Fluent interface

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In software engineering, a fluent interface (as first coined by Eric Evans and Martin Fowler) is a method for designing object oriented APIs based extensively on method chaining with the goal of making the readability of the source code close to that of ordinary written prose, essentially creating a domain-specific language within the interface. An example of a fluent test expectation in the JMock testing framework is:[1]

mock.expects(once()).method("m").with( or(stringContains("hello"),
                                          stringContains("howdy")) );

Implementation[edit]

A fluent interface is normally implemented by using method chaining to implement method cascading (in languages that do not natively support cascading), concretely by having each method return this (self). Stated more abstractly, a fluent interface relays the instruction context of a subsequent call in method chaining, where 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.

Note that a "fluent interface" means more than just method cascading via chaining; it entails designing an interface that reads like a DSL, using other techniques like "nested functions and object scoping".[1]

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. A common example 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]

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());

Fluent interface can also be used to chain a set of method, which operates/shares the same object. Like instead of creating a customer class we can create a data context which can be decorated with fluent interface as follows.

// Defines the data context
class Context
{
    public string FirstName { get; set; }
    public string LastName { get; set; }
    public string Sex { get; set; }
    public string Address { get; set; }
}

class Customer
{
    private Context _context = new Context(); // Initializes the context

    // set the value for properties
    public Customer FirstName(string firstName)
    {
        _context.FirstName = firstName;
        return this;
    }

    public Customer LastName(string lastName)
    {
        _context.LastName = lastName;
        return this;
    }

    public Customer Sex(string sex)
    {
        _context.Sex = sex;
        return this;
    }

    public Customer Address(string address)
    {
        _context.Address = address;
        return this;
    }

    // Prints the data to console
    public void Print()
    {
        Console.WriteLine("First name: {0} \nLast name: {1} \nSex: {2} \nAddress: {3}", _context.FirstName, _context.LastName, _context.Sex, _context.Address);
    }
}

class Program
{
    static void Main(string[] args)
    {
        // Object creation
        Customer c1 = new Customer();
        // Using the method chaining to assign & print data with a single line
        c1.FirstName("vinod").LastName("srivastav").Sex("male").Address("bangalore").Print();
    }
}

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();
 }

D[edit]

Because of the Uniform Function Call Syntax (UFCS) in D,[2] method chaining is particularly easy. If you write

x.toInt();

and the type of x does not provide a toInt() member function, then the compiler looks for a free function of the form

toInt(x);

This enables chaining methods in a fluent way like this

x.toInt().toString(format);

instead of this

toString(toInt(x),format);

Java[edit]

The jOOQ library models SQL as a fluent API in Java

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

The JaQue library enables Java 8 Lambdas to be represented as objects in the form of expression trees at runtime, making it possible to create type-safe fluent interfaces, i.e. instead of:

Customer obj = ...
obj.property("name").eq("John")

One can write:

method<Customer>(customer -> customer.getName() == "John")

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.

JavaScript[edit]

There are many examples of JavaScript libraries that use some variant of this: jQuery probably being the most well known. Typically fluent builders are used to implement 'database queries', for example in https://github.com/Medium/dynamite :

// getting an item from a table
client.getItem('user-table')
    .setHashKey('userId', 'userA')
    .setRangeKey('column', '@')
    .execute()
    .then(function(data) {
        // data.result: the resulting object
    })

A simple way to do this in JavaScript is using prototype inheritance and `this`.

// example from https://schier.co/blog/2013/11/14/method-chaining-in-javascript.html
// define the class

class Kitten {
  constructor() {
    this.name = 'Garfield';
    this.color = 'brown';
    this.gender = 'male';
  }

  setName(name) {
    this.name = name;
    return this;
  }

  setColor(color) {
    this.color = color;
    return this;
  }

  setGender(gender) {
    this.gender = gender;
    return this;
  }

  save() {
    console.log(
      `saving ${this.name}, the ${this.color} ${this.gender} kitten`
    );

    // save to database
    
    return this;
  }
}


// use it
new Kitten()
  .setName('Bob')
  .setColor('black')
  .setGender('male')
  .save();

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.

