Fluent interface

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In software engineering, a fluent interface (as first coined by Eric Evans and Martin Fowler) is an implementation of an object oriented API that aims to provide for more readable code.

A fluent interface is normally implemented by using method cascading (concretely method chaining) to relay the instruction context of a subsequent call (but a fluent interface entails more than just method chaining [1]). Generally, the context is

  • defined through the return value of a called method
  • self-referential, where the new context is equivalent to the last context
  • terminated through the return of a void context.

History[edit]

The term "fluent interface" was coined in late 2005, though this overall style of interface dates to the invention of method cascading in Smalltalk in the 1970s, and numerous examples in the 1980s. The most familiar is the iostream library in C++, which uses the << or >> operators for the message passing, sending multiple data to the same object and allowing "manipulators" for other method calls. Other early examples include the Garnet system (from 1988 in Lisp) and the Amulet system (from 1994 in C++) which used this style for object creation and property assignment.

Examples[edit]

Java[edit]

The jOOQ library models SQL as a fluent API in Java

Author a = AUTHOR.as("a");
create.selectFrom(a)
      .where(exists(selectOne()
                   .from(BOOK)
                   .where(BOOK.STATUS.eq(BOOK_STATUS.SOLD_OUT))
                   .and(BOOK.AUTHOR_ID.eq(a.ID))));

The op4j library enables the use of fluent code for performing auxiliary tasks like structure iteration, data conversion, filtering, etc.

String[] datesStr = new String[] {"12-10-1492", "06-12-1978"};
...
List<Calendar> dates = 
    Op.on(datesStr).toList().map(FnString.toCalendar("dd-MM-yyyy")).get();

The fluflu annotation processor enables the creation of a fluent API using Java annotations.

Also, the mock object testing library EasyMock makes extensive use of this style of interface to provide an expressive programming interface.

Collection mockCollection = EasyMock.createMock(Collection.class);
EasyMock.expect(mockCollection.remove(null)).andThrow(new NullPointerException()).atLeastOnce();

In the Java Swing API, the LayoutManager interface defines how Container objects can have controlled Component placement. One of the more powerful LayoutManager implementations is the GridBagLayout class which requires the use of the GridBagConstraints class to specify how layout control occurs. A typical example of the use of this class is something like the following.

GridBagLayout gl = new GridBagLayout();
JPanel p = new JPanel();
p.setLayout( gl );
 
JLabel l = new JLabel("Name:");
JTextField nm = new JTextField(10);
 
GridBagConstraints gc = new GridBagConstraints();
gc.gridx = 0;
gc.gridy = 0;
gc.fill = GridBagConstraints.NONE;
p.add( l, gc );
 
gc.gridx = 1;
gc.fill = GridBagConstraints.HORIZONTAL;
gc.weightx = 1;
p.add( nm, gc );

This creates a lot of code and makes it difficult to see what exactly is happening here. The Packer class, visible at http://java.net/projects/packer/, provides a Fluent mechanism for using this class so that you would instead write:

JPanel p = new JPanel();
Packer pk = new Packer( p );
 
JLabel l = new JLabel("Name:");
JTextField nm = new JTextField(10);
 
pk.pack( l ).gridx(0).gridy(0);
pk.pack( nm ).gridx(1).gridy(0).fillx();

There are many places where Fluent APIs can greatly simplify how software is written and help create an API language that helps users be much more productive and comfortable with the API because the return value of a method always provides a context for further actions in that context.

C++[edit]

A common use of the fluent interface in C++ is the standard iostream, which chains overloaded operators.

The following is an example of providing a fluent interface wrapper on top of a more traditional interface in C++:

 // Basic definition
 class GlutApp {
 private:
     int w_, h_, x_, y_, argc_, display_mode_;
     char **argv_;
     char *title_;
 public:
     GlutApp(int argc, char** argv) {
         argc_ = argc;
         argv_ = argv;
     }
     void setDisplayMode(int mode) {
         display_mode_ = mode;
     }
     int getDisplayMode() {
         return display_mode_;
     }
     void setWindowSize(int w, int h) {
         w_ = w;
         h_ = h;
     }
     void setWindowPosition(int x, int y) {
         x_ = x;
         y_ = y;
     }
     void setTitle(const char *title) {
         title_ = title;
     }
     void create(){;}
 };
 // Basic usage
 int main(int argc, char **argv) {
     GlutApp app(argc, argv);
     app.setDisplayMode(GLUT_DOUBLE|GLUT_RGBA|GLUT_ALPHA|GLUT_DEPTH); // Set framebuffer params
     app.setWindowSize(500, 500); // Set window params
     app.setWindowPosition(200, 200);
     app.setTitle("My OpenGL/GLUT App");
     app.create();
 }
 
