How should we structure programs we are writing now to be able to reuse them in programs we are going to write tomorrow?

If we forget about the limitations of the language for a minute, we’ll see that the possibilities to abstract stay the same wherever we look. However, possibilities themselves aren’t worth anything if they aren’t exploited. This post is an observation of how the process of abstraction (namely, through the separation of process and data) happens when you know what to look for and keep your eyes open.

## Context is Everything

The beautiful thing about powerful abstractions is - they are really simple. It’s amazing how often we overlook these ‘patterns’ and fundamental concepts and settle for suboptimal solutions.

Consider the following snippet (originally code was a tad more complicated, I’ve cleaned it up for the sake of this example):

G synthesize(Type type, GeneratorRepository<G> repo) {
if (type instanceof ParameterizedType) {
Type[] params = type.getActualTypeArguments();
List<G> components = new ArrayList<G>(params.length);
for (Type param : params) {
if (shouldBeSynthesized(param, repo)) {
} else {
}
}
return repo.getSynthetic(type, components);
}
return repo.getComponentFor(param);
}


First of all, I should make clear what I am trying to achieve here. This code belongs to the jquickcheck library - an attempt in tight integration between the implementations of QuickCheck and Java. The whole responsibility of the above snippet is in creating random value generators of type G for the given Type.

As you can see, in case of ParameterizedType we need to create generators for each type component of the parameterized type and then create the final generator with a call to repo.getSynthetic. For example, to produce a value of List<Integer> we would need to know how to produce Integers as well as Lists. Thus, for a ParameterizedType of List<Integer> we would create a random value generator of its type argument, stored in the components variable, and only then would we call repo.getSynthetic(type, components) to create the final random value generator of type List<Integer>.

As for other functions, shouldBeSynthesized tells if creation of a generator for the given type needs other generators to be possible, while repo.getComponentFor returns a random value generator for the type which doesn’t need other generators1.

Aside from this being a verbose block of code, we can notice some structure in the process going on inside of it. Specifically, the synthesize method generates a tree-recursive process which results in the argument of type Type collapsed into a value of type G. The implementation seemed ok at the time I wrote it, didn’t have any second thoughts about it.

## A Case of Duplication

However, when implementing another feature a need emerged to be able to find out whether the given Type can be transformed into a G.

A hack which immediately popped into my head:

boolean canSynthesize(Type type, GeneratorRepository<G> repo) {
try {
return synthesize(type, repo) != null;
} catch (Exception e) {}

return false;
}


did not pass the subconscious hack-filter, so a better solution was due. After the first iteration over the code I had this:

G canSynthesize(Type type, GeneratorRepository<G> repo) {
if (type instanceof ParameterizedType) {
Type[] params = type.getActualTypeArguments();
boolean result = false;
for (Type param : params) {
if (shouldBeSynthesized(param, repo)) {
result &= canSynthesize(param, repo);
} else {
result &= repo.hasComponentFor(param);
}
}
return result;
}
return repo.hasComponentFor(type);
}


The only positive thing about this code is that it works. Other than that, the above code duplicates the previous snippet almost entirely, the only noticeable differences being

• the call to hasComponentFor instead of the getComponentFor
• the accumulation of the result in the boolean instead of a list

However, given these differences it’s impossible to straightforwardly refactor the code to eliminate duplication. To do the refactoring we would need to abstract over iteration, result aggregation and a call to hasComponentFor/getComponentFor.

## On the Path to Enlightenment

But how would we handle such a task?! The aggregation logic seems to be inseparable from the process of traversing the type arguments of the ParameterizedType.

This question, however, indicates a solution; remember what was said about the tree-recursive process? Well, let’s make the structure of the process explicit!

// note that the tree is immutable
class TypeTree {
private final List<TypeTree> children;
final Type type;

TypeTree(Type type, List<TypeTree> children) {
this.type = type;
// not doing a defensive copy as this is package visible
this.children = children;
}

}


We have a tree data structure which isn’t really generic or reusable, but it will fit our needs for the time being. Now, having the first stone in place, lets copy the synthesize method (call it makeTree) and make its sole responsibility gathering the type hierarchy of the argument ParameterizedType into a TypeTree.

