Inheritance Pain Points

3 minute read

I recently read this excellent DZone article by Nehme Bilal, detailing why inheritance is a poor choice for extending an object’s functionality and how the decorator pattern is superior. Nehme gives an example of how using inheritance for extension in a language that does not support multiple inheritance can cause a combinatorial subclass explosion. This is a decent example, however honestly, in practice, I don’t think developers run into this problem often enough to make them stop using inheritance for this purpose. Also, the decorator solution can cause a proliferation of interfaces throughout your code, which can get cumbersome. I think the more general design principle of preferring composition to inheritance serves as better guidance than “use decorator everywhere.”

In this post, I’ll bring up a recent, concrete example of where the use of inheritance as an extension point caused real pain and the change I made to address it. This involved replacing the use of inheritance with composition without using the decorator pattern.

A project I’m working on is using Dropwizard metrics (formerly Codahale metrics) for capturing and reporting software metrics. We’re publishing our metrics to AWS CloudWatch, so I was excited to find BlackLocus had already written a CloudWatch Reporter.

The CloudWatchReporter class not only supports translating Dropwizard metrics to CloudWatch metric data, it also allows you to access CloudWatch-specific features through the existing Dropwizard metrics interface. For example, you can encode CloudWatch dimensions into your metric name, which is very cool!

This all looked great until I looked under the hood and realized that the CloudWatchReporter class extends ScheduledReporter, a convenience class provided by Dropwizard metrics for periodically reporting metrics on a background thread according to a pre-defined schedule.

This tightly couples all of that great CloudWatchReporter functionality I wanted to use to a ScheduledReporter. This was a problem for me because I’m working on an application where I want metrics logged per-request, not according to some pre-defined time-based schedule. To make matters worse, this is for a serverless application that executes in an AWS Lambda function. So using ScheduledReporter with its background threads is a really bad idea since, with serverless, there’s no guarantee that the lambda function’s container will continue to exist after the request is complete.

To address this problem, I ended up forking the metrics-cloudwatch package and refactoring it so CloudWatchReporter is now a standalone reporter. This decouples all of that great CloudWatchReporter functionality from ScheduledReporter. I also added a ScheduledCloudWatchReporter convenience class, which essentially takes the place of the previous CloudWatchReporter:

Note that ScheduledCloudWatchReporter takes a CloudWatchReporter as a constructor arg (composition) and delegates to it to actually report the metrics to CloudWatch.

Yay! Now I can use CloudWatchReporter in my serverless app to report metrics per-request. Other users can use ScheduledCloudWatchReporter if they want periodic metrics logging. I had submitted an issue to BlackLocus on this, but didn’t hear back, so I went ahead and published my fork to Maven Central for others to use. Since the new changes are not backwards-compatible with BlackLocus’ metrics-cloudwatch, I updated the major version to 1.0.0 and removed a lot of deprecated stuff.

It should be noted that I didn’t completely eliminate inheritance from the solution. ScheduledCloudWatchReporter still extends ScheduledReporter. This is because Dropwizard metrics’ abstract ScheduledReporter class forces the use of inheritance in order to use ScheduledReporter. I think this was a poor choice on the part of Dropwizard metrics when implementing ScheduledReporter and should be considered the root cause of the problem. If I get around to it, I’ll send them a proposal PR to address it, however maintaining backwards-compatibility is tricky with these kinds of changes, unfortunately.

Hopefully this post helps show a real-world example of where inheritance used as an extension point for objects can cause some real pain and how composition can address the problem.

Do you have examples where inheritance has caused you similar pain? Think I could have solved it better? Let me know in the comments.

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