The mismatch between OO design and function composition

Nov 24, 2012

Scala is a multi-paradigm language, giving developers the ability to mix both functional and object-oriented designs.

Combining these two can be painful. I have a hunch that part of this friction comes from the difficulty of using function composition together with object-oriented designs.

It’s not that you can’t combine these two, it’s just that OO designs nudge you away from function composition. This post is trying to exemplify that mismatch.

Implicit receivers lead to method chaining

Methods of a class (in object-oriented sense) are functions, which have one implicit parameter, this. They are always tied to a specific instance of the class.

Let’s look at a simple example. Say we want to implement a numerical algorithm, which first adds 8 to a number, then takes the square root and sine of the result.

Also, for the sake of making of a point, let’s assume we are implementing this API ourselves and won’t rely on any standard library interfaces. I’m only using standard library in the implementations.

I am assuming we are civilized people here and don’t implement this by mutating the state of Number, but return a new immutable instance. This is what our OO solution could look like:

object OO {
  class Number(val value: Double) {
    def add(x: Double) = new Number(value + x)
    def sqrt           = new Number(math.sqrt(value))
    def sin            = new Number(math.sin(value))

  def algorithm(x: Number) = x.add(8).sqrt.sin

  val result = algorithm(new Number(17)).value

Functions lead to new functions

If we would write this in a purely functional manner, i.e. not binding the implicit receiver, a comparable solution in Scala would look something like this:

object FP {
  type Number = Double

  val add: (Number => Number) = _ + 8
  val sqrt                    = math.sqrt _
  val sin                     = math.sin _

  def algorithm = add andThen sqrt andThen sin

  val result = algorithm(17)

Note: I updated the FP version from the original a bit, as suggested by Antoine Gourlay in the comments, to make the function composition less clumsy.

Where’s the difference?

Now, these solutions both give you the same result, -0.9589242746631385. They also look kind of similar, both having a chain of add, sqrt and sin in the algorithm part.

There are conceptual differences, though. In the OO version, the algorithm is constructed by chaining a sequence of method calls for the given instance of Number. To do this, we naturally need to have a handle to the instance of Number. That’s where the chaining starts.

In the FP version, we are taking functions, and creating a new function without ever needing to know the instance of Number while doing the composition. The parts we are composing don’t have to have anything in common, but we can still compose them to create a new function. In this sense function composition is more flexible.

Which one is better?

The disappointing answer is that it depends. I think the functional approach is more flexible, and when I’m writing Scala I try to start with that, but there is no single answer as what to do.

The thing to keep in mind is that when you write something in Scala as a method (or a function), you are making a choice. You define what will be the most natural way of using your piece of code.

The natural way of using methods will be to chain calls on object instances. Functions, on the other hand, will naturally lead you into thinking about new functions.

Now, what do you want to see done in your codebase?


A software guy exploring (mostly) technical things.

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