// we only handle Parameterized and simple Types
static <G> TypeTree makeTree(Type type, GeneratorRepository<G> repo) {
if (type instanceof ParameterizedType) {
List<TypeTree> result = makeTrees(((ParameterizedType) type), repo);
return new TypeTree(type, result);
}
return new TypeTree(type, Collections.<TypeTree> emptyList());
}

private static <G> List<TypeTree> makeTrees(ParameterizedType type, GeneratorRepository<G> repo) {
Type[] params = ((ParameterizedType) type).getActualTypeArguments();
List<TypeTree> result = new ArrayList<TypeTree>();
for (Type param : params) {
if (shouldBeSynthesized(param, repo)) {
}
}
return result;
}


Now it seems that we’re on the right path to getting rid of synthesize and canSynthesize. We seem to have abstracted the process and captured the result in a TypeTree. But how do we get the final result? In other words: how do we fold the TypeTree back into a value?

## Getting the Results

The cleanest solution I could come up with in Java was the visitor pattern which required some modifications to the TypeTree:

class TypeTree<T> {
// same as above
// ...

T accept(Visitor<T> v) {
List<T> results = new ArrayList<T>(children.size()):
for (TypeTree<T> child : children) {
}
return v.visit(type, results);
}
}


As you can see, we’ve added a type parameter to the type tree (which represents the type of the result we want to get: G for the synthesize and Boolean for canSynthesize). We also need a Visitor which will be accepted by the tree and will go up to the root collecting the results along the way:

interface Visitor<T> {
T visit(Type t, List<T> childResults);
}


This is a simple implementation which will accept the type of the currently accessed node of the tree and results collected from all of its child nodes.

Now, we can express synthesize as:

class CreateGenVisitor<G> implements Visitor<G> {
private final GeneratorRepository<G> repo;
CreateGenVisitor(GeneratorRepository<G> repo) { this.repo = repo; }

@Override
public G visit(Type t, List<G> childResults) {
if (childResults.isEmpty()) {
return repo.getComponentFor(t);
}
return repo.getSynthetic(t, childResults);
}
}

G synthesize(ParameterizedType type, GeneratorRepository<G> repo) {
return makeTree(type, repo).visit(new CreateGenVisitor<G>(repo));
}


And canSynthesize as:

class CanConstructVisitor<G> implements Visitor<Boolean> {
private final GeneratorRepository<G> repo;
CanConstructVisitor(GeneratorRepository<G> repo) { this.repo = repo; }

@Override
public Boolean visit(Type t, List<Boolean> childResults) {
if (childResults.isEmpty()) {
return repo.hasComponentFor(t);
}
return repo.hasComponentFor(t) && allTrue(childResults);
}

private boolean allTrue(Iterable<Boolean> xs) {
for (Boolean x: xs) {
if (!x) { return false; }
}
return true;
}
}

boolean canSynthesize(ParameterizedType type, GeneratorRepository<G> repo) {
return makeTree(type, repo).visit(new CanConstructVisitor<G>(repo));
}


The amount of code actually increased, but the duplication is gone2. Every piece is only concerned with its own job: iteration is done separately from aggregation and construction of the result.

## Conclusions

So, what can we carry out of this encounter?

Strive to make your data explicit

The more I program and model, the more I see the truthfulness of the above statement. Seemingly trivial, this advice can lead to many deep insights when applied in practice. In particular, it will help you to

Separate data and process

Separating data and process lets you abstract the operations on data to be suitable for any process, not just the one you’re implementing in the given scenario. Obviously, this leads to increased reuse and reduction in duplication. Remember how we managed to reuse the TypeTree which isn’t even generic enough to be reused in other contexts? Imagine how our life would have been easier if we had a generic Tree and the ability to pattern-match on its structure

Compositionality is the king

It is much easier to construct a program out of a bunch of simple and well-tested data parts by gluing them all together with a process than out of functions which have the state intermingled with the process.

1. Please, don’t focus on specifics of this example, as the original code has a lot more details which were dropped while adapting it for this post.
2. The definitions of synthesize and canSynthesize in the above snippets won’t compile when put together with the definition of makeTree in this post as we haven’t modified the makeTree after we have added the type argument to the TypeTree. To make it compile, modify the makeTree to accept a TypeTree with an additional type argument (or just subvert the type system and cast to raw types everywhere).