 // Fluent wrapper
 class FluentGlutApp : private GlutApp {
 public:
     FluentGlutApp(int argc, char **argv) : GlutApp(argc, argv) {} // Inherit parent constructor
     FluentGlutApp &withDoubleBuffer() {
         setDisplayMode(getDisplayMode() | GLUT_DOUBLE);
         return *this;
     }
     FluentGlutApp &withRGBA() {
         setDisplayMode(getDisplayMode() | GLUT_RGBA);
         return *this;
     }
     FluentGlutApp &withAlpha() {
         setDisplayMode(getDisplayMode() | GLUT_ALPHA);
         return *this;
     }
     FluentGlutApp &withDepth() {
         setDisplayMode(getDisplayMode() | GLUT_DEPTH);
         return *this;
     }
     FluentGlutApp &across(int w, int h) {
         setWindowSize(w, h);
         return *this;
     }
     FluentGlutApp &at(int x, int y) {
         setWindowPosition(x, y);
         return *this;
     }
     FluentGlutApp &named(const char *title) {
         setTitle(title);
         return *this;
     }
     // It doesn't make sense to chain after create(), so don't return *this
     void create() {
         GlutApp::create();
     }
 };
 // Fluent usage
 int main(int argc, char **argv) {
     FluentGlutApp(argc, argv)
         .withDoubleBuffer().withRGBA().withAlpha().withDepth()
         .at(200, 200).across(500, 500)
         .named("My OpenGL/GLUT App")
         .create();
 }

Ruby[edit]

The Ruby language allows modifications to core classes. This enables a programmer to implement fluent interfaces natively.

In Ruby strings are instances of a String class, by defining new methods to the String class which each returns strings, we natively allow chaining of methods. In the example below, we define three new methods: indent, prefix and suffix. Each returning a string and hence an instance of String that has the three defined methods.

class String
  def indent(sraw)
    if(sraw.class == Fixnum)
      sraw = " " * sraw
    end
    self.to_s.gsub(/^/,sraw)
  end
  def prefix(sraw) sraw + self.to_s end
  def suffix(sraw) [self.to_s,sraw].join('') end
end
 
## Fluent interface
smessage = "there"   ## May also be written smessage = String.new("there")
smessage = smessage.prefix('hello').suffix('world').indent(8)
 
## This has the same effect:
smessage = smessage.prefix('hello')  \
             .suffix('world')        \
             .indent(8)

Scala[edit]

Scala supports a fluent syntax for both method calls and class mixins, using traits and the with keyword. For example:

class Color { def rgb(): Tuple3[Decimal] }
object Black extends Color { override def rgb(): Tuple3[Decimal] = ("0", "0", "0"); }
 
trait GUIWindow {
   // Rendering methods that return this for fluent drawing
   def set_pen_color(color: Color): GUIWindow;
   def move_to(pos: Position): GUIWindow;
   def line_to(pos: Position, end_pos: Position): GUIWindow;
 
   def render(): GUIWindow = { this; } // Don't draw anything, just return this, for child implementations to use fluently
 
   def top_left(): Position;
   def bottom_left(): Position;
   def top_right(): Position;
   def bottom_right(): Position;
}
 
trait WindowBorder extends GUIWindow {
   def render(): GUIWindow = {
       super.render()
           .move_to(top_left())
           .set_pen_color(Black),
           .line_to(top_right())
           .line_to(bottom_right())
           .line_to(bottom_left())
           .line_to(top_left())
      ;
   }
}
 
class SwingWindow extends GUIWindow { ... };
 
val appWin = new SwingWindow() with WindowBorder;
appWin.render()

PHP[edit]

In PHP, one can return the current object by using the $this special variable which represent the instance. Hence return $this; will make the method return the instance. The example below define a class Employee and three methods to set its name, surname and salary. Each return the instance of the Employee class allowing to chain methods.

