Abstract Base Classes Have Versioning Problems Too

archived, code comments edit

This is part 2 in an ongoing series in which I talk about various design and versioning issues as they relate to Abstract Base Classes (ABC), Interfaces, and Framework design. In part 1 I discussed some ways in which ABCs are more resilient to versioning than interfaces. I haven’t covered the full story yet and will address some great points raised in the comments.

In this part, I want to point out some cases in which Abstract Base Classes fail in versioning. In my last post, I mentioned you could simply add new methods to an Abstract Base Class and not break clients. Well that’s true, it’s possible, but I didn’t emphasize that this is not true for all cases and can be risky. I was saving that for another post (aka this one).

I had been thinking about this particular scenario a while ago, but it was recently solidified in talking to a coworker today (thanks Mike!). Let’s look at the scenario. Suppose there is an abstract base class in a framework named FrameworkContextBase. The framework also provides a concrete implementation.

public abstract class FrameworkContextBase
{
  public abstract void MethodOne();
}

Somewhere else in another class in the framework, there is a method that takes in an instance of the base class and calls the method on it for whatever reason.

public void Accept(FrameworkContextBase arg)
{
  arg.MethodOne();
}

With me so far? Good. Now imagine that you, as a consumer of the Framework write a concrete implementation of FrameworkContextBase. In the next release of the framework, the framework includes a method to FrameworkContextBase like so...

public abstract class FrameworkContextBase
{
  public abstract void MethodOne();
  public virtual void MethodTwo()
  {
    throw new NotImplementedException();
  }
}

And the Accept method is updated like so...

public void Accept(FrameworkContextBase arg)
{
  arg.MethodOne();
  arg.MethodTwo();
}

Seems innocuous enough. You might even be lulled into the false sense that all is well in the world and decide to go ahead and upgrade the version of the Framework hosting your application without recompiling. Unfortunately, somewhere in your application, you pass your old implementation of the ABC to the new Accept method. Uh oh! Runtime exception!

The fix sounds easy in theory, when adding a new method to the ABC, the framework developer need to make sure it has a reasonable default implementation. In my contrived example, the default implementation throws an exception. This seems easy enough to fix. But how can you be sure the implementation is reasonable for all possible implementations of your ABC? You can’t.

This is often why you see guidelines for .NET which suggest making all methods non-virtual unless you absolutely need to. The idea is that the Framework should provide checks before and after to make sure certain invariants are not broken when calling a virtual method since we have no idea what that method will do.

As you might guess, I tend to take the approach of buyer beware. Rather than putting the weight on the Framework to make sure that virtual methods don’t do anything weird, I’d rather put the weight on the developer overriding the virtual method. At least that’s the approach we’re taking with ASP.NET MVC.

Another possible fix is to also add an associated Supports{Method} property when you add a method to an ABC. All code that calls that new method would have to check the property. For example...

public abstract class FrameworkContextBase
{
  public abstract void MethodOne();
  public virtual void MethodTwo()
  {
    throw new NotImplementedException();
  }
  public virtual bool SupportsMethodTwo {get{return false;}}
}

//Some other class in the same framework
public void Accept(FrameworkContextBase arg)
{
  arg.MethodOne();
  if(arg.SupportsMethodTwo)
  {
    arg.MethodTwo();
  }
}

But it may not be clear to you, the framework developer, what you should do when the instance doesn’t support MethodTwo. This might not be clear nor straightforward.

This post seems to contradict my last post a bit, but I don’t see it that way. As I stated all along, there is no perfect design, we are simply trying to optimize for constraints. Not only that, I should add that versioning is a hard problem. I am not fully convinced we have made all the right optimizations (so to speak) hence I am writing this series.

Coming up: More on versioning interfaces with real code examples and tradeoffs. More on why breaking changes suck. ;)

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