Stephen Freeman Rotating Header Image

July, 2011:

Is Dependency Injection like Facebook?

The problem with social networks

I think there’s a description in Paul Adams’ talk about online vs. offline social networks of how Dependency Injection goes bad, particularly when using one of the many automated frameworks.

Adams describes a research subject Debbie who, in “real life” has friends and contacts from very different walks of life. She has friends from college with alternative lifestyles who post images from their favourite LA gay bars. She also trains local 10-year olds in competitive swimming. Both the college friends and swimming kids have “friended” her. She was horrified to discover that these two worlds had inadvertently become linked though her social networking account.

This is the “Facebook problem”. The assumption that all relationships are equivalent was good enough for college dorms but doesn’t really scale to the rest of the world, hence Google+. As Adams points out,

Facebook itself is not the problem here. The problem here is that these are different parts of Debbie’s life that would never have been exposed to each other offline were linked online.

Like most users, Debbie wasn’t thinking of the bigger picture when she bound the whole of her life together. She was just connecting to people she knew and commenting on some pictures of guys with cute buns.

Simile alert!

Let’s revisit the right-hand side of that illustration.

This is Nat‘s diagram for the Ports and Adapters pattern. It illustrates how some people (including us) think system components should be built, with the domain logic in the centre protected from the accidental complexity of the outside world by a layer of adapters. I do not want to have my web code inadvertently linked directly to my persistence code (or even connected to LA gay bars).

That’s the trouble with the use of DI frameworks in systems that I’ve seen, there’s only one level of relationship: get me an object from the container. When I’m adding a feature, I just want to get hold of some component—and here’s an easy way to do it. It takes a lot of rigour to step back at every access to consider whether I’m introducing a subtle link between components that really shouldn’t know about each other.

I know that most of the frameworks support managing different contexts but it seems that, frankly, that’s more thinking and organisation than most teams have time for at the beginning of a project. As for cleaning up after the fact, well it’s a good way to make a living if the company can afford it and you like solving complex puzzles. More critical, however, is that the Ports and Adapters structure is recursive. Trying to manage the environments of multiple levels of subsystem with most current containers would be, in Keith Braithwaite‘s words, “impossible and/or insane”.

new again

The answer, I believe, is to save the DI frameworks for the real boundaries of the system, the parts which might change from installation to installation. Otherwise, I gather object assembly into specialised areas of the code where I can build up the run-time structure of the system with the deft use of constructors and new. It’ll look a bit complex but no worse than the equivalent DI structure (and everyone should learn to read code that looks like lisp).

If I later find that I can’t get access to some component that I think I need, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s telling me that I’m introducing a new dependency and sometimes that’s a hint that a component is in the wrong place, or that I’m trying to use it from the wrong place. The coding bump is a design feedback mechanism that I miss when I can just pull objects out of a container. If I do a good job, I should find that, most of the time, I have just the right components at the time that I need them.