Refactoring in Ruby: The right place for a Builder?

Posted by Ilija Eftimov on January 13, 2016

Recently I started tackling refactoring in Ruby with my blog posts. It seems that it’s one of the most popular topics that people would like to read about, so here I am with another installment of refactoring in Ruby. This time, we will see if it’s the right time and place for a Builder… whatever that means.

Just a bit of backstory

In my last post on refactoring in Ruby, I covered how to detect and refactor the long parameters code smell. It stirred up quite a discussion in the comments, but also, on my Skype chat. So, a colleague of mine, who I respect a lot, mentioned that eliminating the long parameters lists can be done via the builder pattern. I won’t go into too much detail of how the discussion went, but I’ll tell you that we had a bit of a disagreement.

Eventually we shared some thoughts and got on the same page. So, in this blog post I would like to show you what is the Builder Pattern and what’s a good place to use it.

The basics

First, the basics - what is the Builder Pattern? The builder pattern is an object creation design pattern. This means that the code produced when following this pattern will create objects of certain class(es).

Now, the key thing to the Builder Pattern, which differentiates it from the Factory pattern, is it’s purpose. The Builder pattern is used to apply any sort of configuration on object creation.

This pattern also allows finer control over the object creation. Via the builder’s interface we create an uniformed way of object creation, instead of dealing with complex flows of creating an object (which often can be a composite).

Long parameters lists

Now, back to that topic on the long parameters lists code smell. Does it make sense to apply the Builder pattern to this type of a code smell? Well, it seems like it does, but only to a special type of methods - constructors!

If you know just a bit of OOP, you know that constructors are the methods which are invoked when an object is being created. Now, if a constructor has a long list of parameters, that usually means that it is doing quite a bit of configuration of the object itself.

Take a look at this example:

class Touchscreen
  # Some nice things a touch screen can do...
end

class CPU
  # Power... unlimited power! #StarWars
end

class RAM
  # Yeah!
end

class Smartphone
  attr_accessor :model, :screen, :cpu, :ram, :memory, :os

  def initialize(model = nil, screen = nil, cpu = nil, ram = nil, memory = nil, os = nil)
    @model  = model
    @screen = screen
    @cpu    = cpu
    @ram    = ram
    @memory = memory
    @os     = os
  end
end

This is quite simlpe, but it implies that you will need to create objects from the CPU and Touchscreen classes, before you create a Smartphone object. It means that you need some configuration done before you can create an actual Smartphone.

As you can see, a big parameters lists can lead to confusion. If in the source code of the application you will only create Smartphone objects couple of times, then refactoring this is an overkill. But, if the class with the long parameters list in the constructor is used often, then streamlining the object creation will be an immediate win.

Before applying the Builder Pattern here, we need to detect some patterns in our code. By code, I mean production code and tests. If you often find yourself forgetting to create a CPU object before assigning it to a Smartphone, then a builder can help with all of that. Basically, a builder should have utility methods that will make the configuration of these objects easier.

class SmartphoneBuilder
  def initialize
    @smartphone = Smartphone.new
  end

  def set_model(model)
    @smartphone.model = model
  end

  def add_processor(speed)
    @smartphone.cpu = CPU.new(speed)
  end

  def add_touchscreen(size)
    @smartphone.screen = Touchscreen.new(size)
  end

  def add_ram(amount)
    @smartphone.ram = RAM.new(amount)
  end

  def add_memory(amount)
    @smartphone.memory = amount
  end

  def set_os(os)
    @smartphone.os = os
  end

  def smartphone
    obj = @smartphone.dup
    @smartphone = Smartphone.new
    return obj
  end
end

Having these methods in our SmartphoneBuilder class will improve the object creation flow. Take this dummy code for a comparison.

Before:

class Order
  attr_accessor :products
  def initialize
    @products = []
  end
end

class OrderTest < Minitest::Test
  def test_contains_multiple_products
    order = Order.new
    5.times do
      order.products << Smartphone.new("Apple iPhone 6S", 4.7, 1.84, 2048, 16384, :ios)
    end
    assert_equal 5, order.products.length
    # Sanity check
    assert_equal "Apple iPhone 6S", order.products.last.model
  end
end

Just writing the line

order.products << Smartphone.new("Apple iPhone 6S", 4.7, 1.84, 2048, 16384, :ios)

takes effort, because it’s nearly impossible to remember the order of the parameters. Meta-note: When I was writing the example, I had to copy-paste the initializer arguments and fill them up one-by-one, so I don’t mix them up.