# Add methods to String class
class String
  def prefix(raw)
    "#{raw} #{self}"
  end
  def suffix(raw)
    "#{self} #{raw}"
  end
  def indent(raw)
    raw = " " * raw if raw.kind_of? Fixnum
    prefix(raw)
  end
end
 
# Fluent interface
message = "there"
puts message.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): this.type
  def move_to(pos: Position): this.type
  def line_to(pos: Position, end_pos: Position): this.type

  def render(): this.type = 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()

Perl 6[edit]

In Perl 6, there are many approaches, but one of the simplest is to declare attributes as read/write and use the given keyword. The type annotations are optional, but the native gradual typing makes it much safer to write directly to public attributes.

class Employee {
    subset Salary         of Real where * > 0;
    subset NonEmptyString of Str  where * ~~ /\S/; # at least one non-space character

    has NonEmptyString $.name    is rw;
    has NonEmptyString $.surname is rw;
    has Salary         $.salary  is rw;

    method gist {
        return qq:to[END];
        Name:    $.name
        Surname: $.surname
        Salary:  $.salary
        END
    }
}
my $employee = Employee.new();

given $employee {
    .name    = 'Sally';
    .surname = 'Ride';
    .salary  = 200;
}

say $employee;

# Output:
# Name:    Sally
# Surname: Ride
# Salary:  200

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 defines 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, Tom Smith, with a salary of 100:
$employee = (new Employee())
                ->setName('Tom')
                ->setSurname('Smith')
                ->setSalary('100');

# Display the value of the Employee instance:
echo $employee;

# Display:
# Name: Tom
# Surname: Smith
# Salary: 100

Python[edit]

In Python returning `self` in the instance method is one way to implement the fluent pattern.

class Poem(object):
    def __init__(self, content):
        self.content = content

    def indent(self, spaces):
        self.content = " " * spaces + self.content
        return self

    def suffix(self, content):
        self.content = self.content + " - " + content
        return self
>>> Poem("Road Not Travelled").indent(4).suffix("Robert Frost").content
'    Road Not Travelled - Robert Frost'

Swift[edit]

In Swift 3.0+ returning self in the functions is one way to implement the fluent pattern.

class Person {
    var firstname: String = ""
    var lastname: String = ""
    var favoriteQuote: String = ""

    @discardableResult
    func set(firstname: String) -> Self {
        self.firstname = firstname
        return self
    }

    @discardableResult
    func set(lastname: String) -> Self {
        self.lastname = lastname
        return self
    }

    @discardableResult
    func set(favoriteQuote: String) -> Self {
        self.favoriteQuote = favoriteQuote
        return self
    }
}
let person = Person()
    .set(firstname: "John")
    .set(lastname: "Doe")
    .set(favoriteQuote: "I like turtles")

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);

This can be worked-around in languages that support extension methods by defining a new extension to wrap the desired logging functionality, for example in C# (using the same Java `ByteBuffer` example as above)

static class ByteBufferExtensions
{
    public static ByteBuffer Log(this ByteBuffer buffer, Log log, Action<ByteBuffer> getMessage)
    {
        string message = getMessage( buffer );
        log.debug( message );
        return buffer;
    } 
}

// Usage:
ByteBuffer
    .Allocate(10)
    .Rewind()
    .Log( log, b => "First byte after rewind is " + b.Get(0) )
    .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(); return this; } // Must change return type to B.
    public B doThat() { ... }
}
...
A a = new B().doThat().doThis(); // This would work even without overriding A.doThis().
B b = new B().doThis().doThat(); // This would fail if A.doThis() wasn't overridden.

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.

In a dependently typed language, e.g. Scala, methods can also be explicitly defined as always returning this and thus can be defined only once for subclasses to take advantage of the fluent interface:

class A {
    def doThis(): this.type = { ... } // returns this, and always this.
}
class B extends A{
    // No override needed!
    def doThat(): this.type = { ... }
}
...
val a: A = new B().doThat().doThis(); // Chaining works in both directions.
val b: B = new B().doThis().doThat(); // And, both method chains result in a B!

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b FluentInterface, Martin Fowler, 20 December 2005
  2. ^ Uniform Function Call Syntax, Dr. Dobbs Journal, 28 Mar 2012

External links[edit]