<?php
class Employee
{
    public $name;
    public $surName; 
    public $salary;
 
    public function setName($name)
    {
        $this->name = $name;
 
        return $this;
    }
 
    public function setSurname($surname)
    {
        $this->surName = $surname;
 
        return $this;
    }
 
    public function setSalary($salary)
    {
        $this->salary = $salary;
 
        return $this;
    }
 
    public function __toString()
    {
        $employeeInfo = 'Name: ' . $this->name . PHP_EOL;
        $employeeInfo .= 'Surname: ' . $this->surName . PHP_EOL;
        $employeeInfo .= 'Salary: ' . $this->salary . PHP_EOL;
 
        return $employeeInfo;
    }
}
 
# Create a new instance of the Employee class:
$employee = new Employee();
 
# Employee Tom Smith has a salary of 100:
echo $employee->setName('Tom')
              ->setSurname('Smith')
              ->setSalary('100');
 
# Display:
# Name: Tom
# Surname: Smith
# Salary: 100

C#[edit]

C# uses fluent programming extensively in LINQ to build queries using the standard query operators. The implementation is based on extension methods.

var translations = new Dictionary<string, string>
                   {
                       {"cat", "chat"},
                       {"dog", "chien"},
                       {"fish", "poisson"},
                       {"bird", "oiseau"}
                   };
 
// Find translations for English words containing the letter "a",
// sorted by length and displayed in uppercase
IEnumerable<string> query = translations
	.Where   (t => t.Key.Contains("a"))
	.OrderBy (t => t.Value.Length)
	.Select  (t => t.Value.ToUpper());
 
// The same query constructed progressively:
var filtered   = translations.Where (t => t.Key.Contains("a"));
var sorted     = filtered.OrderBy   (t => t.Value.Length);
var finalQuery = sorted.Select      (t => t.Value.ToUpper());

Problems[edit]

Debugging & error reporting[edit]

Single-line chained statements may be more difficult to debug as debuggers may not be able to set breakpoints within the chain. Stepping through a single-line statement in a debugger may also be less convenient.

java.nio.ByteBuffer.allocate(10).rewind().limit(100);

Another issue is that it may not be clear which of the method calls caused an exception, in particular if there are multiple calls to the same method. These issues can be overcome by breaking the statement into multiple lines which preserves readability while allowing the user to set breakpoints within the chain and to easily step through the code line by line:

java.nio.ByteBuffer.
    allocate(10).
    rewind().
    limit(100);

However, some debuggers always show the first line in the exception backtrace, although the exception has been thrown on any line.

Logging[edit]

One more issue is with adding log statements.

ByteBuffer buffer = ByteBuffer.allocate(10).rewind().limit(100);

E.g. to log the state of buffer after rewind() method call, it is necessary to break the fluent calls:

ByteBuffer buffer = ByteBuffer.allocate(10).rewind();
log.debug("First byte after rewind is " + buffer.get(0));
buffer.limit(100);

Subclasses[edit]

Subclasses in strongly typed languages (C++, Java, C#, etc.) often have to override all methods from their superclass that participate in a fluent interface in order to change their return type. For example, in Java:

class A {
    public A doThis() { ... }
}
class B extends A{
    public B doThis() { super.doThis(); } // Must change return type to B.
    public B doThat() { ... }
}
...
A a = new B().doThat().doThis(); // It works even without overriding A.doThis().
B b = new B().doThis().doThat(); // It would fail without overriding A.doThis().

Languages that are capable of expressing F-bound polymorphism can use it to avoid this difficulty. E. g. in Java:

abstract class AbstractA<T extends AbstractA<T>> {
	@SuppressWarnings("unchecked")
	public T doThis() { ...; return (T)this; }
}	
class A extends AbstractA<A> {}
 
class B extends AbstractA<B> {
	public B doThat() { ...; return this; }
}
 
...
B b = new B().doThis().doThat(); // Works!
A a = new A().doThis();          // Also works.

Note that in order to be able to create instances of the parent class, we had to split it into two classes — AbstractA and A, the latter with no content (it would only contain constructors if those were needed). The approach can easily be extended if we want to have sub-subclasses (etc.) too:

abstract class AbstractB<T extends AbstractB<T>> extends AbstractA<T> {
	@SuppressWarnings("unchecked")
	public T doThat() { ...; return (T)this; }
}
class B extends AbstractB<B> {}
 
abstract class AbstractC<T extends AbstractC<T>> extends AbstractB<T> {
	@SuppressWarnings("unchecked")
	public T foo() { ...; return (T)this; }
}
class C extends AbstractC<C> {}
...
C c = new C().doThis().doThat().foo(); // Works!
B b = new B().doThis().doThat();       // Still works.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]