Now, writing the same test with the builder:

class OrderTest < Minitest::Test
  def test_contains_multiple_products
    order = Order.new
    smartphone_builder = SmartphoneBuilder.new
    5.times do
      smartphone_builder.set_model("Apple iPhone 6S")
      smartphone_builder.add_touchscreen(4.7)
      smartphone_builder.add_processor(1.84)
      smartphone_builder.add_ram(2048)
      smartphone_builder.add_memory(16384)
      smartphone_builder.set_os(:ios)
      order.products << smartphone_builder.smartphone
    end
    assert_equal 5, order.products.length
    # Sanity check
    assert_equal "Apple iPhone 6S", order.products.last.model
  end
end

As you can see, although the example is quite contrived, introducing the builder pattern comes in handy. Sure, the second code example might be more verbose, but on the other hand it’s super clear and very hard to get confused by it. There are a ton of other situations where one could use the builder pattern, but in this case it plays nicely when eliminating this code smell.

Edited, 16th of January, 2016:

Additionally, thanks to couple of readers and colleagues, who I thank a ton for weighing in, a very interesting and approach to builders is using a building block. The usage would look like:

class OrderTest < Minitest::Test
  def test_contains_multiple_products
    order = Order.new
    5.times do
      smartphone = SmartphoneBuilder.build do |builder|
        builder.set_model("Apple iPhone 6S")
        builder.add_touchscreen(4.7)
        builder.add_processor(1.84)
        builder.add_ram(2048)
        builder.add_memory(16384)
        builder.set_os(:ios)
      end
      order.products << smartphone
    end
    assert_equal 5, order.products.length
    # Sanity check
    assert_equal "Apple iPhone 6S", order.products.last.model
  end
end

As you can see, this looks super nice, which is half the reason I agreed to add this to the post after it was published. The other half is usefulness, obviously. The implementation of the block-style builder:

class SmartphoneBuilder
  def self.build
    builder = new
    yield(builder)
    builder.smartphone
  end

  def initialize
    @smartphone = Smartphone.new
  end

  def set_model(model)
    @smartphone.model = model
  end

  def add_processor(speed)
    @smartphone.cpu = CPU.new(speed)
  end

  def add_touchscreen(size)
    @smartphone.screen = Touchscreen.new(size)
  end

  def add_ram(amount)
    @smartphone.ram = RAM.new(amount)
  end

  def add_memory(amount)
    @smartphone.memory = amount
  end

  def set_os(os)
    @smartphone.os = os
  end

  def smartphone
    obj = @smartphone.dup
    @smartphone = Smartphone.new
    return obj
  end
end

By implementing the SmartphoneBuilder.build method, we expose the additional block-style variant of the builder, so the user can choose between the good-looking block building or the not-so-good-looking non-block-style version.

(Over) Validation

Earlier we agreed that as an object creational patten, the Builder comes into play when there’s some configuration heavy lifting when creating objects. Well, another place where a Builder might fit in nicely is validation-on-creation.

There have been plenty of cases where we want to make sure that the data that is passed in on object creation is valid. Like, a smartphone without a touchscreen is not really a smartphone, is it? Well, at least for now.

Anyway, the Builder Pattern comes nicely into play when we want to deal with validation. Since the data is pushed into the object in it’s constructor, the most logical place to do the validation is there, in the constructor:

class Smartphone
  attr_accessor :model, :screen, :processor, :ram, :memory

  def initialize(model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os)
    raise "Smartphone model required" if model.empty?
    raise "Screen size required" if screen_size.empty?
    raise "Processor Frequency required" if processor_freq.empty?
    raise "RAM required" if ram.empty?
    raise "Memory required" if memory.empty?
    raise "OS required" if os.empty?

    @model  = model
    @screen = Touchscreen.new(screen_size)
    @cpu    = CPU.new(processor_freq)
    @ram    = ram
    @memory = memory
    @os     = os
  end
end

Sure, this bloats the initializer, so we could extract the validation into a separate method:

class Smartphone
  attr_accessor :model, :screen, :processor, :ram, :memory

  def initialize(model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os)
    validate_parameters!(model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os)

    @model  = model
    @screen = Touchscreen.new(screen_size)
    @cpu    = CPU.new(processor_freq)
    @ram    = ram
    @memory = memory
    @os     = os
  end

  private
  def validate_parameters!(*p)
    model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os = *p
    raise "Smartphone model required" if model.nil?
    raise "Screen size required" if screen_size.nil?
    raise "Processor Frequency required" if processor_freq.nil?
    raise "RAM required" if ram.nil?
    raise "Memory required" if memory.nil?
    raise "OS required" if os.nil?
  end
end

But, what would happen if we need to validate the CPU frequency? There isn’t really a CPU with a working frequency of 0 GHz, right? Or, maybe, validating the Operating System?

class Smartphone
  VALID_OS = [:ios, :android, :windows, :blackberry, :firefox, :tizen, :ubuntu]
  attr_accessor :model, :screen, :processor, :ram, :memory

  def initialize(model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os)
    validate_parameters!(model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os)
    validate_os!(os)

    @model  = model
    @screen = Touchscreen.new(screen_size)
    @cpu    = CPU.new(processor_freq)
    @ram    = ram
    @memory = memory
    @os     = os
  end

  private
  def validate_parameters!(*p)
    model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os = *p
    raise "Smartphone model required" if model.nil?
    raise "Screen size required" if screen_size.nil?
    raise "Processor Frequency required" if processor_freq.nil?
    raise "RAM required" if ram.nil?
    raise "Memory required" if memory.nil?
    raise "OS required" if os.nil?
  end

  def validate_os!(os)
    unless VALID_OS.include?(os)
      raise "Invalid Operating System: #{os}"
    end
  end
end

This adds additional weight on the Smartphone class. One option to reduce the complexity in the class would be to move this logic to a validator class. But, since all of this logic is related to the configuration of a Smartphone object on creation, moving the logic to the SmarphoneBuilder will ensure that the objects are always safely configurated.

Let’s refactor the Smartphone class and move the validation logic to the SmartphoneBuilder:

class Smartphone
  attr_accessor :model, :screen, :processor, :ram, :memory

  def initialize(model, screen_size, processor_freq, ram, memory, os)
    @model  = model
    @screen = Touchscreen.new(screen_size)
    @cpu    = CPU.new(processor_freq)
    @ram    = ram
    @memory = memory
    @os     = os
  end
end

First, we remove all of the validaton logic from the Smartphone class. The next step is to find the perfect spot for the logic in the SmartphoneBuilder class:

class SmartphoneBuilder
  VALID_OS = [:ios, :android, :windows, :blackberry, :firefox, :tizen, :ubuntu]
  attr_reader :smartphone

  def initialize
    @smartphone = Smartphone.new
  end

  def add_memory(gbs)
    validate_presence!("Memory", gbs)
    @smartphone.memory = gbs
  end

  def add_ram(gbs)
    validate_presence!("RAM", gbs)
    @smartphone.ram = gbs
  end

  def add_screen(screen_size)
    validate_presence!("Screen size", screen_size)
    @smartphone.screen = Touchscreen.new(screen_size)
  end

  def set_model(model)
    validate_presence!("Model", model)
    @smartphone.model = model
  end

  def add_processor(cpu_freq)
    validate_presence!("Processor Speed", cpu_freq)
    @smartphone.cpu = CPU.new(cpu_freq)
  end

  def set_os(os)
    validate_presence!("Operating System", os)
    validate_os!(os)
    @smartphone.os = os
  end

  def smartphone
    @smartphone
  end

  private
  def validate_presence!(attr_name, attr_value)
    raise "#{attr_name} is required." if attr_value.nil?
  end

  def validate_os!(os)
    unless VALID_OS.include?(os)
      raise "Invalid Operating System: #{os}"
    end
  end
end

As you can see, whenever we set any property on the builder, it validates the configuration and raises an error if the configuration is broken. In this way, the Builder Pattern gives us the security that we will always get valid and sane objects out of it. Let’s say, we want to make sure that the phone memory must be between 1GB and 64GBs, by adding additional validation:

class SmartphoneBuilder
  VALID_OS = [:ios, :android, :windows, :blackberry, :firefox, :tizen, :ubuntu]
  attr_reader :smartphone

  def initialize
    @smartphone = Smartphone.new
  end

  def add_memory(gbs)
    validate_presence!("Memory", gbs)
    validate_memory!(gbs)
    @smartphone.memory = gbs
  end

  def add_ram(gbs)
    validate_presence!("RAM", gbs)
    @smartphone.ram = gbs
  end

  def add_screen(screen_size)
    validate_presence!("Screen size", screen_size)
    @smartphone.screen = Touchscreen.new(screen_size)
  end

  def set_model(model)
    validate_presence!("Model", model)
    @smartphone.model = model
  end

  def add_processor(cpu_freq)
    validate_presence!("Processor Speed", cpu_freq)
    @smartphone.cpu = CPU.new(cpu_freq)
  end

  def set_os(os)
    validate_presence!("Operating System", os)
    validate_os!(os)
    @smartphone.os = os
  end

  def smartphone
    @smartphone
  end

  private
  def validate_memory!(gigabytes)
    unless gigabytes.between?(1, 64)
      raise "The memory must be between 1GB and 64GBs"
    end
  end

  def validate_presence!(attr_name, attr_value)
    raise "#{attr_name} is required." if attr_value.nil?
  end

  def validate_os!(os)
    unless VALID_OS.include?(os)
      raise "Invalid Operating System: #{os}"
    end
  end
end

As you can see, adding more validation rules in the builder allows us to always get valid objects, forever and ever.

Outro

In this post we’ve covered, in my opinion, two of most popular cases where a builder pattern can come in handy.

As a general rule, when you think of applying this pattern, look for places in your code where confusion appears. Also, a good smell is a lot of configuration overhead. In these places, you might find this pattern useful.

I am sure you might find other situations where you can apply this pattern. I would love to learn of new places where this pattern can be used, so please share your experience with me in the comments section below.

Thanks for reading!


Subscribe below to get my fresh articles directly in your inbox.

No spam. I promise!

comments powered by Disqus